The Verdict on the New Heath Ledger-Inspired Joker Graphic NovelIf you’re not familiar with Brian Azzarello, the scribe behind DC’s new Joker comic, you can get all the information you need just from the name of his most notable work, 100 Bullets. Yes, the Azz is known for his liberal deployment of violence, and it’s a quality that befits this new graphic novel—one that conspicuously jumps off Heath Ledger’s chilling depiction of the supervillain-as-psycopath in this summer’s Dark Knight. The gloom and doom begins with the titular baddie—wearing Ledger’s thickly scarred, elongated smirk—inexplicably released from Arkham Asylum. He stomps his way through the wrought-iron gates before flipping the city the bird. We spot a recidivist! Since it’s no fun being privy to the protagonist’s unpredictable, sinister thoughts, we’re instead saddled with Johnny Frost, a taciturn career criminal/Joker groupie who acts as our uncharismatic narrator. His arc is a sincere, if obvious, one—wrestling with his conscience in the face of escalating carnage—presumably making him an unwitting foil to his boss who steals the spotlight handily. The Joker, you see, shrugs off his post-prison ennui by instigating a bloody turf-war involving a rogue’s gallery of Gotham villains: among them The Penguin, The Riddler, and Two-Face. His goal, of course, isn’t lucre, but rather, power. Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo make a few half-hearted attempts at psychoanalyzing their merciless muse—a prison story here, a fleeting expression of vulnerability there—to no end. Perhaps this is for the best: Few deep interpretations, if any, rival Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke. And after all, what made Ledger’s portrayal of the felon so transformative was the utter disregard for his motivation, punctuated by the Joker’s cheeky, bathetic explanations for his facial scars. In contrast, this graphic novel suffers a bit from the singularity of its central character. Where Ledger (and his script) imbued the Joker with a searing mix of wit and fiendishness, Azzarello makes him a ghoul who rattles off a few puns about Two-Face’s unfortunate cutaeous condition. Bermejo’s illustrations, meanwhile, dither curiously between nicely crinkled, craggled renderings and the occasional richly painted panel—for no discernable reason. Where is Batman during all of this? Intriguingly, the man in black is intimated but not really name-checked; that leaves The Joker as our mercurial anti-hero. Azzarello’s clever set-up would work, but for the almost-categoric unlikeability of this brutish evildoer, which isn't helped by the lack of insight into the politics of the underworld. Here, the baddies simply hunt and spar prodigiously, quaking in their boots as the marquee star shows off his knack for setting-off explosions. When all is done, it's hard to take this Joker, which feels more like a dazzling spree than a gripping story, too seriously. The book hits stores Oct. 29. Image courtesy of DC Comics