Batman: The Man Who Laughs
by Ed Brubaker, Doug Mahnke
(DC Comics, 2005)

At this juncture in Batman's history, it's hard to come up with something new that hasn't been done before. With the upcoming release of Batman Begins, it's typical of DC comics to start combing over the past and offering "origin" stories or, even better, "first meeting" stories. Ed Brubaker's The Man Who Laughs is the most recent attempt by DC to re-cover the first fateful meeting between Batman and his arch nemesis, the Joker, a.k.a. the former Red Hood.

Working heavily within the framework of Batman: Year One context (in fact, it picks up on the last few pages of Year One), a still-new-to-vigilantism Batman and a still-new-to-vigilantes Capt. Gordon find themselves dealing with a bizarre killer, the likes of which they have never seen before. This one uses some sort of deadly toxin to turn his victims into grinning caricatures of his own manic visage. When it comes to crimefighting, Batman is still as green as Joker's hair, never having dealt with crazies who look like clowns on acid. The unease with which he greets this new development in his still forming career is quite delicious, particularly when so much of the future has yet to unfold.

The story is a by-the-numbers dance of death between Joker and Batman, but the plot, thin as it is, does a better job of illustrating the real parallels between Batman and Joker than the utterly depthless The Killing Joke. Whereas the point of that story (which Alan Moore once said, in an interview, was the worst story he'd ever written) was more to illustrate the level of psychotic mayhem to which Joker was willing to descend (as much as to tell his "origin" story), the job of TMWL is to illustrate what goes through the mind of a masked vigilante when he runs up against a serial killer who's as smart as he himself is ... with the added bonus of being insane as well as inventive. Batman's dismay at realizing that fighting crime won't simply be a matter of fighting muggers, rapists and thieves would be funny if there weren't so many grinning corpses around him.

The narrative, while at this point rather overly familiar, is still strong and very engaging. Brubaker wisely lets Mahnke's fabulous art carry much of the story with its incredibly strong visuals, which keeps the narrative running at a brisk but involving pace, perfect for dealing with a subject that's been covered numerous times. Strong writing, a good sense of atmosphere and subtle but beautiful art carry a story that could easily have been a cliche. Brubaker and Mahnke both do an excellent job of capturing a well-meaning hero and a hardworking cop going about the tough business of protecting a city that seems, like a churlish lover, to reject all their advances, while managing to steer clear of the kind of excessive fanboy romanticism that can cloud even the best efforts. Brubaker, with his sparse but clear narrative, cuts off the oxygen supply of mawkish sentiment that usually informs this sort of "looking back" story; and Mahnke, with his clear command of the action and rich coloring that jumps off the page even in the most simple settings, make it clear exactly why Gordon and Batman shoulder on in the face of overwhelming odds: the job is done for love of craft, and because no one else is going to do it, and there doesn't need to be any more reason than that.

Destined to be a classic, TMWL is a worthy companion to Batman: Year One. If you only buy one Batman graphic novel this year, this should be it.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 21 May 2005