about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

New Comics: The Rogues hold court in Scott Snyder's Joker story, "Death of the Family" (SPOILERS)

At the risk of invalidating my opinion right off the bat, I want to briefly discuss the use of the Bat-Rogues--especially Harvey--in Scott Snyder's current Joker event, Death of the Family.

For those who don't know, the story is about the Joker learning Bruce's secret identity and going after everyone he cares about so that they can be OTP. Also, the Joker's face was cut off thanks to Tony Daniel, so he's now wearing the rotting skin mask over his exposed flesh, thus making him look like Leatherface. Now, I'm not one to throw around the word "stupid." In my experience, people who call something "stupid" without any additional criticism tend to be stupid people themselves As such, I'll just withhold my thoughts on that particular matter, at least until I've read the story in full. That would help… right?

Maybe so, but I'm not looking forward to it, nor am I expecting much. While Snyder is a very good writer, especially when it comes to pacing and suspense, but I don't really care for the actual stories themselves. He's has a Morrison-esque obsession with one-note original villains and secret societies, and the one major time he's written a classic villain was a source of major frustration. I speak, of course, of his new Mr. Freeze origin, which discarded the beautifully tragic Dini origin that revitalized the D-list rogue in favor of one that just turned him into a delusional stalker with haircut modeled after Butters on South Park. Yeah, I wasn't a fan.

So when I heard that Snyder (and his Freeze co-author James Tynion IV) would be bringing in the Penguin, the Riddler, and Two-Face in Death of the Family, I knew I couldn't wait for the trade when it came to seeing how the hottest Bat-writer of today would handle three of the biggest rogues. Even if these were just cameos, they might give me some indication of what to expect.

The Penguin's story came first, and from what I've heard, it wasn't a promising start. As my rather contentious friend jessebaker described it, "The Penguin one had Joker lure Penguin to a church, which was filled with dead bodies of the second in commands of every major gang in Gotham, all butchered by Joker using a sword umbrella in order to frame Penguin for the killings. After mocking the concept of organized crime to (unsuccessfully) rattle Penguin, Joker basically tells Penguin he can finish off the gangs, reconquering the Gotham underworld and pledge loyalty to the Joker and show up to the big "party" Joker is planning or Joker will destroy Penguin's entire criminal syndicate."

So, once again, the Penguin is reduced to being an ineffectual character who gets bullied and manipulated into doing whatever someone else wants. When the hell will someone figure out what to do with poor neglected Ozzie? Either turn him into a full-blown Kingpin-esque master of the Xanatos Gambit, and/or bring him back to his umbrella-sporting master criminal glory, because this "neutered mob boss" shtick just ain't working out anymore.

The Riddler's segment, on the other hand, fared much better, which is unsurprising since Snyder reportedly plans to use Eddie in a big way later in the year. You can see the pertinent pages over here, but here's the less-favorable gist of what happens as again provided by Jesse:

"While Penguin was given a sliver of respect by the Joker, Riddler gets mocked and damn near poison, when he refuses to play along with Joker's scheme. Nigma's only big moment is his escape, where he refuses Joker's offered method of escape from his jail cell and instead uses one of the many escape plans he already thought up but had not used due to yet to get out of his cell, before the Joker poison can get him. But then when he escapes, he assumes the position of Joker's bitch as Joker forces him to work on part of his big party plan." Not exactly the words I would sue to describe Eddie's role in the Joker's plan, but I suppose it's apt enough. My friend also added, "Riddler should have fucking gone all Frank Gorshin on Joker's ass at the end of the back-up. Seriously, the idea of SOMEONE not being afraid of Joker would be a breathe of fresh air in this god-awful arc as far as having SOMEONE point out how stupid the current caper is and point out how god-awful Joker looks right now and basically take a piss on this God-awful storyline."

He's far harsher on this story than I'm willing to be, but I think that speaks more to my own exhaustion. I pretty much used up all my geekrage on what they did with Mr. Freeze, and besides, while I also wish that Eddie would have shown some fortitude against the Joker, I didn't really hate this moment. Even though he capitulated in the end, Eddie was at least able to SHOW why he's such a formidable members of the rogues.

So as far as I was concerned, Snyder and Tynion were tied when it came to writing the classic rogues, with one story being subpar and the other being pretty darn good. Fittingly, this meant that Harvey would be the tie-breaker, depending on how they handled him. We discover Harvey's involvement when the Joker kicks off his grand plan, which takes a bit of explaining.

Here's what's happens, as far as I understand it: in a move that is either self-aware or self-indulgent, Scott Snyder has the Joker play off the whole "Court of Owls" secret society theme (which has dominated Snyder's run since the launch of the DCnU) by having the Joker worship Batman as the God of Gotham, with all of the criminals as his underlings in the Court of the Bat. This idea kicks into full gear with the takeover of Arkham, as Batman deals with Clayface (who is, according to the Joker, "Your royal player, a theatrical genius, capable of any role that might speak to you--your darkest fears!") and the Scarecrow ("Your physician, who keeps your subjects strong and healthy in their terror!"), each of whom both play along with the Joker's games by calling Batman "your highness" and "my lord." Other inmates get even more involved with the game, including the very same guy who cut off the Joker's face in the first place:

Comics, everybody! Honestly, while I love seeing classics like The Laughing Fish and The Joker's Five-Way Revenge get honored, I could happily live without seeing it done this way. Anyhoo, this all builds up to the big reveal once Batman finally catches up with the Joker, who has decided to make his Court literal alongside his coerced fellow rogues and a few unfortunate Arkham employees:

And the Joker proceeds to kill off the Arkham workers in a symbolic gesture to show how each are inferior to Batman. Okay, first off, Snyder kinda seems to be repeating himself from what he did in the very first issue of this run, which was to point out how some of the rogues represent Gotham. Here, he expands on their symbolic nature through a twisted Joker filter.

On one hand, it's a fine idea, especially since I think people do need to be reminded why the classic rogues are still relevant. On the other hand, this just looks so… well, again, I hesitate to use the word "stupid." This just feels like a moment where Snyder has awkwardly mixed up "dark serious violent gritty IMPORTANT Batman" with "old-school utterly ridiculous campy Batman" in a way that does service to neither version. I feel every bit as unamused and unentertained as I imagine Batman himself probably feels when it comes to any of the Joker's usual schemes. Whether this is a success or failure depends on your own tastes, I suppose.

What gets to me is how all three of them are playing along with the Joker's games. If they were drugged or mind-controlled with Mad Hatter tech, that'd be one thing. But as it is, these three have never been the type to play along with the kind of schemes that the Joker pulls. Hell, from what we've seen in the back-up stories with the Penguin and the Riddler--as well as what we will be seeing with the Harvey segment in just a moment, because that's still coming up--it's clear that they're all here under some degree of protest. It would have been better to have seen them be a bit more uncomfortable in these proceedings. Well, at least Harvey seems to be a bit reluctant, even if he does end up looking gleeful a couple pages later. And hey, on the plus side: Pope Penguin! That's kinda fun. Well, Bishop Penguin, whatever. As far as I'm concerned, he's pontiff. I gotta get my fun from this story somewhere.

Since we're still in the middle of the storyline, it ends on a cliffhanger with the Joker essentially defeating Batman, much to the delight and approval of Eddie, Ozzie, and Judge Harvey (an idea which was better handled in the Arkham City tie-in comics; still gotta review that one of these days). After Batman submits and agrees to let himself sit in the Joker's electric chair to save the lives of the Bat-Family, we get an epilogue/second cliffhanger that also serves as Harvey's own featured moment in this storyline.

As you can see, Snyder and Tynion immediately depict their Two-Face as one who will do evil things no matter which side of the coin comes up. If I may be so bold as to speak for most of you fellow fans who have experience with Two-Face stories, I think it's fair to deem this "strike one." I wouldn't go far as to speculate that this Two-Face is all evil or crooked, but he's clearly willing to do bad things no matter what. This is the mark of a bad Two-Face.

But okay, let's skip ahead to the part that matters. Preventing Harvey from shooting Batman, the Joker steps out from behind the electric chair and commends his fellow rogues for playing their parts "beautifully" before locking them out (literally, with bars and everything) and dismissing them to go wherever they like. "This next bit is a private affair," he says, even going so far as to drug the Riddler to make sure they don't follow along. Harvey is having none of this, insisting that they stay here "to the end." And here's where we finally get Snyder's big Harvey moment… for better or worse.

Welp, so much for any potential I'd held for Snyder and Tynion's Two-Face. First off, the Joker starts off by calling bullshit on Harvey for being a petty, vindictive hypocrite who is also kind of a "nothing," a cipher of a character. Obviously, I don't like this, especially since it's an old point that's hardly revelatory (hell, even Jeph Loeb said this sort of thing better at the end of Dark Victory), but what really bugs me is Harvey taking all of this in such an inept, impotent manner.

Have Snyder and Tynion forgotten that Harvey was a lawyer, and an excellent one at that? He should have been able to at least off SOME retort more substantial than "shut up!" like a petulant bully on the playground. But just like the famous hospital scene in Nolan's The Dark Knight, Harvey is being depicted as a schmuck who can easily be swayed by the Joker with nary a word of protest. In wrestling terms, Harvey is once again jobbed intellectually in favor of making the Joker look like the master of psychological manipulation. This becomes even more annoying with the second half of this scene, as the Joker delivers the crushing blow:

And thus, Harvey ends up defeated, humbled, humiliated, and downright castrated.

Okay, first off: they "tolerate" Harvey but don't respect him? Okay, that's cruel of Joker to say, but it's probably not untrue. Harvey's not exactly a people person, and it's kind of amazing that he ever gets to associate with any of the other rogues. Between the allies he's alienated and the rogues who don't trust him, Harvey's probably the loneliest man in Gotham City. It's a terribly sad thought, but one I'd like to see explored in another story rather than just as a throwaway line in the Joker's taunting monologue.

But let's go back to that one more time. So the Joker seems to be implying that any of Harvey's changes of heart are just "pretend" on his part, that being Two-Face is how he really wants to be all the time, and that everything else is all bullshit on Harvey's part. Again, I don't like this idea at all, but I also know that this is the Joker saying it. In all likelihood, this isn't (entirely) true, it's just the Joker trying and succeeding to get under Harvey's skin and hit him where it hurts. Okay, fine, that fits the classic Joker/Harvey dynamic right there, I'll accept it.

What bothers me more is this line, the one that ultimately defeats Harvey: "What do you think? Lotta options there. Hope your little coin has enough sides." The Joker causes Harvey to relent by crippling him with choices, many more choices and possibilities than his little coin can provide. Interesting… except it doesn't work. It hinges on the premise that Harvey is being faced with a decision that has more than two black-and-white factors, and considering that no other story has ever really done this before, the whole situation presupposes that Harvey himself has never--in the entire time he's been Two-Face--been faced with a conundrum like this, where his coin could be of no use. No, bullshit.

If this were a tale set in Harvey's early criminal days, where he didn't have much experience living by the flip of a coin, that would make sense. But this is a seasoned Two-Face, someone who logically HAS to have dealt with complex decisions before. Once again, he was a LAWYER. His job was to parse through complex situations and boil them down to a simple bottom line judgment. As Two-Face, he comes up with two verdicts for each decision, and flips the coin to see which one triumphs. That's how the character works.

Now, could that be what happened here? Perhaps. Perhaps he wasn't relenting as much as deciding, based upon the evidence, that it was wiser not to try calling the Joker's bluff and instead go along his way. After all, the most sensible thing to do with the Joker is not play along with his games, something which Harvey and the other rogues should have resisted the whole way though anyway, since they should ALL know by now that he plays only for himself to win. But okay, maybe Harvey did do this in a way consistent with his character.

Except he didn't, because--contrary to everything at the core of what makes up Two-Face--he never flipped the coin. Harvey chose, of his own free will, to relent and be defeated by the Joker's points, without even so much as a retort. This is because Scott Snyder's Joker is an all-knowing, all-powerful master villain who can crush everyone with just a few words, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for the other characters. In Harvey's case, this rings terminally false, and utterly destroys the scene's credibility when it comes to its use of Two-Face.

Presumably, this marks Harvey's departure from Death of the Family, and I for one am grateful for that. While I am genuinely interested in seeing how Snyder will handle a full-length Riddler story, his use of Ozzie and especially Harvey has struck me as so misguided that I would honestly prefer a dozen more "Court of Owls" epics to more treatments like this of the classic rogues. Again, I think Snyder is a very talented writer, and I'd love to see that talent applied to a great story featuring these rogues, but based on what we've seen here, I'm not going to hold my breath.

As for what actually happens in the story from here on out, I shall once again turn the reigns over to Jesse to explain what happens immediate after these above pages, which also happens to be the very last page: "Penguin ultimately comes in to try and save Harvey from this utter castration by trying to bribe Joker into letting him leave ASAP but Joker won't let ANY of the three men leave his party. And then he shows them a silver platter with cover on it, showing them (but not the reader) it's contents as far as why they want to stick around. Penguin is horrified but Two-Face is shockingly giddy ("You have to be joking" with a giddy eye on his face) as the plate is put on Batman's lap…."

So… any bets on what is on the platter? I'm guessing it's probably something belonging to poor Tim Drake, as he seems by far to be the most disposable member of the Bat-Family in the DCnU regime. Hell, DC has seen fit to retcon it so that Tim has never actually been Robin, nor was he meant to be. So if we're actually interested in what the Joker's endgame is going to be, I'd say the smart money is on the most expendable, which just happens to be Tim.

Well, no matter what, here's hoping everyone survives, and that poor Alfred manages to recover in time as well. Yeah, Snyder went for Alfred first thing, just like Morrison did with Batman R.I.P. and Hugo Strange has done on at least three occasions so far. Man, whatever Bruce is paying him, it isn't enough.
Tags: dcnu, greg capullo, jock, joker, new comic reviews, penguin, riddler, scott snyder

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