Infinite Jest


This is due out in two weeks; it's an original hardcover comic, $19.99 for 128 color pages, from writer Brian Azzarello, penciller Lee Bermejo, majority inker Mick Gray, colorist Patricia Mulvihill and letterer Robert Clark. Do note that Bermejo additionally inked 19 pages himself, all of which are dutifully identified on the credits page - DC might be calling this a 'graphic novel,' but its roots in comic book culture are firm.

That isn't to say they don't stretch out, though. This book is actually a lot of things, most broadly a genre hybrid of the sort that's been very popular in the 21st century so far: the superhero-crime mix. It's done well for writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker, and it did far, far better in a certain movie from this past summer. That leads to another aspect of this project - whether intended or not, it will functioning as support for The Dark Knight, although it's not really set in the 'world' of that film. Rather, it's a continuity-neutral thing that happens to sport a similarly gritty tone, not to mention the same, famed villain; as luck would have it, Bermejo had even drafted an Ichi the Killer-type ripped-mouth character design apparently before the movie makeup had been unveiled.

This also isn't the first time Bermejo and Azzarello have teamed up for a supervillain-focused project; it'll be hard not to take this book as a sequel-in-spirit to the pair's well-regarded 2005 Lex Luthor: Man of Steel miniseries, particularly in that both comics embody themselves as Azzarello's personal concept of what these long-lived bastards 'are.' Granted, this new work studies the Joker from the outside, while the earlier series crawled into Luthor's personal philosophy, but they're both efforts at expressing a total vision of their title characters. And I daresay this new work is a better fit for the writer, in that its outsider perspective matches Azzarello's often uneasy-feeling work in the superhero genre, while letting him stretch out in his crime comics comfort zone.

The fact that a hugely popular movie happened to straddle that same zone? Gravy.

I liked this book good enough. It's a sturdy piece of trans-genre craftsmanship, getting the job done with a minimum of fuss and a few worthwhile dabs of inspiration. I suspect it'll go over really well with a lot of superhero readers, and maybe attract a few curious bookstore browsers. It's 'serious' in a comic-book-superhero-characters-are-serious-business way, 'realistic' via the 'less funny costumes, more pulpy drama' tradition, and 'grim' in a manner that nonetheless accommodates underworld lifers who never use the really dirty cuss words and slimy strip joints in which no nipples are visible at any time. Hey: the movie was PG-13 too.

This puts Joker in the fortuitous position of writing off its own corporate-imposed limitations as akin to its monied movie cousin's own corporate-imposed limitations, with the added, only-in-comics perk of extreme violence! Bring your appetites, gorehounds, 'cause this one's got a man staggering around with all the flesh below his neck flayed from his body (save for gloves of skin left on his hands), a gunshot ripping a massive hole in another fellow's head (after which he is hanged upside-down from a tree), and, in maybe the most lurid moment of all, the Joker relaxing in bed atop the ragged corpses of a freshly-slaughtered elderly couple, their good linens caked with grue.

Rest assured that all of this mayhem does result in the inevitable punishment of those horrid fuckers, with the good-slams-evil strictures of the superhero form left unmolested in the wake of all chaotic pontificating. This is a high-profile DC superhero comic at heart; expect much noise, and no subversion. If you're thinking at this moment that the comic might annoy you, it will.

But there are pleasures to be had, on the book's terms. Bermejo & Gray do a good job of whipping up some filthy Gotham locations -- very lived-in, and negligently at that -- populated by characters that seem molded with a butter knife from melting candle wax. Everyone looks like they've had a hard life, even the Joker, under his occasional silent clown mugging, and that mist of exhaustion spreads to the reader.

I mentioned up top that Bermejo inks certain pages; they're noticeably rounder and richer than Gray's, but doled out at a pretty steady clip, and accompanied by an interesting coloring technique from Mulvihill that leaves certain, emphatic panels and close-ups washed in a painterly style (or is it the inks that are tactically washed?), with the rest of the action laid out in flatter hues and deeper blacks. It's a bit like what Gene Ha & Alex Sinclair are doing in Top 10: Season Two, but much subtler, and it winds its way through both inkers' approaches so as to make the whole book rock between variations of clarity, like everything is being seen on your 30th hour without sleep, and you can't help but drift in and out, in and out.

It's a smart means of presenting Azzarello's story, which sees the Joker released from Arkham -- everyone's uncertainty as to how or why becomes a decent running gag -- and determined to reestablish himself as king of the Gotham underworld. We follow his quest through the eyes of ex-con and wannabe tough guy Jonny Frost (a man made by the Joker, in reversal of one Joe Chill making the Batman), who tags along as an eager puppy while Our Villain encounters various 'realistic' versions of Batman rogues gallery favorites, ranging from a mostly-the-same Two Face to an amusing hipster/drug casualty edition of the Riddler.

I keep putting 'realistic' in scare quotes because it's obviously more the gloss of the real being lathered onto vivified noir tropes and melodrama; it's like Gotham is such a fucking paradise of crime that its best criminals have gotten eccentric with their decadent deformity, thus providing for a crime comic caffinated enough to embrace of lot of fairly zany supervillain concepts, not to mention all the viscera a former Northstar editor can muster. Happy puppy Jonny quickly becomes the kind of small domesticated dog that's terrified of its master, but slightly more terrified of not being fed; things get complicated.

Be aware that this little journey through familiar faces doesn't quite proceed along the Jeph Loeb sightseeing trail - Azzarello is a witty, crafty writer, and much attention is paid to the title character's little jabs and puns. He tells a few straight-up jokes, but he mostly comments on little absurdities and toys with the other characters' familiar traits; a late-in-the-game conversation with Two-Face all but twirls around the two, full of doublespeak and twin meanings, curving around a marital subplot as a metaphor for the union of two and burrowing its way into the non-titular hidden anxieties, all while cracking wise about blades hidden in fingers and gorillas toting machine guns. It's a bravura bit of dialoguing, its stylization fully backed by the narrative's garish posture.

Beyond the particulars, it's a less striking story. Azzarello's Joker is more human than usual, prone to tantrums of anxiety between his oddball atrocities. He even weeps into his ad hoc Harley Quinn's belly ('Harley Quinn' here is apparently any woman the man can find to dress up right and play along), and becomes prone to panicking over the unavoidable shadow of the Batman.

He's probably justified; when the proper superhero elements finally swing in, they clatter badly against all that gross crime comic overindulgence. This Joker might rape with a smile (oh yeah, that's in here too), but he totally freaks out at the sight of -- *gasp* -- his henchmen having been socked in th' kisser and tied up/laid out for (one presumes) the (unseen) boys in blue! And while I don't have anything against capes 'n tights tropes that reached their full flower in an era where the industry had sworn a blood oath never to question the virtue of judges, it all looks mighty silly intruding upon a shock show like this.

But even then, Azzarello is clever enough to tie the arrival of orthodox superhero tropes to the physical arrival of Batman, whom the Joker loathes as the man who's "got his hands on the rug," ready to pull away the berserk crime side of the comic in favor of costumed justice. Muses Jonny, at a critical moment:

"There will always be a Joker.

"Because there's no cure for him.

"No cure at all.

"...just a Batman."

Now that's not terribly poetic, not in the way the rest of the writing sometimes is. Shit, it doesn't even make sense unless you're a dedicated Bat-reader, fully plugged into the Joker-Batman yin-yang across however many works (and the finale of this one marks study #13,476). Its contrast with the criminal words in the criminal world is telling. Azzarello and his artists might throw in a climactic panel to 'answer' the image seen on the book's cover in a superheroic way, but the cover's the cover, and their hearts seem to lie in the long arm of the crime side of this book, bloody murder or not. That they deny it all in favor of (super)heroism -- thus tacitly condemning the reader for enjoying the bleakness the book had been so gleefully trafficking in -- is like an exploitation film acting to dismiss all its craziness with a finale of social good.

And not one of the transgressive, strike-against-society exploitation films either. It's goopy, energetic entertainment about damned, doomed men, some getting to hell faster than others, all accomplishment steeped in craft, all profundity that of striking mechanics. But I'm ok with those qualities. Less forgiving types than this Catholic boy needn't consider popping the shrink wrap.