Review by Paul Bowler
It swoops from the shadows as the Dark Knight begins to regain consciousness, the dark emissary of his own soul, stripped to the bone and ready to steel his resolve in this, quite possibly, his darkest hour against the Joker. The final chapter of Scott Snyder’s phenomenal Death of The Family drags you kicking and screaming into the light, ripping away the blindfolds, and fixing our unblinking eyes on every panel of Greg Capullo’s art as the macabre delights of Batman #17 electrify our synapses.
The banquet that the Joker has prepared for Batman is one of his most abhorrent schemes yet. Still strapped to his makeshift throne, Batman wakes in a dark cavern at the head of a long table. The rest of the Bat-Family are also bound to their chairs and seated with him. Dinner is ready to be served, with the table drenched in gasoline and rigged to explode to prevent Batman’s escape; he can do nothing but watch in horror as Alfred shambles into the cave. Driven out of his mind, and dosed with Joker toxin, Batman’s loyal friend obeys the Joker’s commands and prepares to serve the “family” meal…
With his friends overwhelmed by the horror of the banquet before them, Joker teases them all with a lit match. But the Joker hasn’t taken into account the Batman’s knowledge of the cave system, as the table becomes a raging inferno Batman breaks free and fires a charge at the ceiling that breaches an underground stream – flooding the room and dousing the flames. While the Joker tries to escape through the cave system, Batman frees his friends before giving chase. He catches up with the Joker, who tries to behead him with an axe, but as they fight the Bat-Family become exposed to a deadly new form of the Joker Toxin and violently turn against each other.
Batman and Joker face off on the edge of huge drop, where masks finally have no meaning, and the Dark Knight manages to turn the Clown Prince of Crime’s nefarious joke against him. Twisting everything the Joker professed to hold against him, using it to chip away at the last great divide between them, the one line in their nightmarish game of wits that only the Batman could ever be willing cross…
Even in defeat the Joker slips from his grasp, plunging into the waters below, leaving Batman’s family to recover from the horrific trauma the Joker inflicted upon them. Bruce oversees Alfred’s recovery at Wayne Manor, making a startling confession that only Alfred could truly understand. Alone in the cave Bruce studies the analysis of the new toxin Joker used to make the Bat-Family fight each other, and it is here, as he gazes at the cold glow of the computer screen that the Joker’s greatest punch line is finally revealed.
With Batman #17 Scott Snyder beings the story of the Joker’s return full circle. Ever since the Joker broke into GCPD to retrieve his face from the evidence locker, leaving Gordon cowering in the darkness as he hears his officer’s necks being snapped one by one, we have been at the mercy of the Joker’s maniacal plan. Right from the outset, even Batman was left reeling when Joker abducted Alfred Pennyworth. After poisoning Gordon he systematically sets his sights on Batman’s allies, Joker’s revelation at the reservoir, that he knows their secret identities, leaves them all badly shaken. Later, when they learn that Joker may have actually found a way into the cave to leave his calling card, they are shocked that Bruce never deemed it necessary to tell them.
Now the final act of Scott Snyder’s masterpiece comes to fruition in Batman #17 after the Dark Knight raced to Arkham Asylum to save his friends from the Joker. As he wakes in the cavern the Joker taunts his captives mercilessly. He attempts to goad Batman into admitting why he has never exposed him or just killed him outright, in spite of all the heinous crimes he’s committed. Joker knows just what a slippery slope that would be for Batman, berating him for not having the courage of his convictions, mocking his allies with a love letter of hatred and lies.
Just when you thought you understood where Joker was coming from he summons Alfred, now a shambling wreck of his former self, who deliriously reveals the gastronomic delights the Joker has prepared for them. It is here that Batman #17 transcends all that has gone before, lurching into the realms of pure horror as Batman and his allies are confronted with a nightmare beyond anything they could have possibly imagined – and it is a scene that instantly conjures up images of a similar feast at the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
As the cavern explodes in flames Batman breaks free, blasting a hole in the roof to douse the chamber in water. Bruce goes immediately to Damien to make sure he is alright, then releasing Nightwing who tells him to leave them and get after the Joker. Placing his trust in them, Batman races after the Joker, but just after he leaves Batgirl notices something strange about the Joker’s two headed lion cub. A mass between its heads suddenly explodes, spewing out a new form a Joker toxin, one that sends them all into a violent rage, forcing them to attack each another whilst laughing maniacally. The return of the two headed lion cub is an inspired move by Snyder, this creepy little creature superbly illustrates the uncanny symbiosis the Joker shares with Batman, and it effectively places Batman’s allies at each other throats with its deadly cargo, peeling way their psyche as effectively as any scalpel.
Whether Batman knew he was leaving them in grave danger is uncertain, but even when he catches up with the Joker and learns what has happened, his resolve is unshaken. Batman knows they will fight back against the Joker’s toxin, his faith in their spirit is unbreakable, and he believes they are stronger than anything this monster could spawn from his diseased mind. The fact that it is Alfred who brings them to their senses before they kill each other, clearly shows just how much he means to all of them.
The Joker uses his corsage to spray acid into Batman’s face, searing his cowl, but his escape route leads directly to deep chasm. Joker stumbles over the edge but Batman catches him by the arm, holding him suspended over the very drop where the Bat Boat would dive into the Bat-Cave. Here on the edge of this yawning abyss Batman reveals how he has seen through the Joker’s plans, effectively playing him at his own joke, but before he can pull him up Joker lashes out, leaving Batman to watch as he plummets into the dark waters below.
Every page of Greg Capullo’s work on Batman has been astounding. His dark and foreboding take on Gotham City enthralled us in The Court of Owls, the Night of Owls kept us on the edge of our seats, and now with Death of The Family we have been privileged to have Capullo to illustrate one of the most sensational Joker stories of all time. Together with Jonathan Glampion’s distinctive inks and FCO Plascencia’s remarkable colours, Greg Capullo has helped create one of the most distinctive looks the Joker has ever had.
Joker’s rotting face is now even more grotesque than ever in Batman #17, with flies now constantly buzzing around him, the cadaverous grin ends up even more lopsided after a few well placed punches in their climatic showdown. With the masks of flesh and cowl both discarded by the end of this epic encounter, Scott Snyder once again defies our expectations as the closing moments unfold back at Wayne Manor when Bruce tells Alfred of the time he visited Arkham under the pretence of investing in a new wing for the asylum. After causing a distraction, Bruce visited the Joker’s cell alone and presented him with the calling card, and thereby instantly deducing the truth in the lunatic’s eyes.
In this instant we begin to understand why the Joker allowed his face to be removed by the Dollmaker, that his entire ploy to mess with Batman’s mind was ultimately doomed to fail from that moment on, even though the cost would be high for the Bat-Family. Indeed, the actual Death of the Family here is a metaphorical one, as we begin to realise Batman’s allies could never understand the Joker like he does. The physical wounds will heal easily enough, but the psychological scars of this experience will take a long time to fade.
The deeply moving scenes where each member of the Bat-Family makes their excuses not to meet Bruce and give him the chance to explain are brilliantly staged by Snyder and Capullo. We can feel the pain of those tense silences and blunt text messages, even Dick cannot bring himself to go into detail about what the Joker said to him. As Bruce returns to the cave to study the Joker’s new toxin the results bring Death of the Family to a close with chilling finality.
Batman #17 is everything fans of this series could have hoped for. Death of the Family has shown us the deep understanding that the Batman and Joker share, and proves that it is one that goes far beyond masks and secret identities. Snyder and Capullo are one of the few writers and artists that have ever come as close to exposing the actual mechanics of this dark relationship, they have taken Batman and the Joker’s eternal dance of obsession and violence and twisted it into an all encompassing legend that will be long remembered as one of the greatest Batman stories ever told.