Review by Paul Bowler
Realizing that the Joker is re-enacting his old crimes Batman tracked the Joker to A.C.E Chemicals, but instead of confronting The Clown Prince of Crime he encounters The Red Hood, who Batman quickly realizes is just Harley Quinn in disguise, After being trapped inside a bubbling vat of chemicals and left for dead by a distraught Harley Quinn, Batman struggles to free himself as his makeshift prison begins to fill up with the same deadly toxins that created the Joker. Using an explosive device from his utility belt, Batman manages to blow the lid off the vat, even though his proximity to the explosion critically damages his Bat-Suit.
Unable to raise Alfred on the communicator, Batman drives the Batmobile back to the Cave and issues a message to the other members of the Bat-Family, warning them that the Joker is now targeting all of them. Once at the Cave it becomes clear that Alfred is missing. Sensing something is seriously wrong Batman searches the Manor for his old friend, but all he finds is a small package on the doorstep containing an audio cassette. The tape holds a special message for Bruce Wayne. Joker gleefully explains that Alfred Pennyworth is now his hostage and how he will need Bruce Wayne’s employee to provide service for a special event he has planned. The message ends with Alfred screaming in agony as the Joker sprays Ammonia in his eyes.
Realizing that Gordon is the Joker’s next target, Batman goes to his home where Jim sits alone in the dark on his bed. With his nerves in shreds, Jim almost shoots the Dark Knight as he enters through the window, but he refuses Batman’s plan to take him to a secure bunker. Gordon knows he must confront the Joker if he is to face up to his fear, he even looks at some old photographs from the night Joker crippled Barbara, but as he does so his fingers begin to bleed.
Batman is shocked as Gordon collapses into his arms, his body bleeding profusely. He quickly rushes Jim to hospital where it becomes clear that the Joker had laced the pictures with a blood thinning derivative of Heparin. With Gordon stabilized Batman meets Nightwing on the roof of the hospital and brings him up to speed on the Joker’s plan. Nightwing is horrified to learn that Alfred has been kidnapped and asks Bruce if he thinks it’s possible that the Joker might have discovered their secret identities, but Batman doesn’t believe he has. Together they set out to face the Joker at the reservoir, where he once attempted to poison Gotham’s water supply, Nightwing heads for the aqueduct while Batman finally confronts the Joker on the reservoir itself.
It is here, at the scene of their very first face-to-face encounter so long ago, that history begins to repeat itself: the waters below are heaving with the bodies of innocent victims, Batman stands poised to knock the detonator from the Joker’s hand with a Batarang hidden behind his back, and Joker’s grotesque new countenance yields an even deadlier secret as he presses the detonator – unleashing a swarm of chatting Joker Teeth from the depths of the reservoir that quickly ensnare Batman in a web of cables just as Nightwing is caught in an explosion at the aqueduct. With Batman trapped, and knowing that the rest of the Bat-Family will be able to hear him over the Police Wire, the Joker announces that he knows who they really are and that he is going to kill them all over the next seventy two hours to make them pay for making Batman so weak!
If last issue left you checking under your bed before you went to sleep, then Batman #14 will leave you reeling in shock as Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo continue to ramp up the tension as the Joker’s reign of terror strikes right at the very heart of the Dark Knights world. The shock of seeing Alfred about to be bludgeoned with a hammer by the Joker at the end of Batman #13 is now supplanted by the discovery of an audio cassette left on the doorstep of Wayne Manor. As Batman listens to the tape Snyder leaves our rapt imagination to fill in the gruesome details, but just like Batman we are helplessly bound to our rage, unable to contemplate quite how this has happened. Before the tape ends Alfred starts screaming when the Joker sprays ammonia in his eyes, his tortured cries are cut short as Batman smashes the cassette deck, shattering our preconceptions to reveal that even Batman is not immune to such horror.
It is rare to see Batman react in this way. Of all the members of the Dark Knights rogues gallery there are few who can get under Batman’s skin quite like the Joker can, even during his darkest hour against The Court of Owls he was able to formulate some kind of strategy, but faced with the anarchic chaos of the Joker he is almost consumed by the grotesque schism of their unholy conflict. He does his best to reign in his emotions, even when later Gordon is almost killed by a blood thinning toxin – applied to the photographs in his bedside table by the Joker – the Dark Knight is once again powerless to prevent one of his closest friends being harmed by the Joker’s madness. It takes some stern talking from Nightwing on the roof of the hospital before Bruce actually acknowledges how Alfred’s kidnapping has affected him, but even here we can sense that Jim Gordon’s warning about never letting the Joker see your fear is still gnawing away beneath the Batman’s cowl.
As Batman races on the Bat-Bike to confront the Joker at the reservoir his thoughts are still very much with Alfred: recalling the way he always used to talk over the details of a case with him first, calling him on the way to any given confrontation; almost as if he were seeking reassurance before venturing into the jaws of battle. The masterstroke here is that Snyder not only allows us to see how deeply Bruce has been affected by Alfred’s kidnapping, but he also plays on our own fears, drawing us deeper and deeper into the churning mire of doubt and panic that still surrounds Alfred’s fate.
Snyder also highlights the distinct psychological aspects of how deeply rooted the Joker has become in Batman’s psyche, illustrating how they share an uncanny duality that seems to have become an all consuming obsession beyond anything we could have conceivably imagined. The vat Batman is trapped in fills with the same toxic chemicals that created the Joker: after years of study over many sleepless afternoons Batman has learned the exact composition of this nefarious mix of sodium hydroxide, sulphuric acid, chromium solution, and zinc sulphide – even down to the small hint of copper that infuses this deadly toxin with its ominous green glow. You can just imagine Bruce alone in the cave, studying slide after slide of this toxic brew, looking for some key to the ghoulish monster it created; some small glimmer of understanding amidst all the horror and collateral damage the Joker has caused, only to see his own eyes reflected in the lens of the microscope…
Every panel of Greg Capullo’s stunning art and Jonathan Glapion’s exemplary inks ensures Batman #14 one of the most memorable yet – transfixing us with the horrors inflicted on Alfred and Commissioner Gordon – each page seeming to infuse us with the encroaching dread of Batman’s inevitable confrontation with the Joker. When they finally face each other at the reservoir we get our first close up glimpse of Capullo’s new version of the Joker. The grubby overalls have replaced the garish purple suit of old, the ragged remains of Joker’s face is now strapped to the raw meat of his skull, a monstrous parody of his former life – his workman-like approach to clawing away at the Batman’s resolve through his friends has refined the razors edge of Joker’s obsession into a weapon that is lethal enough to slice through to the Dark Knights greatest secret of all.
After ensnaring Batman in the cables spewed from the chattering teeth that fly from the waters of the reservoir, Joker reveals that he knows who they are, presenting Batman with a book he claims to have made from the skin of bats from the Bat-Cave itself – one filled with the secrets he has gathered as he watched and waited while Batman struggled against The Court of Owls. Batman still believes Joker is lying, yet as Joker screams his punch line up at the storm filled sky, you can’t help but sit back and wonder if the Joker might actually get to have the last laugh this time around.
Whether he actually knows the Batman’s secret identity or not, and those of his allies, the Joker has just opened the ultimate jack-in-the-box that will no doubt have serious ramifications over the coming months as Death of the Family spills into the rest of the Bat-Titles. Batman seems unperturbed by the Joker’s revelation and is convinced he is bluffing. They both know each other so well; it’s almost as if the masks have become the greatest joke of all, their lives now intrinsically bound together in ever decreasing circles of secrets and lies that neither would really seem complete without the other. In playing this ultimate “Joker” card Scott Snyder has given us one of the most delicious juxtapositions ever, one that alters everything but proves nothing, planting a seed of doubt that is as insidious as any of the Joker’s mind games. The Joker’s relationship with Batman has now evolved into something so dark and heinous that it transcends all that has gone before, and this time the stakes have never been higher. Joker’s warped fixation on what he perceives as the Batman’s weakness has made him more dangerous than ever, he is determined to tear down the support network Batman has built up around himself, and he seems genuinely disappointed when his “King” fails to realize how far he has fallen in his old foes estimations when they square off at the reservoir.
Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo will take your nerves and shred them into tiny pieces with Batman #14, the closing moments on the reservoir mark one of the greatest standoffs ever seen between the Joker and Batman. This issues backup story (Men of Worship) features a clandestine meeting of almost biblical proportions between the Joker and the Penguin in a church on the outskirts of Gotham that literally oozes with menace. The blood splattered congregation of slaughtered lieutenants from every major crime family in Gotham sit silently amongst the shadows as the Joker makes Cobblepot an offer he cannot refuse. This chilling little tale serves as a perfect footnote to the main storyline and really empathizes just how meticulous the Joker has been about his return to Gotham City.
Death of the Family is only just beginning. We can’t even begin to imagine what Scott Snyder has in store for us next, but with the Joker involved, I think we can rest assured that there are twisted times ahead for anyone who crosses his path…