Although the character is overexposed in both comics and other media, The Joker is one of DC’s most underrated current comics. It’s a multi-layered crime saga starring Jim Gordon, who has left the police force and is grappling with his need to take revenge on Joker while juggling a million other plates and forces, including clones in the last issue that came out. Arguably, the best installment of the comic was The Joker #5 with Matthew Rosenberg and Francesco Francavilla collaborating with series writer James Tynion that’s a worthy companion to Batman Year One thanks to its noir-like visuals and deep insight into the character of Gordon. The Joker Annual 2021 is the sequel to Joker #5 and is set during a, well, interesting time when organized crime is on the decline thanks to folks like Carmine Falcone being behind bars. However, there is still crime, but it’s mostly harmless pranks like the Joker robbing a Mexican candy factory with the help of a pre-Secret Six glow up Catman. But this seeming lull in the action doesn’t snuff out Gordon’s crusade to clean up Gotham, especially the dirty members of the police force, and these overt actions come back to bite him and only stoke the flames of his vendetta against the Joker any more.
The Joker Annual 2021 feels like if The Dark Knight and the 1960s Batman TV show had a beautiful baby, and this is definitely meant as a compliment. The comic’s tone is gritty police procedural meets pop art. With The Joker doing candy-centered crimes, Francesco Francavilla uses a fittingly garish color palette while going back to reds and blacks when Gordon is raiding warehouses or firing cops. His approach to storytelling is powerful and enhances Tynion and Rosenberg’s characterization like when Batgirl drops Catman from the sky onto a squad car while two cops argue if they should call her Batgirl or Batlady. Francavilla also shows the homicidal maniac hiding behind the clown when the Joker actually gets “serious” any time someone questions his methods adding a bit of shadow to his teeth and lipstick. His crimes might seem ridiculous compared to his modern appearances, but Joker does some real damage throughout the story and worst of all, shows Jim Gordon that he can’t have law and order in this city.
James Tynion and Matthew Rosenberg’s dialogue is a real treat in The Joker Annual 2021 with Harvey Bullock using blurred out expletives like a lethal weapon to Jim Gordon using pointed questions and contradictions to find out one of his men who is still corrupt. Bullock doesn’t have an arc like Gordon or especially Gotham City, but he and Barbara Gordon act as the voices of pragmatism and reality as fired police officers make great villainous henchmen. He’s portrayed as a high functioning alcoholic, and it’s presented as a personal flaw instead of a systemic flaw like the corrupt police officers. Tynion, Rosenberg, and Francesco Francavilla don’t go full “ACAB” in The Joker Annual 2021, but they do show how freed of their badge and uniform that police officers will do even worst things.
I do like how this comic shows that Gotham is truly a rotten system with the power vacuum of the mob leading to supervillains like Joker, Black Mask, Penguin, and Killer Croc taking over as well as firing all the bad cops at once having consequences like funding issues or them becoming Joker’s foot soldiers. In a highly stylized way, The Joker Annual 2021 shows that corrupt systems can’t truly be fixed from within, which is where vigilantes like Batgirl and Batman come in. However, despite helping against Catman, they spend most of the issue causing property damage and complicating Gordon’s police deployment strategy as he’s torn between 100% taking their side and following the usual protocol.
Francavilla draws Gordon with a look of consternation for much of the issue, and he really is over his head for most of the book struggling to balance cleaning up Gotham with being a father. Until she shows up with a bruise and isn’t in her bed at 2:30 AM, Gordon barely pays attention to Barbara and makes his favorite meal instead of hers while also demonstrating workaholic tendency. This workaholism completely obliterates his relationship with his off-panel son, Jim Jr., who is with his ex-wife in Chicago as Gordon won’t visit him although he has a lot more vacation time as a police commissioner versus a detective. Gordon’s decision in this matter ends up having real ramifications in future storylines, including The Joker. He tries to have it all and ends up broken with final pages acting as a grim punchline to his attempts to end mob corruption once and for all in Gotham. That stuff never ends, or why would we still have Batman and Batman-adjacent stories.
The Joker Annual 2021 is a masterpiece of day-glo crime storytelling from Francesco Francavilla, who can create tension from a flashlight or a cigarette butt as well as James Tynion and Matthew Rosenberg, who continue to flesh out Jim Gordon and his relationship with his daughter Barbara and the clown prince of crime. Like Joker #5, this comic easily stands on its own, but also adds context (Aka emotional scarring) to Gordon’s actions as he haphazardly tries to create his own system for taking out the Joker while keeping his soul intact.
Story: James Tynion IV, Matthew Rosenberg
Art/Colors: Francesco Francavilla Letters: Tom Napolitano
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.3 Overall: 9.2 Recommendation: Buy
DC Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review