In my next reading of a Batman comic, I inadvertently selected one that is a direct sequel to Batman: Year One. In The Man Who Laughs, we see Batman encounter the Joker for the very first time, and we see how their endless rivalry came into being.
The Emissary of Chaos
As most know these days after the release of The Dark Knight, the Joker serves as Batman's arch-enemy. Unlike most of those he fights, the Joker is one who is completely and irreperably insane. He also can be incredibly destructive and murderous, and this tends to raise interesting questions as Batman imprisons him again and again. Is it moral to capture such a dangerous individual over and over when all he does is escape to kill again? Is it justified to kill him if he is such a danger to society? The Joker's endless killing antics also raise questions regarding Batman himself. Whenever the Joker shows up, Batman is always hard pressed to stop him, and the effort to think like the Joker in order to do so has intense ramifications for Batman himself. Is it psychologically damaging to force one's self to think from the perspective of serial killers all the time? Is Batman himself sane? Many Batman comics raise these questions as we see that Batman could potentially have been the Joker. After all, Bruce Wayne is not a mentally stable person to begin with. He could just as easily have snapped against society as a whole instead of focusing directly on the criminal element.
The Man Who Laughs raises a lot of these questions, a noble effort that is only appropriate for the "first meeting" between Batman and the Joker. In actuality, this is technically not the first time. Instead it is a retelling of sorts, much like Batman: Year One is not actually the first Batman comic. Regardless, in The Man Who Laughs, we see the Joker "for the first time" and start to respect how chaotic and dangerous he can be. We see how, despite his madness, he is clever enough to cause chaos throughout the city, tainting Gotham with his own insane proclivities. And we see the disturbing effect of the Joker's laughing gas "for the first time". Needless to say, this comic has some gruesome images and, if you want to read it, you should be forewarned.
The Man Who Shrugs
However, despite the questions the comic raised, I found myself unexcited by the story. The Joker makes yet another attempt to ruin Gotham, but does so in a way that seems too broad and seems to go by too fast. In short, the comic tries to do too much and suffers for it. At one point, the Joker lets the inmates of Arkham Asylum out into the streets of Gotham (exactly like in the movie Batman Begins), but the crisis is resolved the instant Batman shows up. In a mere two pages, Batman beats the crap out of a couple inmates then declares the emergency over. Similarly, a failed hostage situation is encompassed within three pages. Instead of picking up the pace, I felt that this jumping through events caused the story to suffer. Each of the problems the Joker creates are addressed very quickly and then moved past. This made it feel that the Joker wasn't that much of a threat and also that the authors were unwilling to go into detail on any level.
This is evidenced by the questions the story raises. It makes one wonder if Batman is a stable individual. It makes one wonder if the Joker serves almost like an elemental force of chaos instead of as a troubled person. But then these questions are ignored in favor of a speedy turn of events and the inevitable end of Joker's plans. An intriguing look at the answers to these questions is not to be had. Basically, this comic felt too much like the stereotype of a comic; it involved punching and heroics but ultimately failed to make me think about motivations or become involved with the characters. The story was scattered and weak, and only once or twice did it make me actually fear what the Joker was capable of. But only for moments. Sadly, the Joker's crappy and cheesy dialogue only contributed to the neutering of his character.
As one can tell, I wasn't terribly impressed by The Man Who Laughs. I know there are better Joker and Batman stories out there, I just wanted to try this one because I had heard good things and because I had not read it before. Basically, if you are interested in the Joker, there are much better places to look. For a mildly entertaining romp through Gotham, this satisfies the urge. But beyond that, this comic fails to impress.