Today, I am going to be talking about I, Joker, a Batman Elseworlds one-shot.
Alternate universes, story lines, or character origins are nothing new to DC. Alternate versions of Superman date all the way back to the 1940s with a series called Imaginary tales, while multiverse and character variations were introduced as early as the 1960s. Ever since then, stories have been appearing outside of the traditional, understood canon, many of which remain incredibly popular to this day.
Elseworlds is DC’s most storied version of these alternate story arcs. The premise of the Elseworlds series is to provide a fresh take on familiar characters, often altering key events or placing them in entirely different situation.
Sometimes, they change a character’s origin. One Superman story, aptly entitled Red Son, has Kal-El’s spacecraft not landing in rural America, but in communist Russia.
Sometimes, an Elseworlds tale changes a small detail about the universe. In JLA: The Nail, a Justice League is formed without Superman, as he was never discovered by the Kents because they had a flat tire that day (again, an exceedingly clever name).
In other cases, Elseworlds can meld two characters. In Batman: In Darkest Night, Bruce Wayne is selected by Abin Sur to carry the power ring that has traditionally gone to Hal Jordan. That’s right, Batman becomes Green Lantern.
Another variety of Elseworlds story may alter the strength or influence of a character. In Elseworld’s Finest: Supergirl and Batgirl, a despotic and paranoid Barbara Gordon takes the place of Batman and puts Gotham on a state of lockdown after her parents are murdered by Joe Chill.
Gotham by Gaslight, the first in the Elseworlds series, uses another kind of world alteration by simply moving the time period in which a character is born. This particular story finds Batman making his crime-fighting debut during the time of Jack the Ripper.
But I think you get the picture.
Elseworlds stories can be a lot of fun, especially when the traditional babyface vs. heel story line can get a bit tiresome. Perhaps that’s why I like this particular story so much. Not only does it flip the Batman story upside down, but it still manages to pay respect to the source material.
The story opens in a dark, dystopic Gotham (as if Gotham wasn’t already dark and dystopic as it was already). A strange cult has taken hold of the city, and once a year they hold a macabre ritual known as the “Night of Blood.” During this event, a Batman-esque figure, known as “The Bruce,” takes to the streets to ritually slaughter living effigies of his foes of yesteryear. Re-creations of The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, Two-Face, and Ra’s al-Ghul are all set loose in the city, where they are killed to symbolize the cleansing and order that The Bruce has brought to their city.
During these hunts, the public is welcome to participate. In a twisted mockery of justice and what Batman once stood for, they all wear various versions of Batman’s traditional outfit, and are given the chance to join in the hunt. Any who are brave (or crazy) enough to participate in the hunt are also promised that they could become The Bruce if they dethrone the current one in a fight to the death. It has been 30 years since this ritual began, however, and a seemingly invincible bat-figure seems to have no competition (though he is well into his 90s).
How, you ask? Medical enhancements. A doctor named Klibon has been keeping The Bruce alive through surgical procedures. Klibon is also responsible for the yearly sacrifices. Each replica of the long-gone villain is surgically created by people whom The Bruce (or the cult) has captured. Their memories are erased, their appearances altered, and they are strapped into vehicles and set loose to be slaughtered.
The whole event is a farce, of course. The event is rigged to keep The Bruce as the central figure. Though anybody can supposedly become The Bruce, the contest heavily favors him. There are too many people in on the ritual, including Dr. Klibon and “The Gordon,” another mockery of a figure from the days of yore.
This year’s Night of Blood will be featuring a man who was captured trying to infiltrate the Batcave, the base of operations for The Bruce and headquarters for the twisted cult. He is surgically transformed into this year’s Joker, and set loose on the day of the hunt.
However, this Joker, a man named Joe Collins, seems to still possess his own memories. As it turns out, Klibon has grown tired of the ritual and the cult, and decided to give one of the combatants a fighting chance by not wiping their memory.
As Collins begins to piece together the events leading to his predicament, he returns to the Batcave, where he discovers a message from the real Bruce Wayne. In the message, Wayne implores any who are watching to take up his mantle and see to it that justice and order is maintained. Upon hearing the message, Collins digs out one of the real Batman’s old suits, and sets out to square off with The Bruce.
Dark, gritty panels, sharply-drawn lines, and overly-exaggerated features add just the perfect emphasis to this grim and dystopic universe. The comic pulls a double-duty, as it projects both a post-Batman world as well as a Gotham that is seemingly in its own universe due to how insane the population has become. It reminded me a lot of the sequel to The Crow in that regard, as the people had long abandoned any sense of reason, though they still cling to the speck of a memory where there was some semblance of order in their world.
There are better Elseworlds comics out there, to be sure. However, this story resonates with me because it walks that line of altering the canon and staying true to the original story. Case in point, it closes with Collins and his girlfriend assuming the roles of Batman and Robin in an attempt to regain control over Gotham.