Batman: The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker

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Batman: The Man Who Laughs (2005) #1 by Ed Brubaker

Ed Brubaker is one of the best writers in comics overall, and he is unquestionably the best writer of noir comics. Batman: The Man Who Laughs is a re-imagining of what Batman’s first encounter with the Joker might have been like. In the story, the Joker makes his presence known and tells Gotham that he will kill one-by-one prominent Gothamites. He even names the specific day and time of each death. After the first wealthy target — surrounded by police and watched covertly by Batman — dies precisely on time, the story builds in intensity, particularly once Joker announces a few more targets, and the last one is Bruce Wayne. This one-shot story is a good representative of Brubaker’s noir work in DC continuity, as well as being an excellent Batman story for multiple reasons.

First, Batman: The Man Who Laughs is a sequel to Frank Miller’s four-issue story Batman: Year One (one of the best Batman stories every told). The Man Who Laughs borrows the character mentioned and the plot hinted at in the last two panels of Batman: Year One. In the last panel, Jim Gordon mentions hearing rumors of some new criminal going by the name of “The Joker.” And in the second-to-last panel of Year One, Gordon mentions what this “Joker” guy might be up (spoiler warning: it’s the mystery that Batman is investigating in The Man Who Laughs).

Second, Brubaker writes a reimagining of the first meeting between Batman and the Joker. So, this criminal, though old hat to us, is brand new and puzzling to a young Batman. We get to see two physical encounters between them, and the Joker manages to force Batman into undergoing a psychological trial as well. It’s everything we could hope for! How could the Joker not scream in rage at Batman, “You just ruin everything!”?

Third, as if for the first time, we are introduced to much we associate with the Joker. The Joker’s origins have always remained a mystery, because even though the Joker and other characters keep telling his “real” origin story, it is always eventually called into question. The stories are always impossible to verify. In this story, we get the often-repeated Red Hood/Ace Chemicals origin. Also, Joker makes his first appearance in the comic and to Gotham by showing up on television. In The Man Who Laughs, he also uses his trademark poison, and he makes his hired thugs dress up as killer clowns. We also get to watch him get involved with the criminally insane (who are on their way to Arkham).

In other words, this story is filled with the familiar, but it is retold so that it all feels new again. That’s possible because it is new for the characters in the story, which makes it particularly engaging for readers as we watch Gordon and Batman react to an unpredictable madman in clown makeup. The Man Who Laughs, also like Year One, is told via the thoughts of Gordon and Batman. And The Man Who Laughs follows Year One visually by using the same visual coloring, word balloon shapes, and unique lettering for each character.

There are a few surprises, but this story is not primarily about surprises: The Man Who Laughs is Brubaker responding to an imagined reader — much like a kid with his parents — begging to hear his favorite story again. Brubaker obliges, but he makes sure that all we already know about Batman and the Joker comes alive again for us. He also employs his trademark dark noir style, which is appropriate in a sequel to Year One. However, even if you haven’t read Year One, you can read The Man Who Laughs as a stand-alone story*. However, I think that Miller’s Batman Year One should be sold as a trade paperback that includes Brubaker’s Batman: The Man Who Laughs. Both will remain a part of my set of canonical Batman books as one story with two chapters.

*Most single-issue comics are about twenty-two pages long. This issue is sixty-five, so it’s more than half the length of Year One. Better yet, if you buy it on Comixology, it costs only $2.99. However, if you buy the trade paperback collecting this story with one other Batman story, you will need to pay a lot more, even on Comixology: $11.99. I’d stick with the one-shot for $2.99. The second story is not worth an extra $9.


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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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3 comments

  1. “You always ruin everything!” captures the Joker/Batman relationship in one sentence.

    Thanks, Brad, for this thoughtful review.

    • I was re-reading it for class and felt the need to write about it! I can’t believe this is only my second review of a Brubaker comic. The first review I wrote for this site was of Brubaker’s Captain America: Winter Soldier. Sort of interesting that I happened to two review of the earliest and best-known characters from Marvel and DC. I didn’t even notice until after I posted and looked up Brubaker to see what reviews I’d posted. I assumed I’d written more. I hope to review his Fatale soon: It’s a Lovecraftian noir comic!

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