Joker: Killer Smile by Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino, and Jordie Bellaire
DC Black Label, hb, £17.49
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
Ben Arnell is the latest in a long line of doctors trying to unravel the mysteries of the Joker’s mind. Ben believes he will succeed where others have failed, but his goal will lead him away from his family, away from his sanity and away from his freedom. Can Ben break free of the Joker’s control before he loses everything he values?
Let’s start this review with the obvious; this is another story about the Joker manipulating medical professionals who think they can cure him. In that sense, it isn’t anything new, nor does it pack the same punch as Harleen by Stjepan Šejić where the reader witnesses Joker’s twisting of Harleen to his puppet. In Killing Smile, we get the end result but not the detail such as how the Joker identifies Ben’s weakness or befriends him.
There is a purpose to this, though. This is a different story to Harleen, which builds sympathy for a lonely woman who ends up in Joker’s sights. Ben is a less sympathetic character. The first time we see him among his peers, his motives are brought into question, is his treatment of Joker an ego-trip or does Ben actually want to help. His motives are further queried when he arrives at his home, which has a Rorschach test picture in the front room, and he is “only an hour late”. Ben prioritises his work over his family, making this is a story about values.
While Killing Smile isn’t necessarily groundbreaking in terms of storyline, where it stands out is the artwork.
Sorrentino and Bellaire’s choice of painted photograph style is gritty and disturbing, perfect for communicating Ben’s fragile state of mind. His hallucinations are more impactful because of it. This style is countered with excerpts of a child’s story about Mr Smiles in Happyland, which are full pages rather than panels, brightly coloured with cute little animals. The contrast between the two is unbalancing, something I really appreciated.
There are a couple of standout panels for me. The first is about halfway through when Ben starts to see where the Joker has been manipulating him. The panels becoming increasingly surrounded by the Joker’s HA’s as Ben’s awareness grows.
The second standout moment for me is during the first quarter, where Ben reacts badly towards his son. The panels spiralised inwards showing Ben shouting, then checking himself at his son’s fear and finishing with him holding his son, a circular panel in the middle. This moment shows us Ben does love his family, even if he doesn’t show it very often. This format is replicated towards the end as Batman succumbs to a gas Joker throws at him. Disjointed panels of Joker escaping focus in on one clear image of Ben. This double-page sets up for the next part of the story where Bruce Wayne is in Arkham Asylum as a patient.
A third panel that really got me was an image of Killer Croc hiding in the dark. To give the impression of seeing things through night vision goggles, Croc and the security man he is about to kill are picked out in red while everything else is black. Simple but highly effective.
Joker: Killing Smile might not offer too much in the way of innovative storylines, but the artwork more than makes up for that. Recommended.