In this one-off non-canon book, writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo, both extraordinary artists, imagine a more realistic take on Joker partly in the style of Chris Nolan's "Dark Knight" film. The story is told through the eyes of Jonny Frost, a low-level thug sent to pick up a newly-released Joker from Arkham Asylum. Joker sets about reclaiming his criminal empire against Two-Face with the help of Killer Croc.
Re-reading this 4 years after I first picked it up, the book still retains its power and brilliance. Azzarello creates a Joker with newly revealed sides to his character than just the insane murderer he's usually portrayed as. In a brilliant one panel aside, Joker is seen in private on his knees, arms wrapped around Harley Quinn, sobbing, as we really see his relationship with her - she is the only one he can truly be himself with. Azzarello's Joker is a pill-popping junkie, snorting lines and chugging brown liquor, fuelling his rampages to explain his extreme behaviour than simply writing off his actions as those of a crazy man.
Azzarello and Bermejo utilise comics' unique format of the spaces between the panels to intimate some truly heinous actions by Joker. In one scene Joker randomly wanders into an apartment and murders an elderly couple in their beds with a razor blade, but the reader sees only the break-in and a murky aftermath as Joker lies on the bed atop contorted and bloodied human forms, the blade glinting off to the side. Later, Jonny's wife is saved from Two-Face and it's hinted that Joker then raped her before setting her free. Azzarello's vision of Joker in this book is far more human and far more scary in moments like this than has been seen before in other comics. This makes Joker even scarier as he seems almost charming and likeable in moments of (seemingly) sober contemplation, as both the narrator and the reader find themselves warming to him despite his horrible deeds.
Lee Bermejo draws the book beautifully. His Joker takes his cue from Heath Ledger's visual portrayal with the cut-open mouth making up a grotesque clown's smile but otherwise it's the familiar Joker of old minus the stark white face and a more cut figure. I thought his depiction of Croc as less a mutant-lookalike and more a thug with a real-life skin disease was an inspired choice though his depiction of Batman's outfit (he appears briefly at the end) was a bit too S&M, there were too many straps. You won't find a more brilliant artist drawing Batman comics today - I highly recommend checking out his own Batman scripted and drawn book "Batman: Noel" for another example of his fantastic art as well as an excellent Batman book.
"Joker" is an incredible book, maybe the best one about Joker ever written - yes I'm including "Killing Joke". Azzarello captures Joker's voice and character perfectly, making all the right artistic choices with the other characters. While the book's plot doesn't really resolve itself, hinging on a "Pulp Fiction"-type literary device, the book is less about plot and story and more about giving the reader a fully realised character study of the Joker. In that, the book succeeds completely, complimented perfectly with Bermejo's gorgeous art. "Joker" is a powerful vision of one of the best literary villains ever created and a must-read for all Batman fans. If you enjoyed this, definitely look up Azzarello and Bermejo's previous book on another DC villain, "Lex Luthor".