This was going to start out as a review of “Detective Comics” #16, part of a generally well-written and drawn run on the book by John Layman and Jason Fabok. Being part of the “Bat-Titles,” this issue obviously is part of the current Joker-centric “Death of the Family” storyline. But released in a week where the trial for Aurora shooting suspect James Holmes has begun, this particular comic takes on a whole deeper meaning.
The focus of the story is on a Joker-obsessed “cult” called The League of Smiles, seemingly everyday citizens who have snapped, put on Joker makeup, and are increasingly causing mayhem and domestic terrorism.
This narration from Batman could be describing the tragic situation on Aurora:
“…Joker has a tendency to attract anybody who’s not in his or her right mind. Not just the obsessives, the nihilistic fanatics looking for a hero. But the depressingly ordinary as well. The ones who finally have an excuse to give into their darkest urges. Who need nothing more than a bit of inspiration. To give them that one final push.”
What’s interesting is that the story, “Nothin’ But Smiles,” shows The League of Smiles starting out as almost an “Occupy” group — with the Joker grimace in place of Guy Fawkes — simply protesting Batman in Old Grant Park. Batman is against the group being allowed to stage the protest: “I thought it was a very bad idea.” So he uses his advanced technology to run facial recognitions on the group and, presumably, other surveillance — when Damien calls him out on it, the Caped Crusader describes his actions as “identifying potential threats, so we can address them preemptively…”
Then it’s shown that the League has quickly moved from protests to murder. Their next terrorist act? GOING INTO A YOUTH CENTER AND SHOOTING UP MOURNERS AT A MEMORIAL FOR PREVIOUS JOKER-RELATED MURDERS.
The parallels here with current news stories like the Sandy Hook tragedy, as well as the Holmes trial, are chilling. But there is no way Layman could have “timed” this story to these events. What the writer is doing is commenting on the times we live; probably the only Bat-book I’ve read that has made this nod to Aurora, Holmes, and the “Dark Knight Rises” shooting.
What troubles me about the story is the line being drawn here from people legally protesting in the park (shades of the Occupy movement), to a pack of domestic terrorists. The plot itself seems to justify Batman’s invasive “tracking” tactics, to “preemptively” address threats…stuff happening in the real world that some wonder violates civil rights. Damien asks Batman: “Seriously? What’s next? Trolling Joker web sites and message boards…we don’t have an actual crime…”
But Bruce Wayne clearly feels everybody needs to be monitored. For the safety of Gotham City, of course. But it sort of creeps me out, makes me feel like he’s dangerously-close to being Bat-Fascist.*
And let’s skip to the end of the issue, where a character with a mask and a big foppish hat — who essentially represents a Guy Fawkes type (or “V” if you prefer) — is revealed as the ringleader of The League of Smiles. Now, I feel, the connection is definitely being made between Occupy/Anonymous and crazy Joker cultists, as if they are all part of the same anarchic sliding-scale.
So there is an undercurrent of paranoia and conspiracy in this issue that certainly I found gripping, though it feels like there’s a strong political thread being woven through it that brings up a lot of questions. However, there is more to this story arc and Layman’s a great writer overall, so I’m interested in seeing where this all ends up. I don’t fault a comic for having edgy points of view. I fault comics for being boring. And this comic wasn’t boring.
*Just an added note that occasionally Bats has been portrayed as having this “Big Brother Is Watching You” type relationship to both criminals and even his own teammates. But I always felt it made him seem kind of a jerk and in need of being taken down a peg or two…which usually happens (see the JLA “Tower of Babel” storyline)
Detective Comics #16 hits stores today