Emperor Joker

Authors: JM DeMatteis, Joe Kelly, Jeph Loeb and Mark Schultz
Artists: Marlo Alquiza, Kano, Doug Mahnke, Ed McGuinness, Mike Miller, Cam Smith and others
Titan Books
RRP: 8.99, US $14.99

ISBN-13: 978 1 84576 433 3
ISBN-10: 1 84576 433 1
Available 23 March 2007

It's another typical day in Gotham City. Superman, the world's most dangerous criminal, has broken out of Arkham Asylum. The only person who can track him down is the world's greatest hero, Bizarro. Their epic battle destroys property owned by the bald but brilliant billionaire Lois Lane...
Wait - what!? If Superman isn't crazy, that means the whole world has gone insane, and only one man can be responsible. Somehow Batman's greatest nemesis, the Joker, has gained the power to reshape reality according to his own mad whims. Armed with nothing more than his will, the Man of Steel must put an end to the reign of Emperor Joker - or die trying...

As you might expect from the synopsis, this graphic novel is weird! Bizarro is back, resembling his pre-Crisis self more than ever before, Superman is locked away in Arkham Asylum, Supergirl is in a convent, Superboy is working in a burger joint, and Lois Lane has taken the place of Lex Luthor. The writers clearly have fun spoofing not only DC Comics mythology, but also Marvel Comics (Jimmy Olsen is bitten by a mutant turtle and becomes Turtle Boy) as well as television and movie classics such as The Exorcist and Warner Brothers cartoons. The artists similarly relish the opportunity to depict this peculiar world, rising to the occasion with suitably twisted renderings of the larger-than-life heroes and villains.

What makes for even stranger reading is the era from which this story has been reproduced. The nine chapters that comprise this hefty tome were originally presented in 2000, in Superman #160-161, Adventures of Superman #582-583, Superman: Man of Steel #104-105, Action Comics #769-770 and the one-shot special Emperor Joker. Readers of DC's current Superman output (barring obvious retrospectives such as The Superman Chronicles, The Greatest Stories Ever Told and The Man of Steel series) are used to Superboy being dead and Supergirl being a Kryptonian for the first time since the mid-1980s. However, here Superboy is alive and well, while Supergirl is in her Matrix incarnation.

In fact, several elements from the epic rebirth saga Reign of the Supermen are revisited here. In addition to Superboy and Supergirl, Steel puts in an appearance, while Superman himself starts out wearing his black outfit.

Though enjoyable, this volume does have several shortcomings...

First of all is its sheer strangeness, which can be hard to digest unless you spread it out over several sittings. This weirdness also gets in the way of plot development. With characters constantly getting killed, resurrected, transformed and restored, very little happens to actually move the story forward until the final chapter. In other words, the weird sh*t in the middle mostly treads water in terms of storytelling.

Secondly, the book's title gives away one of the major plot revelations. The first four chapters of this tale are entitled Superman: Arkham in order to keep the villain's identity a secret. The presence of the Joker is revealed only at the end of Part Four, after which the tale is entitled The Reign of Emperor Joker.

Thirdly, the artists' rich and detailed work tends to use up every spare millimetre of the page. This is fine in a regular comic book, but bound up in a thick paperback such as this, some of those details get lost in the gutter.

Fourthly and finally, some of the story seems to be missing between Parts Eight and Nine, possibly an issue of JLA or Wonder Woman, in which the Justice League take on the Joker.

Despite its flaws, with more than 240 pages of comic-strip action and oddity, this graphic novel is well worth the asking price. You don't have to be mad to enjoy Emperor Joker... but it helps.

Richard McGinlay

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