Batman: The Smile Killer #1 Review: The Dark Knight's Heroism Becomes a Psychological Nightmare

In Joker: Killer Smile a unique take on the character’s madness and methods was examined, not to examine the core of the character but to see what makes him so interesting to so many readers. Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s three-part series went to some dark places, but was generally eager to tow the line on what readers know about the Joker and expect him to do. Batman: The Smile Killer follows suit, picking up the reins where that series ended in a fashion, but this issue is able to capitalize on the ideas of its predecessor in a more interesting fashion to greater effect.

Acting as both an epilogue and follow-up to Joker: Killer Smile, Batman: The Smile Killer offers a new take on the entire Batman mythos, albeit still treading on a similar path as comics like Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. In this story, a hunt for the Joker has left Batman in the last place he expected to be: Arkham Asylum. Inside, everything he and the reader know about the hero comes crashing down as he attempts to grapple with The Joker’s master plan and how to combat the Clown Prince of Crime’s latest scheme. However, one question lingers: Is this an elaborate conspiracy or merely the truth?

Lemire’s story manages to dip its toes into this grand idea while also diving into some major deviations and twists on canon. It’s the kind of story that can only be done for DC characters at Black Label, outside the confines of continuity, lest it upset the balance of Batman as the assured victor over all obstacles. In the pages of this excellent comic, the storytellers are able to carve a corner out of the Batman mythology that pays homage to the many works containing the character, then using those memories to haunt him rather than give him strength. It's not an examination of "what makes a hero," rather it's a story about "what corrupted his mind and pushed him to this point."

Sorrentino’s art remains a highlight, as expected. His haunted, grimy, and gothic Gotham is among the very best depictions of the fictional city. No one quite captures the appearance mysterious smoke rising from the ground in a city that is constantly in turmoil so well. There’s also the larger action and character beats, which Sorrentino handles with deft skill, delivering splash pages that are as skillfully woven as a spider’s web. Though filled with his typical noir sensibilities, there are also literal bright spots where Sorrentino is given a chance to stretch his abilities to places where the stories he’s telling don’t typically go. Overall, it's another stunning installment by an artist who should already be lining up for their next Eisner award.

What really works about this story is how it turns Batman’s heroic commitment into a psychological nightmare. The tenets that readers understand to be the character's ethos become a minefield of emotional trauma that send Bruce into a downward spiral—questioning everything that has ever happened to him. These things are certainly clear, even in a traditional Batman story, not to mention the subject of jokes about the Caped Crusader and specific runs on the character, but The Smile Killer treats them with deadly seriousness while also revelling in this being a comic book world focused on clown-obsessed psychopaths.

With Batman: The Smile Killer, Lemire and Sorrentino are able to take the big moments of Batman's career and transform them into effective jump scares. It's a reinvention of the hero that is unique while also clearly planting one foot in the world of a hero we all know. What separates this from other stories that knock Batman down a peg and play with readers' own fears is in its execution; it really works. There are no guarantees of a happy ending here, and even if Batman wins his mind will remain a home to countless ghosts.

Published by DC Comics

On June 23, 2020

Written by Jeff Lemire

Art by Andrea Sorrentino

Colors by Jordie Bellaire

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Letters by Steve Wands

Cover by Andrea Sorrentino

Disclosure: ComicBook is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.