Arguably the most famous comic book villain of all time is DC Comics's The Joker, having faced off with Batman in all manner of adventures for decades. The character's embrace of clown, carnival, and circus iconography is just as intrinsically linked to the character as his sadistic serial killings, with the character essentially setting the bar for that formula within an entire medium. Knowing the history of Image Comics and their embrace of more mature stories and subject matter, learning that they're delivering an all-new clown in Haha who seemingly suffers from one very bad day and the tolls these events take on him will surely feel like well-worn territory, but once you actually dive into the book from writer W. Maxwell Prince and artist Vanesa Del Rey, we're given an unexpected tale about the grey areas of your grey matter that never has to rely on gimmicks to tell a compelling story.
Bartelby the clown is barely keeping his family afloat with his job at the local tourist attraction, with his wife struggling to hold back her resentment towards him. In a matter of just a few hours, Bartleby is subjected to a number of devastating losses and betrayals that put his and his family's livelihood in a downward spiral, seemingly signaling his oncoming desperation, though what could have been a horrifying incident somehow results in an unexpected way, yet not without Bartleby's entire reality suffering some consequences.
For a majority of the debut issue of Ha Ha, it will be hard for comic fans to turn off their brains and not make assumptions about how the series could have been pitched as, "What if it's The Joker, but..." As evidenced in a variety of storylines, including the Oscar-winning Joker, a clown's devotion to bringing people joy, only to be subjected to horrible incidents outside their control, is a rote formula for any story, yet the creators do manage to deviate from any expected conclusion to introduce a fascinating premise that we'll be able to witness play out through the rest of the series. We can only assume how the creators would surely have been met with naysayers when pitching the book, due to its initial similarities to the Clown Prince of Crime, with the final pages of this debut issue confirming that they surely have plenty of tricks up their sleeves for readers who think they know what they're in for.
Thanks in large part fo Spawn, The Walking Dead, and Invincible, Image Comics has a reputation for delivering books that might be too intense for any other major publisher, which unintentionally earned them a reputation among certain circles for being more focused on shocking viewers than on telling a fascinating story, though Haha manages to show restraint in its storytelling and pulls back from scenes which bring with them an inherent intensity. Whether it be in its violent altercations or insults, the book manages to feel more PG-13 in scenes that could have gone into R-rated territory, proving that the creators have a much more complex story in the works than merely titillating readers with yet another juxtaposition of a clown taking part in mature subject matter.
Del Rey's work on the book is the true highlight, as her work either on the characters or on their surroundings truly conveys the mindset of our main character, with the opening page featuring trees the immediately evoke similarities to cotton candy, hinting at the blend of how Bartleby sees the world and what reality actually looks like. The art manages to convey the bare minimum of information required to further the story and never relies on being flashy, yet this comes with a sophistication and delicacy that will keep you invested in the journey. In one standout sequence, she manages to turn even a fatal injury eloquently into a whimsical interpretation of tragedy, yet without ever feeling silly or making light of the book's reality, as subsequent pages show off an even more heightened sense of Bartleby's disfigured mentality.
It's hard to ignore any comparisons a reader might initially make between Haha and the many other clown characters in pop culture, and while the initial premise might mirror iconic trajectories, readers will surely be won over by what looks to be a more nuanced and sophisticated exploration of Bartleby's desperation that won't have to rely on gimmicks or gags to delight its audience.
Published by Image Comics
On January 13, 2021
Written by W. Maxwell Prince
Art by Vanesa Del Rey
Colors by Chris O'Hallaran0comments
Letters by Good Old Neon
Cover by Nimit Malavia