It's impossible not to think of Joker, the new graphic novel from Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, as a kind of sequel to last summer's The Dark Knight. Or at least that's the case for the first few minutes, in which the nihilistic tone of The Dark Knight and the creepy specter of Heath Ledger's Joker seem to ooze from these pages. Azzarello's writing, as one would expect from the writer of 100 Bullets, is appropriately cynical and noir-ish, while Bermejo's vision of the Joker—a lithe, sneering man with deep cuts scarring his cheeks—can't help but recall Ledger's fiendish glimmer.
But as inevitable as such comparisons are, they quickly dry up: Joker is its own creation, and asserts itself as such early on. A short but striking examination of the pain the Joker eagerly and brutally inflicts upon a helpless city, Joker begins with its titular villain getting out of Gotham's Arkham Asylum. "He was a disease that somehow, with the help of god or the devil—pick your poison—had convinced his doctors he wasn't diseased anymore," narrates too-eager henchman Jonny Frost. Soon enough, Jonny's caught up in a violent, vicious tumult as the freed Joker takes Gotham back from the lesser crooks who've pillaged the city in his absence.
As seen though the ambitious, naïve eyes of Jonny, Joker paints several portraits, not the least of them the Joker (an instigator of chaos who, all the same, is hardly lacking in either purpose or brains) and Batman (a smug, self-loathing, barely glimpsed vigilante). The last time Azzarello and Bermejo worked together was on 2005's Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, a five-issue miniseries that examined the tired Superman mythos though the eyes of Lex Luthor—a guy who, in addition to being Superman's arch-nemesis, turned out to be a far more interesting protagonist than the all-American (all-Kryptonian?) hero. Likewise, through Azzarello's pitch-black, razor-sharp writing and Bermejo's gorgeous, moody artwork, the duo delivers another gripping story from another skewed perspective.
In addition to the standard audience of superhero fanboys, there's no doubt more than a few people will pick up Joker because they liked The Dark Knight. These people will not be disappointed—within Joker's pages, they'll find a dark, engrossing, and rich chunk of crime writing, and a story that's both tragic and exhilarating.