Lee Bermejo on Joker - And it's NOT a Dark Knight Sequel

Best Shots Extra: Joker

This week, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo pull you inside the head of the Joker in Joker, a hardcover original graphic novel which explores Gotham City from the Joker’s point of view. In it, small-time hood Jonny Frost becomes…associated with the Clown Prince of Crime and sees firsthand what drives the Batman’s chief nemesis, and also gets a tour through the alternate reality that is the underworld of Gotham City.

We’ve spoken with Azzarello about the OGN, previewed it, reviewed it, and today, we talk to artist Lee Bermejo about illustrating the novel, his influences, how it’s not related to The Dark Knight (seriously), and the scene that hit him like a punch in the gut.

Newsarama: Lee, what got you on to this project in the first place, and how was it described to you? Obviously, it's at the very least a thematic sequel to The Dark Knight, right?

Lee Bermejo: Actually, no, our project has nothing to do with The Dark Knight and was in production well before they began the film. Basically, after we finished Luthor, both Brian and I had decided to go our separate ways and do other projects. I believe Dan DiDio had spoken with Brian about the idea of following up Luthor and the obvious choice was Joker. Brian and I spoke about the possibility of doing it briefly in San Diego that year. At that point, it seemed like the project wasn't going to happen, we were just having fun talking about what we would do. I had done a couple drawings of the Joker at that point and we both agreed that we would prefer to do a more adult oriented Joker story.

When circumstances made the possibility of doing the project more of a reality, we decided to get over ourselves and just do it. I think it was just one of those situations where the character was too good to pass up.

NRAMA: That said, and given that superheroes are still seen as a largely monthly endeavor, when did you get started on Joker, and how long did it take?

LB: Yeah, I'm definitely not a monthly guy. Probably never will be. I'm simply in awe of the guys who do monthly books well…hell, in awe of people who do monthlies period [laughs].

I think our book doesn't really fall into the superhero category, though. It's definitely got its feet firmly planted in noir. As much as I enjoy seeing other guys do the superhero approach to the Batman universe, personally my own vision falls a bit left of center. Plus, this project works only as a graphic novel because it's meant to stand alone. I can't imagine wanting to continue this particular story, just because it's meant to begin and end, whereas most monthly books are more like soap operas that never have any real final resolution.

The project took me close to two years to complete. I was working on pages while doing cover gigs like Hellblazer and Daredevil. Yup.... looooong time (bows his head in shame).

NRAMA: Going back to The Dark Knight, given the Joker’s look, I think a lot of people assume that you were modeling the character on Heath Leger. That really wasn’t the case?

LB: Again, I pulled absolutely no influence from Dark Knight. This project was started on Brian's end in May of 2006 and finished in early March this year on my end. The movie didn't come out until July if I'm remembering things correctly...

NRAMA: So where did your version of the Joker come from?

LB: My vision of the Joker has been floating around for some time now. In fact, look closely at the newspaper Lex is reading in the first sequence of Lex Luthor: Man of Steel #3 and you'll see a little head shot of Joker with the carved smile. Before that, I had done a drawing of both Joker and Two-Face for a website called Batman-on-film. I'm certainly not saying that Nolan and company took any inspiration from my drawings because I really don't know. That said, it's easy for me to get combative when it comes to this subject because the truth of the matter is that I was doing my version of the Joker before Ledger was even cast. The only effect that movie had on us was in regards to the books release date.

To add insult to injury, when Warner Bros released the first picture of Ledger as Joker, some of the fan base were actually blaming me for what they felt at the time was a desecration of an iconic, beloved character. Now that Ledger pulled the character off beautifully and more in the film, some people have conveniently changed their ideas but make no mistake, our book has nothing to do with The Dark Knight. The fact that they share similar traits is just good timing and similar taste as far as I'm concerned...

NRAMA: Speaking more of your art, you and Mick split the inking duties on the book, which resulted in key frames and pages looking...softer, given Mick's inking style. What went into the selection of what Mick would ink?

LB: This was something I had started experimenting with in the Luthor mini and really developed with Joker. Basically, I wanted to find a way to control the rhythm of the reading experience a bit more. With Lex, the first two issues seemed to read very sluggish to me, because almost everything was done in my rendered style. Therefore the scenes that needed to have more impact weren't as effective because they didn't look differently from the scenes that needed to be read faster and easier. Essentially, by inking some pages traditionally, it hopefully allows the rendered pages and panels to stand out a bit more... at least, this was my intention. My theory was that you slow down a bit when looking at the rendered images. There's more information conveyed therefore you eyes take it in at a different pace. It became a great way to accent scenes and provide the book with a rhythm that could be varied and amplified.

I worked with Mick towards the end of Luthor because I was running behind on the deadlines. This time around, we decided to work together from the very beginning so that the traditional pages would go a bit faster. I really like what Mick brings to the equation. He keeps things nice and angular which worked really well on this book because it added to the harsh and decaying feel I wanted to get across.

NRAMA: The story was a tour through Gotham's underworld, both through the Joker's eyes, as well as through the more realistic lens, which allowed you to "introduce" more cinematic/realistic versions of Batman's enemies. Globally, what were your rules of thumb in terms of designing/re-designing these characters?

LB: The thing both Brian and I wanted to keep in mind when working on all these characters was that they should first and foremost maintain a strong foot in some sort of warped reality. Second was that they maintain the 'essence' of what makes each of those villains who they are. For example, The Riddler needs to be a genius who tells riddles, Harley needed to be a woman completely infatuated with the Joker, Two-Face needed to have his coin and a split personality, etc., etc., I think as long as these things remain intact you can take certain visual liberties with these guys. The beautiful and intriguing thing about he Batman universe is these characters are so malleable. I mean, you can go from Frank Gorshin to our version of the Riddler and the guy essentially is still a trickster of sorts who uses his mind in combat. The rest just comes down to your personal taste.

For Killer Croc, it was important to me that the guy look like a big, thugged out gangster with a skin condition. In Broken City, Brian wrote Croc as more of a pimp, whereas in our story he's much more muscle who disposes of bodies in a real monstrous way.

Harley was like Bonnie to Joker's Clyde. It was essential to me that her playfulness still come across in one way or another, even though she doesn't say a word throughout the novel. She doesn't really need to talk. Her method of dress and movements hopefully help get her character across. She just sticks by her man, no matter what and would do anything for him.

The Penguin is the money man in Gotham. I wanted him to be slimy as all hell. Like a guy so dirty he doesn't clean up no matter how well he tries to dress. I wanted his nose to be beaklike but still within his realm of reality. He's penguin-like in body shape but doesn't take the nickname much farther....

Two-Face was great fun!! Brian told me he should just be the most paranoid guy on the planet. Hell, he can't even trust himself. We played him more as a guy who kind of walks the line between being straight and crooked. The guy was a lawyer, so he knows all the ins and outs of the system and uses that to both do good and do evil. In this story, it's pretty apparent that he tries to play both sides toward the middle, and eventual even reaches out to some Bat guy at one point or another. I'm definitely the most proud of the way he was interpreted here, just because he's so completely unclear and conflicted.

The Riddler... yeah, he was one of the villains I really didn't want to tackle in this book but wound up liking more and more after Brian came up with a good angle for him. We play him as a young, hipster criminal, who is dangerous and elusive because of his brains instead of his brawn. I think Brian wanted him to really represent the 'modern' criminal, someone who probably does his worst while sitting in front of a computer screen. The cane is for a gimp leg, so it's actually serves a function. The mask became these big, Bono like glasses, etc., etc.

NRAMA: Was there anyone you were hoping that Brian would include in his script, but didn't?

LB: No, I got to do them all here. I can't imagine any other villain really fitting into this particular story.

NRAMA: Let’s talk about the main man himself – how did the Joker have to act as you saw it

LB: When I started drawing the project, I really wanted Joker to move like Christopher Walken in King of New York or Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. I tried to give him this lanky lumber with hunched shoulders that created a very 'German Expressionist' kind of silhouette. I wanted him to be more measured in his actions that most interpretations of Joker. People generally portray him as very theatrical, but it became apparent very early on that Brian was writing him much more low key and calculating most of the time, with sudden bursts of manic action. Plus, I love that the Joker does most of the acting with his face, so it was a perfect opportunity to try and really play up the expressions.

NRAMA: This is clearly, a very violent, disturbing book. You've worked with Brian before, but was there anything in Joker that made you raise an eyebrow?

LB: Yeah, there was one scene that we actually spoke about on the phone as to whether or not it was something we felt was responsible doing. Joker punishes Johnny at a certain point in the story by punishing his wife. It was definitely difficult territory to tread on and we wanted to find the right way, if any, to do it. That one page proved to be the most difficult in the story because we could have so easily made it completely ineffective and over-exaggerated. I think it was the only time I actually talked my layout over with Brian, who writes in a real open style, leaving a lot up to me insofar as the storytelling. We kind of broke the actions down panel by panel just to really get it right.

Plus, Brian and I have never really done anything this violent in either of our respective careers. It was something that we just felt needed to be done in order to make a point about the character. That said, I think this kind of violence is only effective when it comes to particular things. I can't speak for Azz, but I certainly don't feel the need to make every project I do this hard core. This was the first thing I've ever done that had a few scenes actually changed because they just went a bit too far... but hopefully it serves a deeper purpose here.

NRAMA: Speaking of the graphic nature of the narrative, the story has horrific violence shown in detail, along with a gaping head wound...yet at the opening, the Joker flips off Arkham, and you don't show the middle finger. Why?

LB: You have to ask yourself what is more effective, to show the middle finger or not but still do it in a way that people know what they're looking at. As a creator, you make certain choices as to what you want to put your emphasis on in the story. In Joker, I felt like the violence was more important to take to a certain level because, in our version, it's more a defining characteristic of the character than, say, the books sexual content. We never set out to do a project that was extreme in every way. We just wanted to tell a story that reminded people that the character is a psychotic killer and you would not want to be anywhere near him. The other stuff, Harley's strip scene for instance, had to be played a bit more subtly because if not, it just becomes an exercise in seeing how far you can take things. That's just not interesting for me as an artist. I want people to be disturbed by what the Joker does, not have people saying, “Oh my God, they show Harley's BREASTS!!!!”

NRAMA: Beating that movie drum one last time - it has to be said - this would make an solid movie that would stand shoulder to shoulder with The Dark Knight. Was that ever in your head as you were drawing this?

LB: I just wanted to tell a good story about possibly my favorite fictional character. I still have comics on the brain. As much as I love movies based on comics (can't wait to see me some Watchmen), I want to tell a good story in the comics medium first and foremost. The movies are very much a separate thing for me. They can come and go in popularity but hopefully these stories can still stand the test of time.

NRAMA: Wrapping things up, looking on the finished product, how do you view it? How do you think the whole thing stands up?

LB: This is definitely a high point for me!!!! I'm just proud to have gotten the chance to take a crack at this character and work with the people I did. I mean, everyone just brought their A game. I'm usually my own worst critic, so I still look at it and wish some things had been done better on my end, but overall I feel like the sum is better than its parts. In American comics, this is the best you can ask for. It's a team effort and you hope that readers can fall effortlessly into the world you all worked hard to create and go along for the ride. I also think it's a good bookend to what we started with Luthor. So yeah, definitely glad it's done and out there!

NRAMA: So how do you follow something like Joker?

LB: By making Darkseid the most heroic yet cuddly character in the DCU. Really, doesn't anyone else want a plush toy of him?

Just kidding...

Seriously, I've always wanted to write and draw my own material so that's what I'm pursuing now. It's still too early to talk about, but I've written a graphic novel for DC featuring some of the main characters and am starting to tackle the art. Hopefully I can continue to push myself and push the storytelling in ways I haven't yet. I'm also still doing covers monthly for both Hellblazer and The Stand, which are a blast.

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