With the first issue of Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino's Joker: Killer Smile, a very different approach was taken for the villain - one that not only centers on the experience of the villain’s psychologist at Arkham Asylum, but also explores the more “performance artist” side of the Joker.
Killer Smile begins with Joker inside a cell at Arkham, where he’s being treated by Dr. Ben Arnell. The psychologist is hoping to cure the Joker, but the villain, of course, has other shenanigans in mind.
With the second issue of the three-issue series due out this week, Newsarama talked with Lemire about the series, the focus on Dr. Amell's family, why Andrea Sorrentino made sense for this story, and what else readers can expect for #2 and beyond.
Newsarama: Jeff, let’s talk about the overall mood of this story. It’s surprisingly not drawn or written in a style that comes across as “dark and gritty.” The darkness isn’t in the art or the language or even in the way Gotham, Arkham, and Joker are portrayed. Was that a conscious decision, to portray an average city and lovely home and family as a contrast to Joker’s mind?
Jeff Lemire: Andrea and I really wanted to do something different with the Joker and the Batman mythology. We have seen so many Joker stories lately, we just felt that there was no point in doing it unless we could try something new and different with it.
In terms of the visual tone or style, Andrea made a choice early on to really ground the series. To make Gotham feel like a “real” city and not an exaggerated Gothic one. This really set the tone for me too. If the characters didn’t feel like real people, the story would not have the impact that I wanted.
Nrama: One of the unique aspects about issue #1 of the series was the time spent in Ben’s house, with his family. Sure, he works at Arkham, but the story spends a lot of time in a seemingly average suburban home. Why did you choose this setting and this situation for a story about the Joker?
Lemire: I live in Toronto, a large city like Gotham. And so many people drive into the city for work every day and then drive home at night. It occurred to me that this must be the same for Gotham. I had never really seen that done before, the suburbs of Gotham. Maybe it has been, but I hadn’t read a story where we really saw that side of the city or it’s residents. So it seems like a great way to structure this book, to show the dual nature of Ben’s life.
He spends his days in Arkham with Joker and his nights at home in the suburbs with his family. And it is only a matter of time until he starts to bring some of the madness of Arkham home to his family. And that’s where the horror begins.
Nrama: You and I have talked before about how your recent stories have sometimes leaned into the fears of fatherhood.
Lemire: Sure. This is definitely here. A large part of being a parent is being scared and worried. Especially in todays world with all the uncertainty and climate change.
You want to protect your child and keep them safe from everything and sometimes you can’t. Maybe this is all triggered by that feeling. It also struck me as the scariest possible Joker story, one where he infects a family.
Nrama: The story reunites you with Andrea Sorrentino. Why did you think working with Andrea would fit with this story?
Lemire: Andrea and I have done four projects together now, Green Arrow, Old Man Logan, Joker, and Gideon Falls. We just have a great chemistry and we love working together, especially on stories that lean towards the darker side.
Andrea really wanted a chance to draw in the Batman corner of the DCU, and with a mature readers title like this, it seemed like a perfect time to try this story. He has a real knack for visually depicting the interior lives of characters in inventive ways, so with a story like this, about madness, it was a perfect fit for him to let loose.
Nrama: Joker doesn’t have a superpower, but this story and others have implied he does have an uncanny ability to affect the minds of those who choose to get close to him. Would you agree that it’s his “superpower” (for lack of a better word)? What role does that element of the character play in this story?
Lemire: This really is the key to the entire story. We will see this play out in a really big and unexpected way as the book progresses. We have some big twists planned and I think people will be very surprised where this all ends up.
Nrama: Your first issue positioned Joker as a “performance artist” of sorts. Where did that idea come from, and why do you think it strangely fits, at least with his view of himself?
Lemire: Well, he is nothing if not theatrical, right? I mean, the way he dresses, the make-up, the elaborate schemes and crimes. This is the world of someone who really wants to be seen. But it’s more than that. It has to be.
If you look back on the history of the things he has pulled in Gotham, they are so outrageous, he has to be making a point, he is expressing his insane point of view and using Gotham as his canvas.
I was really inspired by the Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers version of Joker. I mean, Jokerized fish!? It’s so ridiculous and wonderful in its own way. He’s like a super villain Banksy.
Nrama: You’ve got a couple Black Label limited series coming out now. What’s the attraction of working under this DC label for you as a writer?
Lemire: I love the freedom from continuity. The freedom to use these incredible and iconic characters, and to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and an end. I also love the larger format and how the artwork shines. The books feel very substantial.
Nrama: Is there anything else you want to tell fans about Joker: Killer Smile?
Lemire: The ending of the series with issue #3 will set up something new. I’ll leave it at that for now!