Trigger warning: assault, violence
Spoiler warning: this post contains spoilers for Batman: Three Jokers
Batman has always been associated with a traumatic origin story. The murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents served as the inciting incident for Bruce’s crusade against crime. Since Bill Finger and Bob Kane created the character in 1939, the murder of the Wayne family fueled the Batman canon as the driving force behind Batman’s quest for vengeance and justice, leading Bruce to battle criminals in order to prevent another incident like his own.
Now, in the three-issue miniseries Batman: Three Jokers by Geoff Johns, Jason Fabok, and Brad Anderson, the creators reevaluate the original Wayne murders — as well as traumatic experiences as a whole within the Batman canon.
In an innovative take on the ‘extended universe’ trope, Three Jokers reveals that there have actually been, well, three Jokers terrorizing Gotham for years. There’s the Criminal, a Joker “more focused on their goal and less interested in the theatrics”; the Comedian, with “something underneath that smile… a sadistic streak stronger than the others”; and the Clown, who “embraced a lethal campiness like a children’s show host”. Together, they’ve teamed up to create a “better Joker”, one with an identity and name that knows Bruce personally — and hates him.
The comics follow Batman (Bruce Wayne), Batgirl (Barbara Gordon), and Red Hood (Jason Todd), the members of the “Batfamily” that experienced the most traumatic events at the hands of the Joker. The first issue starts by mapping a history of the physical trauma each character received by showing their scars from past encounters with the Joker. Jason was beaten to death with a crowbar in Death in the Family, Barbara was shot, paralyzed, and assaulted in The Killing Joke, and Bruce has sustained too many injuries to list here.
Each panel depicting a scar pairs with another flashback panel showing how the scar was received. This not only illustrates the history of physical trauma the characters sustained, but portrays a traumatic memory linked to that specific scar. This depicts the mental trauma that typically finds itself glossed over in the superhero genre. With Bruce’s scars mapping, the snippets of memory eventually morph into a full-blown flashback of the original Wayne family murders, ending with Alfred (Bruce’s butler) remarking “this wound is deeper than the others. It’s going to leave another scar, not that you’d notice”.
The story’s climax forces Bruce to face his trauma and overcome it. The Criminal and the Comedian determine that the best option for their better Joker is none other than Joe Chill, the man who shot Martha and Thomas Wayne. The Jokers lure Batman to the theater his parents died, where they hold Chill above a vat of acid, ready to drop him and create another Joker.
Batman saves Chill, and learns how remorseful Chill felt for killing Bruce’s parents. Following this confrontation, the Comedian kills the Criminal, making him the lone surviving Joker (the Clown died at the hands of Red Hood in a previous issue). The Comedian reveals that he intended for Batman to face Chill, save him, and forgive him all along.
The reason for helping Batman face the man responsible for his most traumatic experience? Because “It isn’t the Joker that is broken. It was the Batman… you saved the man who sent Gotham — and you — spiraling into the drain of despair. You felt his pain and it gave relief to yours. I healed your greatest wound. So now I can be your greatest pain.” The Joker provided Batman closure for his parents’ murders solely to become the strongest source of trauma in Bruce’s life.
It’s a fascinating take on a superhero story because of the actual confrontation of grief. Often, the traumatic origin story serves only as a motivating force for the hero’s mission. Superhero comics place plenty of focus on physical trauma and the toll the body takes while fighting crime, but the mental health part of the equation goes neglected.
Three Jokers takes the time to address this trauma and explore how it affects each character. Jason expresses how isolated and abandoned he felt after dying and coming back to life. We also see how long and hard Barbara worked to overcome not only her paralysis, but the chronic pain she continues to live with.
Sure, watching heroes and villains duke it out and perform physical feats that defy logic is part of why we enjoy superheroes. They embody the hope and wonderment we long to achieve, but by addressing the mental health aspect of the superhero’s journey, the colossal accomplishments seem more obtainable. We might not be able to leap tall buildings in single bounds, but seeing these heroes tackle real issues like trauma and isolation makes them relatable, and inspires us to face down our own issues with the ferocity and determination of a superhero.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.