Let’s play a little word association. I say “Batman,” you say (word). Now, the moment the name leaped from the screen to your oculars, a synapse fired (or misfired). The nouns “justice” or “vengeance” may have cropped up in the old bean. Maybe either speaks to Jungian desires untold. The adjectives “protector” or “psycho” may have sprouted up as well. These two honorifics are quite interesting because we may have even called our parents either while growing up. Hell, maybe even both.
It makes sense for Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s favorite son to look at the city, his intangible parent, as psychotic. However “psycho, bat-shit-insane” we sometimes view our guardians, it’s not a crime to love them and want to protect them. It’s just a symptom of human nature or what I envisage Werner Herzog defining as “God’s ‘ba dum tshh‘.”
I bet most of you immediately shot to “Joker” when I said Batman. I bet you out of a word association with him, one thing would most likely not come to mind: parent. It sure as fuck wasn’t on my 2023 Bingo card. This is Joker: One Operation Joker Vol. 1 by DC Universe Infinite x Kodansha.
Not knowing what to expect with such a unique concept of Joker raising a bubbly, baby Bruce, the terse voice-over and beautiful, stark artwork of Gotham summarily set a tone of grit. The design of Joker by Keisuke Gotou makes him a menace out in the world but rather avuncular in private. We start off with how this all happened. Per the tableau, Batman and Joker square off over a ginormous vat at Ace Chemicals yet again. This time, however, it is Batman who takes the plunge, leaving both Gotham without its guardian and Joker without a purpose. Oh, Bats isn’t dead. The later-identified goop turned him into a bouncy, baby boy.
Joker’s whole crusade up until this point has been more of a philosophical one: show Gotham its foibles through the fragility of justice. Without its paragon of penance parading the night skies, one needn’t be created, just “re-engineered” That’s a parenting term, right? Mister J’s got the real deal in his hands (and arms) but before Batman can come out to play, he has to be raised so right, even Joker would be in the right to tell Pennyworth to “go home and get your fuckin’ shine box.”
From diaper mishaps to sleep deprivation, Joker’s clearly struggling with the cute-as-a-button baby Bruce. We meet Joker’s aide-de-camp, the world-weary, put-upon Jonny Frost. The parent of two immediately raises jealousy in his boss, forcing Joker to enroll Bruce in public preschool. It’s not the most idyllic situation, but they’re not exactly dripping in sheckles either.
There’s something to be said for the surrealism of Joker at City Hall to apply for Bruce’s schooling. He’s treated like any other citizen. Like, nobody questions that a goddamn face-painted madman with a rap sheet longer than the Iliad is describing his employment schedule… with Gotham’s giggling guardian staring right back at him. I suppose it kind of makes sense. Knocking over banks is kid-level shit next to toppling the bureaucracy. Rules are the pillars of society. Lesson number one, Brucie.
I quite like this seldom-seen side of the Joker. The intrusive self-doubt of someone so iconically assured is not only refreshing but also a reminder that a soul may still be creeping about in that lithe, wan husk of his. id-based as he is, not unlike his shadow, Bats, he has had a first act, complete with a family.
Unsurprisingly, Bruce doesn’t get into any of the nursery schools. The system, in Poppa J’s eyes, is as corrupt as ever. Lesson number two, Bruce. Not everything goes according to plan, life can be unjust, you can’t trust anybody and if you can’t have something, make it everybody’s problem because nothing feels better than unconscionably enlisting others in your misery. Lessons three, four, five, and six. Maybe let’s table the latter two until high school, shall we?
Puddin’s partner in crime, Harley Quinn does drop in after some inactivity from her paramour. Just as Joker lost Batman to find Bruce, it seems as though Harls lost daddy only to find “father.” Trust me, there’s a clear delineation in the streets as well as the sheets his queen knows it. Solitude comes with the territory of doing what is right as much as it does doing what isn’t. Lesson number seven, Batboy.
The fact that a harmless (and achingly adorable) Bruce could bring the Harlequin of Hate to his knees is a nice departure and having Joker’s obsessive nature work for him in this direction is handled craftily. Writer Satoshi Miyagawa operates like a five-star chef. He knows when you have quality ingredients in front of you, in this case, characters made rich and complex over myriad years of storytelling, you respect the dish by letting the natural flavors shine, with no embellishments necessary.
What makes for a compelling Batman and Joker story is them being cut from exactly the same cloth. To have the Joker raise Bruce from a toddler only makes sense. They both had the same conviction, the same heart, the same drive. Notice I said had. This one Joker operation could go tits up and then what?
With the joke of the Wayne Foundation finally being able to slice through the red tape on fast-laning the waitlist for Gotham’s children, Joker will be able to paint the town red again come next year. This means Bruce has something potentially more psychologically damaging than two (very dead) model parents: one inept caretaker.
The interstitials are brilliant and serve as a fever-dream-esque afterthought. The writing was on point. Joker, though now undertaking the role of caretaker is somehow scarier. His gallows wit combined with nascent wonder around something so pure has to be read to be believed.
Being a somewhat decent parent is a Sysphean task in and of itself I imagine, but when you also have the very soul of Gotham in the balance, his crusade has now inadvertently become spiritual as well. Much like his erstwhile peer, he’s been afforded another act. Much like his erstwhile peer, his most dangerous asset is his conviction. Unlike his erstwhile peer, he’s got the upper hand… or so he thinks.
What a hammer of a punchline.
Before this, I’d never rifled through more than a mere few pages of a manga. Is an English-language “manga-style” the best entre into an entire medium I don’t have a literacy in? I’m sure most would respond with a resounding N-O. I’m not expecting to be a convert from this, but who the fuck cares? It’s wacky, aberrant, and though not to everybody’s taste, contains enough landmines to make the Laughing Clown sweat all without the Dark Knight breaking one.