Synopsis (spoilers ahead): Punchline narrates over a flashback of her first meeting with the Joker – in high school, a field trip led her to a television studio where Joker had taken over. The clown kills the teacher, then singles young Alexis Kaye out as his next victim, just as Batman swoops in.
We flash to the present, where Kaye is narrating her story in court, where the judge reminds her that she is facing the death penalty. Kaye pleads not guilty, and Dr. Leslie Thompkins testifies that Kaye is sane. Outside the court, Leslie confides in her young protégé Harper Row that she fears Punchline is plotting something.
Harper’s brother Cullen watches Kaye’s self-released videos proclaiming her innocence and is invited by an online gaming friend to learn more through Kaye’s podcast. He listens to it obsessively, much to Harper’s dismay. Leslie asks Harper to observe the start of the trial as Bluebird.
Cullen listens to the final episode of Punchline’s podcast as we see a flashback to her final stunt to gain Joker’s attention – a massive mailing of Joker toxin, though she doesn’t have the formula quite right, so her victims don’t laugh, resulting in a flurry of vicious stabbings from Punchline. Joker appears, and Punchline stabs him too, proclaiming that she is his new partner.
Bluebird and Leslie both see the massive crowd of clown-masked Punchline supporters outside the courthouse, and Harper and Cullen lock eyes across the crowd, with Cullen pulling on a clown mask himself in defiance of his sister’s disapproval.
Analysis: James Tynion IV and Jorge Jimenez created Punchline as a clear analogy to the radicalization of youth in today’s culture (many have said she’s the character embodiment of the meme, “We live in a society”). I find this connection to today’s events fascinating, especially since Tynion has not made a perfect analogy of any single radicalizing movement, creating simple “good” and “evil” symbols.
While Punchline is clearly evil, her followers are portrayed as misguided, hurting, and seeking connection they can’t find from “normal” society – one of the only times I’ve seen a depiction of a henchman for a Gotham villain, particularly the Joker, handled plausibly and sensitively (the other being the Joker: Year of the Villain #1 one-shot last year). In this special one-shot, Tynion and co-writer Sam Johns, along with artist Mirka Andolfo, continue to expand the portrait of radicalization through the character of Cullen Row, one of Tynion’s co-creations with Scott Snyder from Batman #12. While the appearance of Leslie Thompkins and Harper Row (Bluebird) are a bit awkwardly shoehorned into the story, especially Bluebird’s appearance at the end with no clear problem she can solve, just getting Harper back into the costume she abandoned five years ago in Batman and Robin Eternal along with Cullen’s story, is quite nicely handled.
Unfortunately, it’s also the source of the frustrating plotlessness of the story. Johns and Tynion weave together the story of Punchline’s first meetings with the Joker alongside the start of her trial and the birth of the Punchline support movement – but all of that is, quite frankly, background material that should have been placed as a B plot alongside an A plot. Perhaps Harper fighting one of Punchline’s own lieutenants, only to find out that it was all a distraction as Cullen joins Punchline’s gang. Or, as my brilliant co-hosts on The Batman Universe Comics Podcast suggested, a backup to the main Batman book. Whatever the case, this is clearly a prologue story to something that will happen in the main Batman book next year – but it doesn’t really give us more information than the Joker 80th Anniversary 100-Page Super Spectacular story did, just fleshing out the same information in an emotionally evocative way, but still lacking in any real narrative drive.
Italian artist Mirka Andolfo produces very strong work, but outside of a few flashes when Batman and Punchline confront the Joker, never quite approaches the manic energy that Jorge Jimenez imbued his co-creation with during Joker War. Taken together, the writing and art produce a very readable creation, but ultimately don’t quite seem to justify the length of the book or its prodigious marketing campaign.
Yasmine Putri’s variant cover is very pretty, as her covers always are, though it somewhat misleadingly implies that Punchline and Alexis are two different personalities, in opposition to the story’s implication that they are simply two different performances. A legion of variant covers are also available from various stores, far too many to cover in the scope of this review.
Final Thoughts: Solid art and evocative writing lift this meandering prologue into an entertaining territory, but still leave the reader hungry for plot.
Editor’s Note: DC Comics provided TBU with a copy of this comic for review purposes. You can find this comic digitally and help support TBU in the process by purchasing this issue through Comixology.