The end let me down just a tad. Snyder finishes with a nice twist, and in all his take on the Batman/Joker relationship is both faithful and also groundbreaking, but it's possible that there's so much dread in Death of the Family that it can't deliver the horrors it promises. That's ultimately a small matter, however. Death of the Family sets a new bar for Joker stories; I'm curious, and perhaps a little scared, to see what happens when Snyder brings the Joker back again sometime in the future.
[Review contains spoilers]
Comics do gross-out pretty well, but arguably I think it's tough for many comics to offer real "makes you glance back over your shoulder"-type horror -- because of continuous paneling, because the book is usually set-up and finished all in twenty-two pages, and so on. Snyder and artist Greg Capullo land it, though, and they do so over and over -- when the lights go out in the police station and the Joker kills the officers one by one, when Bruce Wayne slowly searches his house room by room for the Joker, when Batman must navigate through the transformed Arkham hallways, and on and on.
See, for instance, the masterful pacing of that Wayne manor scene in the second chapter -- the long shot in Capullo's second panel of Bruce entering an empty hallway; the third panel, now behind Bruce, as he looks into an empty room; and then the last two panels, closer and closer on Bruce's face as he sees what's behind the door, just before the reader does. The pace, the sound effects, it all comes together to create a terror that's lasting, rather than momentary.
Snyder offers an exploration of Batman and the Joker here that fits the New 52 moniker -- a different, more nuanced, and more modern take than writers have done previously. There is a familial, almost romantic tinge to Snyder's Joker's approach to Batman -- it's not as though the Joker makes a pass at Batman, but there's a definite sense that the Joker sees himself and Batman as soul mates, with Batman's family getting in the way of their "relationship." This rightly differentiates the relationship between the Joker and Batman as something more intimate even than Batman and Two-Face's history or Batman and the Riddler matching wits, for instance.
There's also a theme of Batman as the king and the Joker and others as King Batman's subjects -- Scarecrow as the physician, Penguin as the bishop, and the Joker as the court jester. This is more than just a reference to the Joker's clown appearance, but rather a deeper insight into the Joker as the historical fool, the character often on the outskirts of a work that sees the plot more keenly than everyone else (despite that he's a "fool"). For those who believe the Joker may not be insane but rather super-sane, saner than the rest of us, Snyder offers more fodder there.
Snyder also illustrates the uniqueness of the Batman/Joker relationship through the idea of the "game" that they play. Joker's plot in Death of the Family turns on convincing the Bat-family that the Joker has known their secret identities all along, and that Batman never warned them. Batman claims it can't be true because in the Joker's psychosis, he just doesn't care about Batman's identity; the Bat-family won't believe him, though, because of course it seems illogical that Joker would deny his own best opportunity to strike at Batman. No one, Snyder shows, understands the Joker like Batman understands the Joker, and this plays out in the dagger-sharp moment that Batman violates the "game" by revealing he has actually learned the Joker's own identity (the Batman/Joker equivalent of "breaking up").
But the relationship Snyder explores here perhaps even better than that of between Batman and the Joker is the one between Batman and Alfred. This is done exceptionally well, even, given that Alfred is in absentia for most of the book, kidnapped by the Joker. Snyder clears away the chaff and trappings to get to the truth everyone knows but no one acknowledges, that Alfred is essentially Batman's father, and that all this "butler stuff" is just a mask over the fact that Bruce Wayne is a guy who lives in a mansion with his dad.
Every Batman reader is familiar with Batman calling Alfred from the road, ostensibly for some clue or analysis, but the clear fact Snyder brings to light is that Batman really calls Alfred for reassurance, to check in with his dad one last time before going into what could always be his last battle. Alfred's been in trouble before, even kidnapped, but Snyder takes that chestnut and makes it fresh, and adds a clarity that's quite affecting.
All of this -- the creepiness, the danger to Batman's allies -- combines to create a foreboding that permeates the book, buffeted well by Snyder's Joker's claims of buried secrets and traps to be sprung. What's in the Joker's bat-skin book? What is the Joker hiding under an ominous serving tray? What's Batman's dark secret that the Joker knows but the Bat-family doesn't? By the final chapter, when Batman sits down to the Joker's table, the reader is utterly convinced that something truly horrible is about to come.
But for reasons both legitimate and less so, that final horror never happens. First, part of the point of the Joker's "joke" is that his threats are largely baseless -- he has no secret book, no dark story tell, but rather all of it is a ruse to drive a rift between Batman and his family, which the Joker accomplishes. This is good and interesting, and legitimate within the confines of the story, though a reader who's been scouring the volume for clues to the Joker's book's contents may feel a bit cheated that it's all for naught.
More significantly, the book's final scares aim too high. The climax of this volume's horror is when the Joker opens those serving dishes, revealing the severed faces of Batman's closest allies. It's gross and horrifying, but I had a strange moment of both disgust and relief. The faces are gross, of course, but also immediately unbelievable -- I might even have believed Snyder could kill Alfred in this story, but there was just no way DC Comics was going to let him permanently disfigure some of their most popular media properties.
The book had built to a moment so terrible, and indeed it was terrible, but so terrible as to be easily dismissible. This is supposed to be the moment when the reader fully the most frightened, but instead I felt the most relieved -- I knew looking at the severed faces that everyone was safe, that Batman was going to get out of it alive, that in the end there wouldn't be any (physical) harm done. (At that point I thought the tied figures had been mutilated but that they weren't actually the Bat-family, not that the Bat-family remained unharmed below their bandages.)
Death of the Family redeems itself quickly after that with Batman's revelation about the Joker's identity, and the slight bump doesn't hurt it much -- I'd as soon the book scared me throughout and then slip at the end than not scare me at all except for one page. I'm put in mind of the "Court of the Owls" saga, which I also felt had an excellent set-up but a lesser denouement, also at the point where Snyder pulls back the curtain on the final trick. This doesn't lessen my esteem for Snyder's growing library of rollicking Batman volumes, which offers a more human Batman than Grant Morrison's did. Again, I'd rather enjoy most of the ride than none of it.
Batman Vol. 3: Death of the Family does deliver on its promise to "kill" the Bat-family (and, to an extent, the "family" Batman has with his rogues, too). I'd be interested to see Snyder handle the Bat-family's "reunion," though whether that's still to come in a Snyder book or takes place in Batman and Robin after the events of the second Batman, Inc. book or not, I don't know. I'm eager to see Scott Snyder's new origin for Batman in
[First printing includes acetate jacket revealing Joker's mutilated face, original and variant cover, Greg Capullo pencils]