Today, Drew and Taylor are discussing Gotham Academy Endgame 1, originally released April 1st, 2015.
Drew: Ah, the framing story. What else provides such instant meta-text? It’s what turns The Princess Bride into a story about bedtime stories, or Don Quixote into a story about adventure stories. Of course, it also adds a layer of distance, reminding us that we’re consuming a story, just in case we might have forgotten. At its most cynical, that distance can provide plausible deniability of the events of the story (like so many hand-waving sitcom episodes based on A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life), but at its most sincere, it allows a single narrative to celebrate the act of storytelling. In the case of Gotham Academy Endgame 1, it also allows for stories that otherwise wouldn’t fit in the narrative, revealing the depth and breadth to the world of the series while also showcasing some fantastic talent.
Gotham Academy is in lockdown, with all of the students corralled into the gymnasium to wait out the Joker Virus outbreak. That certainly could be an opportunity for Olive and Maps to get up to some mischief, but instead, they take the opportunity to share their best Joker stories. Or, stories inspired by the Joker. Indeed, this issue may address the “Endgame” set-up the least directly of all of the tie-ins, placing Joker Virus — and even the Joker — way in the background, hanging over the mood of the issue, but not really driving any of it. Instead, we get a rather twisted meditation on the very idea of the Joker — a riff on scary smiles.
Enter “Pomeline’s story,” a tale that fully embraces its ghost-storyness, dropping both the “malevolent inanimate object” and “that store’s been closed for years…” tropes within the first two pages. It doesn’t have much of a chance to develop beyond those moments — the haunted mask kills its quarry and returns to its mysterious costume shop within four pages — but it’s all about tone, and writer/artist Clio Chiang is able to build that up in spades.
Chiang’s soft watercolors don’t bludgeon us with eeriness upfront, but manage to ramp up into some truly horrific images by the end — images that cleverly mirror this opening shot.
Actually, masks are a bit of a runner throughout the issue, which makes sense for a series so much about the secrets (and non-secrets) of teen identity. Here again, the framing device adds meaning to that theme, as it reveals the characters’ own interest in identity, and the repercussions of wearing masks.
That intersection of horror and run-of-the-mill teen fears hits home in “Olive’s Story,” where a boy — a high-school senior — is haunted by his own horrible reflection. It’s a bad hair-day exaggerated to horror story proportions. Or is that just the Joker’s way of driving people mad (if he’s even capable of such things)? The story is devilishly ambiguous on that point — the kind of ambiguity that always freaked me out when I heard ghost stories as a kid. Did that really happen? Olive’s mother’s personal connection to the story makes it seem so (though that could just be another ghost story convention), but whether that means his madness was supernatural is totally up for debate. Again, it’s down to the artist — in this case Vera Brosgol — to really sell the horror.
As with Chiang, it’s not a style I would immediately associate with horror, but I think that makes it all the more effective when things finally start to boil over.
Actually, of the three stories, I might be most horrified by “MacPherson’s Story” by Joy Ang, which again focuses on the distinctly teen issue of laughing along with terrible acts or face dire consequences. It also benefits from the most exaggerated art, which makes for some truly scary images.
That’s the stuff of nightmares, right there.
Not to be outdone, Jeff Stokely manages to squeeze some ghouls into the framing story, offering art so different from his in-the-gymnasium work that I honestly thought it was a different artist.
Those bits of the framing story might be the weirdest of the whole story, revealing that Headmaster Hammer is the Zorro-like “Custodian,” protecting the grounds of Gotham Academy from the invading horde. I’m honestly not sure how that reveal fits in with any of the themes of identity addressed in the rest of the book, or what Hammer’s extra-curricular activities might mean for the series going forward.
Taylor, what do you make of that reveal? Were you as enamored of all of the guest artists as I was, or would you have liked to see more traditional “horror” artists? Did you enjoy this diversion into the imaginations of our characters, or would you have preferred a more direct approach to Joker Zombies?
Taylor: When I first picked up this issue I was a little worried. Generally, I’m not a fan of cramming a bunch of talent into one issue because 20 pages is hardly enough room for one creative team to establish their story let alone four. There are exceptions of course (Dial H comes to mind) but in general I’ve found an issue with more than one creative team are more gimmick than substance. All that being said, I was prepared to not be thrilled by this issue but at every turn it proved me wrong. It turns out I really enjoyed it!
I think you’re right, Drew, to point out that this issue has a lot to do with identity. However, whereas you see it as a discussion about identity in general, I see it as a discussion of identity with more specificity. All of the stories presented within the story prime deal with a malevolent jester figure. The parallels to the Joker are obvious at every turn and I think they can be viewed as possible explanations for how the Joker came to be. Sure, I get that the Joker does have an origin story, but depending on who you get it from that story will be different, and that leaves his origins perpetually up to debate. This ambiguous origin is perfect for a villain with ambiguous and terrifying motives so I think a lot of the fun comes from just wondering how the hell such an evil person came to exist.
All of the origin stories here are unique and rely on different tropes to be effective, but they’re all equally good. The story of the Highland Man takes the idea of the Joker’s origin and gives it a supernatural twist by giving the Joker demonic powers and apparently an unnatural lifespan that has allowed him to exist in both ancient Scotland and present Gotham. Perhaps befitting the supernatural aspect of the story, it is also the most disturbing and presents a Joker who is always vying for attention. Those who don’t laugh, suffer his wrath for he is part human and part demon.
Now, I’m not totally suggesting that the Joker necessarily hails from Scotland or is a demon, but perhaps this story does hint at his origin and identity. The Joker is a man who most of all wants attention and will do anything to get it. Whether that means making people laugh or killing them seems to make little difference to him. It’s just a tiny glimpse behind the Joker mask and a possible explanation about who he is and how he came to be.
On the more literal side of the Joker origin is Olive’s story. She tells of a boy her mom supposedly knew who one day told such an offensive joke that no one laughed but him. As the guilt of the joke consumes the boy, his grip on reality loosens and pretty soon all he can see is the reflection of his twisted and malevolent smiling face. Eventually, he shatters a mirror and the reflection he sees is not his own anymore, but that of the Joker’s.
Could the boy from this story be the Joker? The timeline would suggest as much and the absence of anything supernatural strengthens the case. Additionally, the Joker is a character who’s very identity revolves around madness and in Olive’s story we follow a character as he descends into that state. Again, the idea that this could be how the Joker came to be and with it the shedding of some light on his identity create an intriguing case for consideration.
And of course none of these stories necessarily are a definitive statement on who or what the Joker is. That such a huge story would be dropped into a crossover event makes this obvious. Still, with the Joker, it’s always fun to speculate and it’s a blast seeing some of the best creatives in the comic business do just that in this issue. Ultimately, we may never know who the Joker is or where he came from but perhaps that’s how it should be, as our imaginations can create something more horrifying than perhaps can ever be written.
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