Twenty-two pages fills up fast. There’s no denying that. Action sequences often eat up huge chunks of a book, and you can only fit so much dialogue on the page before it becomes cluttered, not to mention how much of the probably excellent art you’ll be covering up by doing so. So, understandably, most writers will have their stories run in arcs, often using well over 100 pages to let it unfold. It’s not hard to see why, but the tendency to keep expanding the story is part of what makes it so rewarding when you come across a single issue that manages to not only exemplify what it is you so love about that particular book, or even comics in general, but that manages to do so with an impressive economy of storytelling. One Shot is meant to take a close look at why those issues work as well as they do, the way they do.
The announcement of Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics was met with some excitement, and with good reason. Dini made his reputation to Batfans as a writer and producer on Batman: The Animated Series, a classic to fans of Batman, American cartoons, and pretty much every guy who happened to catch an episode after school. He wrote what were possibly the two best episodes of the series – “Heart of Ice” and “Joker’s Favor” – and got to the heart of the Batfamily and nemeses in a way few other writers ever did.
I don’t know what most fans were expecting when Dini took over Detective Comics, but I can’t imagine they were expecting what they ended up getting: a series of one- or two-part stories that with no real sense of continuity or the ‘epic story’ trade-baiting that has become so immensely popular in recent years, often focusing on brand new villains (many of whom sadly never really caught on outside Dini’s excellent stories). Every month, users got a huge chunk of classic detective fiction and simple superheroics. There was brooding, yes, but in Dini’s hypercompressed stories, there was little room for the type of sustained angst so many superhero comics fall prey to. The darkness was more than manageable.
“Slayride” is one of the relatively few issues to prominently feature one of Batman’s most major villains: the Joker. The Joker is one of the hardest villains to write in comics. While everyone uses him as often as they can, it’s mostly an excuse for a few bad jokes and some gritty ultraviolence. Those are definitely a part of what the Joker does, of course, but they don’t seem to get the core of the character, the origins of the comedy. Very, very few writers get the mix of casual brutality and almost classical humor that make the Joker who he is.
Dini, however, gets it. Dini’s Joker is more Groucho Marx or even classic Chevy Chase than giddy, Nicholson-esque pun-spewing action-movie thug. He loves physical comedy and wordplay, classic jokes and pratfalls. And he’s not afraid to get hurt for a good joke.
“Slayride” is a Christmas issue, something few comics seem to do anymore (or at least do well). It’s okay – most TV shows mess it up, too. Like Valentine’s Day (and unlike Halloween), Christmas inspires a great deal of gooey feelings in many people, so these things tend to traffic in unearned sentimentality and toothless, jaded irony. It’s rare to see an issue dedicate itself so thoroughly to using Christmas as window dressing
The English Lit major in me desperately wants to point out all the various ways this issue could metaphorically stand for the way your family kidnaps you come holiday season, straps you into a car, and then tortures you for hours on end with their ceaseless company, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this reading of the issue might have more to do with my own personal issues than with Dini’s intentions, so lets just pretend this sentence never happened and move on. Whatever his intentions were, however, the fact is that Dini managed to make a Christmas issue without having it devolve into cliche. The holiday season is a source of a few jokes – including the Joker’s downfall being directly related to a bad Santa Claus joke – but Christmas doesn’t bring any sort of sense of togetherhood or peace to the inhabitants of Gotham City, no moratorium on the violence.
“Slayride” is the rare Tim Drake issue. Robin, after a fight with a gang of thugs gets out of hand, leaps at the rare, welcomed help of a Gotham City citizen. Unfortunately, that citizen turns out to be the Joker, who promptly gasses him, ties him up, and takes him on a joyride through the winter wonderland that is Gotham. Bound and gagged, the issue doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue, and Dini keeps the captions to a relative minimum as well. No, chunks of the issue are dedicated to the manic, ceaseless chatter of the Joker, who knows the ride won’t last forever, but has fun with it while he can. Tim, drugged and tied up, at the mercy of one of the world’s greatest supervillains, has to outwit the Joker and escape. It’s a simple premise pushed to excellence by Dini’s understanding of the Joker.
The art, by Don Kramer, Wayne Faucher, and John Kalisz, is kept relatively simple – after an initial burst of energy, there’s very little action to the issue. There’s no scenes of Batman tracking down the Joker’s minions to find out where Tim is, or big, final throwdown between the Joker and his nemeses. There’s just a conversation, and Kramer definitely found some interesting ways to express emotion on the Joker’s face without sacrificing that signature grin.
“Slayride” will never go down as a classic moment in Batfamily history, and it was never, I think, meant to. Dini is just having himself a good time, playing around in one of the deepest, coolest sandboxes in comicdom and doing so with more style and skill than most other writers could hope for. Still, if you’re looking for a great Joker story, you don’t have to look to Azzarello’s Joker or Moore’s The Killing Joke. “Slayride” is simple story, but then, the Joker is a simple man. All he really wants is a good laugh.
– Cal Cleary
One Shot 6: The Batman Chronicles #16, “Two-Down”
One Shot 5: Planetary #10, “Magic and Loss”
Coming Up November 7th: The Immortal Iron Fist #7, “The Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay”
Coming Up November 21st: Y: The Last Man #1, “Unmanned”