Like any avid Batman fan, finding out that the Joker will be returning in the New 52 line-up was instantly gratifying, especially since I consider him my most favorite Batman villain ever since Mark Hamill's version in Batman: The Animated Series. But DC did not make having the Joker back a walk-in-the-park either. He is, after all, Batman's ultimate nemesis so you bet your ass they're gonna make a big crossover event about it. And that is exactly what is collected in this deluxe edition. From a more objective perspective, putting every Joker appearance since his grand return in one impressive volume is practical if you're the kind of fan who wants to keep track of everything. But in a more critical point of view, The Joker: Death of the Family is a problematic anthology only because some stand-alone stories do not connect with each other and there are quite a few that were better off not read if what you aim for is Joker's direct connection with Batman and the rest of the Robins (plus Batgirl).
To further illustrate my point, I will give a short description of each story included and whether or not you need to check them out in order to fully digest and appreciate Scott Synder's Death of the Family. What you should keep in mind is there is a separate collected edition that only included Scott Snyder's version of events and if you already have that but you feel like you also wanted to check out what the other writers have done in their crossover stories, I sure hope that my insights will help you discern for yourself if you still need to buy this particular edition. Don't worry about any major spoilers ahead.
DETECTIVE COMICS #16-17
Batman investigates a series of Joker-themed menace committed by mentally disturbed people who identify strongly with the clown prince of crime. Written by John Layman, this is a very engrossing story that one could view as the ripple effect of Joker's return to Gotham's outcasts. It examines the magnetism of the Joker as an elusive figure and why dangerous men like him appeals to a certain kind of lost individuals such as the ones featured here. If you follow the Detective Comics yourself, you will recognize that this is a continuation of the Emperor Penguin plot but readers who will just pick up this issue do not need to concern themselves with that because #16-#17 focuses entirely on the Joker groupies who call themselves The League of Smiles and what havoc they inspire.
RECOMMENDED: YES, only because it's a well-written exploration about the kind of madness that the Joker inflicts on frail-minded and anti-social people. The artwork by Jason Fabok and Andy Clarke is a tantalizing feat as well.
This is one of the stories that really do not add anything to Snyder's Death of the Family. The Joker trying to entice Catwoman to join whatever sick game he is about to perpetrate is not that much of a worthwhile read because I could never understand why he jilted Catwoman around in the first place. Aside from the occasional laughs I got from the Joker's sly if not heavy-handed gags to lure or belittle Catwoman, there really isn't anything to this story that has any effect on what is about to take place once the Joker confronts the Bat family.
SUICIDE SQUAD #14-15
The Joker visits Harley Quinn during a funeral and proceeds to torment her with a viciousness and cruelty that we haven't seen him do before. As a shipper and supporter of this duo, it was an unsettling situation to read and yet I still thought that this story presented the most daring if not erotic interactions between the Joker and his favorite pet/toy. I'm one of those fans who always considered Harley Quinn as the best companion to the Joker because she always understood perfectly what she was getting into whenever she commits heinous crimes for her Mr. J. She may be submissive to him but it's by choice and her own brand of insanity is the reason why the Joker wants her around and secretly needs her in his life. She's the captive audience, the willing participant and the ultimate groupie that someone with Joker's vanity and level of theatrics requires. In these issues, Harley Quinn tries to resist the Joker, recognizing that he is not the same man she gave up her sanity for in the first place. What follows is an intense read of why comics' arguably most dysfunctional relationship actually works.
RECOMMENDED: IT DEPENDS. If you're a shipper like I am, this is something you should check out. If not, it's really okay to skip this one.
This is definitely my absolute favorite tie-in among all of the Joker crossover stories. It was just stunning and breathtaking in all the right places. The narrative is crisp with haunting monologues from Barbara Gordon especially her grim contemplation to kill the Joker herself (given the intimate level of destruction he inflicted upon her in The Killing Joke). The action sequences are amazing to peruse through. The Joker's baffling actions toward Batgirl were cringe-worthy with the misplaced sort of affection that made me sick to my own stomach. I have never realized how much their dynamics could work so compellingly until I read these issues.
RECOMMENDED: YES. This is a crossover story that works really well. Gail Simone's Barbara/Batgirl is incredibly sympathetic and quite menacing herself. You really root for her to succeed and drive a blade into the Joker's heart after the hell she's been through because of him.
RED HOOD #15-16; TEEN TITANS #15-16
In this collection, Red Robin and Red Hood stories were crammed together as one tedious and often derivative storyline. The Joker abducts the former Robins and their own respective teams try to save them. This is the most disengaging story of all especially if you don't follow Teen Titans or The Outlaws. Their appearances would confuse new readers and have also diluted the plot, to be honest. The only redemptive quality of these issues is the confrontation faced by Tim Drake and Jason Todd who really do have unresolved issues with their surrogate father, Bruce Wayne/Batman. The Joker tries to get them to turn against each other through bringing out those issues to light. If only we focused more on that and lessened the Teen Titans/Outlaws scenes then this crossover story could have been more enjoyable.
My second favorite tie-in next to Batgirl, the original Robin Dick Grayson in this story is taken for a twisted surprise when the Joker threatens to kill everyone he upholds and obliterate the place he once called home before he was whisked away by Batman long ago when his own parents were murdered. This was emotionally engaging especially if you're someone like me who had always loved Dick Grayson as the first Robin and followed his evolution to his own choice of hero, and separation from Batman's overbearing shadow. The Joker knew what buttons to push but Dick never truly gives in to the darkness and that says a lot about him and his devotion to the other Robins including Batman himself. Dick Grayson's resilence shines through in these issues even if he ultimately recognizes how messed up his entire childhood had been as the Boy Wonder.
BATMAN AND ROBIN #15-16
Damian Wayne, the current Robin and also Bruce Wayne's illegitimate son, is the focus of these issues. Unlike the other Robins who have their own personal encounters with the Joker before, Damian was able to challenge the Joker and call out his bluffs because he has no reason to fear him--at least not yet. Watching the Joker psychologically torture another Robin is really sickening and yet a pleasurable read to see unfold nevertheless. The highlight of this story is Damian's relationship with Batman which is rife with more complexities because the man underneath the cowl is also his own flesh and blood. Young as he is, Damian is also an intelligent Robin who is able to think quickly on his feet. His complete trust over Batman is the reason why the Joker is never truly able to break his will down.
Ah, the very bone and marrow of the Death of the Family itself. This was marketed as the most exciting and best Joker story yet which actually hurts its chances to survive and be appreciated as its own story, really. The hype built around it will mislead readers who tend to have overblown expectations. So I suggest you adjust your expectations and don't expect this to be an instant classic or whatever it is being marketed as. It's not. But it's still a very enjoyable read. The entire point of the Joker's massively tormented (and, may I add, drawn out) return is to destroy the family that has made Batman weak because they humanized him. The Joker strongly believes that such relationships had reduced Batman into an ordinary and fallible man, and since the Joker's vanity is centered around the fact that he is unique and his nemesis is exactly as that too; and they are locked into an eternal battle of will and wits forever and ever (it's worth noting that there are lots of accidental homoerotic layers to the way the Joker pines over the Batman in Snyder's narrative framework), he thinks he's actually doing Batman a favor by eliminating his surrogate children and own son and heir. It makes perfect sense for the Joker to be this possessive and entitled to Batman. There's something vaguely pitiful about it too.
The seventeenth issue, Death of the Family was personally satisfying if you focus on the echoing thematic dissonance between the Batman and the Joker as the dichotomy that they've always been: order and chaos; and placing that in a more humanistic context where they are more than just mere concepts but also people who are afraid to own up and face the flaws of their humanity and how much they have alienated and often damaged the few people who are important to them. There is that poignant scene where Batman threatens to reveal to the Joker his real identity and the Joker actually flats-out refuses. That for me was a significant look at how the Joker wants to operate; he desperately wants to cut himself off from any kind of humanity including his own, but there is loneliness to that so it would be comforting for him to know that Batman will do the same as well, considering the only lasting and meaningful connection he ever had was with the Dark Knight. If you don't believe the hype created around this story and the entire crossover event then The Joker: Death of the Family will be an impressive accomplishment that is worth the purchase. The writers have tried their best to add some new dimension to the Joker, particularly Snyder who I believe wanted to reveal just how much Batman and the Joker are intrinsically tied to one another. This for me is also a major milestone among Batman and his children and I'm interested to see how it plays out for everyone concerned since they basically just endured another traumatic event that should re-define their relationships.
* If you don't have the same emotional investment on Batman, then these stories may receive lower ratings, but if you are just as addicted to the Dark Knight and his mythology as I am, then this is something that will move you deeply.