I don't know exactly what Scott Snyder has planned for the Batman family as the "Death of the Family" storyline crashes to its conclusion. Honestly, I'm not always sure Snyder does himself, but I'm certainly along for the ride. Just like the "Court of Owls" storyline, this one may not have a sensible, or even distinguishable, destination, or make much sense along with the way. But the ride itself will have been riveting and made me think. And, after all, if comic book stories had to make sense, why, we wouldn't have a Killer Moth, at all, would we? And where would be the fun in that?
Something happened to me at one point when I was reading one of Snyder's stories in this arc. At first I thought I wasn't feeling well or had gotten the jitters from some afternoon coffee. Then it finally dawned on me: I was afraid.
Afraid like when you watch a scary movie. You know there's no monster/killer in YOUR house, but you identify with the characters and you feel afraid FOR them. It's a special kind of discomfort because the Fourth Wall blocks you from helping or escaping.
And Snyder's been able to scare me with THE JOKER, of all people. Face it: no matter how often we are told the Joker is scary, writers don't always manage to pull it off. Terror comes best from the unknown, the unfamiliar; and, as villains go, no one is more familiar than the Joker. We all know the drill; the Joker gets a wacky plan, some innocents die, Batman stops him. But Snyder's put some twists on the story this time that have kept if fresh for me.
(1) The Batfamily aren't the opponents; they are the targets. "Villain targeting the hero and his entourage" isn't an original story, by any means. But it's never been the Joker's M.O. The scheme has always been paramount; Batman's goal is to distract the Joker from the scheme, to make himself the target. Well, be careful what you wish, Batman.
(2). Snyder has given us back the Joker as Master Planner. In the Golden and Silver Ages, heck, even in the Bronze Age, the Joker was DC's great schemer. If you don't believe me, just read his first story. The very point of the character is that he's ahead of you, he's already planned the crime, and by the time you show up all you can do is watch it happen while looking stupid. The Joker's not chaotic; he's not crazy (in the conventional sense). He'll try and convince you that that's the case, but that's all part of his game. Too many younger/modern writers have fallen for the Joker's schtick; Snyder knows better.
(3). There is a point to what the Joker is doing: specifically, that there are pros and cons to Batman having a 'Batfamily'. Sure, it's being made in an odd, self-centered, and whimsical way (the whole extended metaphor of the King/Jester); but that's consistent with the Joker's character. The Joker was always one to take a theme and just run with it, whether it was flowers, or fish, or 'crimes in reverse'. But, theme aside, the point is a very clever one. If the story of young Bruce Wayne tells us anything, it's that having family -- people you care about -- makes you vulnerable. As I've discussed before, there's an on-going tension between Batman-as-loner and Batman-as-paterfamilias. This is a problem the Joker has not only perceived, but it is now fully prepared to resolve.
(4) Even the point is being made very clearly, there's still a mystery: What's on the tray? Unlike the movie Se7en, where we knew darned well "what's in the box", we really do not know what's on the tray. We know only that, well, the Penguin and Two-Face were able to identify it, whatever it was.
I'm pretty sure it's not Alfred's head or face; the Joker's own dialog make it clear that misdirection is part of his methods, and that's just simply too obvious a solution. I'm also fairly confident he hasn't blinded Alfred, and if you think back to everything the Joker's been doing in this crime spree, you'll know why I think that.
(5). Snyder has used the Joker to put a stamp of identity and approval on Batman's principle villains, and he has ranked them. There is an inner circle, consisting of him, the Penguin, Two-Face, and the Riddler. The Joker gives each of them their due, recognizes that they have important roles to play, and take some pains to get them to participate in his scheme. Now, he certainly doesn't treat them as family, but he does treat them as colleagues who matter to Batman, and therefore, to him. There are lesser players (Mr Freeze, The Scarecrow, and Clayface) but theyare definitely part of an outer circle. Significantly, Catwoman is nowhere to be found in this scheme; she's currently still being wasted as an "anti-hero", but I have a feeling that won't last a year.
This last point might be the most significant one. Even I have begun to doubt the continued viability of some of Batman's Golden Age villains. But the Joker -- as portrayed by Snyder -- has no such doubts; and if you can't believe the Joker, who can you believe? Snyder has posted very clear sign-posts to the way to revive the Riddler--Batman's most intellectual foe-- in the new DCU and I look forward to seeing more of that. Certainly more than I look forward to finding out what's on that tray.