Though DC’s Joker and the Question aren’t exactly the most similar characters personality-wise, they’re both shrouded in mystery and live for their own single-minded pursuits of what they perceive to be the truth. While we’ve learned plenty about them during their exploits over the years, there are still depths to their inner workings that’ve yet to be explored. And we’re about to find out more.
This spring, DC is launching two new series under its Black Label imprint from writer Jeff Lemire and artists Andrea Sorrentino, Denys Cowan, and Bill Sienkiewicz that are squarely focused on Joker and the Question.
Joker: Killer Smile follows the Clown Prince of Crime as he has a fateful encounter with a mental health professional that radically alters the course of a number of lives, and while that premise sounds familiar, the story isn’t about Harley Quinn.
At first, The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage comes across like a classic, hardboiled detective series, but the series opens with an existential twist: For reasons the Question doesn’t understand, he’s been living and dying in Hub City, seemingly trapped in a loop of reincarnation that spans from the Old West into the 1930s.
When Gizmodo spoke with Lemire recently about what to expect from his new projects and his personal thoughts about the characters, he opened up about having mixed feelings about the chaotic clown and a deep respect for The Question comics that’s influenced a lot of his work. These books aren’t just passion projects, Lemire explained, they’re books meant to challenge readers to think a bit deeper about these characters.
Gizmodo: When we think about the characters in Batman’s orbit who really define the darkness that follows him, the Joker obviously comes to mind, and Killer Smile happens to come at a time when we’re having conversations about the Joker because there are so many incarnations of the character bouncing around in the spotlight right now - Jared Leto, Joaquin Phoenix, the Batman Who Laughs, you get what I’m talking about.
Lemire: Yeah, yeah.
Gizmodo: What is it that makes Killer Smile’s take on a Joker a story that needs to be told right now?
Jeff Lemire: Over the course of working together on things like Green Arrow and Old Man Logan over at Marvel, Andrea [Sorrentino] really developed a great chemistry and shared visual language. We’re always looking for new challenges, and Andrea was the one who suggested that we do a Joker project. I think he really tends to gravitate towards darker stories with a lot of psychological and dramatic underpinnings, so the Joker’s right up his alley.
Like with Batman, who’s such an icon, I think the Joker’s so open to interpretation and we’ve seen just how many different takes different artists and writers and actors have been able to put on these characters. What I got drawn into was the idea of a more grounded, real-world Joker, which is a terrifying concept on its own. He’s not as cartoonish and over-the-top as you’re used to seeing him here, but there’s still an insanity and desire for chaos in him that lashes out.
I wanted to tell an intimate story about how the Joker’s evil is something that can devastate a normal family or a relationship as much as it devastates society as a whole. That the idea that really grabbed me, that sense of terror that would come from letting something like the Joker into your family. As someone who has a family myself, that kind of chaos and darkness infecting my personal space is the scariest thing I can think of, and so I started there.
Gizmodo: It’s interesting that Killer Smile’s solicit text explicitly says that this isn’t a story about the Joker and Harley, but this is a story about the Joker seeing one of the people responsible for treating him at Arkham as his adversary. Can you go into who this new character is?
Lemire: Yeah, he’s a new character called Dr. Ben Arnell that Andrea and I created for the series, and he’s this bright, brilliant, young mental health professional who’s been tasked with trying to make some sense of the Joker. This is a trope we’ve seen in other Joker stories, with Harley being the most obvious example, but we wanted to take this trope and do something completely unexpected with it. Ben’s the reader’s gateway back into Arkham and to Gotham City and how we get to explore these new depths of the Joker’s mind.
Gizmodo: Arkham changes so drastically from one story to the next as different creative teams use it for their stories, and it takes on a life of its own. How much, if any, of Killer Smile’s story is going to explore the ways in which Arkham failed the Joker?
Lemire: You know there have been a lot of great Arkham stories, but that wasn’t really our goal. Obviously, Arkham is one of the main settings of the book just because of [the] conceit of the story, but Killer Smile’s really a story about the Joker as a person, not about Arkham’s influence on him or vice versa. If anything, the heart of the story takes place in the outskirts of Gotham in the suburbs with Ben’s family, and you see what pieces of Arkham he brings back with him.
Gizmodo: The Joker’s obviously a beloved character, but his popularity has lead to the character being picked apart and dissected from so many perspectives over the years, that there are times when you can’t help but wonder what new ground can broken with him.
Gizmodo: Oftentimes when people are talking about new series, the conversations focus on how badly people on the creative teams have wanted to tell stories with particular characters that they’ve always loved. That’s interesting, but I’m curious to hear from you—aside from you and Andrea’s wanting to play around with the Joker, what potential do you think the character has to be the centrepiece in fascinating, riveting stories that haven’t been told before?
Lemire: To be honest, the Joker’s never been a character that I’ve exactly had a deep connection with or a longstanding craving to write a story about, but I love telling stories with Andrea that illustrate the psychological landscape of the character’s we’re focusing on. And so, when the Joker came out, the idea of exploring the metaphorical, surreal, and psychological landscape that a Joker story could exist in, that was the starting point that got me excited.
I didn’t want to be too heavy-handed or one-to-one with what happens in our story being a reflection of the real world today, but there are elements of chaos and fear in Killer Smile that I think are running rampant right now in our society, politically and socially.
Gizmodo: Say more about what it is about the Joker that you think makes people project onto him.
Lemire: I think a lot of times people take a character like the Joker and, who’s already dark, and project a lot of their own darkness onto him and romanticize his actions, which has always bothered me. I want to use Ben, who has a light with him that shines on the Joker and exposes new things about him for readers to think about.
The bigger idea of finding the balance between darkness and light in people was more interesting to me than something like trying to retell The Killing Joke.
Gizmodo: You said that Ben acts as a kind of proxy for the reader in this story, let’s say a diehard Joker fan picks up Killer Smile—is this story going to challenge that person’s conceptions of the character and their relationship with him?
Lemire: You know, I think so. The Joker isn’t inherently a hero or an antihero at all. He’s the incarnation of evil, and I’ve always had a bit of an issue with people who romanticize him even though that’s obviously the case. Killer Smile’s a story about just how dark the Joker really is and how inviting him into your life is dangerous and yeah, we want people to feel like none of their ideas about who he is really capture the full gravity of what he is.
Gizmodo: Let’s pivot to The Question... why the Question?
Lemire: [laughing] This goes back to what you mentioned earlier about writers having characters they’ve always wanted to work on. For me, it’s the Question. At last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Dan DiDio and I were talking about pie in the sky dream projects, and immediately I said the Question with Denys Cowan because Denys’ and Denny O’Neil’s run on The Question was definitive and so far ahead of its time. They had such a singular voice they channeled into the character, and it just spoke to me.
When I got to do Green Arrow, I had to reinvent the character a little bit and I started thinking of what kinds of stories I could look to as an influence for my run, and I went back to that Question run as a touchstone to do a grounded, street-level superhero story with a darker edge.
As much as I loved Denys’ run, we’re not exactly trying to continue that story with this series because it isn’t my place to do that, but I did want to remix and revisit some of the ideas at work there in a way that made them feel even more relevant in 2019. There’s a lot of that same ambition to tell a story with a political edge and social relevance, but it’s also a really just a great detective story.
Gizmodo: You’ve got this grounded take on a character, but the premise of the series is rather existential and heady. How do you go about really balancing those two energies in a book like this?
Lemire:: That’s what I’ve always loved about the Question: Going all the way back to the Steve Ditko version, you have this man who’s so connected to his society, but at its heart, the stories were always existential and about searching for identity. There’s so much angst in society right now that stems from people not being able to see things from one another’s perspectives, and so a character like the Question can almost start off as a cipher who goes on a journey that brings shades of grey into his world as his story unfolds.
Gizmodo: It wasn’t obvious at first which Question your series would follow, and now I’m curious, will we see any of Renee Montoya in this series?
Lemire: This is definitely a Vic Sage story and always was from the jump. I wanted to go back to what Denny and Denys did, and I always felt like Renee Montoya really belongs to Greg Rucka and he understands her voice so, so well. I love his stories with Renee as the Question and didn’t want to step on any toes.
Joker: Killer Smile from Lemire and Sorrentino hits store October 31, and The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage from Lemire, Cowan, and Sienkiewicz will be available on November 21.