“A bullet coming at you. Eyes that say he’s more than a man, eyes that say he knows you. No…you know what he is. Tell yourself the truth. He’s just a man who fell into a vat of chemical waste. He’s just a man like you, made of bone and flesh and blood.” – Batman
Batman: Death Of The Family, written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Greg Capullo, is one of the most visceral Batman stories of all time. It involves the return of The Joker, who’s been away for a year and has set his sights on destroying the people closest to The Dark Knight. Previously, Joker had cut off his face and disappeared, claiming he would be reborn. The relationship between Batman and Joker is given new depth, and the Clown Prince of Crime is at his most deranged and unpredictable.
The graphic novel begins with Commissioner Gordon coordinating an investigation at the GCPD. Then, the lights go out and Joker arrives, killing all of Gordon’s men and retrieving his face. When Batman discovers Joker is back he quickly alerts the rest of the family.
The local news shows a hostage held by Joker and he informs Gotham that Mayor Hady is going to die at midnight. Batman works out Joker is restaging his old crimes and sets out to protect the Mayor. But instead of killing the Mayor, Joker poisons everyone else in the building with a toxin that makes them frown.
Batman is drawn back Aces Chemicals, where he and Joker met for the first time. Dressed in his old Red Hood clothes, Joker claims he’s come back to make Batman stronger. Batman deduces it’s Harley Quinn in disguise, but is locked inside a chemical vat. Meanwhile, Joker ambushes Alfred at Wayne Manor and abducts him.
After escaping from Ace Chemicals, Bruce confronts Joker at Gotham Reservoir and demands to know where Alfred is. Joker reveals he knows the identity of everyone in The Dark Knight’s inner circle and that in three days all of them will be dead.
“Don’t pretend. Not here, not to me, your faithful court jester. Because, yes, it’s the jester’s job to entertain, but he often has another job too. A deeper job. And that’s to deliver bad news to the king. The worst news of the kingdom. The fleet has holes. The army’s turned pacifist! The children’s hands have rotted off and they can’t clap for the fairies. And that’s all I’ve ever tried to do for you, Batsss. Bring you the worst news of your own heart so you might survive it. Laugh at it even and become strong.” – The Joker
Bruce is infected with Joker toxin and he wakes up in the Bat Cave, surrounded by Nightwing, Robin, Red Robin, Red Hood and Batgirl. All of them want answers and are angry with him for not telling them that Alfred had been kidnapped. Bruce tells them he wants to protect them and says he’ll fight Joker alone.
Joker lures Batman to Arkham Asylum, which has been turned into a castle to honour ‘The Bat King.’ Bruce is forced to fight his way through the Asylum until he reaches the ‘throne room’ where Joker is waiting for him with Penguin, Riddler and Two-Face. Joker tells Batman he’s captured all the family and if he wants to save them, he’ll have to sit on his ‘throne,’ which turns out to be an electric chair. Batman sits down and he’s electrocuted until he passes out
When he wakes up, Bruce is sitting at a table with Dick, Jason, Tim, Damian and Barbara. Their faces are covered in bandages and Joker orders a toxin-infected Alfred to serve dinner. Each dish is opened to show a severed face. Before Joker can set the family on fire, Batman uses an explosive to destroy the ceiling and river water douses the flames.
Bruce checks on the family and it’s revealed their faces were never cut off. While Batman sets off to confront Joker, the family are poisoned with Joker venom, forcing them to fight each other.
Batman and Joker engage in a final battle near a subterranean waterfall, which ends with Joker hanging from the edge. The Dark Knight catches him and Joker laughs that he’ll never let him go because Batman loves their game too much. Batman counters by saying he’s not like Joker anymore, that he chooses his family and he knows who the Joker really is. Before Batman can whisper his real name, Joker breaks free and falls into the darkness.
“He looked right at the card, Alfred, and right at me. But he didn’t see me. He didn’t see me at all. It was then that I knew that he didn’t care who I was beneath the mask, and never would. Knew that he was incapable of ever broaching the subject of Bruce Wayne. It would ruin his fun.” – Batman
Days later, Bruce is taking care of a recovered Alfred. They have a conversation about Joker’s actions and what he did to the family. Bruce expects everyone to meet up and talk, but no one can bring themselves to do it, suggesting Joker has succeeded in driving a rift between Batman and his loved ones.
Psychology is a major theme in the story, showcasing the symbiotic relationship between Batman and Joker. The death of the family was metaphorical, a grand joke designed to isolate Batman from his closest allies.
Batman’s representation as a king and Joker being his court jester is an intriguing one. Snyder expands the metaphor by presenting Gotham as Batman’s kingdom and his enemies being part of his royal court to make him stronger.
Snyder’s Joker is monstrous and unpredictable, serving as an otherworldly force meant to push The Caped Crusader to his limits. He’s presented as being in love with Batman, worshipping him to the point of obsession.
Capullo’s art is gritty and disturbing, especially when it comes to drawing Joker. Over the course of the story, Joker’s severed face ‘mask’ decays. Towards the end it’s taken on a sickly yellow colour. It’s a subtle piece of storytelling that’s achieved through Capullo’s artistic skills.
Snyder never holds back with Batman: Death Of The Family. There’s severed faces, two-headed lions, burning horses and violence galore. It’s an essential story for any Batman fan and can be bought here.