Brian Truitt, USA TODAY
The Joker's back after a year-long absence, and the Batman villain is returning with a visage and master plan more grotesque than ever before.
With his stark white face and ghoulish smile, the Joker has always been fear-inducing. But his twisted new visage? Well, that's downright horrific.
The Clown Prince of Crime is back in the comics world after being absent for a year - after having the skin of his face cut off - to torment the Dark Knight yet again in the pages of DC Comics' Batman series.
He has a major ax to grind this time, however, and not just with Batman. He has crafted a master plan to take out Batgirl, Nightwing and all the rest of the Bat-clan in a crossover arc, with Catwoman, Suicide Squad and other DC series, called "Death of the Family" - a play on the "Death in the Family" story line from the 1980s that saw comic fans vote for the death of the Robin of the time, Jason Todd, at the hands of the Joker.
Much of the story, which begins in Batman Issue 13 (out Oct. 10), is a nod to the long history of the dynamic between the hero and his archenemy, a symbiotic relationship that at times has been almost co-dependent. It will feature the Joker's first encounter in a while with his old foe, but also will have him face Batgirl - whom the Joker shot through the spine and crippled in Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke - and Todd, now resurrected and going by the name Red Hood.
"The Joker is coming and saying, 'Remember all these awesome times we had together,' which are obviously not awesome at all for Batman, but in the Joker's mind are these incredibly loving and terrific encounters over the years," says Batman writer Scott Snyder.
In his own oddball way, the Joker sees Batman as the ruler of Gotham and himself as the court jester - Snyder is including Peter Pan and fairy-tale imagery as the Joker shows his messed-up adoration.
"He believes he often brings the worst news of Batman's own heart to him in the form of these terrible nightmares he has to fight," the writer says. "If that's his purpose, then he sees this family in a lot of ways as interlopers and people who make his idol, his Bat-king, weak."
So, the Joker is just as demented as ever at his core - "just the window dressing is a little bit different" this time around, says artist Greg Capullo, who designed the villain's Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque look.
The psycho has managed to reattach his face to his head using a makeshift variety of hooks and belts going around his ears and into his mouth and neck, adding to his already animated nature.
"Maybe Batman clocks him or something and a hook busts loose," Capullo says. "One side of the face is hanging while the other is up in the twisted maniacal grin that we are all familiar with the Joker."
DC's Batman series is the most subscribed-to and best-selling title at Jetpack Comics in Rochester, N.H., and its owner, Ralph DiBernardo, and his customers have been eagerly awaiting the Joker's return.
"We all have crazy thoughts at times. We just don't act them out, so watching a character that does is intriguing," DiBernardo says."Clowns are supposed to be fun and friendly, but then you get a blast of acid in the face from their boutonniere. The real question is, like the chicken and the egg, did the Joker spawn people's fear of clowns or did coulrophobia (fear of clowns) start after the Joker's introduction in comic books? I'd like to believe it was the latter."
While Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Oscar winner Heath Ledger have all brought the Joker to life on the screen and helped him become one of pop culture's most infamous baddies, in comics the villain has been a thorn in Batman's side since 1940.
However, it has been many years since he has played a central role in a really big comic-book story, Snyder says. "He's intimidating because there are so many seminal stories from years before that really are some of the greatest Batman stories ever."
His goal for "Death of the Family" is to include "everything we would ever want to do with the character," the writer says.
"Let's make this Joker story the biggest, baddest, most terrifying thing we could possibly do so that no one wants to use the character again in this way for another 20 years."