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DC Comics' Batman editor Ben Abernathy on Gotham's 'dangerous' future in Joker War and beyond
We're two issues into the latest epic clash between the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime, and the war has only just begun. Joker War, the summer event that's currently rocking Gotham City in the pages of Batman courtesy of writer James Tynion IV and artist Jorge Jimenez, has already established a terrifying new status quo for the Dark Knight's home turf, and The Joker's plan shows no signs of slowing down.
Over the course of Batman #95 and this week's Batman #96, we saw how The Joker managed to seize near-complete control of not just Gotham City, but virtually every resource Batman had that's not already attached to his body. All the wonderful toys in the Wayne Enterprises stores have been raided, Batman is without his most powerful weapons and most of his key allies, and the book reads like a relentless assault on everything Bruce Wayne holds dear, not just physically but psychologically. All that, and there are still four more issues to go in the event.
This week, as preview art arrives for next month's Batman #98 (in the gallery below), SYFY WIRE sat down with Batman Group Editor Ben Abernathy to talk about what Batman's facing next, how Joker War balancing horror with superhero action, what Gotham will look like after this battle, and more.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Batman #96**
When we leave Batman in the most recent Joker War issue, to say he's in bad shape is something of an understatement. The new mixture of Joker toxin Punchline pumped him full of earlier in the event is still coursing through his body, giving him horrific hallucinations of the death of Alfred Pennyworth and his parents all over again. As Batman tries to pull himself together and focus on the task at hand, Gotham City suffers in his absence amid a massive alliance of gang's uniting under Joker's cause, and the rise of a new breed of vigilante fed up with cops and superheroes who can't seem to solve the problem. As Abernathy explained, that sense of relentless darkness won't be letting up anytime soon.
"As Batman #98 opens things are really bad in Gotham. They've not been this bad in a long time," Abernathy said of next month's chapter in the saga. "The Bat-family is scattered, Punchline and The Joker are running the city essentially, the police are on their heels. Joker War is in full swing."
The grand scale of Joker War thus far — which has included everything from Joker hijacking Batman's vehicles to many of Gotham's most famous rogues going underground to wait out the storm — has meant that Tynion and Jimenez have had a lot of room to play with the new power vacuum. It's in that environment that the new vigilante known as Clownhunter, a disturbed young man with a Batarang tied to a baseball bat, emerged to start doing some real damage in issue #96. According to Abernathy, we're about to see a lot more of him.
"As Joker War went on and Batman was a no-show, Clownhunter decided that he needed to protect his own neighborhood, that waiting for basically a knight in shining armor to show up and save the day was unrealistic. And so Clownhunter is a really fascinating character that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg with in Batman," he said. "We start to get a sense of who he is and what he represents. But the first extended story we'll see with Clownhunter is the Joker War Zone book that comes out in September. And then we have plans for Clownhunter beyond that'll reflect this sort of new Gotham that both Clownhunter and Punchline are the flip side of the coin of this evolving Gotham that Batman will have to deal with and cope with."
Joker War is of course being billed as a kind of definitive confrontation between Batman and his arch-nemesis, but as Tynion himself has explained, a large part of his mission statement for his overall Batman run has been to infuse a lot of new-ness into Gotham City. For Joker War specifically, that meant giving Joker a family, and that began with his new sidekick Punchline. If it was poorly executed, giving Mr. J another attractive young female partner who's just as disturbed as he is might have read just like a carbon copy of Harley Quinn, but the story has laid quite a bit of groundwork in terms of setting the two characters apart, something that will continue into their next clash later in the saga.
"James, in his breakdown of the character, had a really good sense of who she was early on, what her motivations were, how she became Punchline. And we see that in her origin in the Joker 80th Anniversary Special," Abernathy said. "So, we had a sense of her origin and how different it was from Harley's. And I think in Batman #98, once people read that as we have our 'round two' fight between Harley and Punchline — which Punchline won the first one — they literally speak to the differences in their relationships with the Joker and their differences.
"I don't think we've announced anything coming, but Punchline is definitely a character that is now part of the Batman mythos," he added. "And we'll be seeing a lot of her in the coming months and years."
Batman's predicament as he's seemingly surrounded by new threats without any allies around is only exacerbated by the persistent toxins working through his system. Tragically, one of the ways the toxins manifest for him is the presence of his now-dead butler and father figure, Alfred Pennyworth, as a voice in his head. For Abernathy, integrating Alfred's voice back into the narrative after his death was something he admitted to being unsure about at first, but he was convinced when he saw the ways it will pay off in issues to come.
"In Batman #96, he admits he's having a bit of a psychotic break. He even says, 'You're not real, but I can deal with that later.' And then basically just rolls within it," Abernathy said. "[At first] He thinks it's Alfred over the comms and then later it'll get more graphic for him as he's going through this Joker toxin. But whether it's this level of his subconscious that is telling him what he needs to hear, or some sort of just deeper primal level of Bruce Wayne's psyche that is further preparing him for what's to come ... I think we handled it really well.
"In #98, we'll see a sequence that is really powerful and has Bruce dealing with, or at least facing up to the grief, that he's largely buried after the death of Alfred. And I will not lie, it brought a tear to my eye when I read it in the script and then Jorge's execution and his storytelling. There's a scene, which I don't want to spoil to any readers, but just how [Jorge's] emotive storytelling is powerful and just really, really just nails that entire sequence that I think lands all of it."
Alfred's return — however imagined his presence might be — lends a sense of poetic tragedy to Joker War even beyond the main events of the story, as Bruce is reminded of what he'd been striving for, and how he's perhaps lost his way in the time since Alfred's death. But of course, there's a darker side to his Joker toxin hallucinations, one which manifests in the terrifying conclusion to Batman #96. In the final pages of the issues, Batman does his best to confront Joker in the Monarch theater where he went with his parents just before they were murdered, and finds that Joker has filled the seats with corpses from throughout his murderous history in Gotham. It's one giant manifestation of Batman's failures, and it's made all the more horrifying when the corpses begin to stand up and turn to face him. While Batman isn't a horror comic, Abernathy sees the integration of Gotham City's darkest elements as a key part of Tynion's particular approach to the book.
"James' approach to Batman is that there is an element that is a horror book, that it is a horror book as much as it is a superhero book and an action book," Abernathy explained. "The trauma that Bruce suffered as a child and what he's [gone] through, and basically these monstrous and murderous humans that he faces, like the Jokers of the world, are horrific. And while the main title doesn't always lean into horror themes or elements that directly, that was something that was a conscious effort on our part to amplify that a bit."
Over the next few weeks, readers will see the next chapters of Joker War unfold, and they will likely find that Batman's life isn't getting any easier. This particular psychological attack from The Clown Prince of Crime has left Bruce Wayne not just searching for the upper hand in battle, but searching for a part of himself that he seems to have lost track of. It's a massive story full of new characters and old characters behaving in thrilling and often frightening new ways, but it's also the kind of story that's working to dig deep to change the face of not just Batman, but Gotham City. It's that drive, that sense of building something new, that will carry over into Batman even after this event, and not necessarily in a way that makes things better for Bruce Wayne.
"Without giving too much away, I think what we're going to be seeing is a new Gotham. It's not the Gotham that Bruce Wayne set out to make at Batman #86 [at the beginning of Tynion's run] or that Batman was hoping to build toward with that mysterious suit that we saw in Batman #95. That was bright and shiny and colorful. Gotham post-Joker War is going to be a really dangerous city," Abernathy said. "Joker War's going to open up some deep wounds within the city and its population. And what's to come in the final arc of this year and into next year, we're going to see every sort of dangerous evolution of what the impact of these city takeovers by madmen and these mass murderers [is].Things are changing. They're changing for the better, but in some ways they're changing for the worse as well. Gotham City, is going to be a dangerous place to live in the coming months and years."
Batman #97 arrives August 18, followed by Batman #98 on September 1.