Writer: Kevin Smith
Artist: Walt Flanagan
Collects: Batman: Cacophony #1-3 (2009)
Published: DC, 2009; $19.99 (HC), $14.99 (TPB)
Kevin Smith would probably be the first to tell you that his comics are just as controversial and divisive as his movies. Well, maybe not the comics themselves – more like the pace at which he writes them (if, indeed, he bothers to finish writing them at all; his first issue of Daredevil: The Target, published in late 2002, remains the only issue of that miniseries published to date). Before Batman: Cacophony, Smith hadn’t written a comic book for either Marvel or DC in three or four years, having been effectively booed out of the industry by impatient and hyper-critical fanboys. He asked for that kind of reaction, though, and he owns up to it in the introduction to Cacophony. I respect him for that, personally, although I can’t help but wonder if his words will fall on deaf ears. The naysayers seem to have already made up their minds on Smith’s comics work, and I doubt many of them are exactly clamoring to read anything new by him.
Walt Flanagan, on the other hand, is a virtual unknown in the comics industry (although fans of Kevin Smith’s movies may be more familiar with him, by way of his incredibly fast dog). The two are longtime friends; Smith credits Flanagan with introducing him to comics in the first place, and the two actually run a New Jersey comic book store together. Smith makes no secret of the fact that Flanagan got the job because of their friendship, and that he wouldn’t have even entertained the thought of working with anyone else. I doubt statements like that are going to get him back into comic fandom’s good graces anytime soon, but again, I appreciate the honesty.
I start by writing about the personalities behind Cacophony, rather than diving straight into the actual meat of the comic, because it’s obvious that Smith expects the reader to go into the book with all of these things in mind. In fact, I’d argue it’s the mentality he wants you to have as you read the book. Why else would he ruminate on his shortcomings in the book’s introduction? Why else would he preface his story by explaining that it’s not the best Batman story he can write, nor the best one that Flanagan can draw – that the series they’re currently working on together, Batman: The Widening Gyre, will be their definitive work on the character?
To my mind, there can be only one answer: by going out of his way to dampen the reader’s expectations before the story has even begun, Smith is challenging the reader to proceed with an extremely close and discriminating eye. In doing so, however, he seems confident that his story will hold up to that discrimination and surpass the reader’s expectations. Maybe I’m simply giving him too much credit, but intentionally or not, Smith’s belittling of himself and the story is a rhetorical device that clearly works: I enjoyed Cacophony quite a bit, despite going into it fairly confident that I would hate it.
So, with all of that said…I imagine it’s well past time to talk about the comic itself. Cacophony is a Joker story in the same sense that The Killing Joke and The Man Who Laughs are Joker stories – it explores the relationship between Batman and the Joker from an angle that’s just different enough from previous stories to make it something unique and interesting. Of course, Kevin Smith “unique” is different than, say, Alan Moore “unique,” and as anyone who’s seen one of Smith’s movies might expect, a lot of emphasis in Cacophony is placed on humorous dialogue and frequent references to pop culture. There are times when Smith takes his signature potty humor a bit too far, especially in the first issue, but for the most part he reigns in his nastier side and does a pretty amusing job.
The overall arc of the story is fairly by-the-numbers, at least until the end. The Joker wants revenge on Maxie Zeus, a fellow criminal who has synthesized Joker Venom into a drug called “chuckles” – revenge, of course, being a euphemism for causing widespread death and destruction throughout Gotham City. Amidst the chaos appears Onomatopoeia, a villain who first appeared in Smith’s early-2000s run on Green Arrow and whose shtick is that he verbally imitates the sounds that occur around him (“Boom,” “Kapow,” etc.). The premise behind the character is probably less interesting than it initially sounds, but it’s fairly effective at its purpose: establishing him as a complete lunatic. Also working in the book’s favor are several integral appearances by Deadshot, a character I’ve had a soft spot for ever since I first read him in Steve Englehart’s Batman: Strange Apparitions. Less effective is an early encounter between Batman and Zsasz, a villain I’ve never much cared for and whose presence here doesn’t add anything worthwhile to the story other than a few good-looking action pages.
To briefly segue into the art, then, I have to say that I found it to be a pleasant surprise. For someone who’s drawn only a handful of comic books before, none of them involving major superheroes, Flanagan is quite good. He’s not perfect by any means – he has occasional problems drawing Batman’s mouth, and I’m not sure he ever quite settles on the size of the Joker’s chin – but he really does improve as the book goes on, and by the end his faces tell the story perhaps even better than Smith’s words do.
By far the most interesting part of Cacophony is the ending, when Batman and the Joker manage to have an actual, rational conversation with each other. This is made possible by the fact that the Joker has just awoken in the hospital from a five-month coma; accordingly, he’s been restrained and pumped full of anti-psychotics. While I can take or leave certain elements of Cacophony (like the aforementioned fight with Zsasz), this scene pushes the comic into “must-read” territory for me. Without spoiling too much, the crux of their conversation is essentially that the Joker doesn’t hate Batman because he’s crazy – he’s crazy because he hates Batman. This of course takes us back to an argument I’ve gotten rather sick of hearing over the last few years: that Batman’s very existence is what causes such a prolific number of freaks to terrorize Gotham, as opposed to Batman simply being the intercessor between them and the realization of their villainous plots. But Smith addresses the issue in a truly engaging way, one that I’ve never seen before, and in doing so I think he’s finally brought it to something of a peaceful rest.
I’ve read reviews of Cacophony on a variety of other sites which criticize Smith for being “out of touch,” primarily because his (admittedly old-school) portrayal of the Joker contradicts with how Grant Morrison was writing the character in other Batman comics at the time. This is a positively ludicrous argument, in my opinion, and represents exactly the kind of slavish devotion to plot minutiae (as opposed to good story-telling) that I think drove Smith away from mainstream comics in the first place. Cacophony makes no effort to tie itself down to a specific time in DC continuity, and as such it seems unfair to judge it not on its own merits, but on whether it adheres to the arbitrary expectations imposed on it by nitpickers and continuity junkies. This story is timeless, to use a rather clichéd term, in the sense that it’s accessible to just about anyone – fans of Batman, fans of the Joker, even fans of Kevin Smith. It breaks free of the most commonly held expectations of comic book fanboys, and I think that’s a big part of why I like it so much.
The collected edition of Cacophony is padded out with a cover gallery and the original script for the final issue. The script doesn’t really add any new insight to the story or even the creative process itself, so I don’t see much reason for its inclusion (other than DC wanting to boost the page count and, therefore, the price of the book). Furthermore, the script isn’t even actually complete; Smith writes that there was originally a page in which the Joker’s dialogue was so off-color, it wasn’t fit for print. Personally, I would have liked to see just that one page as opposed to what basically amounts to a text-only reprint of the last third of the book. I don’t like it when publishers attempt to artificially lengthen collections – it strikes me as a tacky money-grab, and if not for that, I probably would have rated Cacophony half a point higher. But even so I think it’s well worth reading, especially for people interested in a slightly different take on the Batman/Joker relationship.
Rating: 4 out of 5