This comic is ugly, no question about it. It's not ugly in the grotesque way a Garth Ennis comic can be ugly. It's not "Preacher" or "The Boys" with death and sodomy and blood and guts. It's 1970s Hollywood movie ugly, when everyone was a little less attractive, less polished, and the themes were right there on the surface. I happen to like 1970s movie ugly, but writer Arvid Nelson and artist Alex Sanchez don't quite pull it off well enough for me to recommend it. I appreciate what they do in "Joker's Asylum: The Joker" #1, and I'm glad they didn't give us another bland, generic Batman story, but this comic is ultimately a near miss -- a clever idea that's too simple and, yes, too ugly, to succeed.
Alex Sanchez has a strange style in this issue. His characters look photo-referenced with their stiff poses and blank stares, but his line is so scratchy and expressionistic that any sense of realism is lost in the chaotic squiggles of ink. It's a style that could work for a Joker comic that aspires to terrify, but I don't think it quite works here. It's too much and at the same time its inconsistently employed. Some characters look radically disfigured -- like game show host Gaylord Spiceland -- when they aren't supposed to, and one of the contestants, Marty, has facial features that slide around his face from panel to panel. And Sanchez's lumpen, wrinkled Batman is an aberration. I can see that perhaps this whole story is from the Joker's point of view, and everything is distorted accordingly -- visually, as well as morally -- but Sanchez seems to walk a line between faux-realism on one side and sketchy abstraction on the other, and he's walking that line too tightly to make either style work for him. Someone like Bill Sienkiewicz or Ashley Wood or Dave McKean can pull it off by pushing strongly in one direction and then another, but Sanchez's work here looks like the love child of Guy Davis and Alex Maleev trying to draw with the lights off. That might be an interesting blend in theory, but it just turns this comic into something unnecessarily sloppy.
The story is ugly too, in that morally reprehensible way the Joker is particularly good at (when well written, and Nelson does a nice job writing him as a demented and menacing monstrosity). The basics of the story are this: the Joker, in his cell at Arkham, narrates a story from his past (and this kind of framing device will presumably be used in all the "Joker's Asylum" books coming out just in time for the Joker's Big Day in the Cineplex). This particular tale is about the time the Joker held a game show audience hostage and terrorized the contestants. Only, the joke's on the producers of the show, who heartlessly care more about ratings then human dignity. Or is the joke on the television audience, for tuning in to such suffering? Or is the joke on the reader, for reading a comic about such torture and pain? Who's the real menace? Who's the real bad guy?
That's all the story is, really. It's a neat twist, I suppose, just because the Joker's involved. It's certainly nothing new to imply that television producers care about ratings more than human dignity. We live in the age of reality television, after all. To imply that television producers are caring, compassionate humans would be far more of a shocking twist. But to see the Joker act like a maniac while not really being the one to inflict the damage -- that's not such a bad story. Except it's not quite enough to sustain 22 pages, especially with artwork that's erratic and, yes, ugly.
I like that Nelson and Sanchez attempted to be a bit ambitious here, and I applaud their efforts to avoid the same old Batman/Joker face-off. But they both needed to go further than they did here -- deeper into the expressionism, farther into the deranged. I hope they're given the opportunity.