There will be some minor spoilers over themes from this issue.
This entire arc has been a giant roller coaster ride. I've voiced my complaints that the main story felt a little compromised by Joker's appearance in the tie in books. Some of those stories were really good but this is the main event. Joker has targeted the Bat Family. Batman has faced Joker many times before and has fought against tremendous threats but it's this attack, so close to home, that really matters.
Greg Capullo's art fits perfectly with the story. Capullo manages to capture the essence of the insanity, desperation and scope of his attack against the Family. When you see the two-page spread (on pages 2 and 3), you heart begins to sink. The idea of turning the page to discover what the fate of each character might be and what is under the serving domes is almost sickening. Joker has become dark and twisted in ways we don't often see. The visuals of his rotting face along with the extreme actions he's willing to take raises the stakes of the story. Even thought Batman is wearing a cowl, Capullo even manages to show the expression of deep and utter remorse the moments before Joker reveals the fate of Alfred. The look of shock and terror on the faces of the Family is also intense when Joker shows what's being served (actually their full expression is told in their eyes). You can see the Batman is truly frightened over what has happened to his family. When he finds out, that terror quickly evolves into pure hatred.
I hate nothing more on this earth than you, Joker. NOTHING.
Joker lays his cards all out on the table. He makes it clear to the others that Batman does care about him. Why has Batman allowed Joker to live after he commits horrid crime after horrid crime? He's teased the Family with the possibility that he managed to enter the Batcave and Batman never warned them. This is something that Batman kept from them all these years. He's kept this a secret, even if he believes Joker didn't succeed in making it to the Cave. That's the main focus of the story. Joker is driving a wedge between Batman and his Family.
Scott Snyder does answer a lot of questions in this issue. Often writers will dance around certain themes or simply leave some elements a mystery rather than commit to a final answer. For years, readers have wondered whether or not Joker knows Batman's identity. The argument has been he wouldn't care but there has often been moments and circumstances that would suggest he has to know. Snyder finally gives us a definitive answer.
Snyder also addresses why Batman has never permanently dealt with Joker. It's been a deadly game of cat and mouse with the citizens of Gotham City suffering the consequences. Batman would just lock Joker up and he'd escape to terrorize or kill countless innocents.
The encounter between Batman and Joker is one that will not and should not be forgotten. Joker's idea has been about removing their false faces to show what's underneath. He wants to get beneath the surface to show how much they mean to each other. Batman isn't a man of many words. What we get is a scene where we see how much they truly know about each other. Joker says he knows who Batman really is and what makes him tick. Batman can almost say the same thing.
How can this story end? Because it's comic books, it's easy to believe and assume that Batman will be triumphant. Let's just say, that may not be the case. Joker has been extremely precise in the intricate level of details in his plan. This will not be just another Batman vs. Joker story. There will be definite repercussions.
I'll admit, I had to read this a couple times. At first I found myself so caught up in the events that even though I was cringing with each turn of the page, I kept moving forward to devour the next scene. It's not a fault of the story but you do have to think about the outcome carefully. It is on a deeper and more psychological level. Chances are, there will be readers that are not satisfied with how it ends. If anything, this story may suffer from the hype among the readers themselves. With all the theories and speculation, it's possible the point and implications that will surely result may be lost among them.
Focusing on just the story told in the pages of BATMAN, this is exactly the story I'd want with Batman and Joker. Joker has done some horrible things in the past but he plays on a different level compared to villains that are simply willing to kill. There have been different 'versions' of the Joker in past stories but he can have a psychological finesse when it comes to really dealing with his enemies. There are times he'll go with the simple kill, using his deadly hand buzzer or Joker Venom. With the way he attacked Batman and the Family, you can see this was a personal attack for him. It wasn't about committing a crime or seeking revenge against another competing villain. We get to get inside Joker's mind a little and it's a helluva scary place. This story shows us what both Joker and Batman are about. It shows how well Joker knows Batman and how well Batman knows Joker. It's not just about Batman beating Joker with his fists. With all his skills and training, this was a fight that Batman wasn't quite ready for. It definitely wasn't one the Family was ready for.
The confrontation between Joker and the Bat Family may be over but they won't be the same after this. We always expect the hero to win but could it be possible that Joker actually wins here?
Note: If you want to see more on the insight behind this issue, we'll have an interview with Snyder posted here tomorrow.