Punchline is turning ordinary kids in the DC Universe into the Joker’s henchmen… and worst of all, social media’s doing the work for her.
Spoilers below for Punchline #1!
The Joker is building his biggest army of henchmen yet through one of the world’s most popular websites. Batman’s nemesis has a motivation that shifts from story to story: sometimes it’s chaos, sometimes it’s sadistic laughs, sometimes it’s to prove a point and make the Dark Knight suffer for it. But now the Clown Prince of Crime has an even more sinister core ambition: to make other people like himself. In Punchline #1, the Joker’s new girlfriend reveals her method for recruiting millions to the Joker’s cause: the YouTube algorithm.
Punchline #1 is a one-shot special written by James Tynion IV and Sam Johns with art by Mirka Andolfo, color by Romulo Fajardo Jr., and letters by Gabriela Downie. The issue reveals the origin of Punchline herself, aka Alexis Kaye, who became DC’s breakout character of 2020 when she replaced Harley Quinn as the Joker’s loyal sidekick. The character had been teased out before she even properly appeared in a Batman story: she was a bitter college student who became obsessed with the Joker to get a reaction out of people. She established herself as a true believer in the Joker’s philosophy, contrasting from Harley who only stuck with the killer out of romantic love.
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This story digs further into Punchline’s history through the framing device of erstwhile Batman sidekick Harper Row, aka Bluebird. While Punchline is on trial as the Joker’s accomplice, Row sits in on her trial, acting as support for expert witness Leslie Thompkins. While Harper senses that Punchline’s “innocent victim” act is untrustworthy, her little brother Cullen is the one who gets to know the clownish clinger-on. Cullen never sought out or investigated for information on Punchline; instead, he meets her on her terms when her online content is pushed in front of him.
When Harper scolds Cullen for watching Punchline’s deceptive cry for help on a video-sharing platform, Cullen’s response is, “I just wanted to watch clips of kids falling down. It’s all up to the algorithm.” Later, Cullen gets into an online chat discussion about her popular videos and backups of her deleted podcasts. A few binges later, and he’s on Punchline’s side, defending her participation in the Joker War. He agrees that the Joker is bad—but thinks Punchline herself did nothing wrong. He scolds his sister Harper for trying to ruin someone’s life over aiding and abetting a mass murderer. (As the issue shows, Punchline did plenty of mass murdering of her own, but nothing’s been pinned on her.) Cullen’s auto-generated sympathy for Punchline reflects a real-world phenomenon. Social media algorithms like those on Youtube, Facebook, and other sites are geared to generate engagement, which means that shocking, enraging, and contentious content rises to the top. That means a young teenager like Cullen looking for something funny is likely to be shown barely-related political videos designed to create fear, anger, or hate in uninitiated viewers.
At the end of Punchline #1, Cullen meets up with an online friend at a rally calling for Punchline’s charges to be dropped. He’s handed a clown mask and encouraged to chant with the crowd. Publicly, Punchline sobs and smiles for the masses. Privately, she gloats about how she has a million followers worldwide, all rooting for her and, by extension, the Joker. The next Joker War is digital and Batman’s already losing.
Punchline #1 is available now from local comics shops, DC Comics, and Comixology.
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