Review by Ian Keogh
Almost a decade before the cry of “fake news” echoed around the USA Sam Kieth delivered his take on media manipulation and how simple it had become. The Joker has been paroled again and has a book to promote, and how better to do so than via a campaign of disinformation and half-truths to smear Batman?
There’s now a greater public awareness of what Kieth detailed, but being ahead of the game isn’t what sustains Secrets, it’s that there are several secrets beyond the Joker’s tinkering, and these are well teased. Kieth invents an incident from Bruce Wayne’s childhood involving newspaper editor Mooley Williams, a man who has another secret revealed early, and one the Joker knows. There’s also the narrative secret, a trick Kieth used in Four Women of relating events in hindsight as he sprinkles sections of a present day conversation through the story, only disclosing the significance in the final chapter.
Kieth has always been a fantastically individual artist, his painting sometimes verging on the surreal, and while he’s obviously taking his lead from 1980s Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean’s work on Arkham Asylum, Secrets maintains that individuality. Beyond a stylised extending of bat ears and cloak Kieth isn’t too sure what to do with Batman, but Secrets is packed with memorable Joker portraits, colourist Alex Sinclair playing an important part. Some are just fine pieces of illustration and others almost supernaturally creepy. A further nice touch is Kieth acknowledging another influence in Will Eisner, not only via splash pages designed the Eisner way, but via Mooley resembling Inspector Dolan from The Spirit.
To digress, there are problems with attempting to present Batman and his world as real, and the greater the detail applied to ‘reality’, the more it magnifies the inconsistencies. For all the fear the Joker generates via his reputation, there’s one aspect that never makes sense, and it’s used here again. Any powerful thug ought to be able to stand up to the Joker when he’s not armed because however nuts he may be, in terms of strength he’s just a skinny guy in a sharp suit. It’s a small moment in a good story, but why is this shorthand convenience constantly repeated?
Perhaps being explicit about the moments from The Killing Joke referenced several times would have been advisable, the dialogue rings false a couple of times, and there are echoes of Harley Quinn in the parole officer used, but these are also small moments. At its heart the ideas that everyone is haunted by a secret and the truth will liberate aren’t original, almost certainly not even with the field reduced to just Batman stories, but it’s in the telling and the art that Kieth supplies the originality. Secrets is very much still worth reading.