Volume 4 just came out early last month, but I haven't gotten that yet, so I'm looking at Volume 3 instead, since it's the only one I have handy. It covers issues 21-27 of the series, plus an Annual. The Annual leads things off, with a series of short stories mostly related to the question of whether any of Batman's foes will ever be rehabilitated, with each story illustrated by a different artist (including Dan DeCarlo drawing a nearly silent one about Harley Quinn, a page from which is there on the right). The Ventriloquist story by Mike Parobeck and Matt Wagner is sad, but I find most Ventriloquist stories to be sad, just because Wesker seems such a pitiable figure.. This is a well done sad story, though. Still, the "Froggy" persona he uses as an expression of his good side is touching. Part of me wishes Bats had stomped Scarface to pieces the moment he started calling for the "Dummy" again, but I guess Wesker has to make the choice himself.
I said mostly related because the Joker story, drawn by John Byrne and inked by Rich Burchett doesn't look at the Joker attempting to go straight at all. Rather, it looks at what he does when he's not on some big scheme (as it starts with Mistah J falling out of a blimp after failing to clock Batman with a wrench), and the Joker making a meandering path through the Gotham streets, causing chaos and death casually as he goes. If it's dealing with the possibility of whether there's hope for the Joker - and it may not be, it's after the conclusion of the framing sequence for the other stories, which dealt with whether Roxie Rocket was genuine in her claims of going straight - the answer it gives is "NO". Which is maybe not the best answer to give in that case, since then there's the question of, "Well maybe someone needs to go ahead and kill him, if he's never going to turn back from this," and that's a pretty tired discussion none of us really wants to go through again, right? The body language Byrne and Burchett give him in the story is excellent, though. The bored expression as he munches on a donut and explains to the guy behind the counter that his sweat is activating the Joker toxin in the funny money Joker handed him is great work, and chilling for how casual it makes the whole thing for him. It's as largely irrelevant to him as someone stopping you on the street to ask the time. Really, the whole way the Joker goes about that sequence is kind of an encapsulation of why I like Animated Series Joker. He goes out of his way to act as though he's just foolin' around, don't worry about him. He even pays the guy, and then stands there and watches him die before strolling out the door. The charm and the casual murder, and how hilarious he finds the whole thing is terrifying.
Outside of that, most of the other issues are in that "merely OK to forgettable" range I mentioned. There's one with the Man-Bat and that scientist who turned Catwoman into an actual catlady once. One where Batman needs Poison Ivy's help deriving an antidote to save a poisoned foreign president. Batman teams up with Mullet Superman in one issue, and Robin and Batgirl team up in the next. Again, none of them are bad, but none of them are great. I liked issue 22, where Batman thinks he understands Two-Face's compulsion to flip the coin and puts it to the test, but Two-Face's plan doesn't really make much sense. He breaks some guys out of one prison to start building a gang, then uses them to break into another prison to free some more guys he wants in the gang. Except it gets all his guys pinched. I'm sure he wasn't banking on the cops waiting for him, but it's hard to see what his endgame was. He wants to get Rupert Thorne, well the longer he waits, the better prepared Thorne will be.
My personal favorite was issue 27, where Batman tries to help a former Olympic athlete turned Batman cope with the loss of his wife in a mob hit. Batman understands the anger driving the man, of course, but tries to help him find something other than fighting crime to give his life meaning. Which suggests Batman recognizes his life is not something other people should try to copy (which then brings up the question of his sidekicks, but I guess Bruce Wayne is also providing them with a surrogate family that he didn't have, Alfred's best efforts aside). But the killer is called back to Gotham from where he's hiding in South America (that part I wasn't clear on, because I had thought Batman arranged to get him brought back through a false note. Except Bats told Alfred he was going to South America to get the guy, which means Rupert Thorne really did just happen to ask him to return just then?), and Dalton catches sight of him on the street, and winds up captured.
Parobeck and Burchett really sell Dalton's anguish with the art, because anytime we see him around the killer, he's in the fury, teeth clenched, eyes burning, and if he's not lunging for them man's throat, he's snapping ropes or throwing off whoever if trying to hold him back. It seems almost too much, but at the end, there's a moment where Dalton is holding onto a pipe in this crumbling building. It's all that's keeping him from going splat on the ground below, but the killer is holding desperately to Dalton's legs. And he lets go with one hand, and you know he's about to let go with the second. And Parobeck and Burchett at first give him this scowling expression, brow is furrowed, bit of a frown, but mostly just determined to see this done. It's really the first panel on the next page that catches my eye. When Batman calls to him and says not to do it, because Dalton seems completely calm in that one. Not angry, not joyful or sad, but possibly at peace with however this turns out. It's an extremely understated expression after all the larger ones he had up to then, so it always stands out. This is one of those times I really needed a scanner, because I'm not doing this justice.
So I don't know if I would recommend getting the entire trade, if you could just find the Annual and issue #27 separately, but the collection isn't a bad route to go if you find it for a reasonable price. Parobeck and Burchett are good enough artists to probably be worth the price on their own, and most of Puckett's stories at least have the core of a good idea, even if they don't always seem enough to fill the whole issue.
I also want to mention that Siskoid's doing reviews of each issue of The Batman Adventures as part of his current series looking at DC's Animated side of things, and he just went over each of the issues in this collection individually a couple of weeks ago.