Heath Ledger as the Joker on the January 2008 cover of Empire Magazine Heath Ledger as the Joker on the January 2008 cover of Empire Magazine

Aside from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sandman Mystery Theatre and Rex Mundi, I'm really not a very big comic-book fan. But I've got to admit I can't wait for The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan's sequel to the supremely excellent Batman Begins that's scheduled to hit theaters in July 2008. The reason: The advent of the Joker, one of the greatest pop-culture villains since Richard III. I'm one of the few people who doesn't really like Tim Burton's Batman, mainly because I've always hated Jack Nicholson's buffoonish turn (let the flaming begin). The Joker should inspire giddy fear, not goofy laughs (check out Allan Moore's classic Joker story arc in The Killing Joke for what I think is the best and scariest take on this endlessly fascinating character). So I was thrilled to learn that Heath Ledger had been cast in the role, since he's a good actor who, I suspect, has a dark side worth exploring. And like all things related to the Batman franchise, from the Batmobile to the Batsuit, the Joker's costume and makeup has been kept top-secret. Until now.

For the past week, the British movie magazine Empire has been running a clever Dark Knight tie-in on their website. Each day, one of nine playing cards arranged on a grid has been flipped over to reveal a section of a large, unidentified photo under the mysterious caption "All will be revealed.... " The card covering the face would be, presumably, the last flipped. Once the purple pants and green vest came into view, a lot of fans guessed correctly that the final image would be the first official glimpse of Ledger in full Joker regalia. Well today, a little bit ahead of the scheduled big reveal, the psycho's out of the bag and the full photo - which will appear as the cover of Empire's January 2008 issue - is now on view. For my money, that is one scary-looking Joker, a true homicidal nutcase straight out of Arkham Asylum instead of a Cesar Romero impersonator or a reject from an Insane Clown Posse tribute band. Whaddya think?