Wow, a Joker post! Who’da thought?
With its 20th anniversary having just passed, The Killing Joke has gotten some renewed attention as the quintessential Joker story. However, unadorned as it may be, I still like the original Joker story (unofficially titled “The Joker”) from Batman #1. Written by Bill Finger, pencilled by Bob Kane, and inked by Kane and Jerry Robinson, it’s a taut twelve-page thriller. Essentially, it casts the Joker as an anonymous sociopath with a basic, almost perfunctory motive and a grim, blackly ironic modus operandi. He dares the authorities to stop him from committing crimes he’s already carried out.
Despite all its reprintings, to my knowledge “The Joker” has been the subject of only two direct homages: 1978′s two-part “Laughing Fish/Sign of the Joker” in Detective Comics; and 2005′s The Man Who Laughs* special. (I didn’t read the recent Michael Green/Denys Cowan Joker origin, but from what I can tell it went in an entirely different direction.)
Let’s look at each of these, shall we?
* * *
Batman #1′s “The Joker” begins breathlessly:
Once again a master criminal stalks the city streets — a criminal weaving a web of death about him — leaving stricken victims behind wearing a ghastly clown’s grin — the sign of death from the Joker! Only two dare to oppose him — Batman and Robin the boy wonder! Two to battle a
grim jester called — the Joker! A battle of wits — with swift death the only compromise!!!
A little repetitive, but I can’t argue with “swift death.”
The story itself begins in the home of an anonymous elderly couple who suddenly hear “a toneless voice” breaking into their radio program. The Joker announces that at midnight, he will kill Henry Claridge and steal the Claridge Diamond. Although one of the listeners dismisses the announcement as just another Orson Welles-style prank, Claridge is understandably freaked-out, and by eleven o’clock “an inflexible cordon [of police] is formed around the doomed man!”
The minutes tick away, the clock strikes twelve, and nothing happens … until an exultant Claridge grabs at his throat and collapses, dead. In a final insult, “[s]lowly the facial muscles pull the dead man’s mouth into a repellant [sic], ghastly grin. The sign of death from the Joker!”
And that’s the end of page 2.
Not surprisingly, when Young Tom read this story for the first time thirty-odd years ago, he was plenty freaked-out as well. Even today, that page is a nifty little bit of storytelling, drawing the reader’s focus to the cordon, then the clock, then the death-grin. It really sets up the Joker as a serious threat. Moreover (as we hop back into the story), at the top of page 3 we learn that the Joker had already poisoned Claridge, and stolen the diamond, the night before. Gulp!
The villain himself first appears in earnest in a sequence which occupies most of page 3. Here he’s hardly the cackling madman we know, but he is still creepy as all get-out, with deep-set eyes, a long nose, and a familiar receding hairline … not to mention the green hair and chalk-white skin. Initially he’s described as “a man with a changeless, mask-like face — but for the eyes — burning, hate-filled eyes!” When he finally does smile, it’s “a smile without mirth — rather a smile of death!! The awesome ghastly grin of — the Joker!!”
(Yes, Bill Finger evidently loved both the em-dash and the exclamation point. However, he uses these kinds of captions pretty sparingly.)
Who, then, can bring this inhuman killer to justice? Where are Batman and Robin? Indeed, in the last panel of page 3, young Dick Grayson wonders “… why don’t we take a shot at this Joker guy?” Bruce’s response, as he fires up his pipe, is “Not yet, Dick. The time isn’t ripe.”
… Okay, the story’s not perfect. However, the Joker does get to set up another robbery/homicide. This time the victim is Jay Wilde, owner of the Ronkers Ruby, who (again, one night over the radio) the Joker declares has an hour to live. In fact, this crime is even more daring because the Joker is actually present, hiding inside a suit of armor in order to shoot Wilde with a poisoned dart. He paralyzes Wilde’s police protection with a milder form of Joker-venom (which still leaves ‘em smiling), and promises “gentlemen … we shall meet again!”
By page 5, gangster Brute Nelson has gotten tired of the Joker horning in on his action, and wants the word put out that “the Joker is a yeller rat!” At last, this is evidently enough for Batman to get involved, and when the Joker, Brute and his men, and Batman all converge at Brute’s house, mayhem ensues. The Joker gut-shoots Brute, getting off a character-building line: “I won’t even waste the usual ‘Joker’ venom on you, Brute, but give you something you can understand! Lead!”
The Joker drives away, and Batman jumps on the speeding car, with the two men eventually battling on a bridge. The Joker knocks Batman unconscious, dumps him in the water, and goes on to plot his next crime. This turns out to be Judge Drake, who “once sent [him] to prison.” The Judge’s immediate police protection consists only of the chief of police himself, which I suppose seemed like enough back then … but logistics aside, when the chief reveals himself to be an impostor it’s still pretty chilling. “You can’t win anyway — you see, I hold the winning card!”
(By the way, speaking of policemen, Commissioner Gordon doesn’t appear in the story at all.)
On stakeout duty, Robin tracks the faux-chief to a deserted house; and I think we all see where this is going, but Finger and Kane make him look at least nominally competent. Anyway, soon enough Batman catches up with his groggy ward, who’s about to get a shot of Joker venom. A clever one-liner later (“You may be the Joker but I’m the King of Clubs!”), Batman has knocked the villain into a chemical-laden table and started a fire. (Oh, good one, Batman.) This allows the Joker to fire off a parting shot of paralyzing gas, and he escapes as “the Batman’s jaw tightens into the ghastly Joker ‘grin!’”
Regardless, Batman’s “amazing recuperative powers” allow him to shake off the gas, and when the Dynamic Duo are safe, Robin passes along the Joker’s next target. In the fight which follows, the Joker gets away from Batman, but Robin kicks him off a skyscraper. However, mindful of National/DC’s future profit margins, Batman manages to catch the villain before he plunges to his death. The headline in the next day’s paper reads, “Batman Captures Joker — Leaves Joker In Front Of Police Station, Drives Away.”
Except for Batman’s page-3 reluctance to get involved, this is a great way to introduce the seminal Batman villain. He didn’t get an origin until Detective #168 (February 1951), but he didn’t need one. He’s fueled by hate, he controls the playing field, he’s scary, and he’s got style. No wonder his handlers couldn’t kill him.
* * *
Steve Englehart teases his Joker story two issues early, by having the villain appear in shadowy cameos. Englehart plays more subtly with the villain’s reputation by working up the rogues’ totem pole: the new Doctor Phosphorus first, then the return of Hugo Strange, then the Penguin, and finally the revamped Deadshot.
Englehart’s Detective arc isn’t entirely about the villains, of course. By the time the Joker’s scheme materializes, on page 6 of “The Laughing Fish,” it must compete with subplots involving two new supporting characters: Silver St. Cloud fretting over her relationship with Batman; and Rupert Thorne being haunted by Strange’s ghost. Because the Joker story’s second part (“Sign of the Joker!”) also wraps up Englehart’s run, eventually those subplots take over. The emotional climax of Part Two isn’t the Joker’s defeat, but Silver’s tearful goodbye to Batman.
Even so, Englehart and artists Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin deal heavily in retro, working in many references to Batman #1. The Joker’s targets are copyright officials, not millionaires, but he still threatens them through the media (having upgraded to TV). The particular methods are also similar: G. Carl Francis gets poisoned ahead of time, when the Joker visits his office; Thomas Jackson is killed directly, bitten by his Jokerized cat; and the Joker himself poses as a policeman in order to get at the third (unnamed) official. Francis’ death even takes its narration from Batman #1. Also, in perhaps a nod to the original’s Joker-vs.-gangster angle, he warns Rupert Thorne not to pursue Batman’s secret identity — because “for anyone else to destroy the Batman would be unworthy of me!”
Englehart’s incorporation of the original story’s structure serves the rhythms of a serialized comic book well. The first issue breaks immediately after Francis’ death, when the Joker announces that the police have less than three hours to prevent Jackson’s. The second opens with the attack on Jackson, building to the panel of a Jokerized Batman on page three. Because this was the period of the “DC Explosion,” Detective’s lead story was only 17 pages, so two issues’ worth turned out to be about an issue-and-a-half in today’s terms. Indeed, without 12 pages’ worth of Silver St. Cloud, it’s a 22-page story. In structure it’s not much different from its 12-page inspiration, except that it has a little more room to show things like random public reaction (a housewife listens to news about the Joker-fish), fights, and chases.
* * *
Accordingly, 2005′s 48-page Batman: The Man Who Laughs, Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke’s updated version of “The Joker,” has even more room for backstory. “Batman: Year One” ended with Gordon’s reference to the Joker poisoning the reservoir,** so TMWL picks up from that detail. (Brubaker told Newsarama that it also helps bridge “Year One” and The Killing Joke.) TMWL ties the Joker-venom into the chemicals which transformed the Red Hood, connects the Joker’s victims to the Red Hood too, and makes minor details (like the Joker’s pirate broadcasts) into significant story points. Oh, and along the way we learn a little more about the origins of the Batmobile, Arkham Asylum, and the Bat-Signal.
Thus, The Man Who Laughs big and busy. It opens with Gordon and Batman examining a factory full of ghastly-grinning corpses, goes quickly to the laughing death of a TV reporter and the Joker’s on-camera prophecy of doom, and barely gives Claridge’s corpse time to cool before plunging Batman into a fight with criminally-insane escapees. (The newly-renovated Arkham Asylum isn’t ready for them yet.) WhileTMWL expands upon many of the original’s elements (the attack on Wilde now incorporates a stolen helicopter and a venom-laced bullet), it omits or otherwise downplays others (the Brute Nelson subplot, the attack on the Judge). TMWL even has the Joker announce his murderous ambitions with an almost Riddler-esque rhyme.
Finally, in order to link the eternal adversaries, Bruce Wayne (who TMWL also makes a target) shakes his police protection by poisoning himself with a mild form of Joker venom. This has the unintended side effect of an insight into his foe’s thinking, although it does force Bruce to relive his parents’ murders from a particularly paranoid perspective.
In the end, I think The Man Who Laughs explains a little too much about the Joker. It wants to contrast him with the more mundane gangsters and corrupt cops which were “Year One’s” bad guys. However, TMWL plunges Batman and Gordon immediately into the Joker’s crime spree. That forces our heroes to air their frustrations through dialogue and narration, instead of (for example) updating the original’s Brute Nelson subplot. The Joker has always been at the top of the villainous A-list, but this story doesn’t do the best job justifying that.
Moreover, it ties into the current iteration of Batman so neatly that it’s a shame it wasn’t part of the regular Bat-books. Its continuity-building properties might have been put to better use if it had been serialized as “Batman: Year Two” (or something similar). On its own as a one-shot, The Man Who Laughs isn’t sufficiently distinct from other Batman/Joker stories, despite its setting.
* * *
To be fair, the original Joker story establishes the villain’s hyper-competence by glossing over some significant plot points. (How did he get from the pirate-radio broadcast to inside Wilde’s suit of armor in less than an hour? Was the police chief that easy to impersonate?) That kind of thing can be excused in a 12-page story, but not for a 48-pager. Likewise, Englehart’s two-parter was perhaps read by a more forgiving audience.
There’s also the notion that the original story was more about the capers than the characters. While Steve Englehart used the set pieces of “The Joker,” he made them part of the complications he was piling on Batman. It’s no accident that ‘Tec #475 begins, and ‘Tec #476 ends, with Batman and Silver. Furthermore, I have to think that Silver breaks up with him after seeing him fight the Joker, and not, say, Doctor Tzin-Tzin. The Joker was therefore just shorthand for the Big Problem at the center of Bruce and Silver’s relationship. (In this way, I suppose the Joker represented “Batman,” or a certain aspect thereof … and wouldn’t he have had fun with that little revelation!)
For Brubaker, the Joker is also a game-changer — but again, not much in the story itself shows how the game began. It’s not quite analogous to the Englehart/Rogers story, but The Man Who Laughs begins and ends with Batman and Gordon, helping to cement their relationship and their roles as crimefighters.
However, the original “The Joker” begins and ends with the villain. First he’s leering over his shoulder at the reader; and eventually he’s grinning from behind prison bars. The message is clear: this is not some fly-by-night mad scientist like Doctor Death or Hugo Strange, or even a vampire like The Monk. Those bad guys appeared in two Detective stories each — back when that meant something — but they’re hardly on the A-list of Batman villains today. With the Joker, the Dynamic Duo had indeed graduated to “a better class of criminal.”
Over the years, Joker stories have become associated with increasing amounts of spectacle and escalating body counts. That’s why “The Joker,” in all its low-key glory, remains fascinating to me. It makes the Joker into a master criminal even as it asks the reader repeatedly to suspend disbelief. For over ten years, the Joker had no origin story; and for almost fifty years, no real name. I can’t help but think that such anonymity is the real lasting legacy of his first appearance, where too much investigation into his whys and wherefores would have spoiled the mood.
* [Conrad Veidt’s character in the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs served as the visual inspiration for the Joker.]
** [Thanks to Toy Story, I can no longer write about contaminated reservoirs without hearing Woody exclaim "Someone's poisoned the water-hole!"]
“The Joker,” in Batman #1 (Spring 1940), was written by Bill Finger, pencilled by Bob Kane, and inked by Kane and Jerry Robinson. Scans are from the story as reprinted in The Batman Chronicles Vol. 1, with black and white reconstruction by Greg Theakston and color reconstruction by Bob Le Rose and Daniel Vozzo.
“The Laughing Fish!” in Detective Comics #475 (February 1978) was written by Steve Englehart, pencilled by Marshall Rogers, inked by Terry Austin, and lettered by Ben Oda. Scan from the reprint in Batman: Strange Apparitions was recolored by Mr. Rogers.
“Sign of the Joker!” in Detective Comics #476 (March-April 1978) was written by Steve Englehart, pencilled by Marshall Rogers, inked by Terry Austin, and lettered by Milton Snapinn. Scans from the reprint in Batman: Strange Apparitions were recolored by Mr. Rogers.
Batman: The Man Who Laughs (2005) was written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Doug Mahnke, lettered by Rob Leigh, and colored by David Baron.