By Scott Tipton
January 7, 2004
BATMAN, PART V -- YOU GOTTA BE JOKING
Every classic literary hero has that one great villain: Robin Hood has his Sheriff of Nottingham, King Arthur his Mordred, Sherlock Holmes his Moriarty. Although Batman has probably the most famous and well-rounded Roguesí Gallery in all of comics, when it comes to Batman villains, thereís one name and one name alone at the top of the list. As we begin our discussion of the Batmanís enemies, itís only appropriate that we start things off with the main event: the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker.
The Joker first appeared in BATMAN #1 (1940), courtesy of writer Bill Finger and artists Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. Credit for the actual creation of the character has long been a bone of contention between Kane and Robinson. Robinson has claimed the inspiration came from a pack of playing cards, while Kane claimed to have come up with the character on his own. As for Finger, his contribution to the character canít be denied. Finger, who was known for keeping a truly enormous reference file, rejected Kaneís initial sketch for the new villain as too clown-like, and provided the artists with photo stills from the 1928 film THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, which starred Conrad Veidt as an English nobleman who has had an unsettling smile permanently carved into his face. The makeup worn by Veidt was most creepy, and a clear inspiration for the Jokerís appearance. Note particularly the bags under the eyes, the creased brow and distinctive high hairline.
In the Jokerís first appearance, heís not quite the wacky loon he would become in later appearances; however, heís murderous as ever. Making his presence known via a radio announcement, the Joker declares his intention to kill millionaire Henry Claridge that very night at midnight and steal his famed Claridge Diamond. Despite the battalion of police guarding the millionaire, at the stroke of midnight Claridge drops to the floor, dead, with his facial muscles pulling back into a hideous smile.
Furthermore, the police find that the diamond is already gone, having been replaced by a glass phony, accompanied by a playing card bearing the Jokerís likeness. As it turns out, the Joker had committed the crime the night before, injecting Claridge with a version of his Joker venom that takes 24 hours to take effect.
The Joker strikes again later that week, with a radio promise to steal the Ronkers Ruby and murder its owner. This time, the Joker, hiding inside an ornamental suit of armor, kills with a poison dart gun bearing his deadly Joker venom.
The Batman first encounters the Joker while attempting to stop the murder of Gotham gangster Brute Nelson, who had been badmouthing Gothamís newest criminal.
Joker proves to be a physical match for Batman, and the Joker manages to escape, and goes on to make his next radio threat, this time to Judge Drake, who had once sent him to prison. While the Judge seems safe, under the personal protection of Gothamís Chief of Police, things are not always what they seem.
When the Joker catches Robin tailing him, he knocks him out and prepares to put a permanent (and deadly) smile on the face of the Boy Wonder.
Batman arrives in the proverbial nick of time, and he and the Joker face off once more, with the Joker again coming out on top.
The Dynamic Duo corner the Joker once more, while heís attempting to steal the Cleopatra Necklace. The Joker deals out deadly force against Batman, but to no avail.
Batman and Robin finally overpower the clownish criminal, and he winds up behind bars, but not for long. In fact, the Joker appeared again in the very same issue. The original plans called for the Joker to die in that issue, but Kane and Finger must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, and the Joker was swiftly brought back from the dead, making a return appearance a mere three months later in BATMAN #4.
Whatís the key to the Jokerís appeal as a villain? First off, the character plays into the very common unease many people have with clowns. Letís face it: clowns are creepy. Furthermore, the escalating humor found in the numerous Joker stories served as an excellent counterpoint to the often serious and grim Batman stories. In addition, the Jokerís chaotic nature provided a dark mirror to Batmanís own tortured existence. Where Batman is constrained by the trauma of his past, forced into a life of vengeance by his own memories, the Jokerís insanity allows him to do literally anything his twisted heart desires.
As the years went by, the Joker began to lose much of his deadly edge, with his murderous extortion plots being gradually replaced by more and more outlandish criminal schemes. Consider, for example, ďThe Man Who Wrote the Jokerís Jokes!Ē from 1951, in which, taking a cue from television and radio funnymen, the Joker decides to hire gag writers to dream up new crimes for him.
When the crooked schemes are less than successful (including one that successfully made jackasses of Batman and Robin), the Joker decides that only one man can successfully write for him: Batman himself.
Using a kidnapped and tearful Robin as leverage, the Joker forces Batman to come up with a perfect heist, one that would be both lucrative and humiliate the Caped Crusader at the same time. Batman delivers, with a plan to rob the payroll of the Gotham Chewing Gum Co., culminating with the coup de grace: coating Batman with liquid chewing gum and sticking him to the wall.
The joke, however, would be on the Joker, as Batman and an escaped Robin dump a vat of liquid gum on the Joker and his goons. Robin, it seems wasnít really crying Ė he was signaling to Batman his plan to escape by hollowing out the heels of his boots to use as makeshift suction cups, so as to climb to freedom. Nothing if not resourceful.
The Joker didnít even get an origin until 1951, in the February issue of DETECTIVE COMICS, with ďThe Man Behind the Red Hood!Ē
In the story, Batman is invited to teach a course on criminology at State University. (Gotham universities clearly have a less-than-stringent policy regarding faculty.) In teaching his course, Professor Batman challenges his students to solve the case even he never cracked Ė the mystery of the Red Hood. A criminal who was terrorizing Gotham, the Red Hood wore a metallic red dome with no eye slits, preventing any sort of identification. After a series of pursuits, Batman corners the Red Hood in the midst of a robbery at the Monarch Playing Card Company, and in a last-ditch effort to escape, the Red Hood dives into the catch basin for all of the waste chemicals put out by the manufacturing plant. The vat emptied out into the river (Somebody should really have called the EPA on thatÖ), but the Red Hoodís body was never recovered.
When word hits the papers that Professor Batman has reopened the Red Hood case, it doesnít take long for Mr. Hood himself to come out of retirement. While attempting to rob the university payroll, the Red Hood is confronted by Batman and Robin, and in his escape drops a felt roll-up hat, meant to be worn after the robbery. While Batmanís students figure out how he could see through the hood (red two-way mirrors set into the metallic hood), Batman analyzes a hair found in the felt hat in an attempt to determine the Red Hoodís identity.
After a bit of a red herring pursuit involving another fellow running around under the hood, the real Red Hood is revealed: the Joker himself.
As the Joker explains, he survived the swim through the chemical vats thanks to the oxygen tank built into the hood, but when he emerged, he was startled to find that the chemicals had permanently dyed his skin chalk-white, his lips red and his hair green. Taking his cue from the playing card company, he renamed himself the Joker, and embarked upon his new career in crime.
The Joker appeared regularly in Batman comics in the Ď40s and Ď50s, and I mean regularly. With Batman and Robin appearing in BATMAN, DETECTIVE COMICS, WORLDíS FINEST and STAR-SPANGLED COMICS, the Joker was making almost-monthly appearances; that is, until 1956, when the Joker practically disappeared. Why? Former DC editor Mike Gold theorized that the Jokerís disappearance coincided with the rise of the Comics Code Authority after the Senate hearings on comics and juvenile delinquency sparked by Werthamís book SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, and the Jokerís clownish appearance was deemed too offensive by either the Code or the now skittish DC editors. Thankfully, the Joker made his return to the pages of Batman the following year, but never with the regularity of his appearances in the 40s and early Ď50s. Which was a good thing; using him in smaller doses made his appearances seem much more meaningful.
Still, by the 1970s, the Joker had become pretty much toothless. In part due to the effect of the 1966 TV show on the comics, the Joker was no longer an insane figure of fear and menace, but rather an outlandish buffoon out to carry out larger-than-life spectacles of crime, such as here, where he plans to use the Jokermobile to splatter enormous tubes of oil paint all over Wayne Manor.
Not exactly Public Enemy Number One at this point. The Joker would soon return to his previous murderous glory, though, thanks to Denny OíNeil and Neal Adams, who had been revamping the Batman comics, working toward restoring the Dark Knight to his moody, noir-ish origins. BATMAN #251 (September 1973) featured ďThe Jokerís Five-Way Revenge!Ē and starred a truly frightening, intimidating Clown Prince of Crime, for the first time in decades. Here, Jokerís off on a murder spree, killing five of his former henchmen, so as to get revenge on whichever one of them was the one who betrayed him to the police. In this appearance, Joker is shown taking utter glee in the murder of his former goons, with none of the harmless whimsy he character had been saddled with in years past. And here the Joker was far more dangerous and unpredictable, such as in this sequence, in which he agrees to release his final target in exchange for Batman taking his place in the shark tank, only to immediately renege and drop the hostage to the sharks as well. Simple rule, Bats. Never, never, never trust the Joker.
Neal Adamsí stark, slightly more realistic art style was a perfect complement to OíNeilís new, edgier Batman and Joker.
The Jokerís popularity in the 1970s peaked with an unprecedented move by DC Comics: in 1975, the Joker was given his own monthly series. However, THE JOKER only lasted nine issues, primarily because of the difficulties inherent in having a villain for a protagonist; most likely, the Comics Code Authority demanded that he be apprehended at the end of each issue, which certainly makes it hard to make the readers want to come back every month. Still, THE JOKER issues are worth tracking down purely for the novelty factor, as the Joker would face off against a different DC character and lose, month after month. Denny OíNeil was doing the best he could with the scripts, considering the constraints of the concept, and the art by Ernie Chan and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez was first-rate; take a look at this sequence from THE JOKER #3, in which the Joker meets up with the Creeper:
Probably the benchmark for Joker stories in the 1970s was set by writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers with ďThe Laughing Fish!Ē and ďThe Sign of the Joker!Ē, appearing in DETECTIVE COMICS #475 and #476. In one of the Jokerís most intricate and insane schemes, he doses all of the fish on the Eastern seaboard with his Joker venom, giving all the fish caught by fishermen everywhere his trademark Jokerís grin. Why? It all makes sense, if only in the Jokerís twisted mind, as is evident in the Jokerís subsequent visit to Gothamís copyright office, where the Joker demands a copyright on his new Joker-fish, earning him a royalty on every fish bought and consumed in the country. When the frightened bureaucrat tells the Joker that natural resources canít be trademarked, the Joker gives him until midnight to change his mind:
In a deliberate echo of the Jokerís first appearance, the Joker goes on a killing spree, murdering bureaucrat after bureaucrat, punctuated by televised announcements of their impending deaths.
Itís chilling stuff, broken up with moments of black humor. (This storyline was adapted masterfully by the Dini/Timm/Burnett WB production team for the BATMAN animated series, not softening the impact one bit for television, which was a surprise considering the dark subject matter.
A notable Joker appearance from the Ď80s can be found in BATMAN #321 (March 1980), ďDreadful Birthday, Dear Joker!Ē, by Len Wein and Walt Simonson, under a truly disturbing cover by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez.
Itís been said that the best covers are the ones you notice from across the room Ė Iíd say the image of Batman and Robin crucified as flaming candles on the Jokerís birthday cake certainly qualifies. The story, in which the Joker kidnaps all of his enemies to attend his birthday party, doesnít quite measure up to previous Joker stories, but there are several strong moments, such as this sequence, which illustrates yet again why working for the Joker is never a good idea:
A personal favorite of mine when it comes to the Joker is ďOnly Angels Have Wings,Ē a Batman/Joker team-up, of all things, from BRAVE AND THE BOLD #191. Written by Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn, with art by the great Jim Aparo, the story shows the human side of the Joker, in what small ways he can exhibit it. When the Joker is framed for the live, televised murder of the Penguin, he enlists Batman to help him prove his innocence:
Why would the Joker care?
The image of Batman and Joker working together is a jarring one (especially since the Joker canít help himself and keeps trying to murder Batman along the way), and Jim Aparo does a fantastic job of portraying a Joker occasionally overcome with a decidedly foreign sensation: genuine human sentiment.
There are what I would consider two more definitive portrayals of the Joker: Frank Millerís vicious showman in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and the dangerously insane yet still quite funny killer from the BATMAN animated universe, as developed by Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett and Mark Hamill. Weíll be taking a longer look at these versions in their respective columns to come.
In previous columns, weíve discussed the use of the Joker in recent years, and how DC creatives have ratcheted up his profile by having him murder the second Robin Jason Todd and permanently cripple Batgirl. In addition, the Joker also murdered Commissioner Gordonís beloved second wife Sarah at the climax of the NO MANĒS LAND storyline. While these heinous crimes do effectively make the Joker by far Batmanís most hated and feared foe, thereís a real danger of harming the Batmanís character in the process: there comes a point where any reasonable man, even one as morally principled as Bruce Wayne, would strike back with lethal force against someone who had done so much harm and caused so much pain to what for all intents and purposes is his family, and for Batman not to have done so somewhat weakens him. Perhaps this is why I prefer the animated version of the Joker: since in the cartoons the Joker has not crossed that line and harmed any members of Bruce Wayneís family, Iím more able to accept Batmanís mercy in allowing him to live.
Scott Tipton always loved it when the Joker would operate under a fake name, because it seemed like it was usually the same one: ďJoe Kerr.Ē Classic. If you have any questions about Joker, Batman or comics in general, send them here.
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