A Tribute to the of
In the annals of comic history, a few writers and/or artists enjoy an iron-clad legacy through their creation of an unforgettable character during their career. The subject of this edition of the Silver Age Sage will focus on the other side of the hero formula; the villain. What good is a hero, after all, without his counterpoint villain to overcome? That necessary dynamic makes for a good yarn and creates the necessary opposition, allowing the hero to be the defender of the downtrodden and advocate for good.
The villain I'm going to focus on has been with us for over 60 years and is arguably the greatest of the DC stable for his longevity, multi-faceted character and the strange fascination he holds. Like the most enduring DC heroes, he has been immortalized in newspaper, cartoons, television and major motion pictures. He has had his own comic for a brief 9-issue run and more recently was responsible for the death of Jason Todd, the second youth to wear Robin's costume and the partial paralysis of Barbara Gordon, ending the career of Batgirl but launching her new persona of Oracle. Another noteworthy act of maliciousness to his credit was his exposure of the location of the first headquarters of the Justice League of America. He is the man whose true name remains a mystery, even to the World's Greatest Detective and he is therefore known only as The Joker.
The Joker is a certified madman and homicidal maniac who has been the arch foe of the Batman since his debut in the Spring 1940 issue of Batman #1. Batman had just achieved a major coup by getting the nod for this self-titled comic. As a matter of fact, he beat Superman to the honor by a couple of months, but he was also still the star of Detective Comics and Bob Kane needed help with the increased workload. He received it through artist Jerry Robinson, who helped to create (with an assist from Batman scribe Bill Finger) the Clown Prince of Crime. His original and oft-repeated modus operandi was to murder his victims with a concoction referred to as Joker Venom which left them with an eerie post mortem grin on their face, similar to the one worn almost perpetually by The Joker. The Joker's physical appearance alone, certainly at the beginning, was unnerving. Chalk-white skin, green hair in a Bela Lugosi style with widow's peaks and bright red lips. To the uninitiated, it appears to be mere makeup, but in actuality, his bizarre countenance is due to a swim in chemicals that permanently altered his features. This original Joker was very nearly a perfect counterpoint to the Dark Knight. The Joker was equally dark and menacing and did not display some of the idiotic giggling and buffoonery that the character fell victim to for a time in later years.
Now I hate to do this again so quickly on the heels of my recent review of Superman #300, but I want to tell you I struggled mightily with this one. I was determined to do a good Joker review and I picked through my volume of
The story opens as so many of them do. Night time in Gotham, a rainy night at that and Police Commissioner James Gordon and some of his officers are at a crime scene on the outskirts of the city. A murder has taken place and the telltale evidence leaves no doubt that it was at the hand of The Joker. The frozen grin and Joker playing card found nearby are all the clues necessary. The Batman has emerged from the shadows to survey the scene and then announces that he will be performing his own expedited investigation to try and preclude more deaths.
As the dark night detective begins his nocturnal journey, the reader is privy to the thought processes of his razor sharp mind. Recognizing the dead man as a member of The Joker's former gang, Batman deduces that the surviving members just might be future targets. Making his way to a gymnasium, he finds Packy White working on the bag and mentions that his former boss has escaped from the state hospital for the criminally insane and coincidentally Philly Jack Barton was found dead from Joker venom. Batman further divulges that one of his former minions betrayed him and that he swore he'd kill them all. Suggesting to Packy that his best hope for survival lies in protective custody, Batman persuades the former thug to accompany him to police headquarters. White agrees, pauses for a dipper of water, then laughs, gags and dies in moments, his face contorting into that all-too familiar grin of death. The story then segues to a seedy motel room where none other than The Joker is visiting Alby, yet another former associate. Offering him a cigar, The Joker quickly departs as the nitroglycerin laced smoke ends another life. Laughing his way to the street, The Joker bids Alby to "Rest in pieces." Batman soon learns of Alby's demise on his police radio and makes his way to the fourth of the five henchmen, Bigger Melvin, who lives on the waterfront. Melvin spots Batman and decides he's there to apprehend him for a mugging. He beats a hasty retreat through a maze of obstacles, only to come face to face with the Dark Knight. Batman quickly explains why he's there and once again strongly recommends protective custody lest he become the fourth victim of the night. Melvin agrees, but manages to sneak behind Batman and strikes him from behind, convinced his story is a ruse to bring him to justice. Coming to moments later, Batman is groggy from the blow, but races to Bigger's living quarters, only to find him dead from hanging. Almost immediately he senses a presence in the room, but he is still recovering from his injury, allowing The Joker to again knock him unconscious to the floor. Grinning in triumph, his heel upon our hero's throat, The Joker ponders his victory, but decides that to end the life of his old foe in this way would be hollow, merely the luck of the moment rather than the more satisfying result of a bitter struggle pitting detective skills against "...the divine gift men call madness." He departs, vowing that he will wait until he can destroy his nemesis properly. When Batman revives again he discovers a clue in the form of a crude oil and sand mixture from The Joker's heel. Girding himself up again, he goes off in search of the final member of the gang, forger Bing Hooley, currently a resident of a home for the aged.
Arriving at the charity home, the Sister at the desk informs the Dark Knight that Mr. Hooley left in the company of a Mr. Genesius. Batman reveals to her that the alleged benefactor took his name from Saint Genesius, patron saint of actors and comedians...jokers.
It soon occurs to the Batman that Hooley was kidnapped earlier in the day by his former boss and is stashed at some isolated spot directly related to the mixture of sand and crude oil he discovered earlier. Racing in the Batmobile toward the recently contaminated beach front, courtesy of a tanker vessel that had run aground, he dashes to the abandoned aquarium in search of his elusive quarry. Within the darkened building, The Joker reveals himself and the battle begins. A laughing gas grenade is deployed, but Batman is prepared with an antidote. Chasing the malefactor to another room, the World's Greatest Detective is faced with an ingenious set- up. The Joker has rigged Hooley, bound in his wheelchair, on a platform directly over a water-filled tank inhabited by a shark. He holds a release lever, prepared to plunge the man to his doom unless Batman agrees to be bound and placed in the tank in his stead. Agreeing, the Batman mutters that the Joker is utterly, hopelessly insane. "It's my most charming trait!" Upon pushing our hero into the tank, the twisted villain pushes the wheelchair-bound Hooley in directly afterward. Batman swiftly works the chain-linked shackles in front of him and mounts the shark, using the chain like a bit in it's mouth, pulling with great force until he overcomes the creature. Freeing himself from the shackles, he estimates he's expended twenty precious seconds and he must get the aged man back to the life-giving air. Using his wheelchair as a blunt instrument, the Batman strikes the wall of the tank repeatedly until it finally breaks and releases them. Satisfied that Hooley is breathing, the very fatigued detective pursues anew his foe who taunts as he runs toward his getaway car, "You'll get no battle from me! I may be insane...but I'm not crazy! So I'll run away--and live to put egg on your face another day!" Desperately sprinting forward, trying to close the gap, the Batman presses on. Then, fortune smiles on our hero as the criminal loses his footing in the oil-soaked sand, allowing his capture at last. Hauling him off into the breaking dawn, Batman comments that it's funny that he would be grateful for pollution and the tale ends. So, what do you get with this excellent adventure story? A glimpse into the mind of a madman, who kills with impunity and without a shred of regret. Heck, the man enjoys it and that makes him infinitely more frightening. As I mentioned earlier, this was a seized opportunity by the writer and editor to return the Joker to his chilling roots as a diabolical homicidal maniac with a chilling agenda and the awful means and will to carry it out. Small wonder that he has been the lasting and perhaps ultimate nemesis of the World's Greatest Detective. I'm also a fan of Neal Adams' artwork and it's a wonderful complement to a superior story, adding further realism and grit to the underworld of Gotham City.
Once again, while I thoroughly enjoyed this classic tale, it's not a resident of the Silver Age, so I won't do a rating. I do, however, highly recommend it to your reading list. It was a most satisfying read and did a very good job of illustrating and exploring the complex character that is The Joker.
Don't forget to drop me a line any time at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll gladly entertain any questions or comment and as per usual I'll be back in a couple of weeks with another review. Thanks for joining me.
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