A Tribute to the of

So, I was recently in contact with one of my brothers and he asked me if I’d been to see the new Joker movie. I told him I hadn’t and probably wouldn’t watch it. From what I saw of the trailers, it just didn’t look like my cup of tea. Reviews from friends and others only cemented my idea. It sounded like it was far too dark and creepy for my tastes. In the same breath, I’ve got to say that I thought Heath Ledger set a very high bar for the character that probably won’t be topped for my tastes. But, much like the Deadpool movies, I simply have no interest in a comic book character in an R-rated format. To me it just doesn’t sync with what I feel the character represents.

That got me to thinking about the Joker, who has been with us for nearly 80 years thanks to Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and whomever else decided to contribute ideas. He’s been Batman’s arch-nemesis for all this time and he’s been in several incarnations, from dark, psychotic murderer via his signature Joker venom, gimmicky buffoon and degrees between. All these years later and after a few attempts here and there, we still don’t know his true origin and to my way of thinking, it should remain that way.

So distinctive and popular, he even scored his own title in the 70s, which we’ve visited before here at the dear ol’ Silver Lantern and I so enjoyed the series as a boy that I did everything I could to snag all 9 issues. Fortunately, I succeeded and as I’ve mentioned in the past, they are the sole survivors of my original boyhood comic collection and therefore they’re a long way from pristine, but they’re mine and I wouldn’t trade them away. They also represent an excellent take on the Joker, where he’s clever, deadly and interestingly, not once does he get pitted against the Batman, but he runs across all kinds of other nemeses from the truly formidable to the silly, like Willy the Weeper. Some of the finest artists of the day were used, too, so let’s take a peek at The Joker #3, with a publication date of September/October of 1975 and an on-sale date of June 3, 1975. That superb cover was done by the immortal Dick Giordano and “The Last Ha-Ha” was scripted by Denny O’Neil with an interesting art team of Ernie (Chua) Chan on pencils with the amazing Jose Luis Garcia Lopez on inks, all under the editorial direction of Julie Schwartz and E. Nelson Bridwell as associate editor and finally Bob Rozakis as assistant editor.

The imaginative splash page is actually a drawing board complete with inkwell, eraser, brush and a 3-panel strip being filled in by a hand gripping a pencil. We also see a page beneath the strip featuring the Joker and the Creeper doing battle with many “Ha’s” filling the background and indicating the telltale creepy laughter employed by both characters. Let’s see what’s doing as we turn the page…

Things begin with Benny Khiss and Marvin Fargo, a pair of security guards who had been seen before in the book, on duty guarding a museum exhibit of a rare and valuable golden and bejeweled clown’s mask. Benny opens his thermos and a cloud of laughing gas emerges, followed closely by the Joker, knocking them unconscious, stealing the mask and then soon after using it to club the museum’s curator as he laughingly departs in his Jokermobile.

A bit later, the press has arrived to get the story on the heist. Jack Ryder of WHAM-TV is interviewing the curator while Benny and Marvin look on. The unnamed curator informs the reporter that the rare jeweled comedy mask that was stolen was believed to be the work of Cellini. When Ryder asks if he has any idea of the thief’s identity, Marvin says they know who it was, but the curator quickly says that he glimpsed green hair and heard a maniacal laugh, “—which add up to just one man…an outlaw—the Creeper!” He then excuses himself to see his insurance agent, so Ryder takes the opportunity to speak with the security guards who state that they thought it was the Joker doing the theft.

Jack Ryder strides out, furious at the fact that his alter ego, the Creeper, is being accused and then uses his activator on his watchband to transform into the athletic form of the Creeper as he goes in search of the Joker.

Meanwhile, the Clown Prince of Crime is on another caper, this time using a powerful crane magnet to intercept an armored car transporting a copy of the world’s first joke book, printed in Latin and compiled by Guiseppe Pennerini. The book is surrendered and the Creeper is in time to witness it. Soon, the Creeper is on an intercept course with the Jokermobile and the fists, at least those of the Creeper, begin to fly, until the Joker ambushes him with a gimmick in his coattails and proceeds to strangle his green-haired nemesis. During the struggle, the Creeper’s activator falls from his wristband into the Joker’s pocket and after he loses consciousness, the Joker decides to take him back to his Ha-hacienda hideaway and keep him trussed up until he decides what to do with him.

As he waits, the Joker peruses the local rag, going first to the comic strips. He looks at the daily “Cashews” strip, featuring Charlie Cashew, who looks an awful lot like another main character in a strip named after nuts. Sandy Saturn is the cartoonist responsible for Cashews and the Joker draws inspiration from Saturn’s wealthy turn at his strip, but before he can solidify his plans, the Creeper awakens and is suffering from amnesia. The Joker quickly exploits the situation, telling the Creeper that he was tied up by Sandy Saturn, who is framing him for his own crimes. The Joker suggests that the Creeper captures Sandy, bring him back to the lair, and he will ensure that the crooked cartoonist admits to his crimes to clear the Creeper’s name.

Segue the next day to the studio of Sandy Saturn, who has just grumpily ordered his bodyguards to get out of his presence so he can work in peace. The cartoonist is obviously unhappy with his stock in trade, as betrayed by his thoughts: “They think I’m rotten…guess I am! I used to be a real sweetheart…but drawing this cutesy trash gets on my nerves! Turns my stomach…meeting deadlines…being whimsical seven days a week! I shoulda been a stockbroker…plumber…hobo…anything! But no…I hadda be creative!

His angry musing is interrupted by a spectacular crash as the Creeper enters through the shattered skylight. Saturn flees, shouting for his bodyguards, who are no match for the laughing Creeper. After dispatching them, he kayos Sandy Saturn, then takes to the rooftops, finally arriving at the Ha-Hacienda and a delighted Joker.

While the Joker takes Saturn into another room, the Creeper catches the news on television where William Batson is standing in for Jack Ryder at WHAM-TV. The Creeper finds a strange familiarity with the name Jack Ryder and listens further as the report describes that he is being sought in connection with the theft of the Cellini mask.

Meanwhile, in the other room, the Joker sets Saturn up at a handy drawing board and gives him the supplies of his trade, including paper, pencil, ink and square so that he can work while the Joker delivers his ultimatum. The price of his freedom will be one million dollars. The Joker then peeks over Saturn’s shoulder and asks him to draw him into the strip. “Draw me kicking the tyke!” This delights Saturn, who proceeds to depict other situations with the Joker abusing Charlie Cashew. The Joker then excuses himself to continue with his nefarious plans.

He loads a time bomb into a satchel along with some papers and bursts in on the Creeper. The Joker announces that he’s got the necessary proof in the bag and that he’s arranging for the Creeper to meet with the Mayor, the D.A. and the Chief of Police at Precinct HQ to deliver the documents.

An hour later, outside the police station, a disguised Joker sends the Creeper inside. So elated is the Joker with his plan that he hugs himself. Then, hearing a terrific explosion, the Clown Prince of Crime does a little victory dance. What he cannot know is that just inside the building, the Creeper has transformed back into Jack Ryder and the shock of the transition has restored his memory. Quickly checking the satchel, Ryder discovers the bomb and quickly shoves it into a vacant office.

Later, as the Joker returns to his hideout, he finds a different figure at the drawing board. Jack Ryder swiftly pins him to the board, but before he can deliver a blow, the wily Joker blinds him with the ink from the inkwell. The positions are reversed and as Jack ponders his next move, he sees his activator fall from the Joker’s jacket pocket. Jack realizes what had happened and strains to make contact with it, finally getting his chin on the activator and transforming back into the Creeper, who, using the element of surprise, knocks the Joker out and hauls him off to justice, closing out this 18-pager.

I thought it was an inspired notion of Denny to pit two green-haired laughing fiends against one another and despite the many, many times I’d read this story, only with this latest re-reading, did I realize that while Sandy Saturn was a stand-in for Charles Schulz, I’d bet a week’s pay he was modeled after C.C. Beck and the stand-in broadcaster, William (Billy) Batson confirms it for me. I suspect the Easter egg was inspired in part by Denny’s own work scripting the new Shazam adventures.

So, this is a version of the Joker I remember well and appreciate and it also seemed opportune to take a look at one of Steve Ditko’s creations for DC, the Creeper, particularly since the 2nd of November is Steve’s birthday and I cannot help but wonder a little further if Denny was paying tribute to both Steve and his old instructor, Jerry Robinson with this story. Before I forget, do check out Alter Ego #160, which is a Steve Ditko tribute issue and even contains a small contribution by yours truly. Let me know if you locate it.

Thanks, as always, for joining us, dear readers. Do not forget to exercise your option to express yourself. I entertain all queries, questions and feedback. All you have to do is drop me an e-mail at: professor_the@hotmail.com.

We’ll be back on the 15th of November with a new review and until then…

Long live the Silver Age!

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