Still Wild After All These Years
Tripwire’s contributing writer Laurence Boyce takes a look at DC’s The Joker: 80 Years Of The Clown Prince Of Crime Deluxe Edition…
The Joker: 80 Years of the Clown Prince of Crime (The Deluxe Edition)
Published by DC Comics
“If the police expect to play against the Joker, they’d better be prepared to be dealt from the bottom of the deck!” – Batman #1
It’s generally accepted that The Joker was created in 1940 by Jerry Robinson, an artist who was working closely with Batman creator Bob Kane (though Kane was insistent that he was the actual creator of the character). Tasked with creating a villain for The Dark Knight, Robinson sat around and mused as to who would make a perfect foil.
“I knew from reading the classics that memorable characters often have an internal contradiction – such as a deadly villain with a sense of humour,” says Robinson, writing in his autobiography Jerry and the Joker. “’That’s it!’ I shouted to myself in an eureka moment. I had the name: The Joker.”
Inspired by a pack of cards and Harry Clark, an English gothic artist who illustrated stories by Edgar Allen Poe, Robinson created an elongated and white-skinned vision of evil, the grinning ying to Batman’s stoic yang. And thus one of pop culture’s greatest villains was born. In the 80 years since his creation, The Joker has been Batman’s most virulent nemesis in the comic books, in video games and on the big screen.
The Joker: 80 Years of the Clown Prince of Crime collects some of the greatest adventures of the grinning maniac with the multiple-choice past and documents the change in his character from being merely a criminal with bad dress sense to the crazed psychopath that continues to make a mark on Batman – and comic book – mythos today.
Unsurprisingly, this collection begins with Batman Vs. The Joker, the first meeting of the two that graced the pages of Batman #1 way back in Spring 1940. This and other Golden Age tales in this collection (such as ‘The Man Behind the Red Hood’ and ‘The Great Clayface Joker Feud’) contain many of the tropes that defined the era. The stories are bold and simple – with Joker engaging in murder, ransom and robbery in a way that seems quaint compared to his later incarnations – and the art of Bob Kane and Robinson is striking, all primary colours and kinetic action. In these early stories The Joker does – visually at least – stand out from the crowd with his grinning white visage and sunken dark eyes betraying a malevolence that other super villains lacked. Yet, for many years, The Joker was merely one of many within Batman’s rogues gallery. Years would pass without a Joker story appearing in Batman while thanks to the TV show, Caesar Romero’s wonderfully OTT performance would render The Joker as seemingly nothing more than a rather camp antagonist who would occasionally pop-up to feel the wrath of The Dark Night Detective.
It was the sorely missed Dennis O’Neill who re-invented The Joker and started to place him at the centre stage. ‘The Joker’s Five Way Revenge’ – in which Mr J returns to enact vengeance upon some of his former henchmen – is a classic, not only for its gloriously mad story but for its re-invention of the character. The malevolence that was buried beneath the surface in the Golden Age is brought to the fore here. An underling is dispatched with an explosive cigar (“A pity he didn’t guess the explosive in the cigar was nitro-glycerine!”) and it’s both ridiculous and scary. And The Joker himself has slightly changed. There’s still the smile that hides the evil behind the eyes, but he’s almost impossibly thing and angular: a walking gargoyle amongst a normal world.
Subsequent stories, such as two great Steve Engleheart efforts ‘The Laughing Fish’ and ‘Sign of the Joker’ and Len Wein’s ‘Dreadful Birthday Dear Joker’, add to the character’s unpredictability. Mixing seemingly insane schemes (to make fish look like him so he can capitalise on copyright) and random acts of murder (the shooting of one henchmen with a spear-gun is particularly memorable) The Joker starts to become actually terrifying as he moves from ‘conniving’ to ‘insane’.
It would be A Death In The Family – in which the Joker beats the Jason Todd version of Robin to death (and he remained dead for a surprisingly long time in comic book terms) – that would cement his status as Batman’s chief antagonist, which is here represented by the final chapter in said story. There would also be The Killing Joke, Alan Moore’s seminal story that tries to give The Joker a possible past, which would explore more of The Joker’s insanity. While the story has been disowned by Moore and its treatment of women is slightly troubling when examined more than three decades since it was released, The Killing Joke (of which an excerpt in presented here) is still an important part of the character’s mythos – with the important caveat of “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
This is part of what makes The Joker such an unsettling antagonist. Batman. We can understand the motivations of Batman, after seeing his parents gunned down. Even the most heinous of crimes and criminals have some sort of motivation, no matter how twisted it may be. But there’s nothing to hold on to with The Joker. He’s unknowable. An agent of chaos who inflicts harm, seemingly on a whim.
The Joker’s notoriety had also increased in pop culture thanks to not only the Tim Burton movies but Mark Hamill’s excellent as the character in The Animated Series. This is represented here in a reprint of the excellent one shot ‘Mad Love’. While ostensibly an origin story for Harley Quinn, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s story not only provides a welcome snapshot of their version of The Joker but also reminds us of the manipulative traits of his personality .
By the time we reach stories from the modern era, The Joker is in full on psychopath mode. An excerpt from Hush reminds us of the dynamic between Batman and The Joker, and the former’s promise to never kill the latter, while an excerpt from Soft Targets, a story from Gotham Central, places The Joker in a more realistic setting that heightens how disturbing he can be. One shot ‘Slayride’ is a disturbing thrill ride of a story – also from the pen of Dini – in which The Joker kidnaps Robin and engages on a murder spree. Much like the modern incarnation of the character, it’s thrilling and disturbing in equal measure.
The most modern stories here suffer slightly from being conclusions to more convultued stroylines, such as the end of Death of the Family. With The Joker now being able to strike at the heart of the ‘Bat Family’ (with the revelation that he has known that Batman was Bruce Wayne all along) there is a sense of grandiose evil here. But there’s also a sense of continually having to ‘one up’ previous iterations of the character and make him even more evil and psychotic. It may be fittingly disturbing but when The Joker is removing his own face and using it as a mask, it seems over the top even in the world of Batman.
But we shall see where the world takes him. With the current Joker’s War storyline and the much anticipated Three Jokers, he will continue to develop and be the most important antagonist in Batman’s universe. But he’ll be very unlikely to defeat him. After all, what would be the fun in that?
This is a brilliant collection with some wonderful essays accompanying the stories, such as thoughts and reminisces from the likes of Mark Hamill, Steve Engleheart, Paul Dini, Jeph Loeb and Scott Snyder. While there are maybe a couple of minor absences (an excerpt from Brian Azzarello’s Joker would have been welcome alongside a glimpse of the hyper sexualised Jokers of Arkham Asylum and The Dark Knight Returns, though the latter does appear in a reprinted cover from Dark Knight III: The Master Race) this is an essential collection for those wanting to chart the evolution of The Joker.
The Joker: 80 Years of the Clown Prince of Crime (The Deluxe Edition) is available now published by DC Comics at 25GBP