Friday, January 16, 2009

the joker: the greatest stories ever told

You’d think I would have read this before now, but it never came up in my holds list at the library.

So, like the volumes of other villain collections (Batman vs. Two Face, Scarecrow Tales) this is a good survey of the field—the very first Joker story in 1940 to Paul Dini and Don Kramer’s modern masterpiece “Slayride” (which I already reviewed). The first story is called, appropriately enough, “Batman vs the Joker,” and is of course by those legends Bob Kane and Bill Finger. I was surprised—I thought the very first story was going to give us an explanation akin to Red Hood for how the Joker got his pasty white skin and green hair. Instead, like the other nutters in 1940s Gotham, he just evilly appears on the scene, another mad perpetrator of crimes (for profit, revenge, and fun). From the beginning, he appears in his purple suit with a handful of playing cards, looking more like Bela Lugosi than the Jack Nicholson-like figure on the cover of this volume. It’s a bit hilarious that all of Gotham has sat down on a 1940 night to get their kicks listening to the radio, but attention hog that he is, the Joker uses that medium to broadcast his crimes. Plus ça change.

“The Joker’s Comedy of Errors” from 1951, written by Bill Finger and drawn by Lew Schwartz, suffers from untranslatable slang—ie, slang from 1951 that means something totally different now. When the comic is talking about “boners,” it means “blunders.” But it’s hard not to read this comic with a constant snicker, especially when the Joker rants, “So! They laugh at my boner, will they?!” . . . aaaaaand I’m not even going to finish that sentence. The crimes he masterminds certainly resemble those in Batman: The Animated Series, showing the subtle shift from the violent (by comparison) ‘40s to the comics that had begun to be censored.

“Joker’s Utility Belt” from 1952 also belongs in this vein, though I have to admit I’m pretty impressed with the first page/cover of the comic, by David V. Reed and Dick Sprang. The reasoning in this one is that since Batman’s utility belt has defeated the Joker on so many previous occasions, the Joker decides to fight back with his own utility belt. “Crime of the Month Club” is from 1957, drawn by Dick Sprang and written by Dave Wood. Still the same tone, the same gags, inventive crimes, a foreshadowing of Holiday in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween. A continuation on this theme with “The Joker’s Last Laugh” from 1964 by John Broome and Sheldon Moldoff, though there are some outrageous sections. Using laughing gas (supposedly some pollen compound of “the plant known as loco weed”) to outwit people (again, something B:tAS picked up on), the Joker presents a dizzying amount of practical jokes before locking Batman and Robin up, intent on dynamiting the phony police station prison in which they are incarcerated. They get away, of course.

We jump ahead by more than ten years in “The Laughing Fish” by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. The art has been given a tremendous shot of modernization—gone are the linear panels, replaced by the huge, sweeping, cinematic pages we know today. The coloring palate has ditched those garish colors of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, and though this is one of the strangest stories in the collection, it’s also much more ambitious than the capers we’ve just read. The subplot has to do with Silver St. Cloud, Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend who has just found out his real identity. The plot proper sees all the fish on the Eastern seaboard “contaminated with that lunatic grin” and the Joker marching to the patent office so he can make a fortune off his “Joker-fish.” The best part of this comic is that the Joker of the late ‘70s is not only a bit more stylish, but honest-to-God funny, even as he’s terrorizing people (which is, sadly, the point!). “Good Lord!” cries the patent office director. “Where?” asks the Joker. “Oh, hahahahaha, I see! It was just an expression—of endearment.” When the poor patent office director tells him it’s not on, “But the fish share my unique face! If Colonel What’s-his-name can have chickens, when they don’t even have mustaches--!” The plot from then on is similar to “Batman vs. the Joker,” and the narrator proves he won’t be bested by his witty antagonist: “A man that mad is worth more space . . . but we have other men to meet before dawn!” The Joker ends this particularly adventure electrocuted, but somehow survives. As he always does.

“Have a Dreadful Birthday, Mr. Joker” from 1980 by Len Wein and Walter Simonson hearkens artistically back to the ‘60s, but the story is easily at home in B:tAS. It begins with Commissioner Gordon being invited to the Joker’s birthday party: “black tie optional, funny hats mandatory.” Selina Kyle is an invitee, as well, despite the fact she and the Joker have never gotten along (not that they have any reason to!)—only he would give her a bouquet of roses with a boxing glove inside it. (A bit like the London Monster concealing sharp knives in nosegays!) Another invitee is Robin—“You’re out of your mind, Joker!” “Gloriously so! Isn’t it wonderful?” The other guests are lured to the party because of the promise of something for nothing, and the Joker promises them pieces of cake, when the giant cake blows up, with all of the invitees strapped to dynamite.

“Laughter After Midnight” is by that dream team that gave us B:tAS, written during the time when the show was on the air: Dini, Timm, Burchett. It’s drawn with gorgeous, glossy detail. Dini’s story is simple and very humorous, though more violent than the kids’ show could ever be. In one of the reviews for “Butcher, Baker, Tailor” someone remarked that even simple social interactions like having coffee were beyond the Joker; this comic explores what the Joker does when he’s not “Joker-izing.” This includes going for donuts and calling up Harley Quinn for a ride (she’s been detained by the police, so it’s a no-go). Even though everything the Joker does here conjures up Mark Hamill’s version, you can easily imagine the Joker of TDK laughing over injuries—“Ow! That’s going to hurt in the morning”—as this one does. I’m still waiting to get my hands on The Long Halloween, but here’s a tantalizing sneak peek from that talented pair of Loeb and Sale: “New Year’s Eve.” It involves the Joker “chartering” a biplane with the intent of crashing it into Gotham Square at midnight. “Up, up, and away! Or whatever the hell the expression is . . .” I never claimed to like how Sale drew the Joker, and still don’t, but I love this exchange (makes me think of TDK): JOKER: “When the clock strikes twelve—do I get a little kiss? . . . Eurrk. I’ll take that as a ‘no.’”

I loved Batman: Black and White vol. 1, and vol. 2 is surely just as good if “Case Study” by Paul Dini and Alex Ross is any indication. The art is photorealistic, the story quite at home in “Spirit and Liberty.” Truly—the art is superb. Nothing I can say will convey to you the appropriate measure of awe I feel for the art. If you don’t know the Red Hood story you might be a little lost, but then again, you may be learning all this for the first time. It proves, through a case study compiled by Dr. Harleen Quinzel (before she went mad and became Harley Quinn), that the Joker brutally orchestrated his rise to the top of a criminal organization long before he ever fell into the chemical vat and went “crazy.” The volume was published in 2002, smack dab between Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s visions of the Joker, so he looks suitably Nicholson-like. “He had a new mission now, bon out of a personal trauma possibly akin to whatever dark circumstances shaped the Batman’s life.”

The last two stories in this volume are from Hush vol. 2, which I’ve just reviewed, and “Slayride” by Dini and Kramer. You know that I think both of these stories are fab.

No comments: