The Joker: The Clown Prince of Crime couldn’t be more timely here in Review Country. Just a week or two ago I was talking about the newly released Harley Quinn #1 and how I felt that much like the Joker, she’s a character I enjoy most in small doses. In my opinion there are characters out there that are more effective when they are used sparingly as though they are a treat like dessert– and I wouldn’t want to have dessert for every meal! And so I ranted about it all being a case of “Too much of a good thing.” and then ta-da! Here was The Joker: The Clown Prince of Crime arriving in stores at the perfect moment to remind us all that there actually was a Joker solo series long before Harley Quinn was even an idea in Dini and Timm’s head. It only ran for 9 issues, was formulaic, and featured a Joker watered down by the Comics Code Authority, but that’s kind of what makes it so interesting to look at.
The Joker: The Clown Prince of Crime collects all 9 issues of the arch-villain’s short-lived 1975 solo series. This is the first time these stories have been collected in a trade paperback so it’s pretty cool to finally have the opportunity to get your hands on all of these tales in one book and many fans will also be happy to know that the coloring hasn’t been digitally tampered with like in other reprintings such as the Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams volumes. What you see here is exactly how the comics were presented 38 years ago, which means that it retains that authentic feel as well as all those instances of the Joker being mistakenly shown with blue hair or flesh-colored skin!
Every issue of The Joker was a stand-alone story developed by rotating creative teams. The writers involved include Denny O’Neil, Elliot Maggin, and Martin Pasko and it was illustrated by Irv Novick, Dick Giordano, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Ernie Chen, Vince Colletta, Tex Blaisdell, and Frank McLaughlin. Surprisingly with so many people involved these 9 chapters all showcase an almost identical voice and tone and seamlessly look as if they were drawn by the same team again and again.
None of the stories serve to add greater dimension to the Joker or elaborate on his rivalry/obsession/hatred/love for Batman. In fact, Batman never even shows up in the comic. It’s surprising how seldom the Dark Knight is even mentioned and that’s one of the series’ big failings. You can make a long run of Batman stories without the Joker and still keep readers entertained but the Joker character is never truly alive without Batman present. He’s a character that has no other motivation than to fight Batman, hell he doesn’t even have a past, not a single memory without the Batman in it. So without the main character’s reason for being, the creators had to get creative and come up with tales that didn’t feel all that organic to the nature of the Clown Prince of crime. The Joker in these issues is often motivated by a desire to outdo another criminal or he suddenly finds himself with the desire to torment an entirely different hero from another comic book.
These tales are mostly comedic in nature and the only elements of Joker’s world that got fleshed out were the henchmen he hired, the Arkham guards who failed to keep him behind bars, his relationship with various rogues was also touched upon briefly, and we get names for all of Joker’s favorite hideouts and gadgets (The Ha-Hacienda, The Mobile Ho-Home, The Joker Mobile, etc.). But the sad fact is that a series about a villain, especially one as disturbed as the Joker, could not thrive in the time that this book was published. There’s clearly a desire for Joker to do some absolutely ghastly things (we see a cigarette lighter that’s actually a flame thrower, pies filled with acid rather than cream, a “snake nut can” that explodes with a snake that actually strangles the prankee) and he’s clearly clever enough to outwit most if not all the adversaries he faces in these tales, but the Comics Code Authority made it impossible for him to unleash his full fury or have any plan with a winning outcome.
The Code’s requirement that all criminals receive punishment every time necessitated that each story would end with the Joker locked up or in the process of getting apprehended, thereby restricting the scope of the stories told (Waid 1988, 282). Instead of killing innocent victims and pushing Batman to the limits, the Joker usually challenged rival supervillains with madcap antics more like those in tales published a generation earlier.
—Icons of the American Comic Book: Captain America to Wonder Woman, Duncan & Smith
The adventures featured in this collection include:
- Joker vs. Two-Face– Comics Alliance has a really good write-up about this issue so I’ll just point you in that direction
- The Joker & Weeper Team-up — Chances are good that you don’t know who “Willie the Weeper” is or you’ve only heard of him from a brief appearance on the cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold. In short, Willie is a master criminal who always fails at the one yard line because he breaks out in tears as soon as he’s about to achieve villainous victory. In this issue, Weeper asks for the Joker to help him get over the blues and teach him the secret of committing crimes that’ll put a smile on his face. We also see some more from Benny Khiss and Marvin Fargo, two Arkham guards who were fired after letting the Joker escape. Again
- The Joker kidnaps Charls M. Schulz and The Creeper is the only man who can stop him. Yep. I liked that this was such a strange concept for a story, especially with the many “Peanuts” references, but I really don’t like The Creeper as a character
- The Joker travels to Star City to put the moves on Dinah Lance and ruin Green Arrow’s day. This was the first of the field-trip stories that saw Joker take a vacation from Gotham and it also came with the greatest feeling of “What… why is Joker here?”
- Joker vs. The Royal Flush Gang — This is the best of the Joker-in-disguise stories and it also features one of the first instances of Joker flat-out lying about his origin story a la “Wanna know how I got these scars?” You can see that particular panel on my twitter account right now @AndrewBatReview as well as a few other noteworthy Joker lines from this collection
- The Joker vs. Sherlock Holmes… but not really — Although the cover of this issue has Sherlock Holmes, what readers actually found was an actor with a head injury attempting to match wits with The Joker. On yet another road trip with his favorite henchmen, Southpaw and Tooth, The Joker wrecks a stage play where the actor playing Sherlock Holmes suffers a blow to the head and wakes up believing he is the real-life Master Sleuth. To make sure that their lead actor doesn’t do anything stupid, the director puts a stagehand in charge of shadowing “Sherlock” on his investigation and, of course, Sherlock recruits him as his own “Watson.” So it’s not really Joker vs. Sherlock as much as it is Joker vs. Sir Digby Chicken Caesar
- The Joker vs. Lex Luthor — Easily the most memorable of the stories in the collection, “Luthor– You’re Driving Me Sane!” sees the two escaped supervillians coincidentally seated in the same movie theater where they recognize one another and go out for lunch at a place called Burger Blast. Joker is wearing a trench coat and afro while Luthor is wearing sunglasses to hide his identity and the two discuss sinister plans for a bit until the police arrive and they both escape to Luthor’s hideout. It’s there that Joker plays with some of Luthor’s latest inventions and ends up swapping his insanity with Luthor’s genius
- The Joker vs. Scarecrow — The Scarecrow and Nightmare, his pet raven, have been framed by the Joker for a series of crimes. Basically, the Joker is picking on Scarecrow throughout the entire issue and even finds a more clever use for the fear toxin than Scarecrow ever did
- The Joker and Catwoman have a criminal plot against the same movie star but things get even more complicated when a second Joker appears on the scene. Which one is the real Joker?
It’s all pretty corny and many of the stories are quite forgettable, I actually had trouble recalling what happened in the Catwoman, Scarecrow, Weeper, and Creeper stories. But there are some legitimately funny moments in there and the effort to make things lighthearted and kid-friendly even after Joker throws an acid pie in someone’s face is pretty endearing. Plus, it’s always fun to flip through some retro comics.
The Joker series isn’t a must-read, but it’s a cool item to have on your shelf simply so you can tell friends about the time Joker had his own comic in an age when Joker couldn’t do what Joker does best.
There isn’t any. The final three pages are made up of ads for other graphic novels.
Value: Sale Price
It’s the novelty value that’s off the charts. Re-read value on the other hand is rather low. You’ll check this out once just to see what it was like for the Joker to have his own comic book back in the 70’s and then you’ll move on. $16.99 sounds like a bit much so I would recommend buying it for a discount at Amazon or wherever else you can find comics for a discounted price.
I wouldn’t say that these stories are “good” and you can basically get the gist after reading a single issue, but I do think that The Joker series represents an important transitionary period in the character’s history where he began to shake off the Comics Code Authority and evolve from annoying prankster back into a highly intelligent homicidal maniac.