The Joker Is Wild, Maybe Too Wild (#SFWApro)

I’m often fascinated by the way what we think of as the “definitive” version of a character is a relatively late development. The original concept of Batman, for example, is amazingly human compared to the invincible demi-god he’s been written as the past couple of decades.
The Joker is an excellent example of this, as reading Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams recently reminded me.
When the Joker debuted (Batman #1) he was a bizarre, stylish sociopath. He announces his plan to carry out a robbery murder at midnight, having already stolen the jewel he wants and injected the victim with a delayed-action poison. The cops try to stop a crime that’s already happened and, of course, fail.
The Joker in those days is homicidal, flamboyant and brilliant. After a couple of years, the homicidal side got dropped and he became simply a colorful, cunning criminal. That would be the definitive Joker for the next 30 years (if you’ve seen the 1960s TV show, Cesar Romero nails him) until Batman #251 and The Joker’s Five Way Revenge (Cover by Neal Adams, rights with current holder)
batman251
The Denny O’Neill/Neal Adams story has the Joker escaping the mental hospital where we learn he’s spent the last few years (not Arkham Asylum, which came later) and is now hunting down his old gang, one of whom he believes betrayed him. He doesn’t know which one, so he’ll kill them all.
For the first time since the early 1940s, the Joker kills, and does so with relish: A shark, an exploding cigar with nitroglycerin in it, Joker venom with its trademark grin. This was instantly acclaimed as a story that brought the Joker back to his original murderous self—the definitive Joker.
Definite yes. Back to the original? Not so much.
Rereading the early stories some years later, I realized that while the Joker kills without a qualm, he is otherwise perfectly sane. Evil, murderous, but completely rational. After 251, the concept he’s not merely homicidal but completely cuckoo has been accepted as definitive.
Not that this is entirely a bad thing: It’s led to some great stories. In one, the Joker captures Robin, then drives around on Christmas Eve letting Robin see him run over pedestrians. In another, the Joker dumps chemicals in the nearby fishing grounds that give the fish his trademark leer, then demands a trademark for the fish. When he doesn’t get it, he decides to kill people until the law changes.
But some stories don’t work so well. In an issue of Spectre, concerning a ghost who ruthlessly murders criminals, creators John Ostrander and Tim Mandrake tackle the question of why he doesn’t execute the Joker. The Spectre discovers the Joker is so far removed from reality he isn’t responsible for his actions.
This is pretty unconvincing. The Joker understands reality perfectly: He knows people are alive, he knows he’s killing them, he chooses to do so. Under current law (as The Law of Super-Heroes has pointed out) he’s quite sane. They’d have been better off dodging the unanswerable question about Why Not Kill Him instead of bringing realism into it.
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(Cover by Brian Bolland, rights with current holder)
And then there’s The Killing Joke. This Alan Moore/Brian Bolland story has the Joker put Commissioner Gordon through hell. His goal: To drive Gordon insane. Why? Because that will prove nothing the Joker’s done has ever been his fault! If Gordon can crack, well then, you can’t blame the Joker for going insane, can you?
It’s an extremely powerful story, but as DC Women Kicking Ass says, it’s treatment of Barbara Gordon is ugly. The Joker cripples her with a shot to the spine, strips her naked and shows the photographs to her dad. It’s a painful humiliating moment, but at the same time, she’s not really important. It’s not her story, just collateral damage.
I could see the Golden-Age Joker killing Babs, but I doubt he’d do anything that sadistic.
Regardless of which, the Crazy Joker is now the definitive take. I suspect it’ll stay that way for a while.

2 Comments

Filed under Comics, Reading

2 responses to “The Joker Is Wild, Maybe Too Wild (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: Fate is the Doctor (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Curmudgeonly grumbles about Batman: Superheavy (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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