A Joker's Dozen: "The Joker" from BATMAN #1 (1940) Author: Robert Reineke
May 26, 2007
EDITOR'S NOTE: In honor of The Joker's 75th anniversary, BOF is bringing back Robert Reineke's "The Joker's Dozen" series from 2007. GREAT stuff, so please give it a read! - Bill "Jett" Ramey
One of the touchstones of The Jokerís interpretation in comics is the first dozen stories featuring the Joker that follow his introduction as a cold blooded killer and his transformation into a clever prankster that would bedevil Batman over the years without falling prey to the morality police. There are a dozen stories that make up this initial introduction, so 11 parts to go after this.
The Plot: The Joker steals gems and kills their owners following radio announcements.
Body Count: Four (1 by delayed action poison, 1 by poison dart, 1 by off panel poisoning, 1 by gunshot).
Best Kill: Delayed action poison with the rictus grin forming right in front of the police.
Other Mayhem: Uses paralyzing gas on a room full of policemen, tosses Batman off a bridge, takes a sap to Robinís head and attempts to poison him, and uses paralyzing gas on Batman.
The Outthink: Batman tracks The Joker to his lair using an infrared flashlight on Robinís footprints.
The Comeuppance: Batman and Robin take The Joker down in a fight at a penthouse and construction site.
Much has been written and said about The Jokerís original appearance which has been much reprinted over the years. Itís one of the best stories from the Golden Age and extremely important to the history of Batman. Itís the first Batman and Robin vs. a costumed supervillain story and is the basic story template for the feature. Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson really make the feature itís own unique creation here. Itís been retold at least twice over the years by Englehart/Rogers and by Brubaker/Mahnke.
As an introduction, you can hardly ask for more. Threatening to pull off a crime in front of the police, itís revealed that he ďcheatsĒ to pull off his announced crime. Itís a brilliant ploy on a number of levels as it establishes that The Joker makes his own rules, itís grim and macabre signaling what kind of crimes The Joker is capable of, it showcases his vanity in announcing the crime instead of pulling it off anonymously, itís senseless and completely unnecessary to the goal of stealing a jewel, and it establishes early that itís going to require an extraordinary hero to capture him. The action is a true expression of the character and one of Bill Fingerís finest bits of writing.
"The Joker" (BATMAN #1, Vol. 1)
Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson also outdo most of their early efforts here. The Joker is described as having a ďmask-likeĒ face and ďhate-filledĒ eyes and he sure does in this story. And the art adds to the story as the only times he smiles are when heís committing or planning or planning evil. And thatís quite a smile. The character may be based on Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, but that was a character to be pitied, this is a character of evil. The only thing missing from the character is his trademark laugh, which is held off for now.
In addition to the main plot, thereís a minor secondary plot with organized crime jealous of the new addition to the ranks. The Joker fits in neither with criminals nor with normal society.
Bill Finger never explicitly said it, but the story carries the seeds for the ďrise of the freaksĒ subplot that will make up more modern tales of Batmanís early days.
A page from "The Joker" (BATMAN #1, Vol. 1)
Weíre given some information on the Jokerís background, the most weíll get until the 1950s, without it being very explicit. Heís a master of chemistry and poison, with his injectable venom and gas gun that paralyzes people. He also claims to be a master of disguise, which considering his look makes sense as a way for him to mingle and perform menial tasks. And he gives Batman quite a physical tussle, sending him over a bridge in a fistfight and Batman and Robin both being necessary to take him down in the end. And The Jokerís physical prowess will be a recurring initial characteristic of The Joker that he challenges Batman physically as well as mentally. Itís also established in the story, where The Joker gets revenge on Judge Drake, that The Joker has spent time in jail, establishing that this is a villain with a history of evil and despite his looks not to be pitied.
Itís worth noting that in addition to the playing card/clown symbolism, vampire symbolism is present in the story. The Joker is a pale skinned villain who makes his lair in an abandoned crypt and in a deserted house. Thatís another avenue for depicting the paleness of The Joker that hasnít been explicitly followed on film yet.
At the end of the story, The Joker is in jail but still planning his escape and more evil. And you only had to wait through two more stories for that promise to be fulfilled. - Robert Reineke