Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Joker

It was strange in a way that nothing of its kind has ever quite been:

the Joker.

Not the Joker; The Joker, a series starring the Clown Prince of Crime that lasted only 9 issues some 3o years ago.

The Joker was part of the DC Explosion (now known more commonly by its cacophemism, "the DC Implosion"). Now, it's one thing to make an out-and-out villain the star of an on-going series; this was the first time DC did so. But to do so with DC's most infamous and utterly irredeemable villain?


To star in his own comic, the Joker had to make the biggest character shift of all: going from antagonist to protagonist. He's not the only character who had trouble making this shift, but we'll talk more about that as a broader phenomenon later.

Joker had to go to Serial Killers Anonymous to star for the duration of his book; why, he barely killed 2 or 3 people, I think, during the whole series. Well, at least one of them was an innocent nightwatchmen, burned alive by a trick cigarette lighter; that's gotta count for extra points.

Boy, don't you hate it when a perfectly bad villain is ruined, defanged just so they can have their own series?

The stories ranged from Bad to Embarrassingly Awful, although some of the bad ones were fun, in a crazy sort of way. Fun guest stars, too: Luthor, Sherlock Holmes (!), the Scarecrow, the Royal Flush Gang, Catwoman.

You'd think that the only meeting between the Joker and the Creeper (that I know of, anyway) would be one of the greatest stories in DC's history (Joker #3). It is, in fact, perhaps the worst story I have ever read (and I've read the JLA Detroit) and proof positive (if further proof were needed) that Denny O'Neill really just cannot write. In one of DC's least comprehensible editorial decisions of all time, THAT was the story they chose to include in the "Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told". I can only assume they let the Joker himself edit that volume.

The series was hobbled by the Comics Code; at the end of every issue, the Joker had to be caught or his imminent capture implicated. If you think Arkham seems like a revolving door to you now, you should have seen it in 1975-76; the Joker had a secret hideout beneath his cell at the Asylum (mostly so he could watch TV, it seemed).
And the art, well, just by looking at the covers you can watch the deterioration. Such a pity; imagine what such a series might be like today.

But the series had many ludicrous joys, such as the Ha-Hacienda, the Ho-Ho-Home-on-Wheels, crooked entymologists, mind-swapping, pet hyenas, and, of course, the Shadrach/Mischach/and Abendego of Denominated Henchman, Southpaw, Tooth and Blue-Eyes.

Maddeningly, the tenth issue of the Joker was never published. According to the letter columns, its story was to be titled "99 and 44/100 Percent Dead!", and it was to guest-star ...

the Justice League.

I cannot for the life of me imagine what that story would have been.

But I have lain awake nights for the last 30 years trying to.


Anonymous said...

I remember this series;wish I knew what it was FOR,exactly...but then,clowns always seem more interesting than heroes...

Anonymous said...

99 and 44/100 % is the "purity" of Ivory Soap, isn't it?

Maybe that unpublished Joker / JLA story involved sending the JLA some of the novelty soaps you'd see advertised in comics of this era -- the itching soap, the black-face soap, and so forth.

It'd be cool to see Red Tornado accidentally wash his face with the blackening soap... But then do robots tend to wash their faces? Probably not. Alas.

Now I'm going to be lying awake nights, too.

David C said...

Did that Joker story perhaps make it into "Cancelled Comics Cavalcade?" Which would be about the same thing as "unpublished" for all practical purposes, but still....

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

I loved this series as a kid. some of the first comics I picked up. I don't remember them as being so terrible, but, when you started reading comics in the late 70s, this is what was out there...

I wonder if that justice league story is in a drawer somewhere at DC right now...

Chris Fung said...

Joker is one of the most fascinating characters in the entire DCU. It's a shame that the character had to be de-clawed in many ways just for this series.

I really think a Joker title with a psychological bent would work very well today. It'd be interesting to see how the mind of such a madman really works. I'm sure there have been storylines that dealt with that but putting it in an ongoing series would give a different perspective overall to the Joker.

Mark Cook said...

I've got the Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told trade, and in the end notes (by associate editor Mark Waid), it is noted that original Joker editor Julius Schwartz has no recollection of the JLA story ever being completed, so it is sadly unlikely to exist in publishable form.

Ragnell said...

I wouldn't think there'd be a problem with making a homicidal murderer the star of his own series. I mean, over at Marvel they have Wolverine, Punisher, the Ultimates...

Steven said...

imagine what such a series might be like today.

Wouldn't that be "The Killing Joke"? The Joker as evil as he ever is, yet told from his point of view in a way that allows us into his head?

I love the Killing Joke, by the way, but I don't think I could read that as a series. The Joker is too evil, his motives too alien and monstrous, to retain audience sympathy for an ongoing.

Lex Luthor, on the other hand...

Chance said...

This is weird; but I think the relative defanging of Catwoman was a logical step in the character's ongoing evolution. She was always a bit of a softy, villain-wise, wasn't she? I mean, she only stole, and protected Bats on more than one occasion, as far as I know.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I like Semi-Good Catwoman a lot better. (Mutter grumble Identity Crisis retcon that they thankfully seem to be ignoring.)

Anonymous said...

Really Scipio, you must like, what two or three writers?

Scipio said...

I don't know; I don't follow writers, I follow characters.

That's how people used to read comics before the writer became more important than the character.

Scipio said...

"Wolverine, Punisher, the Ultimates..."


Anonymous said...

The Creeper and the Joker also met in one of the Kaminski/Martinbrough/Buscema "Creeper" issues. Same issue also featured the Bat Monster Truck, which makes it tops in my book.

Anonymous said...

I love this series. It was alomst as good as the Secret Society of Super-Villains! I bought three or four Marvels a week back then, and only one DC - The Joker!

I've never read the first issue, though.

Anonymous said...

Just to nit-pick -- THE JOKER was not part of the "DC Explosion."

The DC Explosion happened in 1978 -- the basic-format books all got more pages and bumped the price up to 50 cents. Most of them added 8-page backup series, though some just got longer lead stories.

Whether the Explosion would have worked or not, we'll never know -- there wasa huge blizzard that blanketed the Northeast and crippled the shipping of comics out of World Color Press in New York for a month. Higher-ups above the DC level saw the sudden drop in sales and immediately canceled a huge chunk of DC's line. Whether this was because they didn't have the operating capital to survive the blizzard's damage without cutting costs, or because they assumed that the sales drop was due to the format change and not the weather, I don't know. But the Explosion was short-lived.

THE JOKER, while also short-lived, launched in 1975 and died in 1976, two years before the DC Explosion.


Bill Reed said...

That's how people used to read comics before the writer became more important than the character.

And thank God it did. Not that there's any difference in the ratio of quality to crap, but it just makes more damn sense. Buy 100 Superman comics, you're going to get wildly different stuff, and a ton of it is bound to be schlock. Buy 100 Grant Morrison comics, you get more consistency.

Scipio said...

"Buy 100 Grant Morrison comics, you get more consistency."


Grant Morrison?

Okay, you win; that's the funniest thing I've heard today.

Anonymous said...

This is off topic, but I'd like to ask from which comic book is the creepy panel with Joker from the post below.


Scipio said...

Julian, that's from

"The Composite Superman", which appeared in World's Finest #142, 1964.

If you follow the link in the post, it will lead to lots of interesting information about that unique story.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Joker/ creeper story sucked, but I liked J.L. Garcia-Lopez' art. He's one of those underrated '80s guys that always turned in good work.

MarkAndrew said...

"I don't know; I don't follow writers, I follow characters.

That's how people used to read comics before the writer became more important than the character."

You're forgetting artists. You ever read a letter page from a DC comic circa 1966? Fans were aware of who the writer was and VERY aware of the artists.

The beginnings of organized fandom, usually built around a pen-pal type relationship, were all based around folks expressing admiration for their favorite artists.

Specifically, their favorite EC artists. Fans have always been tangentally aware of who was drawing their books (Carl Barks as the "good" duck artist) but to EC fans the artist was THE most important thing.

'Course, in superhero books there's always going to be a large segment of the audience who doesn't care beans about who wrote or drew a comic, just 'cause they're aimed at a younger/younger-at-heart audience. But at least for the last fifty years there've been comics fans who's primary interest was WHO was drawing 'em, not WHO was starring in 'em.

MarkAndrew said...

And, oh yeah, I thought that Creeper story was all sorts of awesome. The Joker kidnaps a drunken, bitter version of Charle M. Schultz? Brilliant. Comic Gold.

I honestly dug the whole series in all it's lunacy. Much better than Secret Society of Supervillains or (more recently) Villains United.

Scipio said...

Following a comic simply because of the artist is like watching films simply because of the cinematographer.

Anonymous said...

Which some people do. ``v People like comics for all kinds of different reasons, and none of them are wrong. (Except the people who like them because they're good murder weapons.)

That said. "Cashews"? Urgh.

MarkAndrew said...

"Following a comic simply because of the artist is like watching films simply because of the cinematographer."

Inker maybe. Inker and colorist.

Following a comic by artist is (usually, kinda sorta, dependent on a buncha variables) like following a movie by director and actors.

But back to my point about you being wrong. People following series by characters exclusively is a relatively new thing... 'Cording to my dad

(who ran a comic shop back in the seventies although he's probably not the greatest source ever)

organized fans an' collectors started following artists first, and it wasn't 'till later that they started defining 'emselves as fans of characters.

Originally, comics by Jack Cole (or whoever) were the big ticket items. Now the first appearance of Nightwing (or however) goes for big bucks.

Before that... Well, people bought what they thought was cool. Which is dependent of characters, sure; The best selling comics series ever was "Walt Disneys Comics and Stories" which had Mickey and Donald plastered on each and every cover...

But COOL also meant that there was an artist delivering a visual hook that made the tykes say "Mommmy! I want DAT! Only a dime, Mommy!"

(Personally I buy comics based on the "Oooh. Shiny" system, where I'll pick up anything I see as novel or unique. Character, artist, and writer are all behind this. Oooh. Or anything with pirates.)

Scipio said...

"'Cording to my dad "

Oh. Well, then.

Good art and good writing did not make comics popular, since most of them haven't had it most of the time.

Good long-term mythmaking based on resonant initial character concepts do that.

Take the famous "movie monsters". Frankstein, Dracula, the Phantom of Opera, the Invisible Man, et al.-- all of those are based on really awful books. Nearly unreadable ones, in fact.

But the underlying idea is what hooks people-- with those characters and comic book characters as well.

When Jim Lee and Grant Morrison have their faces on Underoos instead of Batman and Superman, THEN I'll believe that artists and writers are more important than the characters they contribute to.

P.S. Don't you have your OWN blog for this, Mark?

I'm using this one already.

MarkAndrew said...

"Good art and good writing did not make comics popular, since most of them haven't had it most of the time.

Good long-term mythmaking based on resonant initial character concepts do that. "

Now? Absolutely. I agree 100%. I think it was the 1990s X-thing that did it. People were trained to buy ALL the X-books and ONLY the X-books, cause of character. Certainly Grant Morrison/Jim Lee Batman outsold the hell outta We3 or.... whatever Jim Lee was doing before Batman. I think it had a pizza boy in it.

But in the past? Nuh-uh. In the fifties we had EC an' Carl Barks comics, which people most def DID buy based on the artist. Before that, when comics actually sold in the millions and millions of copies, anthology books were dominant. And the drawing on the cover was THE hook to seperate allowances from l'il tyke's fingers.

Later on, yeah, people buy based on character. Most comic fans still do.

P.S. Aside from being unreadable I thought Dracula was a really good book.

P.P.S. And, yeah, I do have a blog somewhere but I'm FAR too lazy to do a complete history of fandom.

Anonymous said...

The book "The Invisible Man" was freakin' awesome. And if the Joker can get his own series, why not Killer Moth? It could follow his adventures as a protector of gangsters.