Reprinted from the Fall 2010 issue of SemiSecret Society, “Bludhaven’s Only Punk Rock and Supervillain Zine”
There are certain well-worn punchlines that we in the supervillain journalism community are honor bound not to perpetuate: No backwards headlines about Bizarro, no reusing the puns from your Mr. Freeze article for your Captain Cold article, a whole chapter on Catwoman wordplay, but there is one bon mot so evergreen that it proves itself every year like clockwork:
The Joker is Wild.
This heinous miscarriage of the written word carries more than just groan-inducing humour when you consider what this means in the context of the card game it’s based in. When you say that Jokers are wild you’re not claiming the card is insane, you’re giving it the ability to become whatever you need it to be. Two fours, two aces and a joker nets you a Full House and the Clown Prince of Crime shares this chameleonic proclivity. While Joker worship among the anti-tights crowd has become passé due to its ubiquity, how many of us picked up the mask after hearing that cackle over a loudspeaker or skywritten next to a curse on Batman’s name? Here are our staff’s top five Joker Personas from over the years.
Self-Titled (1940) – An understated classic finally reaching recognition now, The Joker’s first Post Red-Hood strikes at Supervillainy created a genre all it’s own while paying homage to the greats and even presaging the rest of the artist’s career. It’s all there right in this first crime! George Lucas with Star Wars, Jay-Z with The Blueprint, The Joker with the midnight murders. Literally killing with a smile and audacious enough to not even hide behind a mask. And when the Bat didn’t kill him, boom. The Archnemesis. The Bad Penny. Marc Bolan was that guy who did acoustic D&D ballads until he accidentally smeared glitter on his face and The Red Hood was a nobody until he amped up his menswear and ditched the mask.
The Killing Joke (1988) – Raise your hand if you had these police transcripts on bootleg tape from one of the seniors at school? That’s what I thought. Perpetually snatching back his murderous roots from the hands of revisionists who flip around The Joker and The Riddler as if they aren’t The Beatles and the damn Monkees, this set of crimes was dark even for a guy who blew up a teenager a couple of years earlier. A good artist uses his medium to communicate his enthusiasm for his obsessions with his audience, and if your obsession is insanity and your medium is murder then trying to drive Saint Jim Gordon into the arms of dementia is your Ninth Symphony.
The Clown Prince (1965) – There’s a fragility and invincibility once you reach the status of Beloved Cultural Icon (and Murderer). You’re a god to some and yet no part of your persona is beyond scrutiny. What do you do when you’re the biggest star in the world and people don’t want to hear anything new? You get goddam wacky. Two words: Fat Elvis. Faced with a public that just wanted “Kill Batman” played on a loop 24/7, The Pagliacci Perpetrator gave them nothing but in the most insane way possible. Everything was a counterpoint to Batman, making his own utility belt, Jokermobile, specialized costumes, the whole shebangibang. While perceived as the tiresome career-cannibalism of an artist past his prime, the sad fact is that those folks don’t get that the joke is on them. A criminal execution of Be Careful What You Wish For. Those who take the time to check for the sardonic smirk under the painted-on grin will find that this period of crimes offers some real gems.
Five Way Revenge (1973) – Sandblasting away the trappings of überfame this neo-classicist approach to crime got back to what made the Joker great in the first place, namely unpredictable and wholesale slaughter. Five Way Revenge is a perpetual resident on Top Crimes of the Seventies lists but man, a hit is a hit for a reason. Murdering stoolies, an explosive cigar, dangling an old man over a great white shark- and hell, that wasn’t even going to be his best fish-based crime of the seventies. Interestingly, The Joker came to terms with the necessity of Batman in his life and passed up the chance to unmask The Bat in favor of staging a grander showdown later. While I see no reason that a virtuosic and unparalleled talent in the field of supervillainy can only exist through a lens of chiropteric nocturnal vigilantism, this choice certainly indicated new maturity in his output.
Why So Serious (2008) – After enjoying a solid but unremarkable stream of Mid-90’s success The Joker was losing traction in a series of overblown stunts (the less said of Emperor Joker the better) and it was time to die and come back with a fresh face. If you can think of a more stunning comeback than 2008’s plan to both kill Batman and prove the basic tendency of man toward insanity while committing acts of grotesque murder (a Joker hat trick) then our mailbox is open. In the minds of certain Crime Purists the mainstream of success of this facepainted reimagining indicates a shallow nature, we say sometimes sound and fury signifies SOMEthing. We can monday morning kalibak what made this persona resonate with the public so much until the next time the sun goes out, but the Thin White Duke of Death played feigned insanity off of precise scheming to create a new genre of crime: Planarchy. See many supervillains get caught on purpose lately? Of course you have. The cycle’s come back around and we’re all ripping off the master again.
Did we miss a Joker persona that inspired you? Send a fax to the SemiSecret Society and we may print your letter next issue, available at fine abandoned warehouses in your area!
Dan McDaid is a comic book artist from Scotland, England. He has drawn Doctor Who, Bizarro Superman, Image Comics’ Jersey Gods and lots of other weird-ass stuff. He writes about TV on his Twitter, posts regular art on tumblr and occasionally updates his blog danmcdaid.blogspot.com.