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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "LAUGH, TOWN, LAUGH" (DETECTIVE COMICS #62 (1942)

In REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE PT. 1 I wrote:

...are only the "big events" worth considering in a pluralist "best of" list? Further, to extrapolate from a point Martin makes: are the first appearances of Batman's iconic villains their best "aesthetic" moments? Is the first Joker story the one every comics-fan ought to read? Will it tell the non-hardcore reader everything he wants to know about the Joker? Or would the reader be better off reading a less Gothic but arguably more "aesthetically pleasing' story like "The Joker's Millions" from DETECTIVE COMICS #180 (1952)?
Having uttered this challenge, I'm obliged to answer it more fully than I did above. Obviously I've given a partial answer by indicating that the first Joker story might not be the most representative of the character. As it happens, the Joker-tale from BATMAN #1 is a good rousing story. It appeals most to the kinetic potentiality. particularly because it features the Joker's first use of his smile-inducing "Joker venom" (horribly overused in current BATMAN comics, by the bye). But the story doesn't really tap into the mythopoeic potentiality of a clown-like villain.

What myth does the Joker incarnate? There's nothing new in my observing that one of the Joker's principal appeals is that he, like all clowns and harlequin-figures, provides a distorted "funhouse mirror" reflection of both normative society and human psychology. The tale in BATMAN #1 doesn't do this.

An untitled Bill Finger story in BATMAN #7 comes closer. In this narrative, the Joker invites a bunch of commonplace pranksters into his lair and encourages them to "up the ante" on their pranks, forcing them to fall in with his criminal activities. This is an unusual, interesting twist on the Joker, giving him some of the motifs of the Satanic tempter. However, Finger's story doesn't dwell very long on the role of the pranksters, and it devolves into another enjoyable, but hardly mythopoeic, Batman-Joker chase scene.

Similarly, some stories explore the dramatic potentiality more than the kinetic one. The aforementioned "Joker's Millions," which GCD hypothetically credits to David Vern, is one of these, as is another from the same year, also by Vern: "The Joker's Utility Belt," which earned some fannish fame when it was broadly adapted for the third episode of the 1966 BATMAN teleseries. But neither of these 1952 stories really gives the reader a "funhouse mirror" view of the world.

For my money, the earliest Joker story that succeeds as a myth hails from 1942, written by Bill Finger and executed by Kane, Robinson, and Roussos. As this splash page makes clear, it involves the Joker providing his own ghoulish takes on the familiar jokes found in the legendary "Joe Miller's Joke Book:"




Nothing could seem less fraught with horror than such cornball humor as the riddle of why the fireman wore red suspenders-- until the Joker performs his take on the story:



To be sure, there's an important aspect of profit in the story. It wasn't enough for the 1940s Joker to murder a lot of people: the villain clearly measured his success by his ability to rip off money and expensive items. Not long before the Joker makes his latest escape from prison, a famous comedian shuffles off from this mortal coil. After he's died, he leaves clues to five other comedians (all parodies of famous 1940s funnymen), alleging that if they can manage to read the puzzle behind the clues, they can find their way to a fabulous treasure. For some reason, when rich people make weird bequests like this one, it apparently never occurs to them that some uninvited party might trespass on this little game, and start killing the clue-holders to get their clues.  The clue-trope was an old idea even in 1942, but the Joker isn't solely motivated by gain. He's also offended at having been excluded from the bequest to the great comedians, a rationalization that has some precedence in the folkloric story of Sleeping Beauty

"They dare hold a contest of this nature without inviting me! Hah! I'll invite myself! Ha ha ha!"

The intervention of Batman and Robin prevents the villain from knocking off more than two of his intended five victims, but Finger provides another twist here: Robin is obliged to save one man by providing artificial respiration, but his life-saving duties prevent him from saving Batman from capture by the villain. The Joker takes the bound Bat-hero to his private lair, and it leads to an exchange in which the Joker states outright his personal involvement in their running battles.

For a moment, he seems to revert to his original status, as a macabre criminal who simply wants Batman dead and gone:



And then, in an inspired Finger-outburst, the Joker rationalizes his desire to keep the hero alive for the sake of the game they play:




And so the Joker carries out his super-villainous project in one of the better death-traps of the period: a variation on the "lady or the tiger" scheme-- and even this fits loosely with the story's overall pattern, in which the villain comes up with new, more macabre takes on familiar situations. Batman wins out, of course, and Finger even provides an ironic touch near the close. The Joker gets hold of the treasure-- a set of priceless pearls-- and then flings them away, believing that they're worthless because they've lost their luster. Not only does the hero arrive to beat the villain into submission, he also provides a know-it-all lecture, informing the Joker that the pearls are still valuable and that their luster has only temporarily faded due to not being in contact with human flesh for a time.

Incidentally, this is one of the last Golden Age stories in which DC Comics allowed the Joker to kill victims. In the same year, he was executed for his crimes in "The Joker Walks the Last Mile" (DETECTIVE #64). However, the Joker has his henchmen utilize a special potion to jolt him back to life-- and then the judge rules that the super-crook can't be tried for any previous crimes, due to double jeopardy. From then on, DC was generally careful not to have him commit any new murders for which he could again be executed-- and so things remained until 1973, when Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams conceived of the idea that since the evildoer was criminally insane, he couldn't be executed-- not even for a never-ending series of murders that would soon make Hannibal Lecter seem like a piker by comparison.

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