A Joke Stretched to Its Limits

The Brave and the Bold #111 (“Death Has the Last Laugh”) proclaimed itself “the strangest team-up in history,” pairing Batman with his arch-enemy, the Joker. The two join forces to capture a gangster who has presumably framed Joker for murder. As most fans suspected, the Joker was never working with Batman; he was merely luring the Caped Crusader into a deathtrap. The double-cross notwithstanding, Joker’s co-star billing signaled major plans for the character.

One year later, the Joker surprised the comic world yet again, this time by headlining his very own series. The “1st sensational issue of the Clown Prince of Crime in his own magazine” hit newsstands in February of 1975. (For effect, DC probably should have waited until April Fool’s Day.)

One month before the book’s debut, the Joker popped up in The Brave and the Bold yet again. Although clearly established as the villain from the outset of B&B #118 (“May the Best Man Win Die”), Joker was given co-star billing along with a stylized logo featuring his face inside the “O”. That logo, albeit much larger, would adorn the first cover of his own series.

Several months after The Joker debuted, DC spun another Batvillain, Man-Bat, off into his own title. While nowhere near as popular as Joker, Man-Bat was a monster (half-man, half-bat), and horror comics were selling well in the mid-70s. Despite the dual lure of the horror angle and the Batman connection, Man-Bat folded its wings after a mere two issues. The Joker would fare better but not by an enviable margin, lasting for nine issues spread out over eighteen months.

The very first cover of The Joker caught the Clown Prince of Crime ripping a Batman poster in half and jeering at fellow villains Catwoman, Two-Face, Penguin, and Riddler: “Eat your hearts out, you two-bit baddies! This magazine belongs to Batman’s number one foe … me!”  Few would argue with Joker’s boast, but fans wondered whether any villain, even one as popular as the Joker, could sustain a comic book of his own.

All but dooming The Joker’s success from the start was the Comics Code, the seal of which hovered conspiratorially over Batman’s left shoulder on that very first cover. While the Caped Crusader himself would not be around to keep Joker in line, the Comics Code Authority would. “In every instance,” the Code demanded, “good shall triumph over evil and the criminal will be punished for his misdeeds.”  Exceptions would not be granted for villains who had been given their own titles. That rule begged the question: Would fans keep buying a comic book where the title character was invariably defeated issue after issue?

Denny O’Neil, who penned that first issue, created a framework which could satisfy both the Comics Code Authority and the readers’ desire to see the Joker triumphant: Instead of battling super-heroes, as most villains did, Joker could target other villains. The premiere issue (“The Joker’s Double Jeopardy”) pitted him against Two-Face, who probably would have preferred appearing in Issue Number Two. Joker thwarts Two-Face’s scheme to steal a fortune in doubleheaded doubloons. Although the police capture Joker along with Two-Face, Joker is not heading back to Arkham Asylum beaten. He has bested Two-Face and proven himself to be the true master criminal in Gotham City.

For variety, Joker does fight the occasional hero. In Issue #4 (“A Gold Star for Joker”), Joker’s infatuation with Dinah Lance (a.k.a. Black Canary) doesn’t sit well with Green Arrow. Two issues later, Joker matches wits with an amnesiac actor who imagines himself as Sherlock Holmes. (“Sherlock Stalks the Joker!”)  Six of the nine issues, though, pit villain against villain. In #5 (“The Joker Goes ‘Wilde’”), the Joker brings down The Royal Flush Gang, whom he resents for “patterning themselves after playing cards. That’s my modus operandi.”  In #7 (“Luthor—You’re Driving Me Sane”), he swaps his insanity with Lex Luthor’s genius. Joker’s vigilantism allows his series to be read as a Batman parody, no better evidenced than in the second issue (“The Sad Saga of Willie the Weeper”), when Joker pulls up in his very own Jokermobile. “It was inspired,” Joker reluctantly admits, “by the Batmo—Oh never mind.”

With regard to parody, Joker #3 (“The Last Ha-Ha”) pits comic book against comic strip. Joker kidnaps the creator of a comic strip named Cashews, an obvious spoof on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. The baldheaded Charlie Cashew even sports Charlie Brown’s signature zigzag sweater. Joker demands not only a cash ransom for the creator’s return but cartoons of himself “kicking the tyke,” then later drowning little Charlie.

The series’s best running joke proved to be the tongue-in-cheek letter column. Comments and questions were answered in the persona of the Joker himself, who often insulted the fans writing in. The letter column in issue #8 (“The Scarecrow’s Fearsome Face-Off!) ended with a missive from Catwoman, who would be guest-starring in the very next issue. “Dear Joker,” she wrote, “I don’t want to sound catty, but it’s purr-fectly clear your magazine won’t last long.”  And it didn’t. The Joker #9 (“The Cat and the Clown!”) turned out to be the final issue.

DC obviously decided to cancel The Joker at the very last minute. The final letter column promised readers a battle royale in the next issue, Joker versus the Justice League. Fans had been waiting years for this rematch ever since Joker nearly brought down the League in JLA #77 (“Snapper Carr—Super Traitor”). Unfortunately for them, Joker #10 was written, drawn, inked and colored but never published—not until August 2019. (The story was included in The Joker: The Bronze Age Omnibus.)

While it certainly must have frustrated Joker’s oversized ego to see his namesake book axed, at least he enjoyed one last laugh, leaving so many comic fans hanging in anticipation for more than forty years. Then he delivered his ultimate practical joke: The long-lost issue was only the first half of an unfinished two-parter.

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Gerard J Waggett has taught classes on comic books, graphic novels, horror fiction, and vampires at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. After freelancing at varied soap opera magazines in the early 90s, he then published 11 books of soap opera trivia. More recently, he has begun focusing on his fiction with three stories published in Mystery Magazine during the past two years. He is also a two-time Jeopardy! champion.

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