Bizarro Back Issues: Here’s That Joker-Batman Team-Up To Solve The Penguin’s Murder You’ve Always Wanted (1982)
A couple weeks ago when I was writing about why the Penguin has never been one of my favorite Batman villains, I mentioned one of my earliest favorite comics: An issue of The Brave and the Bold that was nominally a Penguin story, but was more focused on the Joker. The main point then was that the Penguin was kind of a bit player even in one of his own stories, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that there might be some subtle nuances to this story that would be worth a closer examination.
There aren't. I mean, it's a mid-80s issue of Brave and the Bold, and those things are about as subtle as a brick upside the head. But it is a pretty great issue, and as an added bonus, it features a handy guide to everything you should not do if you're running a business in Gotham City.
The issue in question is The Brave and the Bold #191, with a story by the writing team of Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn and art by artist Jim Aparo, my pick for the definitive Batman artist. At the time, Mishkin and Cohn were rising stars at DC, having just broken into the industry a few years earlier. Looking back, the BATB story feels like a sort of tryout gig where they could get their feel for working with a headline character on a book that wasn't necessarily one of the core titles, and considering that they turned in a story that's this weird, fun and full of goofy little pieces of Gotham City, it's not hard to figure out why they got to launch Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld with Ernie Colon just a few months later. There's a lot to like about this comic.
For one thing, it's a Batman/Joker team-up story. That actually happened more often than you might expect -- Bob Haney did it twice during his run, within eight issues of each other -- but it's always one of those things that requires some extenuating circumstances. When Batman's hanging out with Green Arrow or the Atom, that's to be expected -- he knows those guys. And even when it's some oddball like the Spectre or the Metal Men, they're on the same side. When it's a team-up with the Joker, though, something, somewhere has to have gone right off the rails. And in this issue, that happens right on page one.
We open on the studios at Gotham City's Channel 5 News, and right away, we see that whoever does casting for this station has made a pretty crucial error. There are two anchors, and they both have bird-themed names:
Seriously, you're already tempting fate by calling it the Early Bird News; having further avian themes involved in your production is basically asking to be stabbed by an umbrella. I realize that it's easy for me to say this as an outside observer, but if you're a famous person in Gotham City, you're going to want to have the most generic name possible, and you especially want to avoid anything having to do with birds, clowns, playing cards, cats, Egypt, eggs, the number two, days of the week, books or writing of any sort, any kind of plant, any kind of animal, music or words. Just a heads up.
Before the Penguin is able to cause his particular brand of feathered trouble, however, the Joker shows up and launches right into a murder, live on television. One blast from his trick flower and the Penguin is dead, his face twisted into a horrifying grin before it's spirited off by his henchmen. Naturally, this is something that requires the attention of the Batman, but his usual investigative method of swinging around and beating people up doesn't have a lot of results, until he notices that someone is flashing a "Joker Signal" from a used car lot:
Let's unpack this for a moment, shall we?
For those of you who may not be aware, that's the Jokermobile, which originally appeared way back in Batman #47. That's the Joker's car, and by 1982, it had apparently been sold to a used car lot in Gotham City, where it has been knocked down to bargain price. This is a pretty amazing fact, because it makes so much sense, if you look at it a certain way. Of course some car salesman would buy a car belonging to one of the most notorious disfigured murderers of all time, because you'd think that would be an easy sell to some morbid collector. But clearly it hasn't sold -- hence the bargain price -- because the people in Gotham City know full well that being anywhere near something the Joker might want back is pretty hazardous to your health. So there's your second lesson, Gotham City: Don't buy the Joker's car.
Anyway, after bopping Batman with a giant boxing glove in greeting, the Joker claims that he's being set up. He didn't kill the Penguin, and what's more, he wants Batman to find out who did. This is the pretty common plot in Batman/Joker team-ups, and as crazy as it is that a guy who dresses up as a Dracula and beats people's teeth in would be so dedicated to the cause of due process that he would want to clear a mass murderer's name of this one particular crime, I love that kind of purely heroic, optimistic idea that Batman is so hardcore opposed to letting the actual killer get off that he's going to grit his teeth and team up with a guy who has tried to kill him on roughly four hundred occasions to solve this crime.
It's actually something that Mishkin and Cohn go out of their way to lampoon once the Joker fills Batman in on his investigation so far, which basically amounts to poisoning some dudes and asking them questions:
Amazingly, Batman does not coldcock the Joker and throw him in jail at that moment. Instead, he grudgingly decides to team up and investigate alongside his deadliest foe, though not before he offers up the understatement of the millennium:
Sure enough, Joker tries to kill him by running him over with a taxi four panels later. To be fair, though, as the Joker says, trying to kill Batman every time you see him is kind of a tough habit to break.
Their investigation leads them from a makeshift underworld funeral parlor to the site of the Penguin's upcoming memorial service, Gotham's own St. Vitus Cathedral:
WHAT ARE YOU THINKING BRINGING THE HOLY RELICS OF THE PATRON SAINT OF COMEDIANS TO GOTHAM CITY?! OH MY GOD. THERE ARE LIKE TWO HUNDRED REASONS THAT IS A TERRIBLE IDEA.
Oh well, it's happening anyway, and once this information is shared with the Joker (after another friendly attempt to murder Batman with a bucket of acid), it's time to head to the funeral. Batman's on high alert for any funny business, and if this story has a major flaw (aside from the whole Batman shrugging and teaming up with a wanted murderer because his name's on the cover and he kind of has to), it's that the climax of the story just sort of starts happening right now:
Of course, that's balanced out by the best thing about the story, which is that the Penguin has a top hat just sitting there so that he can pop it back on and complete his look if his nun disguise doesn't do the job.
See, the whole thing was a big ruse designed to get the Penguin into the cathedral so that he could kidnap -- wait for it -- the cardinal and hold him for ransom from the Vatican. Get it? Because a cardinal is also a bird? And the Penguin does bird crimes? Right. We're all on the same page here. Now, why exactly he had to fake his own death and frame the Joker, thus getting the Joker and Batman involved, when it was established a few pages back that he'd been donating heavily to the church and pretending to seek absolution for his life of crime and could probably just, you know, go there anyway, I'm not sure.
Either way, it doesn't go well. Batman, as always, is one step ahead of the bad guys, and the Cardinal was really the Joker in disguise all along, giving the hero-villain team the chance to trap the Penguin once and for all and haul him off to jail for attempted priestnapping:
And thus, the story of the Joker/Batman team-up comes to an end.
Well, not really the end, but you probably know the part that comes next where the Joker breaks out of prison and beats one of the lesser Robins to death with a crowbar and then explodes him and then becomes the Iranian ambassador.
Comics are pretty weird sometimes.