Bizarro Back Issues: The Joker’s Solo Series (1975)
If you've been down to the comic book store over the past couple of weeks, you've probably noticed that for DC, it's Villains Month, where a tie-in to the big Forever Evil event has led to the bad guys headlining the monthly comics instead of the heroes. As a result, we're getting comics with names like Batman #23.1/Joker #1, which I think we can all agree makes things easy to follow. The thing is, while this definitely isn't the first time the villains have stepped into the spotlight, it's not even the first time we've gotten a comic called Joker #1.
That happened way back in 1975, when somebody at DC figured that it was a good idea to give the Clown Prince of Crime his own ongoing series that managed to last a mere nine issues -- and it's actually even stranger than it sounds.
Looking back on it, it's pretty easy to see why they'd want to try putting the Joker in a starring role. Even in '75, he was far and away the most popular of Batman's villains, he's visually interesting, and he has the kind of personality that makes him an unpredictable character that's fun to read about. They even launched the series with writer Denny O'Neil, who had written "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge," one of the definitive Joker stories, only two years earlier. So theoretically, it all makes sense.
Once you actually start reading it, though, it's a weird book -- mostly because it's a comic where the protagonist is a villain who tends to get arrested and thrown back into Arkham Asylum at the end of every issue. Even beyond that, though, you run into the problem that you can't do the one thing that the Joker was explicitly designed to do. He can't fight Batman, because if the Joker's the protagonist, then he has to "win" at the end of the story, and if the Joker wins against Batman, well, Batman's dead and we can't do any more comics about him. Fortunately, O'Neil was able to write his way around this little problem by just having Joker essentially fill the role that Batman usually would, writing stories where he wandered around and got into fights with other Batman villains, eventually foiling their crimes, which may actually be even weirder than having him kill Batman in every issue.
For the most part, it's the villainous version of Brave and the Bold with the Joker and a Guest Villain trying to out-crime each other for 20 pages, and O'Neil and the art team of Irv Novick and Dick Giordano kick things off with Two-Face.
Right from the start, we're in some pretty iffy territory. I mean, I don't want to tell Mid '70s Denny O'Neil how to do his job or anything (that's a lie, it's all I want in the world), but if you're launching a new series and you want to do a Two-Face story, wait for the second issue. That just makes sense. That said, O'Neil wins me back over almost immediately by having the Joker smack-talk two dudes about not being familiar with classic literature, which is a character trait that I really wish would come back and replace s**t like "cuts his own face off" in our modern version of the Joker.
So yeah, here's our plot: Two-Face has been sprung from the joint by a gentleman named Señor Alvarez, who wears a purple mariachi outfit with gold filigree and speaks more or less exactly how you think he does from reading that description. Obviously, this affront to the Joker cannot stand, so drastic action must be taken.
Drastic balloon action:
Dudes. You are guards working at Arkham Asylum. If you see the Joker playing with balloons, you should probably realize that there are roughly one million ways that this is very, very bad. It's worth noting that these two dudes get fired and show up in a later issue applying for a new job, with the person hiring them mentioning that they have a lousy resumé. Presumably "got fired from Arkham Asylum" is a red flag for Gotham City's many employers.
Anyway, the Joker uses a balloon to float right out of the yard (why is he even let out into the yard) and sets about mucking up Two-Face's operation. And just what is that operation? The theft of a cargo of Spanish doubloons.
With Alvarez there, of course, to make it a two-man job.
Just as Two-Face agrees to take the job for a 50-50 split (I can do this all day) of the profits, the Joker interrupts the planning session. The obvious question here is how he managed to track Two-Face down, especially since he does it before Batman, who never actually appears in the story. I mean, he's never really been much of a detective, although I guess being a master criminal comes with a pretty similar skill-set.
The major difference, of course, being that detectives don't usually pop out of a room service cart to burn people's faces off with acid.
Even though the Joker manages to get Alvarez with his acid pie, Two-Face himself gets away after he manages to bonk Joker on the head with a bowl of pears (get it?). This, however, is only a minor setback, since the Joker already heard what the crime was and where it was supposed to go down, and knows enough about Two-Face to assume that he'll put off the robbery until the next day -- the second of the month.
The Joker decides to just go there and wait around so that he can get the drop on Two-Face, but he missed out on one crucial element: Dent's planning the crime for 2:00 AM, and he's already there, ready to knock the Joker out and tie him to a buzzsaw:
All right, look. I know I said I could do this all day, but I think that gag about the sub-basement is where the two-puns hit critical mass.
In addition to detective work, years of thematic crimes have taught the Joker a little something about deathtraps and the many methods of escaping them:
I joke, and I still think the setup of having the Joker foil the crimes of other Batman villains is weird as all heck, but I do genuinely love how O'Neil writes him as someone who's picked up a lot of information in his years obsessing over how best to kill Batman. It's a pretty great idea, which is unsurprising when you consider the source.
What follows, however, is just nuts -- even if I still kind of love it. After Two-Face steals the coins (from the second floor, of course), the Joker shows up for the goofiest damn fight scene you've ever seen:
"False hair?! My eyes -- Stinging!" might be the comic bookiest dialogue of all time. It is the best.
As to why grabbing the Joker's lapels was a mistake, it turns out that the Joker coats his more grabable clothing in "a powerful stickum" that holds Two-Face's hands on his lapel to allow the Joker more time for slapping. Sadly, this turns out to be exactly as bad a plan as you think it's going to be, and the fight ends when Two-Face trips and both villains bonk their heads against a wall and get knocked out.
And then they get arrested.
And that's how the first issue of the Joker's ongoing series ends, which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of its short run.
Well, except for the one where he hits an actor on the head and the actor wakes up thinking he's Sherlock Holmes, teams up with a sailor named "Dock" Watson, and foils the string of Holmes-themed crimes that the Joker is committing because he hates all detectives and that's the only way he can get "revenge" on a fictional one. But that's a special case.