On The Cheap: Five Great Joker Stories To Grab
I'm going to be totally, 100% real with you for a second here, people: I have read a lot of comic books about the Joker. I mean, that's kind of inevitable when you dedicate yourself to becoming the World's Foremost Batmanologist, but still, it's a pretty large number of comics, which is why I took special note of the Joker-themed sale that Comixology has running right now.
I mean, as easy as it might be to grab the most famous Joker stories, there are a lot of buried treasures in there too. So with that in mind, here's my guide to a handful of Joker stories that you might have missed. Even if you're reading this in some dim and distant future (after the sale ends on March 9), they're still worth digging up in back issue bins!
The first thing you need to know about the 1975 Joker solo series is that it's completely bonkers — just not in the way that you might expect.
I wrote about it back in 2013, but the gist is that Batman's arch-nemesis was so popular that DC decided he should headline his own series, launched in the early days of what the company called the "DC Explosion." As you might expect, it didn't really go that well, and was canceled after nine issues, largely because making the Joker a protagonist doesn't really work, even if you pit him into weird conflicts with other Batman villains. Which, of course, is exactly what happened, leading to stories where the Joker beat up Two-Face after blinding him with "false hair."
That said, it's still a book that's well worth reading, if you're the kind of person who enjoys seeing just how bizarre comics got during the Bronze Age. And if that's what you want to see, then I highly recommend picking up Joker #6, where the Joker's hatred of detectives — all detectives, apparently — leads him to get into a weird ongoing battle with an actor playing Sherlock Holmes in a play, who gets bonked on the head and believes that he's the real Sherlock Holmes, and starts trying to track down the Joker with the help of a sailor named "Dock" Watson. And even more amazingly — spoiler warning — this story somehow doesn't end with the actor being murdered.
Being able to grab the whole series for nine bucks is probably the best deal in the whole sale, to the point where I'm thinking of picking them up digitally to replace my beat-up copies from forty years ago.
Given that it's a fixture on pretty much every list of the Best Batman or Joker stories ever, I can't imagine that there's anyone out there reading this who hasn't already read Death in the Family, the story where the Joker beats Jason Todd to death with a crowbar and then blows him up with dynamite in the most Looneytunesian murder that anyone has ever asked comic book readers to take seriously. If you haven't read it, well, it's available pretty much everywhere, and even though it's a prominent example of superhero comics starting to go dark and "mature," it's actually a good story.
The Joker's next appearance in Batman after that story, on the other hand, is one that's almost never talked about.
Written by Marv Wolfman with art by Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo, it's not at all the story that you'd expect to happen in the aftermath of Death in the Family and The Killing Joke, even though it's presented as a direct sequel. Instead of the Joker returning and immediately embarking on a terrifying crime wave, it's a story about the absence of the Joker, and how an enterprising sociopath has taken it upon himself to fill that void by committing crimes disguised as the genuine article, opening up a lot of old wounds for Batman and Commissioner Gordon. The twist is that the "hilarious" crimes that the impostor commits just aren't that funny, which is the final insult that brings the Joker back.
Wolfman writes the Joker here in a way that I don't think anyone else did — he's weirdly cowardly and vulnerable in parts, which is a far cry from how we see him in Death in the Family or Killing Joke — but it makes for a pretty interesting story, and it's one of Aparo's last big stories where he gets to draw the Joker. That alone makes it worth checking out.
Speaking of comics that you've probably already read, Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke's Batman: The Man Who Laughs is another one that was pretty widely read — especially since it's an origin story for Batman's conflict with the Joker that was reprinted when The Dark Knight was in movie theaters making a billion dollars. If you've never read it, though, you really ought to. Not only is it a great retelling of the first Joker story that works perfectly as a modern update (much like Englehart and Rogers' The Laughing Fish before it), but it's great for new readers who might only be familiar with the characters from the movies or TV shows.
Also, in the sale, it's a dollar for what was originally a 66-page hardcover. At that price, you should pretty much just buy a copy as a gift for everyone you know, just so you're sure they have it.
Okay, consider this to be an extremely qualified recommendation. The thing is, I don't actually like Emperor Joker. But it's also the story that people asked about the most by far when the Comixology sale went up, and the more I talked about it, the more I realized that while it might not actually be good, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in there.
The plot here is that Mr. Mxyzptlk accidentally gives the Joker all of his fifth-dimensional reality altering powers, which, shockingly, turns out to be a terrible idea. It's actually a solid and interesting premise, and it was the basis for an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold that was pretty great, which put Bat-Mite in the place of Mxyzptlk which, when you get right down to it, makes a lot more sense. Really, though, seeing what happens when a character like the Joker gets absolute power is a strong premise, especially since a good chunk of it was drawn by Ed McGuinness.
The problem, though is that it's not very good, and eventually turns into eight issues of Superman comics that are all about how awesome Batman is. Which, you know, I agree with, but don't really want to see in a comic that's supposed to be about how awesome Superman is.
At the same time, I'm also not a big fan of Joe Kelly's run on JLA, and there are other people who love that book, and I do remember enjoying Emperor Joker when it first came out. So if you're a #teen who likes that JLA run, there might be something for you here. Otherwise, you'll have to decide if seeing Ed McGuinness drawing the Joker and Joe Kelly trying to channel some of what he did on Deadpool into a Superman story is worth a buck an issue.
Normally, I don't recommend too many Golden Age Batman comics. Golden Age comics are... well, let's just put it charitably and call them an acquired taste. Batman #1, however, is something I'm willing to make an exception for, not because of how "important" it is, but how actually good it is, especially for the era.
In addition to the first Catwoman story and a Hugo Strange story that's also pretty interesting, Batman #1 also includes the first and second Joker stories, which shows you just how confident Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson were in their new creation. What's really amazing about this, though, is how good those stories are, and how much about the character is there from the beginning — mainly that the Joker is completely terrifying in both stories.
That's not a knock on Finger or Robinson, either. They're definitely incredibly talented creators (and Finger would go on to write some of the all-time best Batman stories over the next two decades), but for stories to be this good so early in the history of the medium is pretty impressive, and even looking back as a modern reader, it's worth checking out.