Ask Chris #323: Like The Batmobile, But Funnier
Q: Where does the Jokermobile fit in Batman’s canon? Is it a necessary piece of their rivalry? — @thybmb
A: Okay, the way I see it, there are really two questions here. The first is a pretty easy one, too: No. Strictly speaking, the Jokermobile is by no means necessary, and there's nothing that it adds to or illuminates about the enmity between Batman and the Joker that you can't get elsewhere, especially when it comes to characters who are built far more explicitly around the idea of mimicking Batman's approach to crime fighting.
The second question is one that's more implicit in the fact that you asked: Can I write an entire column about how the Joker used to ride around Gotham City in a car with his own face on it? And, c'mon. It's me we're talking about here.
The thing about the Jokermobile that always surprises me when I start thinking about it is that it actually shows up relatively early in Batman's career, in a story called "The Joker Follows Suit" from 1946's Batman #37. The plot, of course, is that the Joker gets his own versions of all of Batman's signature elements: a spotlight that projects his own image into the sky, looking like the cover of his album of Sinatra covers; a souped-up car with a design based on the Golden Age Batmobile; and, of course, the Autogyro, the preferred transportation of all pulp adventurers.
That in itself is a really solid idea --- so solid that they'd go back to it more than a few times over the next 70 years, including the Batman '66 episode where the Joker got his own trick-filled utility belt --- but the thing that's really surprising about it is how all of those elements are still recognizable as signature, essential pieces of the Batman mythos.
Well. Maybe not all of them. For some reason, the autogyro fell out of favor once people realized that helicopters and airplanes can accomplish different and very specific things.
Anyway, back to the point. Seven years isn't exactly a short time, especially when you're dealing with Golden Age comics that were doling out three complete stories in every issue, but it still feels really surprising to me that all of those accoutrements (batcoutrements?) were in place by then.
I think it might be a function of the fact that Batman was always kind of a slow starter. I've written before that the earliest Batman stories aren't really Batman stories at all, they're just riffs on The Shadow with a slouch hat and red scarf swapped out for pointy ears and purple gloves. Even the origin story --- the single most important thing about Batman --- doesn't show up until six months after his debut, as a two-page prelude to a completely different story. In the excellent Caped Crusade, Glen Weldon even argues very convincingly that Batman isn't really Batman until Robin shows up in 1940.
After that, though, things seemed to crystalize pretty quickly --- comparatively speaking, at least. There were certainly plenty of definitive elements to come over the next few decades, like the majority of the major villains --- but by '46, we already had Robin, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, the Batcave, the Joker, Catwoman, the code against killing, and more.
Compare that to, say, Superman, who started off strong with a lot of the core elements, like Lois Lane, but wouldn't get most of what we look back on as his defining story elements for another decade. Even putting aside stuff like Kandor and the Fortress, We don't get our first real look at Krypton until 1948, and while Kryptonite was introduced on the radio in '43, it wouldn't find its way into the comics until six years later.
And yes, the introduction of Kryptonite does involve an evil swami, because of course it does. If you only go by comic books, you'd believe that you literally could not walk to the automat and get a sandwich in the '40s without tripping over three or four evil swamis who were plotting to steal your life savings.
But with Batman, a lot of those elements were there very early on, and they worked exactly in the way that additions to the mythos are supposed to: They opened up the door to an incredible number of storytelling possibilities. When you have characters with a headquarters, a signature gadget, or a vehicle that becomes pretty synonymous with the characters themselves, you can do stories about those things and make it work.
Of course, it always helps if the objects in question are inherently interesting, like, say, a rocket car, and not super boring like, say, a bowtie. But I'm getting distracted.
The idea of a villain co-opting a hero's signature element is a pretty easy one to get to, but it works so well with the Joker, because everything about him stands in complete opposition to Batman, especially in terms of visuals, and that Batmobile that the Jokermobile is based on is the perfect thing to bounce off of.
Incidentally, one of the really brilliant things that's done in Batman #37, the issue that introduces the Jokermobile and the other Joker versions of Batman's stuff, is that "The Joker Follows Suit" is the third story, after two that make sure to highlight the Bat-Signal, the Batmobile, and the Bat-Plane.
Seriously, though, look at that thing: It's all black, with that giant battering ram that's a stylized take on Batman's face that, in a really interesting design choice, eliminates the human elements to highlight the intimidating, almost demonic shape that you get when it's all horns and glowing white eyes. And by "human elements," I'm mainly talking about his mouth.
Joker, on the other hand? That dude's all mouth.
It's also worth mentioning that before later stories settled on the green-and-purple color scheme to match the Joker himself a little better, Jerry Robinson's original design took the mirror-image idea to the extreme by making the Jokermobile all white, as though the dude's head had itself elongated and grown tires.
Speaking of later stories, one of the more interesting things that happened as time went on was that --- probably owing to the fact that it was such an early addition to the Joker's whole scene --- the Jokermobile ended up being a visual signifier of Batman's earlier adventures. It was coded as a piece of the past, specifically those "simpler times" back when villains tried to mess with Batman by ripping off his car rather than, you know, beating his children to death with crowbars and then exploding their corpses.
The thing is, it never went away. It still existed, and was still acknowledged as part of the canon, something that absolutely did happen. In fact, this happens in one of my very first comics, Brave and the Bold #191, where it makes a brief cameo appearance on a used car lot:
This issue might be the source of 100% of my affection for the Jokermobile, since I read it at an impressionable age, but I love the setup of that thing just showing up on a Used Car lot in Gotham City. Like, all of that stuff has to go somewhere, and I completely buy the idea that some car salesman thought it would be a great promotion to get that for his business, and then immediately found out that this is a terrible idea. The little "Bargain Priced" sign on there that indicates that the dealer wants to get rid of it, but no one in Gotham City is stupid enough to buy the Joker's car because they know what's going to happen to them is pretty priceless.
So is it necessary? No. But it is good, and works beautifully in the context of that universe.