Author: Bob Kane
Every Joker story ends with a "death", and every one since the first begins with a resurrection. It's like the old serial cliffhangers--they're very strict about going back and showing you how the Joker survived his last defeat without "cheating." If they didn't do this, the stories wouldn't have the same sense of consequence.
When we last saw the Joker, back in Batman #5, Robin threw him off a lighthouse into the icy waters of a turbulent sea. But how did he survive? Well...
QUICK LOOK OVER THERE!
Spelling your name backwards as an impenetrable pseudonym? Fool me once....
So anyway the Joker's back in town. And alive. I mean of course he's alive, he always was. There was never any question about that. *cough*
So anyway, a number of practical jokers turn up at "Rekoj"'s office. He weeds out the losers ("I pull hats down around other people's eyes!") and keeps the ones whose pranks are "really harmful", as the narration characterizes them. This would make a good reality show, I think, especially the part that comes next, where Joker asks them all to pick up certain objects on a table:
"Don't bother to verify any of this! Take me at my word!"
And they do take him at his word, even though he looks as if Harry Roat moved from Scarsdale to Gotham in his old age. They believe him even after he removes the makeup, going from "meglomaniacal Colonel Sanders" crazy to full-on "psychopathic clown" crazy, and offers them the amusing choice of working for him (and earning money) or going to jail. "Perhaps death!" he adds cheerfully. The pranksters complain he's not giving them enough choice but I count three right there. Quit whining, pranksters.
So what is Joker's plan for these unfortunates? Why, they're to be back-up singers in his doo-wop band! It's a measure of how crazy these Joker plots can get that you probably rolled with that one. The weird thing about Joker as a character is that the writers allow him to have more important storylines than anyone else--he affects the city, the police, the politics, the people, our heroes, etc., he gets the hints toward legacy and looks back to the past (as the longest running continuous villain, Joker stories tend to take the pulse of whatever's going on in the comic as a whole), and so on... but sometimes he's just another silly Batman crook. I'd argue that the best Joker stories are both--deeper and more interesting than the rest, but still endearingly goofy.
At any rate, Joker starts out small with his gang of pet practical jokers. A few false alarms called into the fire department, switching the cold and hot taps in peoples' showers, tossing counterfeit money into the crowd at a bank--
"Coked-out Groucho Marx is right! This money is fake!"
Apparently Joker plans to get the pranksters "hooked" with these early jokes--they're like gateway pranks or something, and now they're all ready to move on to harder stuff, like carnage and murder. I'm not even sure heroin can do that, let alone an afternoon spent prank calling. And what's Joker's end-game here, anyway? If he's coming up for the ideas for the pranks, why doesn't he just order around some generic goons as usual? If he wants independent actors, that goes against his previous reputation for inventing effective, dementedly clever schemes of his own. I suppose we'll find out.
The next "pranks" cross the line between Improv Everywhere and random, objective-less terrorism: causing auto wrecks by taking down "one way street" signs; shunting a train onto the wrong track, leading to another collision...
"Looks like I picked the wrong month to let my malpractice insurance payments slide. Alright, nurse, I need a rug, some duct tape, and a ride to the dumpster behind Burger Towne, stat. ...no, the ugly rug."
Step 2 of the Joker's plan to do... something or other... is dropping leaflets across Gotham! No "this is the Zodiac speaking" letter-to-the-editor bullshit for the Clown Prince of Crime--no, this is New Media, bitches. (Well, newer.) In the equivalent of a city-wide Tweet, Joker sez:
Ha-ha! I'm responsible for the practical jokes that you have been the victim of lately. I laugh at you, and I laugh at the blundering police who will be unable to stop me from stealing a valuable gem! I laugh at the Batman, who will also try to stop me!
(A little on-the-nose, perhaps, but nobody ever excused Clowny McMurderface of being subtle.)
Soon, Bruce is hanging out in Commissioner Gordon's office, commiserating with him over the insults, when one Henry Verne walks in with another Joker note, this one informing him that his giant diamond is soon to be re-possessed. Gordon decides this is the perfect opportunity to set a trap, apparently forgetting that the Joker has already pulled this trick before, in his very first appearance--namely, the jewel has already been stolen and replaced with a fake. Unfortunately, Gotham City bylaws require all police officers to refrain from reading the script. That's what they need Batman for.
"A date?" thought Robin. "When did this happen? Is there something Bruce isn't telling me?" His brow furrowed with uncertainty.
"Dammit, I knew we shouldn't have stopped at Burger Towne on the way over!"
(Also note that these poor cops appear to have boneitis, in addition to their Joker grins.)
No time to lose! Batman bursts through the front door with a jaunty "H'ya, funnyman!" only to find the Joker holding Henry Verne at gunpoint. All this was apparently just to lure Batman to him, though, for a surreal little joke:
It doesn't really matter, Batman. Either way the only answer is to punch clowns until your fists can't punch no more.
Batman and Robin discover that these Jokers are just goons wearing masks. Meanwhile, the real Joker is across town, stealing an entirely different jewel from an entirely different person. A clever bit of misdirection--almost as effective as just not telling people about your crimes! But of course the point for the Joker isn't the jewel, it's validating his own arrogance.
Meanwhile, back at the increasingly clown-filled ranch, our heroes are tragically overwhelmed by the sheer mass of purple-suited pugilists. Luckily the horde is under orders to keep our heroes alive, so that Joker can laugh at them. Batman and Robin come to a few minutes later, next to Verne's diamond and yet another note.
Robin looks so sad, doesn't he? "Aww, shucks," he thinks. "I'll never own a diamond that big."
I knew it! Henry Verne was just one of Joker's aliases, a clever anagram for Never... uh... Nyrhe? Never Nyrhe? Is that a thing? I guess not.
Anyway the phone rings and it is time for some taunting. It is taunting time.
"You laughing hyena!", while redundant, strikes me as an excellent expression of outrage. Especially when bellowed with pompous indignation.
Interesting--the Joker, that schizoid character, is a little bit Riddler, too. Like everything else, though, his riddles are more narcissistic than clever: upon reading in the paper that Duke Micheal, visiting from some foreign country with starving people, will be given a valise containing $10,000, Batman realizes the answer. When is a Duke not a Duke? When it's the Joker! (Because, you see, the Joker is only an Earl.)
With a ridiculous gee-why-didn't-this-become-a-catchphrase shout of, "Get on your duds, Dickey, my boy!" Batman races out to catch the Joker. But he's too late! Resplendent in his purple and green duds (I love his wide-brimmed hat), Joker bursts his way into the Duke's hotel room, gasses everyone inside, and quickly assumes the Duke's clothing. It would have been cooler if he had Hannibal Lector'd the Duke's face, but I guess I'll have to settle for make-up. (Damn you, Frederick Werther, Time-Traveling Censor!)
hargle bargle is this what our foreign aid goes toward bargle unamerican murder-clowns hargle
As the Joker tries to leave the stage with his ten grand ($144,000 nowadays), he's confronted by our heroes, swinging in in the nick of time. "You see, I solved your riddle!" cries Batman, presaging Patton. B&R punch their way through the guards (who think they're out to steal the money) and then Joker's goons, also disguised in bizarre 1940s corduroy finery. And while they're busy goofing around--
This is the work of a DC writer who agonized for days but never managed to come up with a satisfactory pie pun. It's okay, buddy. For some moments in life, there are no words.
--Joker is getting away! Instead of using the Bat-Mobile, Batman and Robin just steal a god damn car, God knows why, and naturally it turns out badly for them.
Gee, if only you had access to a REALLY FAST CAR MADE ESPECIALLY FOR CAR CHASES
Luckily for these two knuckleheads, Joker abandons his car in favor of a train, I'm guessing because it's just more dramatic and exciting that way. Batman's shitty stolen car manages to catch up to the train just enough for our heroes to jump onto the back and enter, seeking their enemy.
Passenger: "Oh we know. Purple suit, clown makeup, evil grin, yeah, it was pretty obvious before you pointed that out."
Batman: "Then stop him!"
Passenger: "That's... kind of your job, isn't it?"
Caught between Batman and an approaching guard, Joker takes a hostage, threatening to blow their head off if no, wait, this is an adventure story. Instead he does this, which is just has guaranteed success written all over it:
This whole panel is pretty great, but I especially love the way Batman's drawn there, so clearly just having leaned out to see where Joker's going, cape drawn back in an arc by the wind. The narration is just superfluous, the image speaks for itself.
Joker's next trick is to decouple the train cars, but Batman and Robin leap easily from one car to the next, staying with him. Batman faces off with Joker on top of the speeding train, like you always knew he would. The two icons trade blows and generic non-quips ("This time you're going off, Batman!" "This is it, Joker!"), and Joker gets in a good punch, knocking Batman down. I've always enjoyed how, for no particular reason, Joker can always hold his own in a fight, unlike a lot of Batman's recurring villains. Usually for Batman the hard part is getting to them; once he's face to face, people usually go down easily. Joker always gives him a few good hits back, or a smashing kick to the head with his spat-adorned shoes. As I said, there's no reason for it, Joker isn't portrayed as being stronger or well-trained or anything. It's just something they have to do in order to make Joker the best all-around nemesis, and I can respect that.
This fight ends fairly soon, however, with Batman giving Joker one solid punch, sending him flying off the train, over a cliff, and into, yes, water below. Joker ragdolls out of view, and we're down to the denouement, as our heroes and our children's role models gloat about how they totally murdered that guy, but maybe not, but probably, but either way, awesome:
"That'll teach him to laugh at me! Also I guess he stole stuff too."
Overall, not a very good issue. There's a basic level of interest and quality that having the Joker around tends to ensure, but I think we were at that level. It didn't feel like one coherent plot, which is a shame, because the joy of these Joker stories is usually how each one is a single, intricate story. This one felt more like four or five generic ideas--Joker's prank war, Joker's army of doppelgangers, the fake diamond, the stolen foreign aid, fighting on a train for no reason--all stuck together. It was goofy, but not deep or important in the way that certain Joker stories have achieved (comparatively speaking). Nor was it all that creative. The pranksters disappeared from the story after a promising set-up, Joker's motivations seemed thin, and judging from Batman's reactions, the clown's real crime was being a dick to him over the phone.
That's the moral of this story, then: don't taunt Batman on the phone. It's just not a good idea. Trust me. You'll get punched.