With the 35th trade on “the shelf” that I’ve read (35?! Yay me!) I found myself face to face with a collection of the best Joker stories ever written. At least, that’s what the title claimed. I was curious if the stories would live up to that name. I wondered if any that I had really enjoyed had found their way into this collection, and what others might be included. I had mixed reactions to the other “Greatest Stories Ever Written” trades I’ve read, as I’ve already written about. I was eager to see which side of the fence I would fall on with this collection.
Piled on my eager anticipation was a healthy dose of concern. As Mistah J handed over this trade, he informed me that this was his absolute favorite comic as a child, and that it was probably the first trade he ever owned.
No pressure or anything.
I started guarding this thing with my life, keeping it in a bag at all times and never leaving it unattended, for fear of some freak accident. Luckily, (knock on wood), I’ve managed to keep it safe so that it may return to its proper place on “the shelf” unharmed. Nothing like walking around with crippling anxiety for a week. Is this what collectors feel like all the time? How do they stand it??
Clearly I’m not made for the comic life. Or maybe I’m just a nutcase.
Anyway, back to the trade. I had already come across a number of the stories featured here in other trades, which made this a quick read. All in all, I have mixed feelings about the individual stories, feelings which seem to stem from the time period in which they were written.
The collection naturally opens with Joker’s first Batman appearance. This first appearance struck me the first time I read it, and holds up even after I’ve read more sophisticated Batman stories. When I finished that issue, I was reminded why the character was so engaging. As the issue closes, we are met with the following image of Joker:
Even behind bars, The Joker is not defeated, and is in fact plotting his revenge. His sinister plot, along with his truly disturbing image, combine to create a unique, frightening villain. Such images would certainly intrigue readers.
This was the war-torn 40’s though, and as America transitioned into the much more idyllic 1950’s, so too were comics expected to change. When reading other Batman comics I had noticed this change, but it was even more apparent in this collection of Joker stories. Gone was the maniacal killer who tormented Gotham’s citizens. In his place was a pure jokester, creating elaborate heists and stealing obscure valuable items. His methods were often outlandish, and generally involved strange, comical gadgets or tools.
These stories aren’t bad exactly, but they don’t leave that lasting impression that earlier Joker stories do. As you read, you’re left wondering, “Joker, what have they done to you?”
That’s not to say that all of the issues from this time period are throwaways. In fact, one of my favorites from this collection was written during this time, and featured The Joker tricking the justice system into declaring him insane so that he could infiltrate the Gotham mental institution to garner the location of stolen funds from a fellow patient. Discerning the plan, Batman creates a trap to confuse Joker, leading him to question his own sanity:
Although the subject matter wasn’t as dark as some other issues, this story felt quintessentially Joker. The play on madness and sanity was right up his alley, and the fact that he ends up doubting his own sanity at the end of the issue added an additional level to the story as a whole while also expanding The Joker’s characterization. This was one of the first occurrences I’ve read of Joker doubting himself, and it fit within the story perfectly.
As the decades progressed, the Batman comics started to return to their darker roots, abandoning the comic capers of the 50’s and 60’s in favor of a grittier reality.
Seeing Joker actually murder someone had not occurred within this trade for a number of stories. Seeing the return to his original MO was a bit jarring, but fit perfectly. In true Joker fashion, he faked out his victim with a cheap gag before ultimately ending his life in a very unfunny manner. As Robin remarks on Joker’s mental state, The Joker smiles and simply agrees, remarking, “Isn’t it wonderful?” Gone is the character we might have labeled simply eccentric in prior decades. Here is a villain fully aware of his actions, and relishing in his insanity.
Since The Joker goes through a number of variations within this trade, it could potentially be difficult to define his character based on these stories. Certain key factors never leave him, though. Perhaps above all else, The Joker’s penchant for theatricality remains a staple in his appearances, such as when he creates an entire courtroom of Jokers to be the judge and jury for Batman.
These moments are absurd, comical, and just a tad unrealistic, but they’re exactly what one would expect from a villain called The Joker. Such images make these stories uniquely his, and further prove what a rare character The Joker truly is.
As I reflect on this collection of Joker stories, I’m left wondering what the remaining decades did for his character. This trade was published at the end of the 80’s, and I’m certain there have been plenty of storylines since then to feature such a popular character. In that sense, this collection is incomplete, as it’s certainly possible (and ultimately quite likely) that comics published after this trade would have been included in a “Greatest Ever Told” trade. Instead, I’m left to decide if this is a fair representation of the character up until that point.
Ultimately, I’m inclined to say yes. Sure, his character hasn’t remained completely unchanged since his initial appearance, but what comic book character has? The Joker’s persona was led astray for a few decades, but he eventually returned to his old ways, sharper and more diabolical than ever. Besides, even if I prefer the darker, murderous Joker, I can’t deny that the zanier stories exist and helped shape the character. Indeed, the silly thematic crimes certainly influenced his later depictions, marrying his homicidal tendencies with a cheesy, sometimes sick brand of humor that is undeniably Joker. His is perhaps one of the most recognizable characters in the whole comic multiverse, and this trade accurately captures all of his trademark quirks: deadly gags, laughing fish, and all the other signature traits that make The Joker the maniacal jester we all love to hate.