Publication Date: Spring 1940
Author: Bob Kane
Our narrative begins, for once, with neither Batman nor Bruce Wayne, but instead with the society he inhabits. A mysterious radio broadcast cuts off the normal evening program of music. A “toneless voice” declares, “Tonight, at precisely twelve o’clock midnight, I will kill Henry Claridge and steal the Claridge Diamond! Do not try to stop me! The Joker has spoken!”
At first people think it’s a gag–they reference “that fellow” who tricked everyone with the War of the Worlds broadcast–but the radio station claims it knows nothing about the origins of the message. Claridge, terrified, calls the police, who agree to wait with him in the room with the diamond and watch for trouble. That night, as the hour draws close…
Look at the composition here, it’s wonderful. The faceless policemen, literally representing society’s protection against crime by linking hands around Claridge. The clock chimes. Tensions are high. The tilted angle perfectly communicates the sense of unease permeating what should really be the safest possible situation.
Midnight comes. Nothing happens. Claridge exclaims, “I’m still alive! I’m not dead! I’m safe!” And as the words leave his lips, he chokes, and falls to the ground, dead. The astonished police watch with horror as the muscles of the dead man’s face contract, pressing his mouth into a horrible rictus of a smile. The Joker has indeed spoken.
The cops then find that the diamond in Claridge’s safe has been replaced, somehow, with a fake! They find the Joker’s calling card underneath.
The Joker isn’t smiling here; he’s frustrated. Oh, the “bungling police” would love to know how he got the diamond, and he would love to “shout the answer in their stupid faces!” It’s not enough to have pulled off the perfect crime, a nigh-unsolvable locked-room mystery. No, the Joker isn’t your standard criminal; he isn’t in it for the money. He needs an audience to whet his arrogance. He doesn’t hide his identity, but flaunts it, spreading the name and visage of a larger-than-life, mythic figure. He informs the entire city of his intentions, daring them to match their wits against his, knowing and glorying in the fact that he’s already stacked the deck.
Joker, you see, performed the crime exactly as he said he would–a day earlier. He stole the diamond and poisoned Claridge when the man was sleeping, at the previous midnight. The poison took effect 24 hours later. When Joker set up his little game, he had already won. As a plan for spreading terror, it’s brilliant–the only problem is that it’s succeeded too well. Joker is proud, and has no one to appreciate his master stroke. He needs someone to discover and appreciate the true nature of his crime. Pathologically, fundamentally, the Joker needs the Batman.
This streak of masochistic arrogance is what makes this character so fascinating, even from the beginning; that, and his appearance, as strange as anything we’ve seen so far–but for once, stunningly original: flamboyant purple suits, the green hair, and that shockingly white, angular, haunted face, with the bloody lips of a vampire. There’s also the pleasure any reader gets in following the exploits of any character, good or evil, who is creative and skilled at their profession. The reason this comic gives us the solution to the mystery three pages in is that it’s not about the mystery, but about watching the two smartest and most skillful characters in the story test themselves against one another.
Batman knows this all too well. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson both sit up and take notice when news of the Joker’s success reaches them in the morning paper, but while Dick wants to take the fight to the Joker, Batman knows he must bide his time and wait for the right opportunity.
Sure enough, the Joker once again makes his dishonorable intentions clear, promising to murder one Jay Wilde and steal his ruby at the stroke of midnight. As the last five minutes of his life tick away, Wilde goes from moaning to shrieking that soon he’ll be dead! Dead! DEAD! to choking and dying, exactly as predicted. The police are quickly paralyzed by a toxic gas flooding out of a suit of armor. Within? The Joker, full of panache, crowing at his second victory. He was there the entire time–who knows how he kept from giggling at the doomed man’s growing terror.
So far this sociopath has only corpses for company, but that’s about to change.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not so, given the previous history of literary and cinematic influence on Batman stories), this issue decides to lift a plot element from Fritz Lang’s seminal film, M. M invented (and wedded) the serial killer psychological thriller with the police procedural, and was one of the first films to use sound artistically–most famously with the killer’s compulsive whistling of “In the Halls of the Mountain King”, which announced his presence even in an empty frame. The plot of M follows a city stricken by terror of a child-killer (and, it is implied, child rapist) on the loose, including the police, who are helpless to stop him, and the criminal underworld, who decide that police crackdowns (spurred by the public, who want action) are hurting their business. The criminals are able to get to the murderer first (one of the larger satirical thrusts of Lang’s work–that the corrupt, ineffective government and police represent an inferior organization), and put him on trial, culminating in the killer’s passionate defense of his actions as the result of an intolerable compulsion.
In this issue, the same thing happens in terms of the criminal underworld’s reaction to a sociopathic murderer’s crime spree. The criminals declare that the Joker has now stolen two gems they had their eye on–ironic, given that, to the Joker, the jewels are the least important part of the act. One crook in particular, Brute Nelson, fights back against the Joker in the realm of information, telling everyone to spread the news: he’s going to get the Joker, and the Joker is a coward.
This word on the grapevine comes around to Batman, who decides it’s time to act. He heads out alone to Nelson’s house–but the Joker beats him there. Bursting through the door, the Joker finds himself in a trap, as several criminals emerge, ready to punish the interloper. At that moment, however, one of them spots Batman creeping down the stairs from the second floor of the house. The Joker forgotten, a better prize having presented itself, the criminals throw themselves at the vigilante. Batman gets in a few good licks and a few excellent puns. My favorite:
While all this ridiculousness is going on, the Joker takes advantage of the chaos to murder Nelson (not even bothering to waste elaborate toxins on him, the Joker simply shoots him–the ultimate act of contempt, to the clown) and escape out the window. The Batman follows, leaping onto the Joker’s car as it speeds away.
The two grapple over the Joker’s gun, until the car careens off a bridge, both men bailing at the last second. Joker swiftly gets in a strong punch and then a vicious kick to the head, shoving the dazed Batman off the bridge and into the water. Batman drags himself to the bank, realizing he’s finally met a worthy opponent.
Soon, a proclamation of murder is once again transmitted across the airwaves. The Joker will murder a judge (who once put him in jail) in just two hours. With an hour to go, the judge is nervous. The police captain tries to reassure him with a game of cards and the cops surrounding the room. The two men play as the clock ticks on… but as he nears the hour of his death, the judge realizes he can’t win the game. The police officer gleefully agrees, his grin stretching wide.
The clock strikes ten, but the judge isn’t around to hear it.
Still disguised, the Joker simply walks right out, informing the officers on the scene that the Joker has won again. But Batman is a step ahead this time–he’s set Robin to follow anybody leaving the judge’s house. Robin follows the “police chief” to an old, deserted house, and sneaks inside–only to be knocked unconscious by the Joker!
Batman, meanwhile, arrives at the judge’s house to find Robin gone. Assuming Robin followed a lead, Batman uses an infra-red flashlight to reveal Robin’s tracks–both hero and sidekicks’ shoes are coated with luminous paint, invisible under normal light. The Batman arrives at the house just in time to slap a syringe out of Joker’s hand and away from Robin’s neck. Batman finally gets in one good punch on the pale killer–proclaiming, “You may be the Joker but I’m the King of Clubs!”–which sends him flying into a table full of chemicals, which ignite.
The Joker’s not done, however–he finds the same paralyzing gas gun he used on the cops during his second murder, and sprays it into the air. He’s immune, but Batman’s not, and the malevolent clown leaves his enemy paralyzed on the floor, a Joker grin cemented on his face, to die in the flames.
But Batman’s pure physical strength allows him to resist the toxin long enough to carry the unconscious Robin out of harm’s way. When both have recovered, the two heroes confer. Robin reveals that the Joker, ever the braggart, claimed he was going after the Cleopatra Necklace next! The two hurry to the penthouse suite of its owner.
The Batman confronts the Joker just as he was about to enter, gun drawn. The Joker empties his gun at the Batman, to no avail–Batman’s wearing a bullet-proof vest underneath his costume. Growing increasingly frustrated at Batman’s refusal to stay dead, Joker leaps from the rooftop to the adjacent construction–only to find Robin (in his element, as we saw in Robin’s origin story) waiting for him. A harsh kick from the Boy Wonder sends the Joker flying back towards the penthouse, where he’s caught by Batman. Batman hauls him up, and with one final punch for good measure, puts an end to the Joker’s crime spree. Batman then wins the ultimate victory: coming out on top in the eyes of the media and the public:
Having won the war of information over both the Joker and the criminal underworld, Batman and Robin return home. But they find it a little hard to relax, knowing that the city is only safe when someone as deadly and as diabolical as the Joker remains behind bars….
Tune in next week as Baturdays continues with the second of four stories in Batman #1, the very first issue of the Caped Crusader’s first standalone comic.