Baturdays: Batman #1, “The Joker Returns”

In All, Books and Comics by Kyu

Publication date: Spring 1940

Author: Bob Kane

Still in his purple suit and makeup (if it is makeup), the Joker rants and raves in his cell. Jail is an insult to man of his intelligence! When he gets out, he’ll show them all–especially Batman and Robin. Oh, yes.

But first, he has to escape. Using one of Batman’s tricks–two secret compartments of chemicals, here taken from the most apt place, the Joker’s bared, grinning teeth–he creates an explosion. Waltzing through the carnage, giggling like mad, the Joker is once more released upon the world, only a few days after his first killing spree.

Bruce is actually impressed.

“Dick, does it feel like somebody’s pricking your thumb, too?”

As it turns out, the Joker is indeed vengeful–his first target is the chief of police. From another secret lab–this one disguised as a crypt, in what might be a nod to contemporary comic The Spirit–Joker begins radioing his death threats once again.

Wait, didn’t we solve this mystery before?

There’s a string of heinous crimes, three in a row–first the police chief is murdered, the victim of a poison dart delivered via telephone (dislodged when the Joker calls, and screams his own name through the receiver), then a famous painting is stolen and replaced with a Joker card, and finally a rare gem is stolen, its owner left dead and grinning on the floor. Let’s consider them one by one.

The assassination.

The first crime is motivated by vengeance–or perhaps bravado (“He wouldn’t DARE! Not to a police chief! He wouldn’t dare!” said the chief, just before his demise), and carried out using the same voice that uttered the threat in the first place. In this way a radioed prophecy fulfills itself. The voice–toneless, imperious–the Joker’s public face–encompass both the threat and the kill. Folding both into each other makes the Joker seem omnipotent: he speaks, and it is done.

The exhibition.

With the second crime, money seems besides the point; it’s the thrill of substituting his own idea of art for the famous painting. The card isn’t merely his signature; it’s his face up there. The Joker’s appearance is a shocking, and shockingly abnormal one. By elevating it to the status of art, he turns that evaluation on its head; what we would normally consider bizarre and grotesque is actually, he claims, unique, beautiful, and worthy of praise and appreciation. Like his assassination, and the crime spree in his previous appearance, it is a grandiose act of arrogance.

The grin.

The notion of enjoyment in the narration is interesting. Obviously the Joker’s poison spreads his face’s clearest attribute, his maniacal grin, to the victims of his crimes; but the question is why. On one level I think it’s the same idea as the art crime–he conforms his victims to the same standard of beauty he holds, forcing his audience (the cops, the public, the readers of this comic) to behold what to them is horrifying and disturbing. But I think on another level he simply likes to leave his victims smiling–that, in his extreme arrogance, he wants them to like the experience of being robbed and murdered just as much as he does. When the Joker commits crimes, he does so to express his rage and self-love, which gives him pleasure. Unlike a normal sadist or murderer, Joker doesn’t want to spread his pain; he wants to spread his joy. That’s what makes him so unnerving, and his characterization so brilliant.

After three such acts, it is time for Batman to respond. And respond he does, laying down a private challenge:

That night, in the museum, cops wait nervously until the appointed hour… when Joker slips out of a sarcophagus, spraying his paralyzing poison all around. The Batman is on him in a flash, and the two trade blows. Joker grabs a mace off the wall (did they have those in ancient Egypt?) and deals Batman a glancing blow. At the sound of more police reinforcements arriving, however, he makes his escape, leaving an unconscious Batman in police custody!
One cop reaches a hand out to Batman’s mask, ready to reveal the hero’s secret identity and, a breathless narration box informs us, end his crime-fighting career forever…
But Batman isn’t out yet! He springs up, smacks a couple cops in the face, and dives out the window in a hail of bullets. The police assume he’s on the ground, but Batman has actually swung himself up onto the roof, where he waits for the cops to leave, congratulating himself on his cleverness. Let’s be clear, though, to both Batman and the Joker: it’s not that hard to trick the police in this city.

In the next few days, the Joker’s crime spree begins inspiring political change. One man, Edgar Martin, starts making stump speeches in favor of mob justice, inspired to vigilantism by the same shamefully bad policing as Batman himself. Batman’s other foes either didn’t attract significant public attention, or if they did, exhibited overwhelming force (the death-blimp, the man-monsters); only the Joker both flaunts his crimes and gets away with them despite being only one man. So only he can inspire the public to fight back against him directly.

Not that that makes him happy with the result. Joker immediately expresses his displeasure with Martin’s pronouncements–or maybe just with Martin stealing the spotlight–and issues another death threat. The result is a lovely bit of understated irony:

Yes, speeches aside, Martin’s got nowhere else to turn, so he puts his trust back in the police, who have now failed to prevent four thefts, six murders, and a jail break, all committed by the same man. Obviously, it doesn’t do Martin much good. He sits down to play solitaire, cuts himself while shuffling the deck, and then realizes with growing terror that every card in the deck is a joker. Exit Martin, stage left.

The next day, Wayne visits Commissioner Gordon, who is frantic to catch the Joker before the public loses all faith in the police and turns entirely to the Batman for justice. Bruce is happy to help (hey, who needs all that responsibility?) and suggests setting a trap for the Joker. Knowing the Joker’s fondness for publicity, Gordon plants newspaper stories about the value and fame of the “Fire Ruby.” Not surprisingly, Joker takes the bait.

“It will be my own, my precious! Gollum, gollum!”

Further proof the Joker is insane: he’s not selling the jewels, just keeping them in a box. He doesn’t want the proceeds; only to take them beyond all odds, and hold them as trophies of his successes.

Joker declares he will steal the Fire Ruby that very night, but when he arrives, he finds himself in the center of a ring of police–who declare that they’re all wearing gas masks, and so his toxins will be useless. The Joker, never one to show up without a back-up plan, decides to try bullets instead. He shoots at least four men on his way out the door of the penthouse to the roof, and seems to be making a merry getaway… But Robin is watching.

The Boy Wonder races after the Joker, both of them making a mighty leap across a gap between two buildings. Just as Robin is about to land, however, Joker shoves him away. Robin free-falls through space, only barely managing to grab onto a convenient pole, which saves his life. The Joker, meanwhile, hurries down the stairs and out onto the street. Seeing Robin hanging from the pole, he aims to shoot…

“Batman! What are you doing here? Oh, oh, right. You’re a crime fighter, I’m committing crimes, announced I’d be here, right, right. Sorry, I just forgot. Anyway. I’m kinnnnnd-of in the middle of something. Could we do this later?”

As Joker prepares to shoot Batman in the head (thus avoiding Batman’s bullet-proof vest), the pole Robin’s hanging on breaks, and after bouncing around for a bit, the Boy Wonder lands right on Joker’s back. Batman takes the opportunity to attack, and as Robin leaps off, the caped crusader lands blow after blow. Joker pulls a knife (which is green, for some reason), the Batman sidesteps a killing stroke, and Joker stumbles against a building, thrusting the knife into his own chest.

Joker stumbles, staring down at the knife in disbelief. How could this be possible? Then, of course, his reaction is to laugh.

Wait, is he actually saying “laugh,” or did the letterer leave himself a note and forget to erase it?

Beneath arrogance is often self-loathing, and apparently this is true of the Joker as well. His twisted insanity is pitiable as well as cruel, and in recognition of this, Batman kneels beside the dying man and bestows a punny eulogy: “Joker, this time you couldn’t win… the cards were stacked against you!”

Hey, maybe that’s just Batman being a dick.

And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe The Joker is laughing in the face of defeat. Maybe he’s laughing at the world, its foolishness, its ironies, its bleak truths. Maybe he was always just meant to die laughing.

Batman and Robin steal away as the cops finally arrive on the scene. The police seem to think the vigilantes have done them a favor in ridding the world of this dangerous psychopath. They call an ambulance to take the body away…

Indeed he will. Joker is simply too rich a character to kill off. He’ll be back again and again; the Joker and Batman are locked into this battle of wills until the end of time.

Batman issue #1 concludes, bizarrely, with an entreaty to child to become one of “Robin’s Regulars”, which apparently means just being helpful to people, and not running on rooftops after madmen in clown makeup. Robin’s code:






Sounds pretty dangerous to me. But I guess it beats being a Hitler Youth.

Anyways, I think this was an excellent flagship issue. A 2-part Joker story, the ridiculous giant Man-Monsters (which, by the way, was promised to us way back in Detective Comics #37, right before Robin arrived; presumably the story was held back to fill out the need for extra stories in Batman #1), and the introduction of Catwoman. Not bad for one month’s worth of Batman.

Tune in next week as Baturdays continues with the first of four stories in Batman #2!