Baturdays: Batman #4, “The Case of the Joker’s Crime Circus”

In All, Books and Comics by Kyu

Publication date: Winter 1940
Author: Bob Kane

As this issue enters with a quick recap, so shall I.
The last time we saw the Joker, he had embarked upon a disparate and altogether tawdry set of schemes. He murdered a district attorney who had previously put him behind bars, using a poisonous record; he founded a gang disguised as the elderly “A. Rekoj”, sent them to steal, and then (as the Joker) stole from them in turn. Finally, he took a plane over the ocean and crash-landed near an ocean liner where, once rescued, he endeavored to steal a priceless jade Buddha. At this point, he was stopped by Batman, and in the ensuing fight, he was knocked over the ship’s railing and into the sea.
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It is there that the story now resumes.
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This opening is all about how Joker subverts expectations. He’s already (literally) resurfaced, despite Batman’s prediction (or is it more of a hope?). Soon after, he is picked up by another ship, whose crew are apparently ignorant of Joker, despite his infamy.
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These sailors believe they’ve done something good, acting on empathy and ideas of common decency to save the life of a drowning man. In reality, they have almost certainly doomed more people to die at Joker’s hands.

Once ashore, Joker heads for one of his undiscovered hideouts.
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Again, we see Joker stories turning to Gothicism and the macabre in order to create a sensation of dread. The moon wreathed in clouds or smoke, a figure climbing slowly towards a haunted mansion–this image is also symbolic of Joker’s resurrection. Joker is on a journey to find himself again, after his previous defeat.
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There are several ways to read Joker’s character, but for now, consider his dual nature: life and death. Death is obvious–but Joker also exudes vitality. Always smiling, always laughing, dressing in bright colors, inventing, planning, creating; the clown is a happy figure, an expression of renewal through humor. In this view, the paradox is that what drives Joker’s happy, lively exterior are extreme negative emotions: arrogance, jealousy, greed, and anger.

In that light, look at his journey.

He begins in water, drowned, symbolically dead. He’s looking at receding “fireflies” (the lights of the ship), an animal which conveys both life/vitality and the idea of fire and firelight. They’re receding, leaving him behind in the water and in the dark. Joker has been cast out.

We next see him from the perspective of the crew who rescues him. He accepts this rescue with some manner of humility–at least, he does so off-screen (something which, on a meta-level, is antithetical to Joker’s show-off personality), and in a way which hides his true nature from the sailors. Joker is alive, but his vitality, his joi de vivre, has not been restored: the panel shows him on shore, but still surrounded by the water which nearly claimed him.

Then the exterior of the house–I have already discussed how this image mirrors his upward climb towards self. The house stands for Joker–not the man, but the idea, the persona which he wears like a coat sewn to his skin. Like this persona, the house is empty, hollow; eerie; and considered by those who see it to be haunted (and how many people have or will claim Joker to be motivated by the spirit of evil, or even to be haunted by his past?), although they are wrong. The house is not haunted. It is inhabited. Presumably tales of the haunting are expanded or even engendered by Joker’s occasional fits of piercing, terrifying laughter. Laughter lives there. Joker lives within the shell of himself, a shell he built; a set of Russian dolls, the snake that eats itself and is never full. Inside the supposedly haunted manse we find a haunted man.

Once within, surrounded by grinning, demonic faces which mirror his own (for in his pride and vanity Joker would never wish to look upon anyone but himself), Joker builds up the fire. Fire, the ghost of which he saw receding from him in the ocean waters; fire which represents vitality–passion, heat, bright colors, crackling movement–as well as destruction; fire, in whose glow Joker stands as he allows himself to feel the full measure of his triumph at surviving his ordeal. Joker’s journey began in water and ends in fire. And in laughter.

Two extremes; two ideas wedded together. From death to life, Joker crawls his way out of the grave and back into hellish light and warmth. The occasion is joyous for him; creepy for us. And that’s how the duality of his character is aimed: life for him. Death for us. Only he can ever be in on the joke.

Two months pass.

Batman and Robin, out on their nightly prowl, confront three masked thieves.

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Unfortunately, you have imagine the silly sound effects yourself.

Robin, with his circus upbringing, recognizes this maneuver as one indicative of acrobatics training. Undaunted, however, the two vigilantes run in fists flying. (Batman: “Perhaps you’re not aware of it… but there’s a law against stealing!”) Everything seems to be going fine, until a huge hulk of a man decides to end the fight.

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Add this to the list of “history’s greatest bitch-slaps.”

Next, this giant picks up Batman and throws him into a wall, yelling, “I break you to pieces!” In fact, he’s about to murder our heroes, but the acrobatic thieves are able to hold him back. The masked men flee, leaving Batman and Robin to lick their wounds. And remark upon the similarity between the man who beat them and a circus strongman.

A week later, Bruce Wayne decides to honor his invitation to a ball thrown by the Darceys. The newspapers have been remarking upon a string of wealthy burglaries, but tonight Bruce is all fun and no work. Or rather, all work, given how important it is to maintain his image as a bored, stupid playboy. At the party, however, Wayne sees something very intriguing:

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Once again, we’re part of the audience–and don’t we marvel at Batman and Robin’s feats of strength and dexterity each issue?

Now, to you and I, this is all terribly obvious. But not only do we have the title informing us, we have the authorial voice giving us only the important links in the story–not to mention the notion that it is a story, and the knowledge that Chekov’s gun must fire. And unlike Bruce Wayne, we know the Joker is alive.

That night, the performers walk up the same slope to the supposedly haunted house. And there, they take off their make-up.

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Is anyone else having some surreal Ronald McDonald flashbacks right about now?

To paraphrase Stephen King, this haunted house is a dressing room for a werewolf. One who puts on fake fur when he’s out in public. The house is where Joker can be himself–his joyous, laughing, duplicitous self.

Meanwhile, to absolutely no one’s surprise but Bruce and Dick’s, the Darceys’ house has been robbed. Bruce makes a few inquiries and discovers that all the wealthy homes robbed recently had also engaged the same circus. They put two and two together and come up with four: the circus is casing houses for future robberies, and then the acrobats and strong man actually do the thieving. Finally, in a case of the society column doing actual good for the first time ever, our heroes learn that the circus is performing again tonight at the Morganbilts’ party.

Meanwhile meanwhile, the Joker is indeed planning on robbing the Morganbilts, after his circus performers have discovered the location of their safe. His crew is then joined by the dwarf Tino, aka Angry Joe Pesci:

“I’m funny like I’m a clown? Like I’m here to amuse you? …oh, right. Nevermind.”

That night, at the performance, at the appropriate moment, Joker steps forward and announces, “And now we have a surprise for you. We present…”

But instead of Angry Joe Pesci, this happens:

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Ah, the dramatic flair of it all.

Batman and Robin beat up the circus performers, with the audience (already on its collective third scotch and soda) applauding wildly. Both heroes, actually, get to redeem themselves for their earlier ignominious ass-whupping, each one proving their superiority against their matched foe. Robin takes out the acrobats with a (actually pretty cool) dexterous maneuver, where he runs up a ladder, drops through the rungs, grabs the legs of the pursuing acrobat, and slides all the way down:

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Let’s see you duck and roll out of this one, bitches!

Batman, meanwhile, defeats the strong man, with, um, strength. And puns!

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“My chin! That was the source of my power! How did you knooooow”

After that, the strong man actually complains, “Why don’t you fight with your fists instead of your feet?”

There are two things you never want to say to Batman, and one of them is, “Please punch me now.” When Batman’s through breaking the strong man’s face, he picks him up and slams him down, ending the fight decisively, and proving to Joker that the time for running has come (although hopefully not gone). And as he runs, Batman sees him and realizes that he is the Joker, back from the grave. Zombie Joker!

Batman and Robin race after the clown, although not before explaining to the audience that, no, actually, this was all real, and if the police question these guys, they’ll learn that we punched them for a very good reason.

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Our dynamic duo follow Joker back to his hideout, the “haunted” house. Joker vows to throw a good scare into them. As they enter, the front door closes and locks itself behind them.

Seriously, though, this is building up some excellent atmosphere.

Batman 4-1 -10 recutSymbolically, of course, the Joker is a ghost, because of his–

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Turning around to see Robin gone, Batman races after the “ghost”, who runs into the next room and vanishes–the door shutting behind Batman. No amount of bashing will break it down; and a moment later, the lights shut off, and Joker’s laughing face swims into view in the darkness, growing larger and larger, laughing louder and louder, as if to drive Batman mad…

I wonder if Grant Morrison read this one before doing "Arkham Asylum"...

I wonder if Grant Morrison read this one before doing “Arkham Asylum”…

It becomes apparent that the physical and the psychological has melted together, like nacho cheese, or flesh in a David Cronenberg movie. Like the best horror films, this story’s haunted house is inextricable from the mind of the lunatic who occupies it. And what do we find in Joker’s head? Lies; darkness; and his own visage, dwarfing everything else.

Batman is unfazed, however, and quickly reveals the Oz-like head to be a cheap parlor trick–stereo speakers and a film projector hidden in the walls. Joker’s next gambit is to begin pumping in deadly gas. Batman responds by mixing two vials from his belt, causing an explosion, blowing a hole in the wall. He goes through into the next room…

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“Batman! …It’s not what it looks like!”

After a brief fight, Batman manages to flip Joker, and…

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Well, that’s irony for you. Live by the trap-door, die by the trap-door…

Note that once again Joker has been defeated via a long drop into water. There he will remain, drowned, defeated, dead–until his time comes round again. This is really Joker’s story, not Batman’s–the climax had nothing to do with Batman as a character, only as an unstoppable force. This is the story of a man who gets a new life, a chance to change for the better–and who tosses that chance aside without a second thought, an act which is eventually punished by Batman with another defeat. Joker is caught by his arrogance and greed in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, an unrepentant Buddhist reincarnating over and over in the same deformed body, his punishment stamped ceaselessly on his face: a death mask which sets him forever outside of the human race, observing it from the outside with a sardonic grin.

In other words, he’ll be back.

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Tune in next time as Baturdays continues!