Publication date: Spring 1941
Author: Bob Kane
There once was a man named the Joker…
In what is quickly becoming a hallmark of these Joker stories, we begin where the previous story left off, as the comic explains how Joker escaped what appeared to be certain death. This is repetitive (in an interesting, kind of Buddhist way), but it’s also necessary, because the Joker is essentially a perpetual murder machine–he will scheme and steal and kill until he is forced to stop. Even when he was in a coma, he engendered criminal acts simply by existing. No Joker story can have closure until he is imprisoned or dead, and so each one must put narrative effort into regaining him from that position.
Last time we saw him, he fell down his own trap-door into the sewers underneath his “haunted” house. And it is in water once again that he is found…
It looks like this will be a repeat of last time–Joker will get picked up by unsuspecting friendlies who will once more unleash him onto the world…
The gang decided to pick Joker up, once they recognized him, since they knew he was smart. They’re hoping he can think of a new racket for them, since diamonds are no longer working out.
Joker, of course, ever fond of games and symbols, recognizes the play here. Together they make four cards: the Joker, the Black Queen, the Jack of Diamonds, and the King of Clubs. Joker’s idea is simple: the four of them will found a floating casino, far enough off shore to get around the gambling laws. They’ll cater to the high society crowd, get them drunk, get them talking about their jewels, and rob them twice–once at the tables and again at home.
According to the newspapers, the plan starts paying off quickly, stories about the new casino printed right next stories about the wave of high-class burglaries, with no one the wiser… except Bruce Wayne, of course.
Bruce’s investigative techniques, however, leave something to be desired. They consist of standing around, bored, watching people gamble; and standing around, bored, watching Queenie from three inches away.
My first guess: the shaving cut gets infected with Joker gas, thus giving the bad guys away when Bruce’s chin suddenly tries to smile.
Later, Wayne is wandering about on deck, trying to a light his cigarette, when he overhears the gang discussing their next robbery.
Bruce tries to explain that he was just trying to light his match, but before he can get very far, Clubsy has lived up to his name. They knock him out and throw him overboard.
“I’m not dead yet!”
“Yes you are!”
“I’m getting better!”
“No you’re not, you’ll be stone dead in a moment!”
Joker takes a few shots at Bruce’s figure, and appears to kill him… but it was just Wayne playing possum. He swims back to shore, gets some drier, more kick-ass clothes on, and heads back for vengeance.
Batman and Robin speed to the yacht where Joker and his gang of cards were planning on stealing jewels, and get there at half-past-PUNCH.
While Robin faces off against Clubsy, Joker gets in his car and drives away. Batman gives chase in the Batmobile, until:
Luckily, Batman managed to leap out and grab hold of a branch on the side of the cliff.
It occurs to me that this issue has a very serial feel to it. Perhaps it’s just the literal cliff-hanger we just witnessed… But I think it’s also in the quick turns of plot. This doesn’t feel like a very coherent story to me.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Joker’s gang have captured Robin…
Joker uses the wireless to place a collect call:
There’s a lot of discussion over whether or not Batman will go alone, which I think is funny, because it’s not like Batman’s ever needed the cops’ help before. Especially Gotham PD, who have proven themselves fully incompetent. Anyway…
She’ll either be dead or in a coma by the end of the issue. My money’s on dead. Long odds on amnesia.
Batman throws his cards at the Joker and then kicks over the table. (What a sore loser.) During the confusion, Joker grabs the jewels, declares he’s been prepared for an emergency like this, and sets fire to a pile of greasy rags he has stashed in a nearby chest. Not even pausing long enough for a pithy exit line, Joker runs outside, locking the giant steel door behind him.
Inside, the gang realizes they’ve been double-crossed. Absurdly, Jack’s response is to shoot Batman first, escape later. Queenie objects, however–strenuously.
Dying, Jack shoots Queenie back, and she collapses in Batman’s arms. There, she explains that she loved him this whole time. …Wait, what?
I really don’t understand this at all. She met him, like, once. And he was pretending to be bored. Such is the stuff romance is made of, I guess? At the very least, this must be the fastest example to date of the Cartwright Curse in action. Anyway, the comic isn’t interested in explaining any of this, so I suppose I shouldn’t either. Onward, to grandiosity!
Batman mixes an explosive out of a couple of vials and blows the door off; he and Robin escape the fire, only to be greeted with this image of profound hubris:
Chased through the raging storm by Batman’s speedboat, Joker heads for a nearby lighthouse.
The two chase/fight their way up the winding stairs, until they reach the lamp room at the top. A quick blow sends Batman flying off the tower–
Batman hangs over certain doom… but the Joker has forgotten about that pesky sidekick.
Joker plunges to his death (yeah, right), and the boys go home. That night, Bruce tells Robin why Joker lost his “game”–he forgot the fifth card:
As long as we’re in the summation part of the issue, I might as well talk about this story as a whole.
One of the most interesting aspects of it is that this is the first Joker appearance where there aren’t really any outside victims. We don’t meet the people he steals from; and indeed, the theft aspect is just an excuse to get Wayne to poke around on the casino boat. The robberies are never mentioned afterward. The conflict between Joker and Batman and Robin are no longer created by the circumstances of Joker’s proximate actions; they’re simply assumed on a personal level. Batman chases Joker, and Joker tries to kill him, because those are their mythic functions. They are merely players in an allegory of order and disorder.
Actually, Batman has it half-right. Today’s story wasn’t about love; it was about human connections, and the value of keeping them. Life is a stormy sea, and Joker is arrogant enough to think he can traverse it alone–to the point where he tries to murder the “friends” he once worked with. People, I should point out, that he immediately reduced to symbolic objects (cards) instead of dealing with them as equals, as human beings. Batman, on the other hand, is capable of building and maintaining relationships, but only with those who know his full identity–Bruce Wayne as well as Batman. His quiet domestic life with Dick Grayson and their camaraderie in the midst of battle are two sides of the same coin. And here their connection is made literal through the wireless transmitter–and of course it is Robin who comes to Batman’s rescue in the climactic fight. And then Queenie, although her quick attraction to Bruce/Batman is absurd, also symbolizes the life-saving nature of honest relationships (again, she only saved his life once she knew who he really was).
As such, this story makes a lot of sense after the break-up Bruce just went through, when his fiancee, Julie(/Portia) ended their relationship because she didn’t realize Bruce and Batman were the same person. This story brings on the Joker, not as a character this time, but as a symbol of strife, and shows how the only way Batman survives that danger is with the help of those who know both sides of himself.
Joker, in contrast, is suicidally alone, incapable of maintaining relationships with others because of his arrogance and overriding greed. He dies, at least symbolically, at the end of every story, because he refuses to let others stand with him. There’s a crazy kind of tragedy in that, somewhere. Underneath, you know, all the murder.
Tune in next week as Baturdays continues with the next story in Batman #5.