Review: Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

Up to this point, the "Greatest Stories" series has profiled the best and brightest of the DC Universe. But when the series takes a turn toward the villainous, it's in many ways appropriate that DC's most iconic villain gets the "Greatest Stories" treatment in The Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told.

Perhaps even more so than with Batman, it's a bit difficult to assess what makes a Joker story "great" since I'm a staunch proponent of Grant Morrison's theory that The Joker is "super sane," reinventing his personality almost every day; as such, it's not hard to reconcile a Joker who builds sandcastles with a Joker who guns down Barbara Gordon.

But perhaps it's just that the relationship between The Joker and Batman is (literally) so black-and-white that it's difficult not to create an interesting match-up between the two. As for the contents of this volume, it's safe to say that each story in here is significant in one way or another; there are no real duds, and readers new and familiar will get a strong sense of who this character is -- just in time for Scott Snyder's big Joker story "Death of the Family" over in the New 52's Batman title.

The sum of the parts being more than the whole in this series, let's take a look at what's inside this volume.

"Batman Versus the Joker" (Batman #1, Spring 1940): It's no surprise that we begin with The Joker's first appearance, but what is surprising is just how fully formed the character is While The Joker's creation has been a point of contention for Batfans, writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane both craft a dynamite introduction to the character who has, aside from a goofy period in the Silver Age, remained mostly unchanged. The story's formula is familiar -- Joker vows to kill prominent Gothamites -- but its familiarity points to its influence on numerous adaptations (including The Dark Knight and an Steve Englehart remake reprinted later in this anthology). Kane's Joker is more morose and of somber countenance than readers might be prepared for, but he's never unrecognizable as Batman's greatest foe.

"The Joker's Comedy of Errors" (Batman #66, August/September 1951): Here might be the weakest story reprinted in this collection, because it doesn't seem to have been chosen for its importance to The Joker's character -- there's no "first" in this story, nor is his plot against Batman and Robin particularly compelling. No, it seems the editors chose this story because of its popularity on the Internet for its repeated use of the word "boner." Of course, the word meant something entirely different in 1951, but that doesn't stop the occasional snicker -- even from this reader, who usually considers himself above toilet humor. Finger's plot is overly involved, and Lew Schwartz's art stockier and cheekier (literally, The Joker's cheeks are huge here) than most, but the tale is ultimately not a terrible one. It's just that the editorial insight here seems sophomoric at best.

"Joker's Utility Belt" (Batman #73, October/November 1952): The story begins with a full-page teaser splash by Dick Sprang, in which Batman and Robin are menaced by perversely large Joker heads springing from an oversized utility belt. It's one of the most iconic Joker shots ever drawn by one of the definitive Joker artists, and the story by David V. Reed introduces a gimmick that, while abandoned in later stories, amps up the dark mirror in which The Joker reflects Batman. The story is cleverer than I was expecting, finding unique ways to utilize the bizarre gags that pack The Joker's utility belt. And while I've lamented the fact that this series doesn't reprint full covers, the inclusion of the hydra-like Joker's belt is "great" enough.

"Crime of the Month Club" (Batman #110, September 1957): Dave Wood and Dick Sprang take The Joker into new territory with this story, which casts the Clown Prince of Crime as a criminal consultant, auctioning off his master plans to the highest bidder. The premise is intriguing and given sufficient attention despite the brevity of the story, and it plays up one of my favorite Joker traits -- he always has a back-up plan. This is no "dog chasing cars," but rather the master strategist he always lies about being. Sprang's art again is classic and cements the angular grin which is The Joker's trademark.

"Joker's Last Laugh" (Detective Comics #332, October 1964): It's hard to believe that The Joker's signature laughing gas wasn't introduced until 1964, but here it sees first light -- this time as a powder which is (spoiler warning) easily defeated by a strong antihistamine prescription. While Sheldon Moldoff's pencils here are less compelling than Sprang's (indeed, Sprang is a tough act to follow), he's quite good with facial expressions, a key skill to have in a story where characters frequently erupt into spontaneous laughter. And the story also includes the rotating jail cell gag, which sums up The Joker's whole relationship with law enforcement but also raises serious questions about the security of Gotham's police station.

"The Laughing Fish" / "Sign of The Joker" (Detective Comics #475-476, February -- March 1978): If we're excluding The Killing Joke (if only for reasons of length) and Mad Love (on the grounds that it's more a Harley Quinn story), this might be my favorite Joker story of all time, so I'm elated to see it included here. It's easily the "Hey Jude" of Batman/Joker stories, because it's included on every top list and performed at every available opportunity. I gushed at length about this Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers story in my review of Batman: Strange Apparitions, but it bears repeating that these are near-perfect stories, even thirty-some years later. Here is The Joker's dead-serious attempt to copyright fish, his trademark entrance in a stretched panel surrounded by laughter, and his spooky and dogged pursuit of the copyright officials. But it's also a great Batman story, giving us a snapshot of the Dark Knight's life at this time, as well as providing a look at the state of Gotham City as a whole. The story echoes The Joker's debut with a series of announced homicides, and its adaptation into an episode of Batman: The Animated Series only reverberates its iconic and greatest nature. It's a story that every Batfan needs to read.

"Have a Dreadful Birthday, Mr. Joker" (Batman #321, March 1980): After "The Laughing Fish," any story might feel like a comedown, and unfortunately for Len Wein and Walter Simonson such is this case with "Dreadful Birthday." It's not that it's a bad story; there's no shift in tone with the oversized (notice a trend?) birthday cake to which The Joker's hostages are tethered like candles, and the exploding boat finale is probably the most familiar version of the classic "We haven't seen the last of him" trope. It feels familiar, but it might just be a chicken-and-egg case of a spot-on distillation of this kind of story. What's more, Simonson's Joker is a wonderful interpretation, even more elongated than Rogers's, if it can be believed. While I may be sad that we didn't get anything from The Joker's solo series, the inclusion of Simonson in this story might atone for that.

"Laughter After Midnight" (Batman Adventures Annual #1, 1994): Throughout this series of reviews I've been clamoring for more representation from the DC Animated Universe, so it's wonderful to see that interpretation of The Joker represented here. I've long contended that the Dini/Timm approach to The Joker is the best and most accurate in any media adaptation -- even including Heath Ledger's wildly original Joker -- and it's telling that I still hear Mark Hamill's voice in my head when reading this and every other story in the collection. This story finds The Joker making his way home after yet another ignominious defeat at the hands of the Caped Crusader. John Byrne apes the style of the DCAU so cleanly that I had to double-check the artist wasn't Bruce Timm. It's a great story, one that I missed in my days reading the original series, but it's also a perfect peek into the odd blend of dark humor and deadly evil that made this interpretation of The Joker so beloved -- and so great.

"New Year's Eve" (Batman: The Long Halloween #4, March 1997): One of the earliest Joker stories in the post-Crisis canon (being that The Long Halloween is essentially "Year Two," only The Man Who Laughs is earlier for my money), this story combines many of my favorite characteristics of a Batman story: a dead serious Dark Knight, an eccentric Joker with a lethally insane plan, Jeph Loeb's writing, Tim Sale's art, and snow. While the whole issue isn't reprinted, the parts relevant to the collection unite seamlessly, such that you'll be hard-pressed to find the edits without a copy of the original on hand. Sale takes The Joker's facial elongation to its absurd nadir, such that The Joker's chin dangles near his navel by the end of Dark Victory, but it fits within the cartoonized world of the story; Batman is similarly exaggerated, muscular beyond plausibility but unmistakeably our hero. Considered by many a definitive Batman story, The Long Halloween does justice to The Joker and ought to encourage readers who had never read it before.

"Case Study" (Batman: Black and White, Volume 2, 2002): Ah, Alex Ross -- it's been a while since we saw you around these parts. Here Ross teams up with Paul Dini for a classic Joker origin story -- classic in that it's entirely plausible but probably not true. Riffing on Batman '89, Dini and Ross cast pre-chemicals Joker as a cunning and ambitious mobster whose last days as The Red Hood only made him more audacious. It's a nice nod to The Killing Joke, too long to be reprinted here but undeniably worthy of the "Greatest" appellation, but Dini puts a new "multiple choice" spin on Joker's possible origin, which is too clever to spoil. Ross's artwork is, as ever, stellar, even in black-and-white; his Joker reminds me of Jack Nicholson, which couldn't be less of a bad thing.

"The Joke" (Batman #614, June 2003): It's been said that Batman: Hush, of which this is the seventh chapter, is a retelling of all the iconic Batman moments in one epic story. If that's the case, "The Joke" represents the moral issue at the heart of the Batman/Joker conflict: Should Batman kill The Joker? Writer Jeph Loeb uses his internal narration style to its maximum potential here, stepping inside Batman's head as he beats The Joker near death; using Batman's memory to cycle back to some of The Joker's most notorious moments. It's a tidy package that interrogates what separates Batman from The Joker, but as an entry in this collection it also encompasses stories (i.e., The Killing Joke and A Death in the Family) that were too long to be included but still immensely significant. And the superstar artwork by Jim Lee doesn't hurt, either; Lee plays with shading and line thickness to emphasize the emotional shifts between memory and reality. As a part of one of my all-time favorite Batman stories, "The Joke" is also a wonderful summation of this complicated relationship.

"Slayride" (Detective Comics #826, February 2007): After fully exploring the Batman/Joker dynamic in "The Joke," Paul Dini returns to the writer's chair with "Slayride," another Christmas story in which The Joker abducts Robin Tim Drake and holds him captive during a series of brutal holiday crimes. Don Kramer's artwork in particular stands out for how well he makes The Joker look insane and evil without compromising his more clownish features. Dini is the master of the one-and-done Batman story, having honed his craft on The Animated Series, and this story is both thrilling and unforgettable; it's not difficult to picture this as an episode of the cartoon, although it's more violent than fans of the show will expect. It is, however, a great note on which the book can close, showing us what The Joker is like in the modern era -- still spooky and still uncomfortably funny.

Up to this point, Shazam! The Greatest Stories Ever Told was probably my favorite "Greatest Stories" collection, with Superman/Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told as a successful close second, with neither book wasting a story and instead presenting a highly canonical approach to the character's (or team's) history. But now I'm almost certain that The Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told is my new favorite, in part because the character is so strong but also because the editors have really done a bang-up job acknowledging every major interpretation of the character while providing each of his most significant moments without reprinting some of his longer appearances.

Indeed, I can't think of a story that's missing, no glaring omissions that got short shrift here; the only major story absent is the O'Neill/Adams tale "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge," but that's reprinted over in Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Volume One. I can't kvetch about the DCAU not being represented, since the editors rightfully recognize that The Joker, more than anyone, became a star at the hands of Dini and Timm; on that note, though, I might have liked a bit more Harley Quinn in this trade, since she only appears only peripherally in three small appearances here. And the Grant Morrison fan in me can't help but wonder why "The Clown at Midnight" didn't make the cut, although it's either too weird or too recent to merit inclusion.

All told, The Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told is as near to perfection as this series ever came, hitting all the important beats without wasting pages on unrewarding stories. It's a first-rate primer on the character -- exactly what I wanted from this series -- and it's excellent for all readers who want to know what The Joker is really all about. Just don't gaze too hard into the abyss, lest ... well, you know.

We've reached the last of the official "Greatest Stories" collections, but there's one more entry in this review series. No, it's not a post full of my complaints about missing stories. For the final entry in this series, I'll be reviewing The World's Greatest Superheroes, a collection of the oversized Paul Dini/Alex Ross OGNs which seems to fit nicely as a coda to the "Greatest Stories" line. Stay tuned!

More Greatest Stories reviews: Superman Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Batman Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Justice League, Shazam, Batgirl, and Superman/Batman.
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  1. This sounds like a great story collection, and as you noted, the only "missing" stories are either collected elsewhere or are too long. And if the boner story was going to be reprinted anywhere, it may as well be here.

    Also, "Slayride" is my personal favorite Joker story. Just the look on Tim's face when he realizes that he's in a sedan with the Joker sells the entire thing. Yeah, sure, he's Batman's sidekick... it doesn't mean the Joker doesn't scare the pants off of him.

    1. One of my favorite Joker stories is the second Robin Tim Drake miniseries, Joker's Wild. This was one of the first major Joker appearances after Death in the Family (and certainly had that resonance of the Joker against a Robin), but at the same time the Joker's plan straddled the line just right between ham-fisted and dangerous, some internet/phone hacking/throw the city into chaos thing.

      And "Slayride," which I also liked a lot, reminded me very much of Joker's Wild -- "Slayride" is considerably more gripping, packed so tightly into one issue as it is, but the two stories share that Tim/Joker dynamic.

    2. So glad "Slayride" is getting some love. One of my favorite issues of Batman I've ever read. Dini's Detective Comics run was just fantastic.

  2. The original 1989 version which collected a lot more Golden/Silver/Bronze age stories had a better value (and the same is true of the Batman and Superman books).
    Everybody already owns Hush, Long Halloween and most of us already have the Dini stories so there was no point in collecting them here IMO.

  3. I absolutely agree with Darth Shap about the quality of the 1989 edition, with the caveat that the expanded edition that came out not too long after under the title "Stacked Deck" was even better for the inclusion of the two-part Joker/Catwoman story from the 1980s Mike Barr/Alan Davis run in Detective Comics.