Anatomy of a Classic: Fantastic Four #50

 

 

As some of you already know, I’ve been steadily working my way through the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on Fantastic Four for the first time ever, and today, you get one of the results: an in-depth analysis of Fantastic Four #50, what it meant for comics storytelling and how it forms the foundation of modern comics.

I ended up doing quite a bit of research (by which I mean I read a lot of comics) in preparation to write this article, and as long-winded as I get over at ComicsAlliance, there were actually a couple of things I didn’t get to mention about the aftermath of the issue.

For one, it didn’t go unnoticed by the Distinguished Competition, specifically ISB favorite/greatest comics writer of all time Bob Haney, who parodied the Galactus saga a year later in the pages of “Metamorpho,’ where a two-foot tall alien called the Thunderer, heralded by “Neutrog the Forerunner,” arrived on Earth and could only be defeated with a guitar that shot laser beams. I covered this story way back on ISB classic, and finally reading its inspiration makes it even better. Also of note, Haney referred to Metamorpho as “The World’s Second Greatest Comics Magazine (But He Tries Harder).” I think it’s pretty clear that the guy was a fan of Stan and Jack — the stories read like affectionate parodies rather than vicious ones.

It’s also worth noting that while today it’s almost universally seen as a classic, fan reaction to the story at the time seemed about as mixed as you’d expect. There actually aren’t too many letters discussing the Galactus story in the following issues (though the Black Panther’s appearance shortly after was met with a lot of discussion, and rightfully so), and what did get printed actually seemed to trend towards the negative.

In the article, I mention the letter complaining that Galactus was a “run-of-the-mill” villain, but a letter in FF #56 goes a little further:

The Fantastic Four reached new heights of glory with the advent of the Inhumans, but they have been steadily going down the drain ever since. The first step was the appearance of Galactus in #48. Galactus: A scientific menace with a devilish apparatus for the elimination of all life on Earth… blah!!! He was defeated, after the retribution of the foolish Silver Surfer, in three issues of pure trash. [...] The next thing you know, the FF will be fighting ‘The Creature from Beneath the Garbage Can’ with his uncanny ‘Onion Gun.’ Finally, the Earth is saved as the FF defeat him with Reed’s ‘Fantasti-kitchen Rubbish Disposal Unit!’ Enough!! Enough new menaces for the FF to battle! Enough super-scientific hogwash! It’s time the FF met (or should I say, re-met) some of their old foes. Perchance the Sub-Mariner.

This letter absolutely blew me away. I mean, not being into Galactus is one thing, but writing in to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966 to tell them to stop creating new characters? Yeesh.

At least it’s a nice reminder that comics readers didn’t just suddenly lose their minds with the advent of the Internet.

The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling

 

 

Today at ComicsAlliance, it’s another one of those Very Serious Essays I get inside my head every now and then (see also): The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling.

ISB readers have seen me ranting about regressive storytelling before–specifically in regards to the Flash and the Legion of Super-Heroes, books that are literally about forward motion and the future, respectively, and ought to metaphorically be about them too–but the racial aspect is something I haven’t written about too much, and–as you might expect from the 2000 words I just linked to, it’s something that’s been bothering me. I’ve had this essay building in me for a while now (it was originally scheduled for three weeks ago but kept getting pushed back), and it’s good to finally get it out.

But there’s one thing I forgot to put into the finished piece, and that’s this: This stuff is all cyclical. Eventually, the people doing the regressive storytelling are going to be the kids growing up now, who only know Blue Beetle as Jaime Reyes, the Atom as Ryan Choi and Firestorm as Jason Rusch, largely because those are the characters on Batman: The Brave and the Bold. DC comics is catering to the older, nostalgia-plagued market, but eventually that market’s going to want something different because of the forward momentum of other media. And as much as it’s a slippery slope for comics to take cues from their more mass media counterparts, that’s going to be a change I want to see.

Twenty-Five Things Every Comics Collection Truly Needs To Be Awesome

So earlier tonight, Dr. K pointed me to an article at the Comics Reporter where The Spurge thoughtfully listed fifty things that, according to him, every comics collection needs to be complete. And while I hate to be the guy to come in and say I can do better (this is a lie, I love being that guy), I’m pretty sure I can do better.

And I can do it in half the time.

I mean, sure. You could sink your money into the complete works of Chris Ware and the dead-eyed horror of Little Orphan Annie, but what’ll that get you? Anyone can make a comics collection complete.

Making it completely awesome, however, requires a bit of help, which is why I’m sweeping in for tips on how you can tailor your collection for maximum radness and a lucrative career posting scans of kooky ’60s comics with funny captions.

Keep in mind, this list assumes that you’ve already covered the basics, and are looking to trick it out. Allow me, then, to be your personal Xzibit.

 


 

1. The Mod Gorilla Boss

 

 

Or, failing that, the Primate Patrol, Francois the Nazi-Fighting Gorilla, Super-Gorilla Grodd or a number of others. Why? Because it’s important to understand the relationship that comics have had with gorillas and monkeys over the years. I mean, think about it: Imagine if you will a world where Every Which Way But Loose, in which Clint Eastwood stars as a trucker who fights for money and has a pet orangutan, was so influential on the world of filmmaking that Hollywood had tried every year to top it. That’s what comics are like, to the point where the Flash not only fights a gorilla, but a talking telepathic cannibal super-gorilla, and we don’t even bat an eye.

 

2. A Collection Of Stories From The Golden Age

Every now and then, I’ll wonder what it was like to be there at one of the moments when Everything Changed, like being there to pick Fantastic Four #1 up off the rack and seeing how different it was from anything else I’d ever seen. But the fact of the matter is that I’d rather be reading comics now than at any time in history, because there’s such a wealth of reprints going around.

Not just in terms of cheap reprint books like DC’s Showcases and Marvel’s Essentials–although those are worth their weight in gold to the amateur retrologist–but in that over the past decade, there’s been a concerted effort to shine a light on the forgotten treasures of the Golden Age. Even Marvel, which has–for good reason–long ignored its Timely roots in favor of Stan and Jack’s 1961 starting point, have gotten into the act with collections of Daring Mystery and USA Comics dropping in the past year.

And you need to read them, because they are fucking insane.

The two titles mentioned above include both a hero from an underground nation that is exactly the size of the United States of America who fights Nazi saboteurs and elves in equal measure and a Hobo Super-Hero named the Vagabond who is not actually a hobo (he’s a hobo clown who is actually an FBI agent) and is not actually called the Vagabond (he is “better known to himself as Chauncey Throttlebottom III”). These are the punk rock of comics. They’re the ones that a bunch of kids were making back when the rules hadn’t even been invented yet, when comics were a blank slate with no idea that was too crazy, nonsensical or downright unreadable to get published.

If you only get one, though, it should be Paul Karasik’s collection of Fletcher Hanks stories, I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets, which is just jaw-droppingly surreal. Seriously.

 

3. At Least One Comic By Kyle Baker

Because no one–no one–should live a life without Cowboy Wally.

 

 

4. A Prose Novel About Comics

And no, Greg Rucka’s novelization of No Man’s Land doesn’t count, no matter how entertaining it actually is. Now, the obvious choice here would be Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the story of two young men at the dawn of the Golden Age, as it won a little thing called The Pulitzer Prize, and therefore gave Chabon the right to refer to any and all Eisner winners as “quaint.” And it’s good, too, and well worth picking up. But, there’s another book that’s far less well-known that fits the bill: Robert Mayer’s Superfolks, a groundbreaking, darkly comedic story of the human side of a retired super-hero that hit shelves in 1977 and quietly influenced creators like Alan Moore, Kurt Busiek and Grant Morrison, even prompting the latter two to write forewords for its last two editions. I’m always a little amazed that it’s not brought up more often, but it’s there, it’s amazing, and having it on your shelf will serve as a subtle reminder that you occasionally read books without pictures in them.

 

5. Something That Will Allow You To Sound Smart In Public

I refer, of course, to Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s Action Philosophers!, a comic that I’ve said time and again should be in every library in the world.

I’ll be honest with you, folks: I took one (1) course in Philosophy in college, and while I’m normally a pretty good student (shocking, I know), I did miserably. The best thing to come out of it was a note on my paper from my prof that read “You write so well that it’s a shame you have no idea what you’re talking about.” Seriously.

Since the debut of AP, however, I find myself not only interested in the subject, but versed enough in the details to discuss the finer points of Lao Tzu and Spinoza with other people, although I’ll confess that these conversations usually occur over drinks and involve me struggling to remember that Wittgenstein didn’t actually have Angry Lines radiating from his head at all times.

 

6. A Comic That, If It Came To It, Could Block Shuriken, Blowdarts, And Most Medium Caliber Handgun Rounds

Or: “A Slipcased Hardcover So Expensive That You Hope For The Inevitable Zombie Uprising That Will Force You To Use It As A Club, Thereby Justifying the Amazing Expense.” I’m looking at you here, Completely MAD Don Martin.

 

7. One, and Only One, Issue of Pizzazz

Specifically, this one:

 

 

8. A Comic Written by a Rapper

This is becoming an increasingly easy one to find, with the Method Man’s graphic novel out recently and one from the GZA in last month’s Previews catalog, and if you’re out for something more revolutionary, you could track down last year’s sadly unfinished Public Enemy (cowritten by Chuck D), wherein–and I am not making this up–Flava Flav uses a clock on a chain to battle evil government thugs.

If you’re really dedicated though, and you want to kick it Old School, you can attempt to track down this bad boy:

 

 

That’s right: 1994′s Break The Chain by Kyle Baker and KRS-One, which originally came polybagged with a casette tape of the Blastmaster rapping the script with instructions to turn the page every time he says “Word!” I have had this thing sitting on the shelf for two years without even opening it. I don’t think my house could contain that much awesome.

 

9. Jack Staff

I’ve mentioned before that while I’m usually a little reticent to call something my favorite comic–because let’s face it, I fall in love with something new at least once a week–there’s no question in my mind that Paul Grist’s Jack Staff takes the cake. And it’s something everyone oughtta have, not just because it’s an amazingly fun read that’s still one of the most engaging and innovative comics I’ve ever read, but because it teaches us a valuable lesson.

Jack Staff started out as a rejected Marvel pitch. That explains, of course, why Jack himself bears a strong resemblance to Marvel’s vampire-hunting Union Jack, and why–especially in the first story–there are analogues for other characters cropping up: Sgt. States in lieu of Captain America, Tom Tom the Robot Man filling in for Iron Man and so on. But beyond that is the fact that Marvel rejected what would eventually grow and evolve into the best comic I read. There’s a lesson about perseverance in there, and like all the best morals, it comes wrapped in the story of Becky Burdock, Vampire Reporter.

 

10. A Story That Deals With a Serious Issue

 

 

Because it’s important to know that there was a time when stories like the one above were saying things that nobody else did, and that no matter how hokey and cliché they might seem now, there was a time when they were as earnest and unflinching as they’d eventually become.

Unless you’re Judd Winick, in which case they’re simultaneously earnest and unbearably hokey.

 

11. Something Romantic

Because every now and then, a young man or woman’s fancy turns to ahhhhhhrrrrromance! But don’t feel that you have to go with Blankets or Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane or the dismal, heartsick pit that is the Charlton Romance Comic! There are lots of things in comics that are romantic!

Like the time Scott Pilgrim headbutted that guy so hard he turned into change!

 

 

Now that is the glory of love.

 

12. Cover Girl, by Andrew Cosby, Kevin Church and Mateus Santolouco

 

This Entry Sponsored By BeaucoupKevin.com

 

13. Something That Is Totally Awesome But That You Totally Do Not Understand

 

 

I find that most great manga and the works of Bobs Haney and Kanigher fit into this category pretty nicely.

 

14. Something That You Can Give To Someone Who Doesn’t Get It

For any dedicated comics reader, there’s always that moment where you go up against a friend, significant other or family member who wants to understand your love of comics, but meets you with a blank stare no matter how many times you try to explain the whole Every Which Way But Loose metaphor.

The problem here is that in order to capture your love for comics, they need to have that one defining moment, and since that’s a lot more likely to come along when one is six years old at the Ameristop looking for something to kill time between cartoons, you’re usually too late, and have to come up with something that’s both an entry-level book and embodies everything you love about comics. It’s a tough one, since every person’s tastes are going to be different, but as a good place to start, you could do a lot than Scott McCloud’s Zot!, though depending on your affection for River City Ransom, Scott Pilgrim does a heck of a job.

 

15. A Comic That Was Ten Years Ahead of Its Time

In the forties, it was Jack Cole’s Plastic Man and Will Eisner’s Spirit. In the fifties, it was the EC Books. In the sixties, Metamorpho and Herbie, and in the ’90s it was Starman. Every good comic is going to stick out from the crowd, but these and others are the ones that read like they were sent back from the future to show people how it was going to be done, whether it’s in panel layout or self-aware humor or kicking off the trend of retrospective super-hero comics that continues today. They’re the leaps forward in the form. They are, in effect, the mutants of comics.

And comics love mutants.

 

16. Porn

Yeah, that’s right. I said it.

I’ve mentioned it before, the marriage of comic books and pornography is often one that falls extremely flat, as any harrowing look through the pages of Previews Adult will show. I’m not sure if it’s just a side effect of sixty years of engaging in adolescent power fantasies rather than just adolescent fantasies, but it’s rare that anything comes along that’s worth bothering with.

Which is why it’s always interesting when something does. There’s Alan Moore’s Lost Girls–which is not to be confused with Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, which is only porn for research librarians–and Phil Foglio’s long-running XXXenophile, in which centaurs factor and it’s actually pretty funny. Even so,it’s Colleen Coover’s Small Favors that I like the most, probably owing to the fact that it can honestly be described as “cute and hilarious” and has a premise so strange that it could’ve come from Bob Haney, in that the principal characters are a girl and the size-changing manifestation of her conscience that was assigned to her by an old woman who lives in the girl’s head to keep her from doing exactly what they end up doing.

And on the flipside…

 

17. Something For The Kids

So here’s the deal: Back before DC decided that there was no middle ground between Identity Crisis and DC Super Friends, there was a long stretch of time in which both the best Batman comic and the best Superman comic by far were the kid-friendly, done-in-one issues that tied into the animated series. Kelley Puckett and Mike Parobeck’s Batman Adventures were like textbook examples of how to tell great Batman stories, and Mark Millar’s work on Superman Adventures are not only the best Superman comics of the ’90s, but the best work of the man’s career. They’re that good.

And yet they never really sold all that well, a bit of history that’s repeating itself today, when Marvel Adventures Avengers is the best Avengers book in quality and the worst in sales. Why? Because it’s a kid’s book. And even stranger, I’ve had customers that come in asking for new Shazam stories that turn their nose up at Mike Kunkel’s Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam because they want serious stories.

About Captain Marvel.

Who is a child who turns into a super-powered grown-up when he says a magic word.

AND FIGHTS A WORM WITH A RADIO ON ITS NECK.

Brother, I don’t even know where to begin with the logic behind that, but I’ll try to sum it up like this: There are good stories for mature readers that couldn’t have been done otherwise (see above), but a good story is good no matter what age group it’s directed at, and to paraphrase Penny Arcade, if you’re worried that somebody’s going to think you’re immature for reading a kid’s comic, then guess what? You’re already reading comics, and they’re not going to care if it comes from Vertigo or Johnny DC. Sheesh.

And speaking of Penny Arcade…

 

18. A Print Collection of a Webcomic

 

At this point, I think it’s become obvious that–just as it was with music–the Internet is the unavoidable future of comics, both in terms of distribution (everyone’s enjoying those discounts on trades at Amazon, right?) and creation, largely through the medium of webcomics. Still, there’s always going to be a market for print and at least for now, one of its chief benefits is a sense of legitimacy that comes with a hard copy.

I mean, let’s be honest here: Webcomics–like blogs–are relatively cheap and easy to create, to the point where anyone can do it, but getting a book published is a heck of a lot harder than setting up a website. The end result to all this: the ones that do get picked up tend to offer a lot more once they do, whether it’s additional strips like Order of the Stick, bonus commentary like Penny Arcade, or beautiful formats like Achewood and Wondermark, and that’s in addition to being able to read through them in the rare event that you’re away from your computer.

Plus, you know you want to have this in your house:

 

 

19. A Story That Hits All Three

My friend Scott has a theory about what makes a good comic that goes like this: There are three types of ways that a comic can affect you. It can go to your head and make you think, your heart for an emotional connection, or your gut for the fist-pumping “fuck yeah!” moment. Anything that gets one is enjoyable, and a good comic will get you two, but a great comic… That’s one that hits all three.

Like, say, JLA #41, when they’re fighting Mageddon the Anti-Sun and the Justice League gives everyone on the planet super-powers and they all fly out to space to help Superman. Not only is that a clever solution that works within the context of the story and makes perfect sense given that it takes place in a world where everyone on the planet owes Superman their life a hundred tiems over, but it’s such a great image. Everybody in the world getting superpowers! And… and they put aside all their differences to help Superman… and..

Sorry, got a little something in my eye. I’ll meet you down at #20.

 

20. A Run You Had To Hunt For

I mentioned before that one of the reasons I love reading comics right now is that there’s so much stuff that’s available, and that’s true. And yet, there are still comics that have never been reprinted.

Two of the best comics DC’s ever published are Suicide Squad and Hitman, and if you want ‘em in trade, you’re out of luck. Yes, they did publish a few trades for Hitman while the series was coming out, but they never got to the later issues, and I’m pretty sure that the only issue of Suicide Squad that’s ever seen a reprint is #13, which shows up in the Justice League International hardcover.

Now, if those two series–or ROM, for that matter–were collected tomorrow you could sit down, read ‘em, and have a fantastic time. But there’s something about having to hunt down an issue to complete a run that’s an entirely different experience, and while I want trades of those issues as much as anyone, the thrill of triumph is something that everybody ought to feel.

Ditto for the disappointment when you get that last handful of Dr. Fate and find out that your friends like it a heck of a lot more than you do.

 

21. Showcase Presents Sugar & Spike

 

 

OH WAIT! I FORGOT! THIS DOES NOT EXIST BECAUSE DC HATES MONEY.

 

22. A Comic Where Somebody Punches Hitler

 

 

Because seriously, fuck that guy.

 

23. Something That You Absolutely Love, Except For One Little Thing

 

 

“Oh man, this thing is great! A couple of sexy girl bounty hunters blowing stuff up and getting in car chases in Chicago! And the art’s beautiful! The cars and guns are painstakingly researched, and the car chases have a sense of motion to them that I’ve never seen before in comics! The jokes are funny and the action’s intense and… Hey, wait. It says that Ken and Minnie May were shacking up together ‘four years ago.’ But… but she’s eighteen now… and he’s in his thirties.

Ooh, a Bean Bandit story!”

 

24. Something That Might Not Be Very Good But God Damn It, It Means The World To You

 

 

25. Something That You Absolutely Hate

Why? Because if you’re gonna read comics for any serious amount of time, you can’t read the good stuff all the time. Now, I would never advise someone to keep reading a book they didn’t like; if you stop enjoying a comic, then stop reading it. But… if you find something so monumentally bad that it transcends itself into something beyond, something that you can’t believe could possibly exist in a world that also has Watchmen in it, then you’ve got to stick with that one, whether you’re gleefully marveling at it or just trudging through for the benefit of others

Mithridates, after all, died old.

The Man Who Laughs

So lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this guy:

 

 

That probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anybody, given the amount of time I spend thinking about Batman in general, but since seeing The Dark Knight, I’ve been trying to figure out why the Joker has become the kind of character that he is.

Looking at the character today, it’s obvious that he’s not only Batman’s arch-nemesis, but that more than any other villain, he’s evolved alongside his opposite number to become something more. In a review of Dark Knight, Ken pointed out that comics–especially DC–are built around archetypes. Superman, for instance, isn’t just a good man with super-powers, he’s a symbol of everything that’s good and selfless with a face and a logo on his chest, and as much as Batman’s come to symbolize the relentless, single-minded pursuit of justice, the Joker’s done the same, becoming chaos itself. As Ken says, he doesn’t believe in chaos, he is chaos. He’s less a criminal and more a force of nature.

The question I’ve been mulling over, then, is why it’s the Joker and not someone else.

I don’t think I’m really advancing an unpopular opinion when I say that Batman has the best villains in comics, but even among a crowd that strong, the Joker stands out. The best villains, after all, are the ones that bring out the contrasts within the hero himself, and that’s something Batman has to spare. The Scarecrow, for instance, does to civilians what Batman does to the superstitious, cowardly lot of criminals. Two-Face has the same split-personality as Batman and Bruce Wayne, but with a mask that he can’t take off. Even Ra’s al-Ghul, who was introduced to give Batman a classic pulp-style villain that would allow for world travel and set pieces, is a powerful, obsessive intellectual prone to uncontrollable rages who has set himself outside the law and devoted his life to wiping out what he sees as evil at any cost, to the point where he seeks out a man with the same sort of drive to carry on his life’s work. But even those characters fall short of the gold standard: Scarecrow’s archenemy may be Batman, but Batman’s archenemy is the Joker.

At its heart, you can trace it to the fact that the Joker takes what is literally the opposite route: From his first appearance in 1940, he’s everything Batman’s not in every way but one. Whereas that Batman of the 1940s is a dour, grim avenger in black and grey who works in secret and things like “a fitting end for his kind” when he “accidentally” kicks a dude into a vat of chemicals, the Joker’s loud and garish enough to broadcast his intentions over the airwaves, and while Golden Age Batman was a lot more prone to witty fight banter, the Joker’s alarmingly direct:

 

 

From the start, he’s an amazing visual, and it’s a complete inversion of the classic hero and villain formula. Batman was inspired as much by Count Dracula and the Shadow as he was heroes like Zorro, with a costume designed to frighten, but he’s still the good guy. The one in the bright colors with the big smile who does magic tricks… that’s the one you need to watch out for.

By the Silver Age, though, things have changed, largely due to the tonal shift that resulted from the Comics Code, and without the edge of madness and outright shrieks of “I’m going to kill you,” the Joker loses a lot of his villainous mojo and fades back to be just another visually interesting face in the crowd.

For evidence, you don’t need to look any further than the 1966 TV show. For all the fan grousing about how its campiness detracted from the legitimate storytelling of the comics–and the eye-rolling that goes with the fact that it’s been forty-two years and we still can’t get a headline about comics without “Biff! Pow!” or “Holy Lazy Copywriters, Batman!”–anyone who’s actually ever read Silver Age Batman stories can tell you that the show reflected the goofiness of the comics, not the other way around.

In any case, as entertaining as Cesar Romero’s Joker is–and brother, he is entertaining–he’s just another thematic villain for Batman to deal with that week. Swap out the playing cards and clown puns for birds, Egyptian artifacts, dinosaur eggs or cat statues, and the stories could’ve been about anybody in the cast. There’s not a whole lot that’s distinctive about him–when you stack him up against the rest of the arch-criminals, anyway–and aside from the visual aspects, there’s almost nothing in the character that we’d recognize as the Joker of today.

There is, however, a lot that we’d recognize as today’s Joker on the show itself, it just doesn’t come from the Joker; it comes from the Riddler.

 

 

It all comes down to Frank Gorshin, who just played the hell out of the role, snapping back and forth from manic glee to genuinely chilling obsession several times in every scene at a pace that would mirror the Joker’s portrayal in Batman: The Animated Series–which also reinvented the Riddler as a far more smug, intellectual villain–twenty-five years later.

But as for the Joker, well… Cesar Romero’s great and I wouldn’t trade his Joker for the world, but there’s a reason the series led with the guy in green.

By the mid-80s, though, everything had changed again. Instead of the guy who carried out clown-themed robberies and pulled boners, there was a character that was firmly entrenched as Batman’s arch-enemy. This was the Joker in full end-boss mode, the Final Form of the Clown Prince of Crime that shot and paralyzed Barbara Gordon and gleefully beat Robin to death with a crowbar. This is the guy who pushes Batman to his limit in Dark Knight Returns and snaps his own neck after a triple-digit murder spree, just to make everyone think Batman’s finally lost it. This, my friends… this is an arch-nemesis.

But those aren’t what make him the go-to bad guy; the Joker’s a part of all those stories because he’s already Batman’s arch-enemy. Even in the finale of Batman Year One–the Alpha to DKR‘s Omega–the Joker’s used as shorthand for the new type of criminal that’s going to be rising to challenge Batman. He’s the escalation, the one that can’t be intimidated by Batman’s physicality or figured out by his deductions or scared by his demonic costume. The scene works not just because we know what the Joker card means when Gordon hands it to Batman, but because we know that the Joker is the one you have to worry about.

Clearly, this is the “real” Joker and not the watered down version, which leads to the question of what changed? Was it just a slow build that returned the Joker to his roots, a combination of his lasting visual appeal and the further refining of Batman as the ultra-competent super-detective adventurer that he evolved into? Maybe, but I’m of the opinion that there has to be a turning point somewhere.

After all, most of the great villains of comics have the moment where you know that Everything Changes. Dr. Doom, for instance, starts out as a visually interesting character with an awesome name, but until he steals the Power Cosmic and becomes DOCTOR DOOM, he’s just a cool-looking guy that once sent the Fantastic Four back in time to look for pirate treasure. The Green Goblin was a legitimate threat with an interesting hook and some good stories under his belt, but he wasn’t the Spider-Man villain until he chucked Peter Parker’s girlfriend off a bridge. Even Lex Luthor, who was an ever-present arch-nemesis for Superman, didn’t really reach his full potential until we saw how far he was willing to damn himself for revenge in–of all things–an imaginary story.

With the Joker, it’s a little harder to pin down. Like Luthor, he’s almost omnipresent, the strength of the earlier stories, the visual contrast and the prominence of his character on the TV show pushing him to the forefront for most of the character’s life. But given the timeframe we’re working with, I’d have to say that it really comes down to two stories from the ’70s that put him over the top.

The first, of course, is the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams classic The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge, from 1973′s Batman #251.

 

 

To be honest, this one almost gets a pass solely based on it being one of the most beautiful things Neal Adams ever drew, but at its heart, it’s more of an archetypal story of Batman than the Joker.

It does, after all, have pretty much everything you want to see from Batman: The casual way he takes a thug’s veiled punches and then lays him out in one shot (a trademark of O’Neil’s ’70s Batman), the deduction of where the Joker’s hiding based off the dirt on his shoes, he fights a shark, and of course… well, just look at this thing:

 

 

Absolutely gorgeous.

Of course, it is a Joker story, and O’Neil did a lot to bring back what was so compelling about the character: He’s on a murder spree that’s ostensibly based on getting revenge against the henchman who sold him out, but beneath the surface, there’s the idea that for the Joker, it’s far easier to just kill five people than find out which one ratted him out. Add to that the fact that he’s around thirty real-time years into his criminal career at this point and would therefore probably be heading off to jail anyway with or without the evidence of his ex-flunkie, and you’ve got someone who breezes into town like a thunderstorm and just starts killing because it’s second nature to him.

Also, O’Neil brings in one of the most important and lasting aspects of the character–His “game” against Batman:

 

 

There are a few more villains who’d rather beat Batman than kill him–the Riddler springs to mind–but by refusing to kill him when the opportunity presents itself, as it does more than a couple of times, the Joker sets himself up as Batman’s equal and adds an even more sinister aspect to his crimes. The people he murders are less than nothing to him; it’s not about them. It’s not even about himself, it’s just about baiting Batman into another confrontation.

The one that really defines the Joker, though, is the Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ The Laughing Fish/Sign of the Joker from 1978′s Detective #475-476, which gives us the amazing, iconic image at the top of this post.

Englehart’s entire run on Batman is a nod to the Golden Age, bringing back what were then all-but-forgotten characters like Hugo Strange and Deadshot and reinventing them to fight a more streamlined Batman. For the Joker, though–the story that finished out his run on the title–Englehart went back to the character’s origin story and retold it with the addition of the “Jokerized” fish–infected with the “Joker Venom” that had been his weapon of choice in 1940 and returned in “Five Way Revenge,” brought directly into focus by Rogers:

 

 

It’s a strange addition, but it’s one that changes the tone of the story completely. In 1940′s “The Joker,” the murders are all organized around robberies, but for “The Laughing Fish,” the Joker’s motivation–killing government employees because he can’t copyright the fish he’s infected–is completely insane. It’s a premise so silly that it could be a Daffy Duck plot if it didn’t end with the Joker murdering at will while Batman and the entire Gotham City police force watched helplessly.

It’s also worth noting that Marshall Rogers didn’t just draw the Joker as a man who smiled all the time, but as a man who couldn’t do anything but smile, an influence that he traced back to the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, which lent its title to another retelling of the first Joker story by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke. This, according to Rogers, was the central tragedy of the Joker: Even if he wanted to cry at all the horror he had caused, he was physically incapable of doing anything but laughing at it, a theme that continued into The Killing Joke.

More importantly, though, this is the story that brings the one great similarity between Batman and the Joker to the forefront: They’re both amazing planners. I mentioned before that the Joker’s the embodiment of chaos, but in this story–and others, including The Dark Knight–the way he spreads anarchy is through meticulous plans and an ability to second-guess and out-think everyone at any turn. When Batman disguises himself as the second victim, the Joker poisons the man’s cat, knowing that it’ll find its master by scent. He already knows the best-laid plans, and like entropy itself, he’s always one step ahead of them.

Incidentally, on the animated series, they added aspects of “Five Way Revenge” to the episode based on “The Laughing Fish” to meet the standard of shark-fighting.

For my money, though, it all comes down to the Laughing Fish. The way it draws on the Golden Age story to bridge the gap to the Modern Age, the element of mad randomness and anarchy that’s built on meticulous planning, the fixed grin. It’s as close to a turning point for the character as you’re likely to find.

Of course, three years prior to the story, the Joker was already popular and prominent enough to carry his own solo series, even if it did last a short nine issues, so who knows?