Nunchucks? More Like FUN-chucks!

As regular ISB readers already know from seeing Kate Holden’s brilliant artistic interpretation of them last week, my post on Batman’s nunchucks made of sharks has inspired greatness.

What you might not know unless you’ve been going through the comments, however, is that Kate’s drawing itself inspired even more people to take up the pencil. In the few days since I posted her piece, I’ve gotten two more from ISB readers, including Ley Howell‘s shot at refining the Bat-Chuks for swampy adventures with reptilian deadliness…



… and Andrew Bates’ Aparo-inspired throwback to the greatest page of all time…



…and I gotta admit: I want to see more. So you know what that means.

That’s right folks, it’s the End-Of-Summer Spectacular you’ve been waiting for with another ISB Contest! Because really, I haven’t given anything away since Bring It On Week, and that seems like a cheerlifetime ago.

The rules, as always, are simple: Just get out your pencils, pens, crayons, MSPaint or other artistic media and draw a picture of Batman using nunchucks that are made out of something from which nunchucks are not normally made, then send it to me at the address in the sidebar or link to it in the comments section below by 11:59 PM Eastern Time, Friday, September 19, 2008. I’ll pick and announce the winner on Saturday based on radness, and then mail the lucky artist a Fabulous Prize Package consisting of:

One (1) copy of Teenagers From The Future, signed by me, and…

Some (some) other crap that I’ve got laying around that I think would make good prizes.

And that’s pretty much it. Now get to making some user-generated free content awesome entries!

(NOTE: Sometimes, comments with links in them–especially ones with multiple links–get flagged by WordPress as spam, but I’m checking the Spam Queue every now and then to make sure I don’t miss any. If yours doesn’t show up and you desperately need it to, just shoot me an email about it.)

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?

Thar She Blows!

Now that everyone’s had the weekend to see The Dark Knight and scrape their jaws up off the floor, the conversations have trended from talking about how awesome this movie was to speculating about how awesome the next one’s going to be.

I’ve had more than a few “wouldn’t it be great if…” conversations in the store over the past couple days and there was a good one going back and forth with the usual suspects over email this afternoon, mostly revolving around the villains, because really: Where do you go after that? Me, I wouldn’t even venture to guess.

But I can tell you who it won’t be.

Don’t get me wrong here: There’s plenty of bad guys you can just toss right out to begin with. I’m pretty sure we won’t be seeing The Dodo Man again anytime soon, and unless Christopher Nolan decides that the thrill-a-minute pre-Crisis Jason Todd Custody Battle would make for some compelling cinema, things aren’t looking good for Nocturna and the Thief of Night, either.

If you want the sure bet, though, there’s only one to go with:




Orca–who I don’t think is ever actually called “Orca the Whale Woman” in the comics–is already pretty well-known on the comics blog circuit, but for those of you who aren’t familiar with the character, let me assure you: She’s even more terrible than she looks, and is pretty widely acknowledged as being one of the worst Batman villains of the past decade. I’d feel pretty safe in saying that we’re all glad she’s gone, but things being what they are, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there were a bunch of degenerates on LiveJournal openly weeping when she was capped in Face the Face.

I’ll explain: Originally created by Larry Hama and Scott McDaniel during a run that also gave us such villainous luminaries as The Banner, who was essentially just Paul Wingfield (the crazy militiaman from GI Joe #4) with an American flag cape, Orca starred in the last story before Batman got good again with the arrival of Ed Brubaker. Seriously, I think the record’ll back me up when I say that I’ve got some love for Larry Hama’s comics, but goddamn, that run was atrocious. It doesn’t help that Scott McDaniel always seemed to draw Batman in mid-pelvic thrust…



…but it all ended up being justly criticized as one of the worst runs on the title ever, and Orca just might be the worst part.

So here’s how it goes: Orca is in reality paraplegic marine biologist Grace Balin, which I just realized when I was re-reading it is a pun on baleen whales. So there’s that.

Anyway, when socialite Camille Baden-Smythe, who is the kind of stereotypically evil plutocrat that spends her weekends plotting to tear down the local breakdance crew’s rec center to build a toxic waste dump, sets her sights on evicting Grace from her aquarium, the scientist is understandably upset. Fortunately, she minored in Evil Chemistry, and so she’s able to whip up a serum that blah blah blah etc.:



Thus, after sewing up a sufficiently elastic costume–and yes, it actually is a costume, begging the question of why she even needs one–and christening herself after her favorite Michael Anderson film, she sets off to steal Baden-Smythe’s huge-ass diamond necklace so that she can give a bunch of money to homeless people.

This, incidentally, is the best part of the story, as it deals with the fact that a marine biologist (generally speaking) would have no idea how to fence a six million dollar diamond necklace, although this being Gotham, you’d think it wouldn’t be that hard. In any case, that part’s quickly tossed aside so that Batman, by complete coincidence can stumble on Baden-Smythe’s highly illegal business practices and bring her down.

This, as you might imagine, can only be accomplished by putting on his special Whale-Fighting outfit and shouting expository dialogue while kicking.



This is what happens when you write about a toy line for a hundred and fifty issues, folks. You start coming up with stories for action figure variants that don’t even exist.

In any case, it’s just awful and the worst part is that it goes on for three issues. That might not sound like much, since it’s about half of today’s standard story arc, but trust me, when you’re reading a comic where Batman argues morality and the class system with Orca the Whale Woman, three months feels like a Goddamn eternity.

To be fair, though, the story does have one redeeming quality, and that is this:



An inexplicably hilarious picture of Alfred using a billion-dollar Batcomputer to model Dr. Balin busting out of her jeans. Say what you want about Orca, but that makes it all worth it.