When Arkham Asylum was comedy gold: The Joker, Clown Prince of Crime

Until I reread the 1975-6 The Joker series (now collected in the Joker: Clown Prince of Crime TPB) I’d forgotten that Arkham Asylum was once a fun place to be locked away.

Forget that Gothic institution of nightmares we’ve seen for close to 40 years, holding every twisted maniac in Gotham. In The Joker it’s just him and Two-Face and a few nameless nonentities. Security is so lax, the staff seem to have graduated from the Barney Fife Police Academy.

Heck, the Joker even has a miniature lair, the Mini-Ha-Hacienda (the series introduced the Ha-Hacienda as his regular hideout), hidden under the floor of his cell.

It’s almost jarring to realize Arkham was this whimsical in the Bronze Age. Almost as jarring as seeing the Joker killing on a small scale, with goals other than I Will Destroy Hope. Insane goals, sure. In #6, for instance, he commits a series of Sherlock Holmes-themed crimes for no other reason than to sort-of outwit the other world’s greatest detective.

It’s way more interesting than the 21st century Joker, and the murders pack more punch than when he plunges Gotham City into chaos for the millionth time. Extra punch as he kills several innocent parties — I’d vaguely remembered that his victims were all rival crooks.

That was one way the writers gave the Joker some opposition without bringing Batman in. Various issues pit him against Catwoman, Scarecrow, Two-Face and the Royal Flush Gang. If this had been Wanted: The World’s Most Dangerous Villains, I might have wondered who was going to win, but needless to say the guy with his name in the title comes out ahead.

Luthor’s appearance in #7 falls between Clash of Titans and a team-up: the Joker accidentally swaps his insanity for Luthor’s genius and tries to fix things. It’s one of the best in the run. My favorite, though, is the Holmes story. It starts with the Joker ripping off a Holmes play in the Bohemia Theater (“There’s never been a scandal in the Bohemia before!”) as part of his crime spree. Too bad that the leading actor gets a conk on the head, decides he really is Holmes, and starts hunting the Joker alongside longshoreman “Dock” Watson.

The worst story is #4, in which the Joker stalks and kidnaps Dinah Lance, having decided he’s in love with her. Dinah gets to play damsel in distress the entire issue, leaving it to Green Arrow to come on all manly and save her. #8, pitting the Hoodlum Harlequin against the Scarecrow, isn’t much either.

I enjoyed the others, though a lot of that is nostalgia for the Bronze Age Joker. While the stories aren’t up to “Laughing Fish” or “Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” the Joker is much in that style: homicidal, brilliant but insane, with criminal schemes that make perfect sense if you start from an insane point.

I don’t think of this as the definitive Joker (I’m not a fan of “the version I read in my teenage years is definitive!”) but it’s definitely “my” Joker. I hadn’t been a Batman fan in the Silver Age and I wasn’t a huge Joker fan before “Five Way Revenge.” This crazy guy is the Joker I know best, both his criminal style and that freakishly elongated face.

The series was canceled with one issue still in the can. As it was part one of a three parter (the Joker vs. the JLA) it never saw the light of day except in Canceled Comics Cavalcade. I can’t say cancellation was a tragic loss to comics, but I am glad I have the old issues to reread.

#SFWApro. Images top to bottom by Dick Giordano, Irv Novick, Irv Novick, Ernie Chan and Novick again.

12 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    It starts with the Joker ripping off a Holmes play in the Bohemia Theater (“There’s never been a scandal in the Bohemia before!”)

    LoL! If only he could’ve faced Destiny of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

    Too bad that the leading actor gets a conk on the head, decides he really is Holmes, and starts hunting the Joker alongside longshoreman “Dock” Watson.

    And of course, Batman has met the real Holmes.

    Hatcher should be loving this. 🙂

    As an aside: what are you calling the Bronze Age? I think of that as 70s and 80s, but I thought that Joker series was earlier?

    1. Edo Bosnar

      The Joker series ran bi-monthly from mid-1975 through late 1976, so right in the thick of what’s normally called the Bronze Age.
      The Joker tpb collecting that series is one that, like Skull the Slayer, is in the lower tiers of my “want” list – I’d like to get it, but am willing to wait until I stumble onto a less expensive used copy.
      It’s also interesting that during DC’s mid-1970s ‘explosion’ they were actually publishing three ongoing series headlined by bad guys: Joker, Kobra and Secret Society of Super-Villains.

  2. Tim Rifenburg

    I saw on Amazon that there is a Joker Bronze Age omnibus due in August. Contents below. (Including Joker 10) Currently on pre order but not discounted yet.

    The Joker’s greatest tales from the 1970s are collected in one massive hardcover, timed to the fall 2019 Warner Bros. movie about the Clown Prince of Crime starring Joaquin Phoenix. Includes the never before published The Joker #10!

    Collects Batman #252, 260, 286, 291-294, 321, 353, 365-366, 400; The Brave and The Bold #111, 118, 129-130, 141, 191; The Joker #1-10, Detective Comics #475-476, 504, 526, 532, Wonder Woman #280-283; DC Comics Presents #41, 72; Who’s Who: The Definitive Guide to the DC Universe #11 (Joker page only).

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    I had that Holmes issue; lots of fun. he steals the flag off of the 4th hole, at a golf course (The Sign of the Four). Just great stuff. One of the great things about the Bronze Age was even if a series wasn’t that great, there would be these little gems pop up in the middle of the mediocrity. Then, sometimes, the series that didn’t get the big push, or the great sales, was actually a fun little place, because the editors didn’t care enough to inhibit the creative talent.

    Yeah, Kobra had his own series; but, it wasn’t particularly memorable. Certainly not on par with SSSV or the Joker. Maybe if Kirby had actually handled it, not just threw off the concept, before he left DC.

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