The 10 Defining Joker Stories-Part 2
The Batman Adventures: Mad Love
How can a list of great Joker stories not feature at least one with Harley Quinn? Adapted from an episode of The New Batman Adventures by the show’s executive producers, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Mad Love reveals the twisted adoration Dr. Harleen Quinzel felt for Joker when he became one of her patients at Arkham Asylum. But beyond serving as Harley’s origin tale, Mad Love introduces a new, sinister side to the Joker – he’s an abuser. While Timm’s wonderful illustrations give the story more of a cartoon air, Joker’s treatment of Harley features all the classic signs of abuse. And because Timm portrays the violence more directly than in the animated episode, it is hard to look at panels in which “Mistah J” browbeats her with verbal slings or straight-up hits her without wincing.
As with many of the great Joker stories, he is undone by his ego. But here, the lovely twist involves Harley and the Joker’s fears that he would become a punchline if she killed Batman. It not only saves Batman from a death by piranha, but it allows him to defeat the Joker with one word: puddin’.
Mad Love really set the tone for Joker and Harley’s twisted affair, and while it has been over for a long time in the comics – and little more than backstory for the cinematic Harley – this foundational moment forever altered the character into something both more brutal and charismatic.
Batman: The Man Who Laughs
Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke’s 2005 retelling of the Batman #1 story benefits from all the advancements in comics over the course of 66 years. Mahnke’s art underscores the unsettling nature of the Joker’s laughing gas while giving the villain a wide range of expressions. Brubaker’s script, meanwhile, highlights how far both Batman and Commissioner Gordon have come in terms of characters since 1939. In this telling, Gordon is still a Gotham City Police Captain while the Batman is a year-and-change into his career when the murderous clown destroys their footing. Both narrate their own parts of the story – as opposed to the omniscient narrator, Bill Finger, in the original tale – and Joker uses television instead of radio to announce his arrival.
Consequently, the story gets reframed as the week both Batman and Gordon realize Gotham will never be the home of simple, predictable crime ever again. Batman may stop Joker from poisoning the city aqueduct, but the floodgates are opened to costumed crazies. In this, Joker is very much an “unknowable force of nature” and a thrill to see on the page.
Batman: A Death in the Family
unning from Batman #426-429, A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin, Jim Aparo, and Mike DeCarlo was a major turning point in DC Comics history. Jason Todd, the second Robin, finally tracks down his long-lost birth mother, but their happy reunion turns sour when he learns she’s in league with the Joker. She quickly hands him over to the clown, who savagely beats Jason within an inch of his life, ties up his mother, and blows them both up. To read those scenes again in Batman #428 is to see the Joker fully unleashed. It is surprisingly brutal for a mainline DC Comic of the late 1980s.
But as great Joker stories often see him murder or brutalize members of the Batman cast, it takes a little more to make this the representative of that type of tale. And that something more is what Joker does after Batman finds Jason’s corpse: He returns to the U.S. as a United Nations dignitary from Iran (!), and because he has diplomatic immunity, Superman warns Batman not to interfere with his UN duties. His ambassadorship turns out to be another murderous plot – the Iranian government hired him to kill the UN General Assembly – which Superman foils even as Batman prepares to pursue the Joker across New York. It ends with a helicopter crash and the apparent death of the Joker. But he eventually returns to hassle Jason’s replacement, Tim Drake.
Besides the wild ending reflecting American attitudes toward the Middle East at the time, we also see Joker’s callousness and theatricality on display. He works with people as long as they amuse him, but as soon as he learns one of his accomplices is Robin’s mother, she becomes an added bonus in his suddenly murderous scheme. Jason would eventually return from the dead, but Joker will always count killing a Robin as one of his greatest hits.
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