Batman #251 (September 1973)
"The Joker's Five-Way Revenge!"
Dennis O'Neil-Neal Adams
Doug: One of the all-time greats today, kids. It's about time we got around to reviewing it! I'll be reading/scanning from my copy of The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, (c) 1988. At the bottom of the post I'll show you a unique feature of the book. Let's get on with it, then!
Doug: We open with a downright maniacally-visaged Joker driving on the outskirts of Gotham. Denny O'Neil's splash page script is hyperbolic, but seems fitting to Neal Adams's rain-soaked night. As we turn the page, we enter a crime scene where Gotham's finest is on the scene of a murder. Commissioner Gordon discusses the circumstances with one of his officers. The victim lies prone, a grotesque grin locked onto his face. The Bat Signal had gone up, and Gordon wonders when the Batman will arrive. Well, as we would all have assumed, he is already there, and has been -- conducting his own investigiation prior to the arrival of the PD's detective corps. After a brief conversation, Gordon says he'll get his best men on the case. Batman basically says "if you wish", and swings away to begin his own investigation.
Doug: Knowing that the dead man had once been in the Joker's gang, the Batman decides to make contact with another of the Clown Prince of Crime's gang. As he swings to a local boxing gym, the Dark Knight thinks to himself that the very recent news of the Joker's escape from the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane wasn't going to bode well for Gotham City. Packy White (no relation to Perry, I'd assume) is hitting the heavy bag when Batman enters. Packy greets his former enemy, and the two exchange pleasantries while discussing the Joker and his potential doings/whereabouts. Packy asks the Batman to hold the bag, and then proceeds to "miss" it twice, striking our hero. But what's funny is that their conversation continues! Packy moves away from the bag and the two spar -- again, still having their conversation. Batman begins to pummel Packy White, telling him that maybe a "fist accident" could land Packy in the hospital, where armed guards could protect him for a few days until the Joker is caught. Packy sort of likes the idea, and moves over to the corner to get some water. He chuckles that the Batman would take concern for a former tough like him -- and then takes a gulp of water. He starts to laugh, recoils, and falls on his back, the rigor of a wide grin settling over his mouth. Batman kicks the water bucket away. Victory Joker.
Doug: We cut to a seedy hotel, where the Joker confronts another member of his gang -- a nervous fellow named Alby. Alby says he's surprised to see the Joker out in the open; the Joker says he fully expects to eventually confront the Batman. The two exchange awkward words, and then the Joker asks Alby if it was he who was his betrayer. Of course Alby denies it, so the Joker offers him a cigar. Alby reluctantly takes a drag, and the says to the Joker -- ha ha, I'll bet this is the ol' exploding cigar trick. And then VOOMM! Nope -- it was the ol' Huge exploding cigar trick. Three of five former associates down; two to go.
Doug: Batman, now in a race against time, speeds toward Gotham's docks where Bigger Melvin lives on a converted garbage scow. Batman will make him the same offer he tried to make Packy White -- get into protective custody asap. But Bigger sees the Batman's boots outside his window and decides to break for it -- he's convinced that the Caped Crusader knows of a mugging he perpetrated. With great effort, Melvin ends up about a mile from the docks. And right into the Batman's clutches. Batman tells Melvin what's going on and makes the offer; Melvin agrees, but asks to go back to his home to get his toothbrush (?). The Batman agrees, and away they go. But Melvin, he's not so dumb -- he asks Batman to go in front of him, just in case the Joker is lurking nearby. And what does Batman do? He goes for it! And, a blackjack across the back of the head later, it's nighty-night for the Dark Knight. Melvin's now feeling pretty good about himself. As he races into his home to grab some things, he plots how he's going to beat it out of town and lay low. But up from behind comes the Joker, and the next we see of Bigger Melvin he's swinging from a rope -- his feet 36" off the floor. The Batman is groggy and frustrated as he arrives, and wonders if the Joker has gotten far away yet. Careful, Bats -- and then a blindside attack later, it's the Joker on top!
Doug: As Batman lay unconscious, the Joker placed his shoe right on his sworn enemy's throat. He ponders the ease with which he could end this life, and then thinks better of it. In his twisted mind, the endgame must come from a battle of the Batman's detective skills in combat against the Joker's mania. No -- not this way. And the Joker walks out.
Doug: Jumping into the Batmobile, Batman races to the distant shores of Gotham where the day before an oil tanker had run ashore, spilling its load. With the entire area closed, the Batman knew the Joker would hole up there. Assuming he'd find the maniac in the Gotham Aquarium, Batman marched right in, flashlight beaming. The Joker announces that he knew Batman was on the grounds, and almost immediately steps into the light. The two engage in a weird dance of laughing gas grenades and chemical antidotes. The Joker lures the Batman into the main exhibits area, where we see Bing Hooley trussed up in his wheelchair, several feet above a tank -- the chair attached to a chain, the chain attached to a lever the Joker now holds. The Joker assures Batman that Hooley won't drown... the sharks circling in the tank will ensure that!
Doug: The Joker says he'll spare Hooley, if the Batman will allow the shackling of his hands behind his back -- yep, shark bait. Batman asks why the Joker wants to end this with a shark. Simple, the Clown Prince of Crime cackles -- he and a shark resemble each other! Batman climbs to the top of the tank, where the Joker kicks him into the water. As the Batman struggles to tread water, the Joker then kicks Hooley in! Sinking, the wheelchair and Hooley's bright red robe attract the big fish. Batman struggles against his restraints. Managing to step his legs through the chains, he ends up with his arms at his front, albeit still chained. However, this newfound mobility allows the Dark Knight to swim after the shark and loop the chain into its mouth. Now struggling to steer it away from Hooley, Batman pulls back on the big fish, killing it. Somehow, the manacles also come off and Batman swims to Hooley to try to get him up to the surface. But the best way to save them both is to break out -- so Batman takes Hooley's wheelchair and strikes it again and again against the container -- until it breaks, spilling the salt water and the two men across the exhibit floor. By the way, how large do you think that tank had to be to support a 12-foot shark? Larger than what Adams drew, I'll wager.
Doug: The Joker decides it's over, and hightails it out of the aquarium. Outside, the Batman sees a getaway car, equipped even to ride on the oily sand. Still dazed from the two blows to his skull as well as the underwater ordeal, Batman fears that the Joker's head start may be too much. But in one of the more anticlimactic endings I've ever read, the Joker slips. He slips on the oily sand, falls, and rises to a pummeling at the hands (fists) of the Batman. And that's basically it! End of story as they walk off together into the sunset, and no doubt to a more heavily-guarded padded cell!
Doug: Classic. I believe I said at the top this is "one of the all-time greats". And it is/was... until that ending. At over 22 pages, there was plenty of room to either come up with a worthy ending to what had built up a lot of promise, or at least leave us with a decent cliff-hanger to carry into the next month. But instead we get slipping on oily sand? Was that supposed to be some sort of dazzling irony? I just don't know. I've often been critical of Denny O'Neil's Bronze Age DC work, and I really thought he was spinning a quite-nice yarn here. Of course Adams was at the top of his game (you'll notice that this hardcover collection predates the new coloring processes that Adams has fallen in love with), including the iconic splash page that I presented above. So while I'd like to leave you gushing all over this story, I can only say that I liked it. It was pretty good. But I didn't love it. The O'Neil/Adams combination seems to often leave me feeling like maybe I slipped and fell just a hair short of the finish line. On oily sand.
EXTRA: I mentioned at the top that my copy of The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told has a nice feature. Back in the early 1990s I took the book with me to the Chicago Comicon. Below you'll see the fruits of that labor -- autographs from Denny O'Neil, Shelly Moldoff, and Julius Schwartz. The conversation I had with Julie Schwartz led me to write a letter that was published in the Comics Buyers' Guide. Seeing that, Julie sent me a postcard. I wrote back thanking him for taking the time to do that -- and he sent another! Very cool...