Doug: Welcome to a second review submitted by Thomas F. You'll recall Thomas's maiden voyage with his thoughts on Spectacular Spider-Man (1976) #1. We're excited to post this today, as it will serve as a sort of bookend to next Monday's review, where I'll take you back to the Silver Age for a Batgirl story from Detective Comics. Onward!
Batman #321 (March 1980)(cover by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez)
“Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker…!”
Len Wein-Walt Simonson/Dick Giordano/Julianna Ferriter
The art duties were handled by Walt Simonson, a distinctive and popular artist initially known for his acclaimed work on Detective Comics (specifically, the eight-page Manhunter backup stories, beginning in November 1973, which gained him industry-wide recognition), Marvel’s Star Wars, and especially The Mighty Thor in the late 1970s/early 1980s. (Simonson is also well-known for creating the Beta Ray Bill character who first appeared in The Mighty Thor #337, a key Bronze Age issue).
Although it’s unrelated to the review of Batman #321, I just wanted to mention that the very first piece of artwork by Walt Simonson that I’d ever seen was back in 1989 when I was in elementary school. It was a few months after the release of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie starring Michael Keaton, and Batmania was in the air, especially amongst youngsters. The artwork was a full page pinup of Batman that Simonson had contributed in the pages of Detective Comics #600. (As I recall, a classmate had the issue and was showing it around). It’s a powerful shot of a dark, moody Batman standing in readiness atop a gargoyle.
The story opens at Gotham Police Headquarters on Gotham City’s lower east side. Commissioner James Gordon enters through the front doors out of the pouring rain, where the sergeant manning the front desk informs him that there’s an envelope bearing no return address waiting for him. Tearing it open, Commissioner Gordon is appalled to find that the contents include an invitation from the Joker to attend his birthday party the next evening. The invitation reads: “Dear Gordie, you are cordially commanded to be present at the JOKER’S BIRTHDAY PARTY tomorrow evening at 9:00 PM! Black tie optional, funny hats mandatory. R.S.V.P. B.Y.O.B.” Gordon tosses the invitation aside, scoffing at the Joker’s presumptuousness.
Suddenly, the two policemen at Gordon’s side are overcome with an attack of mirth. But as the Joker himself strides through the door, clad in his trademark purple overcoat, it’s clear that the laughter is unnatural and is caused by the Joker’s lethal laughing gas!
Outside, having been summoned earlier via the Bat-Signal, the Batman swings down on a rope towards Gotham Police Headquarters, where two things immediately alert him that the present situation is out of control: one, the Jokermobile parked directly in front of the building, and two, the loud hysterical laughter audible even from outdoors. The Batman correctly surmises that laughing gas is involved here and accordingly puts on a miniature gas filter. Crashing down through a high window, the Dark Knight lands amidst the Joker’s armed henchmen. He wades into them like a tornado, making short work of them.
The Caped Crusader then rushes outside just in time to see the Joker make his getaway. In the Jokermobile’s passenger seat lies Commissioner Gordon, unconscious, while the Joker speeds away from Gotham Police Headquarters. That Jokermobile looks hilariously over-the-top!
Just then, Alfred hears the patter of footsteps on the roof above, and he assumes that Bruce Wayne is returning in his guise as Batman, and just as it occurs to him to distract Selina Kyle and Lucius Fox, a powerful explosion rocks the room. In the wall is a gaping aperture where now stand the Joker and two of his armed henchmen. The Joker instructs his hired help to pick up Alfred, who has been knocked unconscious by the heavy impact, and prepare to leave.
Suddenly Selina Kyle rises to her feet, and with her martial arts prowess makes short work of the Joker’s goons. The Joker charmingly apologizes to Selina for intruding, and offers her a bouquet of roses. Selina is suspicious—as well she should be—since a moment later a gloved fist is ejected from the flowers, like a jack-in-the box, with such force that it knocks Selina out.
Exactly why the Joker kidnaps Alfred isn’t clear—have they crossed paths before? Probably. I’m wondering if the Joker knows of any connection between Alfred and the Caped Crusader. I’m also not sure why the Joker doesn’t kidnap Lucius Fox or Selina Kyle, for that matter, instead of leaving them unconscious in Bruce Wayne’s penthouse suite. Surely abducting them in addition to Robin, Gordon, and Alfred wouldn’t have been much trouble at all. And wouldn’t the Joker—not knowing Batman’s secret identity—seek to kidnap millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne himself, instead of Mr. Wayne’s elderly butler?
When Selina Kyle finally regains consciousness, she finds Batman perched in front of her, but she’s unable to give him much information. Nevertheless, by now Batman has a pretty good idea of what’s going on.
Meanwhile, in the Joker’s hideout, we see at least seven figures strapped to the Joker’s “Victim-Go-Round.”
The Joker explains his motive to Robin, which is, quite simply, vengeance. In the Joker’s own words: “Tomorrow is my birthday … and by way of celebration … I intend to eliminate all you who’ve crossed me … while all of Gotham City watches!” Then Joker the quips: “It’s not exactly the catcher’s mitt I really wanted … but it’s a pretty fair second place!”
In the background, we see the Joker’s henchmen laugh at the Joker’s inane comedy, except for one, who rolls his eyes, thinking: “Sheesh.” The Joker is vexed that this henchman didn’t find his wit amusing, and in a typically Jokeresque manner, casually murders him using a handheld spear-gun from his deadly arsenal.
This scene is so memorable—“Bang You’re Dead!”—that I just had to include it here in its entirety.
The Joker reveals to Robin that he’s managed to entice Gotham City’s population to Gotham’s new Seaside Coliseum by using, as per his wont, a cunning trick and an understanding of elementary psychology. In other words, he offers the jaded, cynical population of Gotham City an invitation from the “Harlequin Baking Company” an opportunity to “sample its wares” the following evening at nine p.m.
A typical elderly Gothamite reading the newspaper advertisement says to his wife, “A free sample? Sounds tempting! Think we ought’a go?” To which his bored wife replies, “Why not? It’d beat sitting through another rerun of celebrity bowling!” I found this dialogue quite funny; scripter Len Wein clearly has a good sense of humor.
Unfortunately for the Joker, Batman, who has also perused the advert, shrewdly discerns that the Joker has just slipped up—there is no existing company as the “Harlequin Baking Company.” And the next night, the Joker’s scheme appears to work. The coliseum is jam-packed full of the curious and greedy who have come for the free refreshments. Promptly at nine, the steel doors swing closed, and within a few minutes, the impatient crowd is immobilized in their seats by a rapid-acting paralytic gas.
The lights dim, and then, in a spotlight, the Joker appears on stage. The Crown Prince of Crime disingenuously welcomes his audience and thanks them for coming. He then reveals his pièce de résistance: an immense cake, with his victims securely bound to explosive candles on top.
Of course, the Joker has no intention of keeping his word. After Batman is roped to the largest candle and the Joker doublecrosses him, Batman presses a hidden button that somehow converts the candle into a makeshift rocket, launching him skyward and out of harm. Apparently Batman had arrived early and rewired his candle’s incendiary jets, which is a rather weak explanation that I didn’t really buy into.
The Joker takes to his heels and races on foot to the docks nearby, where he has a motorboat ready. He starts the engine and speeds away. His parting comment to Batman is typical of the Joker’s insolence, and his “look out for number one” attitude: “The Joker watches out for himself, fools! ‘Bye now!”
I really enjoyed some of the Joker’s mirth-filled lines in this issue. When he cackles, “He who fails and runs away, lives to win another day,” as he cravenly flees an enraged Batman, it’s priceless.
Snagging a loose line, Batman manages to pull himself up to the boat, where the two engage in combat. Using yet another of his trademark lethal gadgets, the Joker squirts acid from a flower that Batman barely manages to avoid, but the Joker does manage to stun Batman with a heel to the chin.
The two foes continue to grapple, when Batman notices that the boat is out of control and headed directly for a mound of rocks in the shallow water. Batman tries to warn Joker of the peril they are both in, and seizing the Joker’s hand, tries to pull himself and the Joker out into the water. Batman escapes with seconds to spare, but the Joker, who was using a fake hand that came loose as the Batman yanked him, remains in the boat. An instant later, the motorboat crashes and explodes, setting the night sky ablaze with a spectacular reddish glow.
On shore, Commissioner Gordon ponders whether they’ve seen the last of the Joker, but Batman is skeptical, and we, the readers, know perfectly well that it won’t be long before the Joker rears his ugly emerald head again.
This issue is just chock-full of the Joker’s outrageous devices, from laughing gas, the Jokermobile, a spear-gun, acid spray, phony hand … scripter Len Wein really went all-out here. Overall, a fantastic late Bronze Age story featuring Batman versus the Joker.