Looking Back At Batman #1

Batman and Robin swung into action (literally) in Detective Comics. Soon enough, they were starring in their own comic. It was 1940. A different, distant time. Yet the basics of The Bat were already firmly fixed in the canon. Batman #1 didn’t disappoint. Not only did it mark the return of the nefarious Dr. Hugo Strange, but it also debuted two new rogues who would return time and time again to battle The Bat and The Boy Wonder. The Cat (not yet ‘Cat-Woman’), a beautiful thief who wants nothing more than to steal Batman’s heart, makes a strong first impression in a story that ends with Batman allowing her to escape, much to Robin’s annoyance. But it’s The Joker who dominates this important first edition. Even in this first appearance, there’s a lot to suggest that this weird new criminal freak will become Batman’s most persistent adversary. Here’s how you launch an iconic character into American pop culture legend…

PAGE ONE – The Joker Speaks

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An elderly couple listen to the radio when a voice breaks into the broadcast to issue a murder threat. “It is night – In most homes people listen to their radios.” Not now they don’t, but this was the forties and most people did actually listen to their radios. The voice (described as ‘toneless’) reveals he will kill Henry Claridge and steal his diamond at precisely 12 o’clock midnight. “The Joker,” it finishes, “has spoken.” A terrifying new threat has emerged in Gotham City!

PAGE TWO – an original way of dying

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The elderly couple by the radio react differently to the message. The woman (unnamed) seems to take the threat seriously. The husband (also unnamed), however, has a different reaction. “Haw! That’s just a gag – like that fellow who scared everybody with that story about Mars.” He’s likely referring to the infamous Orson Welles ‘War Of The Worlds’ panic which may not actually have happened at all. The police of Gotham City (poor sods) take the threat seriously enough to go and guard Henry Claridge. A noble but ultimately futile gesture. The clock strikes twelve and Henry (another poor sod) is happy to see he’s still alive! Until…he isn’t. Worse, as he dies, his mouth pulls itself into a horrific parody of a grin. The Joker’s favourite method of dispatching his victims happened for the first time in this very issue. “Grotesque! The Joker brings death to his victims with a smile!”

PAGE THREE – The trick and the trickster

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The police immediately check the Claridge Diamond only to find they’ve been guarding a phony. It soon becomes clear they’re hopelessly out of their depth. Like all criminal masterminds, he leaves behind a calling card. Literally. Meanwhile, elsewhere, we finally get a proper look at the evil genius behind the audacious crime. This is the first appearance of The Joker ever. A legend is born! In the space of a few panels, we get everything we need to know about the character. His hideout reveals he is no skulking criminal, but a mastermind with a taste for opulence.

NOTE: on the fourth panel there seems to be a bust of a bat in the corner of the room. Clearly, The Joker already has Batman in mind. Explaining the crime to the reader, The Joker reveals he injected Henry Claridge with poison twenty-four hours before the crime, so by the time he broadcast his message to the nation, he’d already stole the Diamond. Satisfied by his own greatness, The Joker looks at his new acquisition and makes a grand statement: “If the police expect to play against The Joker, they had best be prepared to be dealt from the bottom of the deck.” This ‘Joker’ motif is a bit too literal at this point. The final panel of Page Three shows Dick and Bruce at (presumably) Wayne Manor. We arrive in what seems like the middle of a conversation. “But Bruce,” says Dick, “Why don’t we take a shot at this Joker guy?” Bruce, however, seems reluctant. “The time isn’t ripe.”

What is he waiting for?

PAGE FOUR- The Joker strikes again

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Only pensioners listen to the radio in Gotham City, or so it seems in Batman #1. Two different radio broadcasts from The Joker and two different couples well into the sixties! This time The Joker is going after Jay Wilde and The Ronkers Ruby, which is the best name for a ruby ever. Knowing the fate of Henry Claridge, the police decide to step up security for Jay Wilde. However, Jay knows he’s going to die because The Gotham City Police Department couldn’t guard a casserole from a beef thief let alone the owner of a priceless ruby with an amazing name. Jay is smart. Forming a circle around the hapless owner of The Ronkers Ruby, the police wait for the clock to tick down. “Ten! It’s going to happen now! The clock is ticking my life away!” Then it happens. But not quite the same way it did with Henry Claridge. Gas fills the room. The police are knocked out. It’s already too late. Jay Wilde is dead! It was pointless trying to keep The Joker out of the room because he was there all along, hidden in a suit of armor. He used a dart gun to kill Jay Wilde, who is now the proud owner not of a ruby – but of a rictus grin.

The Joker leaves the scene of the crime once more triumphant. Where was Batman while all this took place? He effectively let a man die for no real reason.

PAGE FIVE – Brute sets a trap and Batman springs into action

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The police are powerless against The Joker and set about trying to find him. But the first panel of this page shows another group want The Joker. In Gotham, crime comes in many shapes and gimmicks. Brute Nelson, a hard bastard you’ll never see again after this issue, is pissed off because The Joker is cutting in on his racket. “We get the Claridge Diamond lined up for an easy job and he pulls the job.”/”And don’t forget we were gonna try for the Ronkers Ruby too.” The scene in the bar is wonderfully realised, with wavy lines signifying the thick smoke of their Camel cigarettes. So how does Brute Nelson deal with The Joker, a man who has pulled off two of the most brilliant murder thefts ever in Gotham City? He…starts a rumour about him.

“You guys go out and pass the word around that Brute Nelson’s gonna get The Joker – That he thinks The Joker is a yeller rat!” Yeller meaning yellow as in cowardly. Rat as in ratbag, of course. And that’s it. The rumour spreads on the criminal grapevine (before criminals used WhatsApp, they had to actually talk to each other about their schemes) until finally…

Batman hears what’s going on. Finally, at last, he takes action. Understanding the situation might get tough, he decides to leave Robin at Wayne Manor.

Meanwhile, Brute is relaxing in his house, having another Camel (for that smooth and less irritating on his throat taste) when The Joker appears at the window. Brute has his back-up. They arrive and a fight ensues. They aren’t the only new houseguests at this little party. Batman is there too. He throws himself at Brute’s gang…

PAGE SIX – A nicely drawn fight sequence and Brute gets it

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Brute Nelson’s gang are no match for The Bat and effortlessly dispatches them. Strangely, Batman was quite witty and humorous in his early comics, not like the remorselessly grim persona we’re used to in every Bat-related comic and movie. “Have a seat boys, there’s more than enough room for two!” This as he breaks a chair over two criminals.

While Batman is busy, The Joker uses the confusion as an opportunity to finish Brute Nelson. He shoots him and flees the scene. But Batman is fast on his trail, leaping onto the back of The Joker’s car which leaves a trail of thick smoke as it burns rubber.

PAGE SEVEN – Batman Vs The Joker

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For their first ever fight, The Joker actually bests Batman. This hasn’t always been the case in a lot of subsequent comics over the years. In fact it varies depending on the writer. Sometimes The Joker is a match for The Bat, other times he gets thrashed quite decisively. The Comics Code Authority played a huge part in watering down The Joker’s initial threat, turning him into a harmless clown rather than the evil Ronkers Ruby loving spree-killer. “Fight The Joker, will you. Let that be a lesson to you!! A permanent lesson! HA-HA-HA-HA.”

Batman gets kicked off a bridge but survives the experience without the aid of his utility belt.

PAGE EIGHT – Judge Drake plays his last hand

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The Joker broadcasts his next murder victim across the radio. This time Bruce and Dick hear it, proving radio isn’t just for pensioners. The victim is Judge Drake who once sent The Joker to prison. Surely that’s a clue to The Joker’s identity? Meanwhile, at Judge Drake’s house, he waits as the clock ticks down the rest of his life. He isn’t alone. The Police Chief is there with him and offers him a game of cards. They play. The fifth panel reveals the winning card: a Joker. This Police Chief is in fact an impostor. “Disguise is also one of my many accomplishments,” says The Joker. This is something Batman writers have remembered over the years with The Joker popping up from time to time in disguise. Here he’s so convincing that even the policeman at the door of Judge Drake’s home is fooled. Maybe The Joker has a background in theatre? It makes sense.

PAGE NINE – Robin meets The Joker

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Robin follows The Joker out of Judge Drake’s home on Batman’s orders. The journey takes him to an old deserted house. But The Joker (still in disguise) jumps him from behind! “Snooper. Eh?” Concerned for his partner in crime fighting, Batman uses a nifty invention to track down Robin. It seems Batman has coated his ward’s shoes in a chemical that shows up beneath the light of a special torch. Yes, Bruce Wayne invented infra-red paint.

Robin’s glow-in-the-dark footprints lead Batman to an old deserted house!

PAGE TEN – Batman Vs The Joker Part II

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Just as The Joker is about to give Robin his flu jab no, he’s actually going to kill him, Batman smashes through a window. Following a card related pun (“You may be The Joker but I’m the King of Clubs,”) with a punch, Batman sends The Joker smashing into a table full of test-tubes and chemicals. The mixture proves unstable and ignites, turning into a fire. Was The Joker’s secret lair from Page Three underneath that house?

Ever resourceful, The Joker paralyses Batman with a chemical spray. The Joker is seemingly a genius in the field of Chemistry along with being a master of disguise.

The old deserted house in flames, The Joker leaves Batman and Robin to die. What a shit!

PAGE ELEVEN – Batman And Robin

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The Joker at this early stage in his career seems to like jewels, diamonds, and rubies. Anything with a bit of sparkle seems to appeal. He’s building up quite a collection too, because according to Robin, he boasted about going after The Cleopatra Necklace. Safely away from the fire thanks to Batman’s amazing recuperative powers (!), The Bat and The Boy Wonder race to Otto Drexel – the owner of the necklace – for a final battle with the diabolical Joker. He’s ready to rob the necklace when Batman appears from behind…

NOTE: Gotham City is full of millionaire hoarders. Surprisingly, The Joker didn’t go after Bruce Wayne for The Wayne Diamond, which I’m sure must be a real thing considering all millionaires in Gotham own a variety of expensive jewels and diamonds, so why should Bruce be any different? These hapless millionaires would be better of living in Metropolis, let’s be honest.

PAGE TWELVE – The Joker’s last laugh

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Upon seeing his hated enemy, The Joker attempts to shoot him but the bullets have no effect. Batman is wearing a bullet proof vest, a fact that The Joker doesn’t seem to take into account. Leaping towards another building, The Joker soon finds Robin waiting for him. Robin kicks The Joker as payback for his surprise attack at the old deserted house a few pages prior. “That’s for the sock on the head!”

PAGE THIRTEEN – Goodbye Joker

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The Joker falls from the building but is rescued by Batman, who promptly socks him on the Joker-Jaw with his Bat-Fist. The newspaper front page the next day reads BATMAN CAPTURES JOKER. The last panel of the story between Bruce and Dick shows them discussing The Joker. Bruce’s assessment is the right one. “The Joker,” he explains, “was a clever but diabolical killer! Too clever and too deadly to be free.”

Meanwhile, The Joker is shown behind bars. Worse! He’s already planning his escape.

“I know of a way out – The Joker will yet have the last laugh.”

And that’s it. Except…

The Joker was supposedly meant to be a one-off character. According to the preface of The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, he was meant to die in Batman #1. A victim of a self-inflicted knife wound. Someone had the good sense to rewrite that ending because clearly, from the very start, this was a character with limitless potential. In the first issue of his comic, Batman found his perfect enemy and an iconic feud was born.

Batman #1 can be bought at Comixology.

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