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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Joker: A Visual History of the Clown Prince of Crime Book Review

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The Joker: A Visual History of the Clown Prince of Crime Book Review

A comprehensive look at the greatest comic book villain . . . ever. Since his first appearance in 1940’s Batman #1, the Joker stands alone as the most hated, feared, and loved villain in the DC Universe. Though his true origins may be unknown, the Clown Prince of Crime’s psychotic appearances in hundreds of comic books has shaped the way we look at Batman, comic books, and ourselves. Indeed, a hero is only as good as his nemesis, so the Joker’s heinous crimes, including murdering the second Robin and paralyzing Batgirl, have elevated Batman to the highest levels of crime-fighting, and we, the readers, to the finest levels of quality pop-culture entertainment.

The Joker is the first retrospective chronicling one of the most groundbreaking and game-changing villains of all time, and contains images from his more than seventy years in comics by comic book artists and writers such as Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, Grant Morrison, Dave McKean, Neil Gaiman, Geoff Johns, Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Brian Azzarello, Bruce Timm, and Paul Dini. Also included are images from his various film, television, animated, and video game incarnations, such as the timeless interpretations by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger, who won his posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. This book is a must-have for fans and anyone who wants to die laughing.

This new book is the first time we get a focus spotlighted on Batman's #1 villain...the Joker.  Prolific author Daniel Wallace does a masterful job of peppering in dynamic and colorful imagery amidst an in-depth and informative history of the clown prince of crime!  The book covers his inception..all the way through the movies and cartoons to the present day.

The Origins of the Joker

    The Joker was first created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane back in 1940.  He debuted in the Spring 1940 comic book Batman #1.  There is some dispute from Jerry Robinson that he too had a hand in the creation of the character, such things are the subject of much heated comic con discussion.  The Joker was actually modeled after Conrad Veidt's character in the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs.  They took the unsettling design and  blended it with the image on a Joker's card and a beloved homicidal maniac was born.  And homicidal he was -- even in that first appearance.   The original plans for the character were to kill him off in his very next appearance, after a prison break, but the forsight of then DC Comics editor Whitney Ellsworth who had them add a last minute panel that made the Joker's death ambiguous, therefore preserving one of the most highly recognizable fictional villains in pop culture.

Silver Age Sillyness

    This was the Golden Age version of the Joker.  The Golden Age of comic books lasted from the late 1930s through the mid 1950s.  The next generation, which was clearly effected by the Comics Code Authority (the industry's alternative to being regulated by the Federal government), was the Silver Age of comic books.  The Silver Age ran from about 1956 to 1970.  One major aspect that set the Silver Age apart was a toning down of most comic book characters.  The Joker was one of the few Batman villains to carry over from the Golden Age, but he was barely recognizable.  He went from a murderous and feindish gangster to a fun-loving and wacky prankster that was essentially harmless.  The Joker's inclusion in the 1966 Batman television show, where he was portrayed by the legendaryily mustached Cesar Romero, did nothing but further this zany image.

The Murder of Jason Todd

    It wasn't until the murder of Jason Todd that the Joker began to regain his mystique.  Jason, the second Robin,  was a wide-eyed blonde boy, athletic and all-american.   The original origin for Jason Todd was pretty much the same as the original Robin, Dick Grayson's,  origin.  His parents were also circus performers, but they were killed by the Batman rogue Killer Croc instead of gangster Tony Zucco.  Eventually, he was given the Robin uniform to wear by Dick Grayson and he died his hair black to emulate the former Robin.  Then, in 1985, Dc Comics underwent one of the biggest and most altering story arcs ever, the Crisis On Infinite Earths.  The Crisis elinimated some characters and changed the origins and relationships of others.   The new origin for Jason was now that he was a young street punk that Batman met when he put the Batmobile up on cement blocks and stole the tires!  The nerve, right?  That should've been Batman's first clue that maybe he was a little too sassy to be Robin, but nevertheless this Jason Todd eventually became the new Robin and lasted for many a year.  This Jason was, unlike Dick Grayson and the former incarnation of Jason, a little twerp.  He was willfull, snarky and sometimes flat out disobedient to his mentor.  He sometimes took risks he shouldn't have and exhibited impulsive behavior.  This son of a overdosed drug addict smoked, drank and cursed!  Not your grandpa's Robin!  His reception amongst fans was very mixed.  Many felt that Dick was the one true Robin and found Jason to be an annoyance.

    Then, in 1988, now legendary DC Comics editor Denny O'Neil realized that the new Robin wasn't very liked and thought up a great gimmick to let the fans decide on whether they wanted DC Comics to make a change.  Thus was born "A Death in the Family", the story arc that was presented in Batman #426 to #429.  They put up an ad at the end of Batman #427 that read “Robin Will Die Because The Joker Wants Revenge, But You Can Prevent It With A Telephone Call.”  They the give two 900 numbers as an option.  If fans called 1-900-720-2660 they voted  for “The Joker Fails and Robin Lives” or 1-900-720-2666 to vote for “The Joker Succeeds and Robin Will Not Survive.”  The cost was 50 cents per call and the voting line was open for two days only on September 15th and 16th.

    DC Comics had two pages produced.  One where Robin lived and one where he died in Batman's arms.  When the smoke had cleared over 10,000 fans called in to vote.  The final vote was 5,343 votes for Jason to die and 5,271 for him to live.  The fans had spoken, Jason's fate was sealed and Batman would never be the same again.    The results appeared in Batman #428, an issue that is now legendary.   Jason Todd, Robin II, died of a severe beating with a crowbar by the Joker and is then unceremoniously blown-up by the Clown Prince of Crime.   This is a great example of the level of brutality that the Joker character was moving towards at this time.  This was a line drawn in the sand and things would never be the same.  The Joker only moves towards being more twisted and brutal and the Batman would never be the same again, moving into a far more dark and brooding tone, blaming himself for Jason's untilmely demise.

The Book

The images in this book are taken from directly from the comic book pages, sketches, animation cels and other work from artists, such as Tim Sale, Sam Keith and Jim Lee.  Even the fan with a fairly  extensive knowlege of the Joker can learn a few things from this great behind the scenes look at the greatest comic book villain of all.  The introduction by Mark Hamill, the most prolific cartoon Joker,  is a great touch in this high-end hardcover book from Universe publishing.  The book retails for around $50.  The cover features a dust jacket with "Killing Joke" artwork that wraps around a purple and green "Ha Ha" cover.  A lot of books are released each year that spotlight Batman, but this rare new look that focuses on the Joker is a welcome breath of fresh air.

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