Thursday, November 6, 2008

"The Crazy Crime Clown!"

Issue: Batman #74

Cover Date: December/January 1952/1953

Writer: Alvin Schwartz

Penciller: Dick Sprang

Inker: Charles Paris

Cover Artist: Win Mortimer

Synopsis: One evening on the way to an opera, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson see a woman getting grabbed and disappearing into the dense fog filling the night. The laughter that follows tells Bruce and Dick that The Joker has struck and they run after him. Using the cover of the fog to change into Batman and Robin, the Dynamic Duo come upon the woman, who has fainted and is missing her jewels. The fact that the woman's jewels is curious in that it's common knowledge that due to financial hardship, her jewels are fake. The Joker continues to rob worthless objects, stealing wooden coins painted gold from a bank and cutting out a Mona Lisa from a billboard. Batman and Robin are bewildered by the nature of The Joker's crimes and become even more so when The Joker is arrested at police headquarters trying to deposit his worthless items as if he were at a bank! At Joker's trial, a psychologist's report convinces the judge to sentence The Joker to an insane asylum, which gives Batman an idea as to why The Joker has been committing such crazy crimes.

As it turns out, a bank clerk who can't remember where he hid the $1,000,000 he embezzled is at the same asylum The Joker as been sentenced to. The reason for The Joker's crimes now made clear, Batman goes undercover as a mind reader to expose The Joker's plan. At the insane asylum he meets a number of delusional individuals, including men who think they're Isaac Newton, Christopher Columbus, and even Batman. Though "Minos" is able to flip a man who believes himself to be a prize wrestler over his head, The Joker is not convinced of his mind reading abilities. The Joker's view is changed when "Minos" is able to read the bank clerk's mind and discover the hiding place of the embezzled money (in actuality, the location where Robin is lying in wait to capture The Joker). The Joker whispers to "Minos" that he plans on breaking out the night and he is welcome to join him, causing Batman to think he has The Joker trapped. The tables are turned on Batman however, when The Joker knocks him out, puts him in a straight jacket, locks him in a padded room that's filling with water (via a hose), and reveals to him that he knew something was fishy because the clerk had revealed the location of the hidden money in his sleep the night before. He even has the Batman costume that was hidden under Bruce's mind reader disguise.

As The Joker makes his escape down the asylum wall, he hears someone mentioning to Batman that he can still catch The Joker if he hurries. Confused, The Joker returns to the room and finds none other than Bruce Wayne (Bruce having discarded his mind reader outfit in the water). The Joker thinks he's actually crazy until he sees the ventilator and realizes Bruce called down it to fool him. He then makes the next logical conclusion and shouts in triumph that he has discovered Batman's identity, when Batman looks in through the room's window! He leaps at Bruce, who pointed out he must be the fake Batman, as The Joker starts to lose his head. Robin swings through the window and knocks out The Joker, who after the two Batmen is happy to be taken into custody. Batman then jumps at Robin having not called for him and Bruce tells him to watch out. Later in in the office of the director of the insane asylum, it's revealed that Joker's removal of Batman's utility belt sent a distress signal to Robin and Bruce's yell down the ventilator attracted the inmate who believed he was Batman. The story ends with the Batman inmate cured due to a collison with The Joker (he has no memory of Batman's identity) and The Joker revealing the location of the embezzled money to prove to himself that he was sane after seeing two Batmen.

Thoughts: The first item of note is the characterization of The Joker. In his earliest appearances, you would expect for there to be a few bodies by the end of a Joker story. As time passed however (and by the mid 1950's, due to the Comics Code Authority) The Joker drifted further and further away from his murderous plans and instead committed to ones with a commical gimmick. In this story we see him steal worthless objects to be deemed insane so that he can discover the location of some hidden money. While a thought out plan, it's much less sinister than his earliest capers that usually involved poisoning people with Joker toxin. For example, when a policeman catches Joker stealing the wooden coins, The Joker stops him with quick drying plastic. If The Joker from the forties had been caught, the policeman wouldn't have lived long enough to recount his story.

There are a number of good parts in the story. When trying to deduce the motive behind The Joker's crimes, we see that part of the trophy collection within the Batcave is made up of trophies of past Joker crimes that Batman and Robin can study for a connection. Bruce's disguise as "Minos The Mind Reader" is a nice instance of Batman's detective skills coming into play. And of course, the mind games Bruce plays with The Joker concerning whose identity is whose which get even better when the fake Batman joins in. While there are a lot of fun moments, there are also several flaws in the story, all of which concern Batman in his disguise. One has to wonder why The Joker wouldn't question how a mind reader can flip a man with the stature of a wrestler with his feet. That should have been the moment that raises the red flag that "Minos" wasn't who he said he was. Instead, Bruce's phony location of the hidden money is what causes The Joker to become suspicious. This would be a logical connection to make, except for the fact that since Bruce is posing as a new member to the asylum, The Joker should just brush him off as another delusional inmate. Finally, if The Joker removed the Batman costume from under Bruce's mind reader disguise, wouldn't he also remove the makeup and turban?

As always, Dick Sprang provides some excellent artwork. His Joker is rather distinct, with the cheeks pushed out so far that when The Joker smiles they form a triangle with his chin. He draws a great Joker grin too, along with his other facial expressions ranging from surprise to confusion to full on crazy. In my opinion, the best and most hilarious moment in the story is not even in the story itself, it's the opening splash page. The scene is a beach. In the background we see Batman and Robin with looks of surprise on their faces. In front of them, a crying child weeps to the Dynamic Duo, "Baw! The Joker stole my mud-pies Batman!". In the foreground we see The Joker, sitting in the sand, crazy grin on his face, making mud-pies and exclaiming, "Mud-pies! Hundreds of mud-pies! And they're all mine! Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha!". Sprang executes it perfectly and it's absolutely hilarious. On a final art note, it's interesting that a story in the issue other than The Joker story was chosen as the subject for the cover.

This story has been reprinted in The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told (1988) TPB and HC and the Stacked Deck HC.

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