Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Lost Legends: The Joker: Devil's Advocate
Welcome to a new feature here on The Matt Signal. Lost Legends is similar to my weekly recommended readings, but for one fact: these are stories that are uncollected or out of print. I really try to select accessible books for recommended reading, things that you, my loyal reader, should be able to go to your local comic shop or bookstore and easily find, but that leaves a lot of things that I don't recommend because they just aren't easy to come by. And as I've been buying, and reading, a lot of back issues lately, I wanted somewhere to talk about them.
This first Lost Legends focuses on what is one of my favorite original graphic novels of all time, by one of my favorite Batman creative teams of all time. Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan had a long run on Detective Comics, and are best known for creating such legendary villains as Gearhead (oh, right and some guy called Bane, but who's heard of him). But they also did a couple of really solid Joker stories, and the original graphic novel, The Joker: Devil's Advocate, is the best of those stories.
The high concept for Devil's Advocate is beautifully simple: The Joker is sent to death row for a crime he didn't commit, and Batman has to find the real culprit to save Joker. As you might imagine, certain of Batman's allies, specifically the Gordons, don't really take too kindly to this idea. The moral question of whether it's right or wrong to let the Joker finally pay for the all the horror he has wreaked on people, even if he's not being punished for his own actual mayhem is part of the book, but it never gets bogged down in that. The moral question seems easy for Batman to answer: The Joker dying for a crime he didn't commit isn't justice. But it's not so easy for others, and there's a nice moment where Bruce and Tim Drake, the Robin of the time, have a discussion about this. Chuck Dixon has a long history with Tim as well as Bruce, having written all three Robin mini-series and the first hundred issues of Tim's ongoing series, and he comfortably navigates both characters and their relationship.
Rereading this story, it reminded me how much the Joker has changed in recent years. I think The Dark Knight and Grant Morrison's take on the character has created as seismic a shift as Denny O'Neil & Neil Adams's "The Joker's Five Way Revenge" did from Cesar Romero. The Joker as we see him now, very clearly in the "Death of the Family" storyline currently running through the Batman titles, is a force of chaos and anarchy. Crime doesn't matter to him as much; it seems "Death of the Family" is more about vendetta than crime, and he didn't really commit any monetary crime in Morrison's run. In The Dark Knight he chooses to burn large stacks of money. Crime is a vehicle, rather than an end in its own right.
The Joker in Devil's Advocate is caught while committing an actual crime. Now, in all fairness he's not the Penguin, who wants material wealth above all else, but he's also not out there committing massacres for nothing other than the joy of killing. The Joker here is a showman, who is committing crimes as an artist, really impressed with his own ingenuity. The Joker's also pretty funny, making a few jokes that can draw a chuckle. Modern Joker is more monstrous, a Punch figure rather than a comedian.
One of the main character traits of Joker looked at in this story is his ego. The Joker starts out enraged that a series of commemorative postage stamps featuring the great comedians didn't include him. When it's pointed out that he can't get commemorative stamp since he's not dead, the Joker more or less writes that off trivia. Once he's taken down by Batman, he is put on trial for murder one when it turns out someone has coated the back of some of the stamps with Joker Venom and spread them around the city. The Joker is tried and convicted, and while initially furious, he finds that the fame and publicity of a trial is something he enjoys. He arranges for his execution to be moved up so that the story stays fresh, all the while taunting Batman, who occasionally comes to try to get information out of him.
The Joker is sent to Blackgate Prison, Gotham's maximum security prison for the non-insane offender, and that goes pretty much as well as you might imagine. The Joker isn't exactly a model prisoner, shoving the harmonica of one of his fellow prisoners down his throat, and beating Tommy Mangles, a Gotham mobster who recurred throughout the Bat books at the time, to death with his shoes. My favorite page, though, is a reaction of the priest who has been asked to listen to Joker's confession. Yeah, not the best idea for anyone involved.
Even with all the Joker hi jinks and Batman brooding, Dixon winds up working a solid mystery into the story. The question of who is the actual postage stamp killer plays out pretty much as play fair, since upon rereading you can see the clues laid out. Is it an old member of the Joker's crew, who's working a blackmail scheme on the city, threatening more deaths by stamp, or is he just monopolizing on the chaos? Will the families of the postage stamp killer's victims get the justice they want?
While Joker: Devil's Advocate might not have the same fame as stories like The Killing Joke, "Joker's Five Way Revenge," and "The Laughing Fish," I think it presents a great view into the way the Joker was portrayed during a certain period. It's an enjoyable story, and one that I've gone back and reread over the years and still enjoy. And I don't want to give it away, but the final pages, a final conversation between Batman and Joker after Joker has been sent back to Arkham, puts a nice bow on the story. While this might not be the Joker you're reading about now, it's definitely a Joker worth checking out.