Review by Frank Plowright
In 1988 DC issued The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, what was then considered a once in a lifetime anthology selection in days when graphic novels were rare. An afterword detailed numerous Joker stories that just failed to make the cut, and with thirty years more Joker material since, it’s disappointing to note that over half the stories and over half the page count was available in that still easily found earlier volume.
The Joker’s début from the first Batman comic is excusable, and Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ Joker Fish story from 1976 (sample art left) is a stone classic whose absence would be inexplicable, but surely the whimsical 1950s material could have been replaced by similar stories not anthologised before. While Walter Simonson’s art on ‘Dreadful Birthday Dear Joker’ from 1980 is nice, the story itself is hardly remarkable. However, compiling a selection post-1980 is more difficult as the Joker’s appearances became events, and were rarely restricted to a single issue.
One way around that is to excerpt the relevant pages from a longer story, so we have ten pages of Tim Sale’s all too exaggerated Joker from The Long Halloween, which does neither the story nor Sale any favours. While drawing from the same 1940s well as Rogers, he’s taken the caricature too far, which is about the only wrongly placed foot about that story. Working better is a full chapter from Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush, Lee experimenting with a more impressionistic style (sample right), but the downside is the Joker being nothing but a punching bag in a story that’s far more about Batman. It is representative of an editorial desire to prioritise the inclusion of iconic artists, irrespective of whether or not they have a history with the character. Alex Ross’ painting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker is echoed in a short story painted in grey wash in which Paul Dini deals with the Joker’s pre-whiteface gangster days. It’s interesting, and permits an iconic portrait, but there’s very little Joker included.
That’s the second of three Dini stories, each of them very different. The first is from the Batman Adventures series based on the 1990s animated show, with John Byrne adapting extremely well to cartooning. It’s safe to say it’s unlike any Byrne art published elsewhere, on an enjoyable Joker solo as he attempts to make his way home in the early hours. The closer is Dini and Wayne Faucher’s Christmas themed ‘Slayride’, having the Joker take Robin for an edge of the seat ride, literally. It’s a fitting place to end, great, under-rated and monumentally disturbing, with Faucher’s Joker a manic creation.
1950s and early 1960s material is what it is, very much of the times, prioritising a slapstick Joker up to madcap capers and a Batman not too far removed, perhaps adding creedence to the often voiced theory of the pair being opposite sides of the same coin. If of its era, the art of Dick Sprang and Lew Sayre Schwartz has a particular polish, but this isn’t material anyone needs to read twice.
Ignoring that much of the content is also found in The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, this is the superior collection. Almost everything from the halfway point stands up well, and who wouldn’t want an anthology including all the artists listed above?