Thursday, March 28, 2013

Detective Comics #64 (June, 1942)

The Joker Walks the Last Mile”
Writer: Bill Finger 
Pencils: Bob Kane 
Inks: Jerry Robinson 
Synopsis: Last we saw the Joker he was in police custody, but at the start of this tale he is lying low in his hideout with his gang, a rare lapse of continuity from Bill Finger. While his men consider sitting around all day listening to Joe DiMaggio play baseball the ideal life, the Joker is unsatisfied. He can't spend his ill-gotten gains, he can't go out in the street except in heavy disguise, he can't live any kind of life or enjoy his criminal successes! Then the Joker comes up with a daring new plan: if he cannot live, then he must die! Only through death will he be free!
The next day, the Joker arrives at Police Headquarters and surrenders himself, allowing himself to be arrested and promising a full confession. The dynamite news flies through Gotham, even interrupting a radio broadcast of “The True Adventures of Batman!” (Kane and Finger subtly hinting to DC brass that Batman should get his own radio show like Superman? He never would, unfortunately). Gotham citizens come by the jail to view the curious sight of the Joker in his cell, including Bruce and Dick – who are sure the Joker must be up to something.
The Joker's confession session is a never-ending laundry list of crimes, including references to past issues as well as never seen crimes (robbing the National Bank of Denver?). The result is a speedy trial ending in the only possible verdict for a thief and murderer of forty-three people – death! The Joker is soon led down the last mile to the electric chair, where he is electrocuted to death in a dramatic display worthy of Frank Miller!
But soon after, the Joker's gang breaks into the prison morgue! Knocking out the guards they steal the Joker's corpse and take it away. They have only fifteen minutes to inject the dead body with a special serum prepared by the fiend himself! They proceed, and the serum brings the dead Joker back to life!! 
The Joker has now cheated death and paid his debt to society. To celebrate, he decides to do some window shopping for a new watch. But the storeowner assumes Joker is there to case the joint, and calls the police. They assume it's a copycat, but call in Batman and Robin anyway. Batman apprehends Joker and brings him to the police, but the Joker points out that as he has already been penalized for his crimes, he cannot be convicted for them again, and so is set free (deciding generously not to charge Batman with assault!)
Bruce and Dick camp outside the Joker's hotel for days in disguise, watching for any hint of criminal activity. But Joker easily spots them and makes no move, except for a manipulation of the blinking hotel sign, which he uses to send Morse code messages to his gang. With everything quiet, Bruce takes Dick to an ice show, and who should turn up in their box but the Joker! But before the performance can start, the ethyl dioxide pipes under the ice designed to help it keep frozen explode, allowing a gang of thieves to being a hold-up of the patrons. Even the Joker finds himself robbed by the gang! The crooks try to get away across the ice, so of course Batman and Robin pursue on ice skates. A two page ice-skating fight scene later, and the crooks get away! 
Batman and Robin next see the Joker at the arena exit speaking with their insurance people to get compensation for his stolen wallet and watch. In a hilarious scene, Joker compliments Batman and Robin on their fine performance fighting the crooks, and invites them to visit him at his hotel sometime! Batman realizes he recognizes some of the crooks from the hold-up as standard members of the Joker's gang, and that the Joker must be mixed up in this somehow. So he decides to break into Joker's apartment, because I guess search warrants and probable cause don't matter when you're only an honorary policeman.
When they show up on the hotel fire escape, Joker is waiting for them, and they follow him in through the window -- where two police officers are waiting to arrest the Dynamic Duo for breaking and entering! (But didn't the Joker invite them in, implicitly? -- Also, you can call police to your home to prevent crimes pre-emptively? Pretty sure it doesn't work like that) Stuck in the hilarious situation of being a wanted criminal, Batman asks all the parties for a minute to explain himself, and Joker pulls out his watch to time him. The same watch he claimed was stolen!
Realizing he's been caught, Joker jumps out the window and commandeers a Jeep, insisting that the Joker's needs are far more important than the Army's! Batman and Robin make chase in the Batmobile, then when the Joker's escape trail passes close to Wayne Manor, Batman splits off and hops into the Batplane, as the Jeep's all-terrain abilities give it an advantage over the Batmobile. From there, the two heroes co-ordinate their pursuit over the radio (keep in mind ten-year-old Robin is driving the Batmobile) and eventually their maneuvers drive the Joker's Jeep off a cliff!
Joker himself jumps off and grabs some covenient telephone wires, but his precarious hanging position is threatened when Robin comes after him, and so he falls into the ocean -- with Batman and Robin giving the customary "is he really dead this time?" dialogue. Except that we immediately get an answer with the Joker back at his hideout and his goons basically confirming that everything's back to normal -- and we're also explicitly told Joker will show up in the next issue of Batman!

My Thoughts: Another fantastic Joker story that is probably most significant for the trial of the Joker and his subsequent death sentence and escape. The character interactions between Batman and the Joker during the period where he is a free man are delightful -- Batman utterly baffled and frustrated and Joker practically exploding with glee. The story is a major shift in the tone and development of Joker tales -- the old homicidal Joker of old is dead, and a new stage in the character's criminal career begins, with the reborn Joker being much more of a prankster character, interested in the game of wits with Batman as opposed to being concerned with violent acts of terror. 
The Art: Great artwork in this tale, especially regarding the death of the Joker. When he first suggests the idea the smoke from his cigarette forms a death's head, and the panel of the Joker's execution is surpremely rendered in dark shadows. Good action scenes and really fantastic character work with the Joker especially. 
The Story: Finger really does great work here. Aside from his mild continuity hiccup at the start, Finger crafts a great story that in many ways allows him to have his cake and eat it too. The Joker is fully punished for his previous crimes, and yet allowed to live to vex Batman again and again. Joker's character here is fantastic -- his glee upon deciding to die, his boastful confessions, his complete lack of fear going to the chair, his gloating over Batman, it's all great stuff. The section wherein Joker threatens to charge Batman with various crimes is really fun and clever, and maybe could have been expanded more. It's just fun seeing Joker act out of character, as it were. I think it's interesting that though this story has a typical "Joker falls into the sea for a possible death" ending, Finger doesn't even try to pretend: we know Joker is just fine and coming back. It's now an inevitability, which means that we're probably going to lose the explanations of how Joker survived/escaped etc. pretty soon.
Notes and Trivia: Joker is convicted and sentenced to death for his myriad crimes, is executed, cheats death, and is once again on the lam. 

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