The story of “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” in 1973’s “Batman” #251 is an iconic tale (with a gorgeous and iconic cover) that would rescue the Joker from being the butt of jokes before this issue was released. The 1960s television series and the Comics Code Authority had neutered a character who was an agent of murder and chaos. Now, Batman’s greatest foe would no longer be considered a harmless joke. The Joker would once again be a character who crafted dastardly plots in a mind that could only belong to a homicidal lunatic. Writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neil Adams brought the Clown Prince of Crime back to prominence as a murderous master of chaos and villainy.
Our story begins with the Joker having escaped from a “state hospital for the criminally insane” (O’Neil and artist Irv Novick would introduce Arkham Asylum shortly in “Batman” #258 in 1974). One of the Joker’s five “employees” had betrayed him, causing Batman to capture him. Now the Joker was murdering the five thugs one by one in order to exact revenge. Batman must find a way to save the remaining henchmen before the Joker poisons them with his Joker “venom”.
At the time that this issue was released, it must have been jarring to see the first splash page. Adams’ infuses the Joker with a mug that exudes madness. Focused, maniacal eyes and a shark-like grin contained huge teeth that were ready to bite at any moment. The rain beats down on the Joker’s car as O’Neil’s poetic words narrate the proceedings: “Thunder racks the Earth and lightning scars the sky and wetness streams from the clouds like tears of mourning! It is as though nature itself were weeping!” The words are positively biblical in nature, with God him/herself weeping for a world that contains such evil personified in someone/thing like the Joker. The Batman was a creature of the night who stood for order and justice and stood in stark contrast to someone who was his total opposite in every way.
The main dynamic between hero and villain that originated from this issue is one that the public takes for granted as always being present: the Joker believes that Batman is his equal and the only one worthy of being a formidable foe. Instead of killing Batman after knocking him out, the Joker’s thoughts turn to their unhealthy relationship. He has “always envisioned my winning as a result of cunning…at the end of a bitter struggle between the Batman and myself—him using his detective skills and me employing the divine gift men call madness!” He goes on to mention that the two of them have been playing a “game” that has gone on for years. Winning doesn’t matter to the Joker. Batman must be destroyed “properly”. This game of Bat and mouse has been going on for decades and is a relationship known the world over that is ingrained in the popular culture. Theirs is a personal war that will never end.
The “detective” part of the Dark Knight Detective is on display in this issue, as well as his exceptional physical prowess. Batman deduces the whereabouts of the Joker’s hideout by the oil and sand remaining on his face after being kicked unconscious by the mad clown. An oil tanker has recently run aground of Gotham’s shores and caused a disastrous oil spill. The evidence leads Batman to an aquarium near the beach that has been closed by the government a few years back. O’Neil’s politics are evident here because Big Oil has caused an environmental disaster, while an institution that could help in the cleanup has been closed by the government. Social issues are seamlessly and unobtrusively added to a Batman/Joker yarn. Once again, the idea of order and chaos in a political sense melds with that of the psychological variety.
Batman’s legendary physical power is on display when he goes up against a shark (and he doesn’t need Bat-shark-repellent spray!). Instead of using his fists and feet against a common criminal, he must save a henchman from a hungry shark. Even though he’s chained, Batman becomes a regular Houdini and uses his brains to escape an aquarium by battling the shark, finding a way out, and saving the bad guy. All in a night’s work for our hero. Adams’ exceptional art and use of panel layout is on impressive display in this scene. As Batman uses a wheelchair to smash free from the aquarium, the four panels on top of a page ascend as the four below them ascend as well. A sense of motion and suspense results not only from the action, but from the use of the comic medium itself. Special mention must be made of inker Dick Giordano and colorist Tom Ziuko’s contributions in bringing a simplicity of color and shading that only adds even more suspense. The green of the water and the blue and gray of Batman’s suit transform this into a beautifully iconic scene.
There are still old-fashioned touches that remain in this issue. A henchman explains to himself what he’s doing as it’s happens on the page. Events that are self-explanatory are recited to the reader by Batman or other characters. This was still the style of writing at the time and is not as intrusive, however, as comics from the Golden and Silver Ages. Maybe utilizing this storytelling technique was O’Neil’s way of injecting poetry into his comic books. The flourishes contained in the dialogue and narration surely made it his own and added a heightened sense of drama and melodrama.
Symbolism is rife in both writing and art. The Joker says that he is using a shark as his “instrument” of revenge because they “resemble each other!” In one particularly creepy panel, Adams has Batman shining a flashlight at a case containing a shark’s jaw with its rows of sharp teeth. The yellow light illuminates the Joker’s visage, which just so happens to be on the other side of the case and makes it appear as if the Joker is within and part of the shark’s “grin”. Such artistic displays are only one of the reasons why this issue is such an influential and iconic comic book.
The end of the story, without a doubt, influenced writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s final scene in “Batman: The Killing Joke” (which is another iconic Bat-tale). The Joker slips on the oil from the spill and is caught by Batman. The Caped Crusader tells the Joker that he would have escaped if it wasn’t for the oil and says, “you’ll go on slipping –to that cell!” Batman then says, “You’re not laughing!? Don’t you see the joke?” The Joker clearly is not amused, with Batman insisting it is funny “to think that you—my arch-enemy—would make me grateful for…pollution!”
Batman has a darkly humorous side to him, making both hero and villain a perfect “couple”. As they walk away together into the bright sunset, Batman has his hand on the Joker’s neck and a black oil slick trails behind them. Batman is laughing, while the Joker is not (which is reminiscent of “The Killing Joke”).The juxtaposition of light and dark is an appropriate symbol of their neverending rivalry/”romance”. O’Neil and Adams paved the way for writers and artists such as Moore and Bolland to delve into the psychology and complexity of two characters that need each other to survive and thrive in a truly complicated world. From this story came classic tales that have enriched the Bat-mythos and the characters themselves.
Written by: Denny O’Neil
Art: Neal Adams
Inks: Dick Giordano
Colors: Tom Ziuko
Publisher: DC Comics
Original Publication Date: September 1973