Category Archives: joker

Losses: They Come In Threes (and Sometimes Fours)

A tough week of losses in the literary/pop culture world, though there’s some solace in knowing that, with one exception, all of them lived to ripe old ages. Let’s start with the most recent one first:

I heard this morning that Christopher Hitchens, longtime contributor to The New Yorker, and the author of countless books and articles, died of complications from lung cancer at age 62.  Hitchens was explosive and ranting, conflicted and controversial — and whether you agreed with him or not (and it was probably impossible to agree with him  on EVERYTHING; he was all over the map), he was always passionate and always an entertaining read. Christopher Buckley wrote a nice piece in (where else?) The New Yorker, which you can read here.

On Tuesday, author Russell Hoban passed away at age 86. Hoban made his living as a writer of science fiction and fantasy novels (most notably Riddley Walker)  — but to me, he’ll always be remembered as the author of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, which Jim Henson later turned into one of the finest Christmas television specials of all time. An American expatriate, it’s probably appropriate that the best obit is here in the Guardian.

Comic book legend Joe Simon passed away on Tuesday at the age of 98. Simon — and his partner Jack Kirby — seemed to have his hand in nearly every comic book genre, from superhero to western to romance to science fiction. In the 1940s, while working at Marvel, he and Kirby created Captain America, then jumped to DC to revamp Sandman (the Simon/Kirby version plays a small but crucial role in the Neil Gaiman revival) and created the mighty Boy Commandos (which was, at one point, the publisher’s third highest selling title).  Simon didn’t always have the Midas touch — he’s got Brother Power, The Geek on his list of creator credits — but his work was always interesting, and Simon was a true gentleman.  His obit in the LA Times is here, but I’m waiting for the long piece being promised by Mark Evanier.

Finally, Batman fans (like me) are mourning the loss of Jerry Robinson, who passed away late last week at age 89. Robinson was one of the true unsung heroes of the Batman mythos—even moreso than writer Bill Finger, whose name still doesn’t appear on Batman‘s title page—for it was Robinson, ghosting for Bob Kane, who drew most of the early installments of Batman and Detective Comics.  And when it came to creating characters, Robinson gave us two icons: Robin, who pretty much became the template for every teenage sidekick that followed, and a villain called the Joker who . . . well, is pretty much the coolest bad guy of all time.

While Robinson never saw his name or Bill Finger’s formally attached to Batman, Robinson was one of the great advocates for creator rights. It was Robinson who helped push (and then basically shame) DC Comics into giving Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster not only a creative byline on all Superman comics, but also lifetime pensions and health benefits. Robinson also served as a teacher at the New York School of Visual Art — where he helped make comics into an art form — and co-wrote one of the finest books on the history of the comic strip, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, which went back into print earlier this year.

Losses, all — but thanks to each of them, what memories we have.

First Books: Limited Collector’s Edition C-37 (1975)

In honor of the release of The Dark Knight — which broke all kinds of records this weekend — I wanted to share with you My First Batman Comic.

I first became a Batman fan not because of the comic books or the TV show (which was off the air before I was a year old), but rather because of the Super Friends cartoon, which premiered on ABC when I was six years old. It may have featured a somewhat emasculated version of the Dark Knight Detective (Hey criminals! Wanna make Batman cower? Take away his utility belt!), but, hey, it was still Batman. He was super cool, and I was completely smitten. My life as a fanboy had begun.

But I didn’t actually have any Batman comics until this one — with the clunky official title of Limited Collector’s Edition, Vol. 4, No. C-37 — which my mom ordered through the mail for my brother and me in 1975. Back in the early- and mid-1970s, DC was publishing collections of Golden Age comics in oversize editions, including reprints of the first appearances of Batman and the Flash, which still confound some rookie collectors to this day. This particular issue — under a terrific Jim Aparo cover — was touted as the Batman Special All-Villain Issue!

Needless to say, I read this thing until the cover fell off of it.

The first story, “The Cross Country Crimes!” (a reprint of Batman #8 from 1941) pits Batman and Robin against the Joker, who leads the Dynamic Duo on a murderous chase across the United States. It contained a great hook (the Joker is actually using the first letter of each state he visits to spell out his name), some scary Joker moments (Joker forces a jeweler’s bus off a cliff), and a thrilling fight in a swaying cable car. And check out this great splash of the Clown Price of Crime (complete with that iconic 1940s Batmobile at the bottom):

Next, the Penguin gets his shot at the Dynamic Duo in “The Blackbird of Banditry,” a 1947 story from Batman #43 in which Penguin declares he will “use fictional birds you’ve read about in books … and commit real crimes!” Penguin manages to stay one step ahead of Batman, and at one point even gets the drop on the Dynamic Duo by puffing on a pipe full of popcorn, which explodes into Batman’s unsuspecting face. Then, displaying a mentality that could only belong to a comic book villain, he chains the captured Robin to a wall (with a tightly drawn bow-and-arrow pointed directly at the Boy Wonder’s heart), locks Batman in a nearby cage, and (wait for it) . . . leaves to allow Batman watch Robin face an almost certain Death by Clever Trap.

Naturally, Batman uses a discarded umbrella to make a bow and arrow of his own, and as the Penguin’s arrow screams toward Robin, Batman intercepts it by firing an umbrella handle-arrow into its path — a drawing that always baffled my eight-year-old brain, as it looked to me like Batman had fired a pickle to block the Penguin’s arrow:

But maybe that was just me.

Anyway, Batman eventually nabs the Penguin, and can’t resist taunting him in his jail cell by reminding him of another famous fictional bird. “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore!” Batman guffaws. Hilarity ensues.

The last three stories in the issue featured Two-Face (who meets his demise via accidental hanging at a drive-in movie theater, an image that horrified me), the Scarecrow (captured by an old vaudeville trick in which he’s smacked on the fanny by a see-saw), and Catwoman (who models her crimes on famous women criminals like . . . er, well, the wicked queen from Snow White). And if all that weren’t enough, there was even a four-page spread featuring a map of the Batcave (circa 1968) and diagrams of Batman’s equipment, including this sneak-peek at the contents of his and Robin’s utility belts:

I stared at those pages forever, trying to figure out how Batman could get those smoke capsules out of his belt so quickly, or how that laser torch really worked. When you’re eight years old, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.

Come to think of it, it still doesn’t.