Friday, March 16, 2012


Why We Love Detective Comics

Today, we are going to take a look at the first origin of The Joker. It's been re-told a few times, most notably in Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke," and, especially when you get away from the comics, it can go off in some crazy directions that have no resemblance to the original. And, considering that the original origin of The Joker (from Detective Comics #168, February 1951) is kinda stupid, it's no wonder everybody and his brother has an uncontrollable desire to start mucking around with it.

By 1951, The Joker had been around for more than 10 years, fighting Batman, stealing jewels, killing people and then not killing people, but no origin for the Clown Prince of Crime had ever been revealed. So "The Man Behind the Red Hood" was presented for fan approval in the aforementioned Detective #168.

But it wasn't presented as the origin of The Joker! It was a mystery! And the readers had to follow the story and see if they could guess the significance of the clues and come up with the solution!

(For all the readers who didn't know that The Red Hood turned out to be The Joker, I apologize for spoiling it. But the story is 60 years old and I assumed that the people who don't know it already probably don't really care that much. I find it highly unlikely that there's somebody who has a copy of Detective Comics #168 lying around and they're waiting for some lazy afternoon to give it a read and I just spoiled the mystery. If there is such a person, I sincerely apologize.)

Batman and Robin are guest lecturers in a college class about criminology. And they decide to let the class tackle a real case, an unsolved case from the beginning of Batman's career! It seems there was this bad guy calling himself The Red Hood, and Batman fought him several times. The last time they fought, The Red Hood escaped by diving into a basin for waste chemicals from an industrial plant. He never appeared again, and Batman didn't know if he succumbed to the chemicals or if he just retired.

After several pages of discussing the evidence, The Red Hood returns! And he commits various nefarious acts at State University! And after a number of death traps and red herrings and pratfalls, he turns out to be The Joker! (The chemicals turned his hair green and his skin white and also made him a ruthless jewel thief. Or something.)

I do not have a copy of Detective Comics #168, but I do have it reprinted in The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told. I first read the story in the mid-1970s when I was 11 or 12 when I got hold of a reprint, maybe one of those over-sized Limited Collectors' Editions or something like that. It wasn't presented as a mystery then, it was unequivocally The Origin of The Joker.

And I've wondered ever since I read it that first time: Were the Batman fans of the early 1950s as disappointed with the origin of The Joker as I was?

Oh, it's not without it's naive charm. But this is The Joker! I am surely not the only Batman fan who has always been a little underwhelmed by "The Man Behind the Red Hood." (I was also very disappointed that there were no earlier Red Hood stories. They just made it up. This is a pretty common comic book tactic, but at the time I thought it was kind of a cheat.)

OK. So it's not great. But we love it anyway.

In addition to "The Man Behind the Red Hood," Detective #168 also featured "Roy Raymond, TV Detective," "Robotman" and "Pow-Wow Smith"

I haven't read any of the other stories in Detective Comics #168. They're probably pretty dumb. But ya gotta love 'em.


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