REVIEW: DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS THE JOKER
Various characters in the DC Comics Universe have a basic descriptive term that is applied to them. Superman is known as the Man of Steel. A little understated, perhaps, but it's become rather iconic. Batman is often called the Dark Knight. Rather fitting in its own way.
The Joker has tended to pick up the moniker "The Clown Prince of Crime". Somehow, for me, it just doesn't quite work. Given the reign of insane terror that this giggling maniac has repeatedly unleashed not only on Batman and Gotham City, but sometimes the entire DC Universe, "Clown Prince of Crime" just doesn't cut it.
I think the best, most accurate comment I ever heard in reference to The Joker came from one of the Flash's villains, a relatively low-level crook known as the Trickster, who, in the mini-series "Underworld Unleashed", remarked, "When super-villains want to scare each other, they tell Joker stories..."
THAT -- fits. When you're so maniacal that even the other bad guys are put off by you, then you're operating on an entirely different level. And the level that The Joker operates on is one that no one sane wants to have anything to do with.
A recent assortment of Mattel's extremely impressive line of DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS featured a new figure of The Joker. I say "new", because the Joker had made it into the predecessor line of DCUC, that being DC Super-Heroes, but that particular Joker figure was not designed by the sculpting team of the Four Horsemen, so the Joker was redone for DC Universe Classics.
The particular assortment that features The Joker is a Walmart exclusive, and he wasn't the only fairly major character in the series. It was with some concern that I pondered the potential difficulty of finding these figures. Even non-exclusive DC Universe Classics figures can be difficult to track down. Series 10 of the Walmart exclusive wave includes The Joker.
So who, precisely, is The Joker? I find myself heading to Wikipedia, wondering if even they can piece together the story of this lunatic.
The Joker is a comic book supervillain published by DC Comics and appearing as the archenemy of Batman. Created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, the character first appeared in Batman #1 (Spring 1940).
Throughout his comic book appearances, the Joker is portrayed as a master criminal whose characterization has varied from that of a violent psychopath to a goofy trickster-thief. He is the archenemy of Batman, having been directly responsible for numerous tragedies in Batman's life, including the paralysis of Barbara Gordon and the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin.
As one of the most iconic and recognized villains in popular media, The Joker was ranked #1 in Wizard's list of the 100 Greatest Villains of All Time. He was also named #2 in IGN's list of the Top 100 Comic Book Villains of All Time List, was ranked #8 in the Greatest Comic Book Characters in History list by Empire - being the highest ranking villain on the list, and was listed as the fifth Greatest Comic Book Character Ever in Wizard Magazine's 200 Greatest Comic Book Characters of all Time list, also the highest villain on the list.
Though many have been related, a definitive back-story has never entirely been established for the Joker in the comics, and his real name has never been confirmed. He himself is confused as to what actually happened; as he says in The Killing Joke, "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"
The first origin account, Detective Comics #168 (February 1951), revealed that the Joker had once been a criminal known as the Red Hood. In the story, he is a chemical engineer looking to steal from the company that employs him and adopts the persona of Red Hood. After committing the theft, which Batman thwarts, he falls into a vat of chemical waste. He emerges with bleached white skin, red lips, green hair and a permanent grin.
The most widely cited backstory, which the official DC Comics publication, Who's Who in the DC Universe credits as the most widely believed account, is featured in The Killing Joke. It depicts him as originally being an engineer at a chemical plant who quits his job to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, Jeannie, he agrees to help two criminals break into the plant where he was formerly employed to get to the card company next door. In this version of the story, the Red Hood persona is given to the inside man of every job (thus it is never the same man twice); this makes the man appear to be the ringleader, allowing the two criminals to escape. During the planning, police contact him and inform him that his wife and unborn child have died in a household accident.
Stricken with grief, he attempts to back out of the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his promise. As soon as they enter the plant, however, they are immediately caught by security and a shoot-out ensues, in which the two criminals are killed. As the engineer tries to escape, he is confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance. Terrified, the engineer leaps over a rail and plummets into a vat of chemicals. When he surfaces in the nearby reservoir, he removes the hood and sees his reflection: bleached chalk-white skin, ruby-red lips, and bright green hair. These events, coupled with his other misfortunes that day, drive the engineer completely insane, resulting in the birth of the Joker.
A story in Batman: Gotham Knights #50-55 supports part of this version of the Joker's origin story. In it, a witness (who coincidentally turns out to be The Riddler, Edward Nigma) recounts that the Joker's wife was kidnapped and murdered by a corrupt cop working for the criminals in order to force the engineer into performing the crime.
In his initial dozen or so appearances, starting with Batman #1 (1940), the Joker was a straightforward homicidal maniac, with a bizarre appearance modeled after the Joker playing card.
From the Joker's first appearance in Batman #1, he has committed crimes both whimsical and inhumanly brutal, all with a logic and reasoning that, in Batman's words, "make sense to him alone." In his first appearance, the character leaves his victims with post-mortem smiles on their faces, a modus operandi that has been carried on throughout the decades with the concept of the character.
In the 1950s and 1960s, following the imposition of the Comics Code Authority censorship board, the comic book's writers characterized the Joker as a harmless, cackling nuisance. He disappeared from Batman stories almost entirely when Julius Schwartz took over editorship of the Batman comics in 1964.
In 1973, the character was revived and profoundly revised in Batman stories by writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams. Beginning in Batman #251, with "The Joker's Five Way Revenge", the Joker returns to his roots as a homicidal maniac who murders people on a whim, while enjoying battles of wits with Batman.
The Joker had his own nine-issue series during the 1970s in which he faces off against a variety of both superheroes and supervillains.
Although he has no super-powers of his own, The Joker is portrayed as highly intelligent and skilled in the fields of chemistry and engineering, as well an expert with explosives. In a miniseries featuring Tim Drake, the third Robin, the Joker is shown kidnapping a computer genius, and admitting that he doesn't know much about computers, although later writers have portrayed him as very computer literate.
The Joker commits crimes with comedic weapons such as a deck of razor-sharp playing cards, an acid-spewing flower, cyanide pies, exploding cigars filled with nitroglycerin, harpoon guns that utilize razor-sharp BANG!-flags, and a lethally electric joy buzzer. His most prominent weapon is his Joker venom, a deadly poison that infects his victims with a ghoulish rictus grin as they die while laughing uncontrollably. The venom comes in many forms, from gas to darts to liquid poison, and has been his primary calling card from his first appearance. The Joker is immune to his own venom.
Joker's skills in unarmed combat vary considerably depending on the writer. Some writers have shown Joker to be a skilled fighter, capable of holding his own against Batman in hand-to-hand combat, despite his extremely slender build. Other writers prefer portraying Joker as physically frail to the point that he can be defeated with a single punch. He is, however, consistently described as agile.
Over several decades there have been a variety of depictions and possibilities regarding the Joker's apparent insanity. The Alex Ross series "Justice" has an entry by Batman speculating that the Joker may not be nearly as insane as he wants people to think he is. During the Knightfall saga, after Scarecrow and the Joker team up and kidnap the mayor of Gotham City, Scarecrow turns on the Joker and uses his fear gas to see what Joker is afraid of. To Scarecrow's surprise, the gas has no effect on Joker, who in turn beats him with a chair. In Morrison's JLA, the Martian Manhunter, trapped in a surreal maze created by the Joker, used his shape-shifting abilities to reconfigure his own brain to emulate the Joker's chaotic thought patterns, nearly going insane himself. Later in the same storyline, Martian Manhunter uses his telepathic powers to reorganize the Joker's mind and create momentary sanity, albeit with great effort and only temporarily. In those few moments, the Joker expresses regret for his many crimes and pleads for a chance at redemption.
The Joker's victims have included men, women, children, and even his own henchmen and other villains. In the graphic novel The Joker: Devil's Advocate, the Joker is reported to have killed well over 2,000 people. Despite having murdered enough people to get the death penalty thousands of times over, he is always found not guilty by reason of insanity. He is then placed in Arkham Asylum, from which he appears able to escape at will, going so far as to claim that it's just a resting ground in between his "performances".
Batman has been given numerous opportunities to put the Joker down once and for all, but has relented at the last minute. As an example, in one story line, Batman threatens to kill the Joker, but stops himself upon realizing that such an act would make him "a killer like yourself!" Conversely, the Joker has given up many chances to kill the Batman because the Joker defines himself by his struggle with his archnemesis.
His capricious nature, coupled with his violent streak and general unpredictability, makes him feared by the public at large, other DC superheroes, and DC supervillains as well.
Of course, The Joker has appeared in other media as well. His best known appearances are likely the 1960's TV series, in which he was played by actor Cesar Romero; the 1989 Batman movie, in which he was played by Jack Nicholson, and throughout the various Batman animated series in the 1990's, in which he was voiced by a very non-Luke-Skywalker-ish Mark Hamill.
There have also been Joker action figures before. One of the best is almost certainly the one produced by Mego in the 1970's. A close second would be the one created by Kenner for their Super Powers line. Hasbro came out with a 9", cloth-costumed Joker figure at one point, that wasn't bad, but it used the brighter reddish-purple clothing color popularized by the Cesar Romero Joker, rather than the darker purple more common to the comics character.
So -- how's the DC Universe Classics figure? This may well be the best Joker figure ever, even surpassing Mego. It is an absolute, dead-on match for what the character's most iconic, best-known image looks like. And that's not easy.
For one thing, you have the difficulty of the head design. This has plagued sculptors for decades, I am sure. The Joker's head is itself something of an exaggeration on human norms, and yet still needs to look relatively human. Apart from the white skin and green hair, the Joker not only has the wide, maniacal grin, but a longish chin, fairly long, narrow nose, and slightly puffed out cheeks. That's not going to be easy, and given the large number of Joker figures over the years, I've seen any number that worked rather well -- and I've seen a few serious screw-ups, as well.
The Four Horsemen, the sculpting team that design these figures for Mattel, did an absolutely amazing job with the head. This IS the Joker -- period. Mego, Kenner, Hasbro, Toy Biz, even DC Direct -- anybody else who's ever had a contract to produce DC action figures and has turned out a Joker figure -- take a look. You may have done well, but Mattel's Four Horsemen nailed it.
The face looks precisely as it should, with that huge, alarming grin. They could put a sound chip in this figure of the Joker's insane laugh and it would work. The eyes have an almost frightening stare. The backswept and slightly upswept green hair is perfectly done. The worst thing I can say about the figure is that the red around the lips was a little uneven, but this was easily remedied with a little red paint. Even the eyebrows were painted green!
The body sculpt is just as impressive. The Joker is a skinny individual, almost alarmingly so. The food at Arkham Asylum must be pretty miserable. Either that or The Joker is so inherently hyper he just manages to stay trim. Traditionally, The Joker dresses in a purple jacket with long tails in the back, purple pinstriped trousers, a bright orange vest, and a green shirt, with a black string tie. He generally has black shoes with white spats. It's a nightmarish miasma of colors (but arguably no worse and probably not as bad than the alleged fashion you might find on a modern teenager), but it suits The Joker's chaotic personality.
Mattel has rendered this outfit superbly well. Obviously, The Joker required his own distinctive set of body molds, and yet they did see a secondary use for Gentleman Ghost, a figure in Wave 8 of DC Universe Classics. Don't worry about confusing the two, though. The Ghost, as his name implies, is mostly white. Apart from the face and the spats, there is no white color on The Joker, certainly not on his wardrobe.
The coat and trousers are precisely the proper color of purple. I had a bit of a dispute one time with someone who argued that the more reddish-purple was just as valid a color for The Joker. That may be, but it's nowhere near as iconic, which this line of DC Universe Classics figures seeks to achieve, so Mattel certainly made the right decision here.
The stripes have been imprinted on the trousers very neatly and impressively. The level of painted detail is really quite amazing, including the buttons on the vest, on the cuffs of the jacket, and on the back of the jacket, all of which have been painted copper in color.
Joker's green shirt is really only apparent above the vest, and below the jacket sleeves, but it's impressive that Mattel went to the detail of painting the bottoms of the sleeves with a bit of green. The Joker also wears gloves, which are a somewhat lighter shade of purple than the rest of the purple on his ensemble.
The orange vest is a nice bright color, and nicely detailed. The black string tie is a separate piece, molded as part of the shirt collar, and if you gently raise it, you can see that Mattel even painted the buttons on The Joker's shirt underneath. They're painted in black.
There are even little black buttons or snaps on The Joker's white spats. Now that's impressive!
The Joker is also wearing a large, cartoonish yellow flower on his jacket. Be warned! That's his infamous acid-squirting flower. Probably just as well that the figure doesn't match all of the functions of the actual character. Likely have a hard time getting something like that past safety regulations, anyway.
The Joker is, as one would expect from this line, superbly articulated. He is poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, legs, upper leg swivel, knees, and ankles. I was a little surprised that there is no waist articulation, as I think this could have been managed at the junction point between the vest and the pants. But he does not move there. It's not a quirk to this figure, either. Gentleman Ghost doesn't pose at that point, either.
The Joker comes with plenty of accessories. He comes with a spread-out hand of cards, with the Joker card facing up. Scary-looking clown face, too. He comes with a "Laughing Fish", from the storyline that pretty much brought back his original personality in the 1970's. He has a black walking stick with a gold base and an ornate gold handle that looks like a court-jesterish version of himself, and he has a large, green, almost comical-looking hammer, that you still wouldn't want to get bashed with. This last item is a distinct nod to the accessory included with the Super Powers Joker figure from Kenner in the 1980's.
So, what's my final word here? Hey, really, you can't go wrong here. If you've been looking for the ULTIMATE action figure of Batman's greatest enemy, one of the best-known super-villains of all time -- here it is. There have been others. There have been good others. But short of some super-expensive really large-scale perfectly outfitted super-collectors' level figure, I don't see this Joker figure being topped all that readily.
It may not be easy to find. The Joker is part of a Walmart exclusive assortment of an action figure line that is not terribly easy to track down even the non-exclusive assortments of. But it's worth it. And, there's some other cool characters in the same series.
But without a doubt, the DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS figure of THE JOKER most definitely has my highest recommendation!