The Many Faces of the Joker: Bronze Age Vengeance

Joshua Lapin-Bertone

Joshua Lapin-Bertone

Oct. 3, 2019


All the world loves a clown, although Batman might have some issues with that theory. All week long we’re celebrating the Joker, leading up to the premiere of his new motion picture this Friday. Yesterday we looked at the comical lunacy from the Joker’s Silver Age appearances, and now it’s time to journey to the Bronze Age.


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It’s hard to imagine going through four years without a Joker story, but that’s just what happened after the Clown Prince took on the Justice League in 1969’s ‘Justice League of America’ #77. After the cancellation of the Adam West ‘Batman’ television series, the comics moved away from camp and went in a more grounded direction. The Joker and Batman’s other colorful rogues weren’t considered tonally right for this new era, so they were temporarily shelved. You can’t keep a good villain down, which meant it was time to reinvent the Joker.





The Clown Prince of Crime returned from his four year hiatus in 1973’s ‘Batman’ #251, for a classic story entitled “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge.” Writer Denny O’Neil and illustrator Neal Adams had redefined Batman for the Bronze Age, and now they were turning their attention on the Joker. O’Neil took his inspiration from the Joker’s Golden Age stories, and returned the character to his homicidal roots. For the first time since 1942, the Joker was killing again, and he made up for lost time. Neal Adams redesigned the Joker’s appearance, elongating his face and giving the body a taller and leaner frame. This became one of the Joker’s most iconic designs, with many artists like Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Jim Aparo adopting it for their stories.


“The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” is also notable for mentioning the Joker being incarcerated in an insane asylum, which was the first mention of the then unnamed Arkham Asylum. While some Golden Age stories played around with the idea of Joker’s sanity, O’Neil and Adams changed the game entirely. It’s hard to read this version of the Clown Prince and not hear Mark Hamill’s voice in your head, and this should come as no surprise, since ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ was heavily influenced by the comics from this era.


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The Joker’s return to comics reignited his popularity, with the fan reception being so strong that DC Comics decided to give the villain his own solo series in 1975. ‘The Joker’ ran for 9 issues, and pitted the Clown Prince of Crime up against rival criminals and offbeat heroes like Sherlock Holmes. The Comics Code required the Joker to receive karma for his crimes at the end of each story, leading to most issues ending with him apprehended. Since he was the protagonist of the series, the Comics Code also required his homicidal tendencies to be toned down a bit. Despite these limitations, the book was fun during it’s short run and contained the perfect mix of Cesar Romero inspired villainy and the Joker’s new Bronze Age persona.




The Joker also returned to the airwaves. After appearing alongside the Mystery Inc. gang in ‘The New Scooby-Doo Movies’ the Joker became a reoccurring villain in 1977’s ‘The New Adventures of Batman’ animated series. Lennie Weinrib, the original voice of Scrappy-Doo, played the Joker against Adam West and Burt Ward’s Dynamic Duo.




In 1978 the Joker had one of his most unusual, yet most memorable, crimes yet in a storyline called “The Laughing Fish” which ran in ‘Detective Comics’ #475-476. The comic features Joker contaminating Gotham’s fish, so they all feature his twisted Joker smile. Now that the fish have his look, the Joker seeks to profit off of this by copyrighting the aquatic creatures. The nervous bureaucrats are unable to comply, leading the Clown Prince to take matters into his own hands.


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The premise of the story might sound like something from the Joker’s wacky Silver Age capers, but this was one of the most horrifying Joker stories yet. For instance, take a look at the Joker’s victim in the image below.


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Yikes! A story about the Joker trying to copyright fish could be hard to pull off, but writer Steve Engelhart and illustrator Marshall Rogers pulled it off with gusto. The creative team, whose run on ‘Detective Comics’ is rated among the best of its era, took the best elements from O’Neil and Adams Joker and added their own horror twist to it. “The Laughing Fish” was later adapted as an episode of ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ and as a bonus, the script also contained the memorable deathtrap sequence from “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge.”


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Although the Joker was never invited to join the infamous Legion of Doom on the ‘Super Friends’ cartoon, the Clown Prince was predominately featured alongside Darkseid in the intro sequence for the “Galactic Guardians” season. The Joker fought the Super Friends, disguised as Ace, leader of the Royal Flush Gang, in the episode “The Wild Cards.” Once again, the Joker was voiced by a Scooby-Doo alum, this time Frank Welker, the iconic voice of Mystery Inc. leader Fred Jones and Scooby himself. The Joker’s alliance with Darkseid may have seemed unusual to comic readers, but the Clown Prince had one more deadly partnership to form before the Bronze Age ended.


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Written by Doug Moench and drawn by an all-star cast of famed illustrators, ‘Batman’ #400 is considered by some to be the last Pre-Crisis Batman story, and naturally the Joker is front and center. Ra’s al Ghul breaks all of Batman’s foes out of Arkham, forcing the Dark Knight to divide his attention to catch them all. The Joker takes lead and creatively encases the police department in a steel net. Hoping to stop Ra’s once and for all, Batman leans on the Joker and offers to help him take down Ra’s. The Joker tells Batman the madman’s location, and the Dark Knight surprises the Clown Prince by breaking his word and knocking him out cold. The Joker has always wanted to corrupt the Dark Knight, and some might argue that he did just that here. Do you feel like the Joker got the last laugh during the final hours of his Pre-Crisis continuity?


That’s it for the Bronze Age!


Next time: Frank Miller! Alan Moore! Jack Nicholson! Mark Hamill! Oh my! Don’t miss it!


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