The Clown Prince of Crime

By Chris Thompson

Coming to love that which scares you the most....

I have a confession to make: I’m scared of clowns. Horrified by them actually, what can I say?1 Upon reflection, I’ve surmised that it stems from my early teenage encounters with a certain paperback version of Stephen King’s master horror novel IT. You know the story I’m speaking of right? It’s the one with that evil looking reptilian claw reaching out through a sewer grate on its cover, while a little white sailboat made of folded paper floats calmly in the gutter nearby? The one with the words “IT” floating above it in grungy blood red letters? Yeah, that one. Innocence mixed with violence, classic King. Heavy stuff.

Well that cover had my young imagination locked in before I knew what I was getting myself into and I jumped into the novel wholeheartedly. Not long after I had finished reading IT, and while my nostalgia for King’s story was still percolating through my impressionable mind, ABC had to go and televise its own take on IT. Airing a two­-part television movie for two nights in late November 1990, it was a loose retelling of the novel’s complex plot. Of course I had to watch. And I think that was the final nail in the coffin. The straw that broke the camel’s back if I may. Tim Curry’s brilliant role as the evil clown Pennywise flat out ended any remaining joy I could impart from clowns and I’ve never been the same ever since.

I remember my dog-eared copy of IT just lying around my room for a few months after the TV movie aired and that clown just kept invading my thoughts. I couldn’t get Pennywise out of my head and it was becoming a problem. So much so that I finally just gave the book away to the two people I felt would enjoy it the most: My aunt and uncle. They were two of the biggest Stephen King fans I had ever met at that point in my life and to this day I have yet to encounter someone who rivals their devotion to the man. So when I gave my uncle my copy of IT one afternoon, the novel joined the multiple copies of the book they already owned, falling comfortably into the ranks of dozens of other books penned by him, and contributing to the assorted King ephemera that lay scattered throughout their cluttered abode.

The downside of giving the book to them, I ultimately came to realize, was that every time I visited their house IT and I crossed paths, bringing up my fears all over again. Lets just say that that book and I developed a special relationship in the coming years. And my visits to my aunt and uncles house became an adventure in Pavlovian conditioning. My mom would announce an impending visit to their house and I’d be reminded of that book. That book would remind me of the evil of Pennywise the Clown and then I’d start to sweat and get nervous. And then we’d go visit them and shit would get real. And around and around like this IT and I went, playing out our dance of fearful irrationality many times over. Now granted, my aunt and uncle were a bit messy and forgetful on top of their King fandom so the book was always lying around, making it fairly easy to find2. But the message here is that I wasn’t looking for the book, despite it always seeming to find me.

So anyway, my point is that what my relatives or my parents didn’t realize was that King’s books, and IT especially, were easily responsible for the majority of my childhood exposure to the horror genre. What can I say? I was a hyper curious kid3 with access to a plentitude of King’s stories and to top it off, I grew up in the 80’s, a decade flush with horror stories. Nightmare on Elm St., Friday the 13th, Poltergeist, Carrie, Aliens, The Fly, The Thing, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining, etc., etc., buzzed all around me. And Showcase Cinemas, just one town over, was a short bike ride away…it was laughable how easy it was to sneak into R­-rated films back then.

Because of this Ash, Carrie, Jason, Freddy, Jack Torrance, Ripley and especially Pennywise were never far from my young and impressionable mind. And impressionable it was. To this day the image of that clown is seared into my brain. Hard­wired into those neural centers where Fear and Terror like to reside. I can’t seem to shake it completely and every time I see a clown my mind loves to remind me of my irrational fears.

As I grew older my interests drifted, and my memories of Pennywise faded. I found girls and music and sports and I drank heavily of the amusements of youth. But Fear is a powerful emotion and its aura still lingered, hiding dormant just like IT, just waiting to be reawakened. And it wasn’t very long until I found a new clown to remind me of my fears. He wasn’t a clown in the purest sense, a costumed performer gone horribly wrong or a distillation of pure evil like Stephen King’s IT. No, he wasn’t evil for the sake of being evil at all. He was a more calculated being, a thinking man’s villain. An evil created by the very world in which he lived in. He was called The Joker and despite my aversion to white face paint, red lipstick and colored hair I’m to this day one of his biggest fans.

It’s a love/hate thing for me and The Clown Prince of Crime. I love so much his character, his villainy, his contemptuousness and brash. I love his focus, his dedication and his devious depths. But its the things that make him so truly The Joker; his garish red grin, his dirty green hair and his paleish white skin that still stroke at my fears, and still quicken my heart. But familiarity breeds understanding and The Joker and I have become close, helping to lessen my terror each day.

The reason why I’ve brought you here today is to discuss the future of Batman’s greatest archenemy and Gotham’s resident super villain, The Joker. As we all know, The Joker is a master criminal with a clown-like appearance. He is a vicious, calculating, psychopathic killer and a violent sociopath who murders people for his own amusement. His battles with Batman across the backdrop of Gotham are the stuff of legend, and his story has been told and retold many times over with varying success. However, as we look forward, push past the post­-Nolan/Dark Knight era into uncharted waters, we find that The Joker is still very much alive and well. Thriving actually.

For we find him once again up to no good, except instead of gracing the big screen he is splashed across the glossy, vibrantly­-colored pages of such comics as Batman, Batgirl, Batman and Robin, Catwoman, Detective Comics, Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Suicide Squad and Teen Titans.

And the Jokers been busy, biding his time and forming his plans. Currently he’s playing out an epic twenty­-three issue story arc called Death of the Family falling across all Batman related comics. Its been truly exciting to follow along with this engrossing storyline,4 an illustrated roller-coaster filled with twists and turns, as it unfolds across all these comics. Death of the Family is slated to go down in the annals of Batman lore as a truly momentous tale, becoming one of those watershed moments where all stories going forward can’t help but feel its influence.

As I mentioned, there has been a plethora of plot twists throughout this well imagined story, and Scott Snyder does a marvelous job of keeping the reader guessing. Add on top of that Snyders ability to write nearly flawless dialogue and pepper in a wealth of absolutely amazing art5 and one can’t help but recognize the greatness.

And because of that greatness I’d like to share a few of the more remarkable aspects of this storyline here with you today6 in the hopes that you may become as excited as I am about this story.

Death of the Family7 began its run in October of 2012 as a prelude in Catwoman issue #13 Burnt Offerings and finished its epic, multi­-comic run three days ago, on February 13th, 2013 in Batman #17 The Punchline.

Death of a Family’s prologue has The Joker again locked up in Arkham Insane Asylum, put there once again by the Dark Knight. As we all know, deviousness and cunning are The Jokers bread and butter, and even before he arrives at Arkham he is already planning his escape. While imprisoned at the asylum, The Joker is able to meet with Dollmaker, another one of Gotham’s villains, wherein Dollmaker promptly removes the skin from Joker’s face. This is yet another in the long line of transformations for The Joker and huge points go to Snyder for originally with this one. Before The Joker escapes, he nails his face to the wall of his cell, a sign of his rebirth, and it well over a year before anyone hears from him again.

Then in Batman #13 Knock, Knock; Tease8 The Joker resurfaces, marking his return to Gotham by attacking the Gotham City Police Department, slaughtering 19 police officers, and recovering the preserved skin of his face.

As the storyline progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that The Joker is going after Batman, threatening and capturing the members of his “Bat-family”, his Gotham allies. Sporting his grotesque new look–the preserved skin of his face crudely reattached with straps and worn like a mask–The Joker increases his reign of terror, kidnaping many of Batman’s costumed allies. Red Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Robin, and Red Hood all fall to the Harlequin of Hate’s aggressions and Batman fails to prevent this.

For the Joker has been watching Batman, studying him all this time. Watching his “family” develop. Watching the court of Gotham’s “Bat-King” grow. And as it has grown so has Batman’s responsibilities to these people. But The Joker is not fond of Batman’s new allies. He’s not keen on these people the Bat-King holds in such high regards and The Joker suspects that Batman sometimes tires of caring for his court, worrying over the likes of Robin or Batgirl.

So what does The Joker do? Well, he has always seen himself as the jester in the King’s court and it is he who serves Batman not them. So The Joker desires to remake Batman in his image: A truly twisted and powerful Bat-King. And what better way to do this then to capture the ones he cares so much for? For The Joker understands that sometimes a wish must be twisted into a nightmare. That a secret desire must be admitted. And if by killing those in Batman’s care he makes the Caped Crusader frightened of himself, then The Joker would say his job was done.

I really can’t say too much more about how all this unfolds without giving the majority of the story away. But what I can say, and what goes to the genius of Snyders storyline, is that The Joker tries to make Batman afraid. Tries to make him believe that there’s a little bit of madness in all of us. That he is just as crazy as The Joker and that they belong in Arkham Asylum, locked up together…the quintessential hero-villian storyline.

In Batman #17 The Punchline we’ll learn why The Joker did what he did. His reasons for his efforts will be revealed in one climactic bombshell. It will be the final issue that sees everything that’s been building for the last four months come crashing down.

And I for one, fear of clowns and all, can’t wait!

  1. I’m working through it… []
  2. I get it now, books are like friends right? Who wants to put one away? []
  3. I think if I had asked my parents “Why?” one more time as a kid they would have gone bat shit crazy. []
  4. written expertly by Scott Snyder []
  5. including stunning contributions from the storylines main artist Greg Capullo []
  6. Without hopefully giving away too much of the story. If you have not read Death of the Family, there may be a few minor thematic spoilers ahead. []
  7. The title of the story echoes 1988’s A Death in the Family, wherein The Joker brutally murders the second Robin, Jason Todd. []
  8. I feel I should mention that all the Joker-Batman storylines take place only in the Batman comic book while the other comics focus on individual members of Batman’s supporting cast who figure prominently in the story. []
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