Classic Comics Cavalcade: Reinventing A Classic In ‘Batman’ #251
by Tony Thornley
Some characters in comics are defined by runs, story arcs, or even specific characters. Others would be completely unrecognizable without one single story. For one particular Batman villain, he wouldn’t exist as he does today without Batman #251.
When the Joker made his debut, he was a sinister trickster. In his first story, he came up with about a half dozen creative ways to commit murder and rob the rich blind. Over time, that edge wore off, especially by the debut of Cesar Romero’s depiction of the character in Batman. Prior to ‘The Joker’s Five Way Revenge’, the character had retained his chaotic trickster energy but had all the sinister edges worn off.
Created by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams (no colorist or letterer was credited), the story is perhaps the duo’s most famous Batman story (except maybe the introduction of Ra’s al Ghul). In it, the Joker has just escaped from prison. One of his five main lieutenants betrayed him to put him there, and rather than figure out which, the Clown Prince of Crime is just going to kill them all.
It’s easy to read this story and realize without it, we wouldn’t have the Joker we know today. Though his playful side is still apparent from his behavior and his dialogue, this version of the Joker is terrifying. The murders are all tailored to the individual, but without any hints of irony or playfulness. The boxer’s drinking water is poisoned, damn who beside him would taste it. The forger is confined to a wheelchair, so using a shark tank will ensure maximum suffering.
You can also see the throughline from O’Neil’s writing to today. Modern comics such as Endgame and Joker War have pulled from this, as have adaptations, like Batman The Animated Series and The Dark Knight. This isn’t the overexposed Joker of today, but the depiction of him as the terrifying force of chaos.
On top of that, this story is full of iconic Batman visuals, from the designs to specific panels. Adams’ Joker looks inhuman, and slightly off, but not demonic or completely unnatural. The iconic grin never leaves his face. It’s a design that every artist to work on the Joker since is indebted to.
It’s also full of moments that any comic book fan, whether a Batman reader or not. The panel of the Joker comparing himself to a shark has stuck with me since the first time I saw it, and absolutely inspired similar moments across Batman’s history since. Batman’s late-issue dash to stop the Joker himself is a panel that has been immortalized in merchandise for years.
Simply put, this is simply one of the best single issue Batman stories in the character’s history. It’s one that even non-Batman fans should check out just for the craft of it. Truly a classic.