The story we'll be looking at today is one that pits Tim Drake, AKA Robin III, against a certain green-haired Clown Prince of Crime. Said story also happens to take place around the holiday season - complete with oodles of that good old Gotham snowfall - and has Batman be mysteriously absent so that Tim can face down the big bad Joker all by himself. I think you all know where this is going...
Yes, folks... it's time to dig into 1991's Robin II: The Joker's Wild!
Above all else, though, it was the first Joker story that Chuck Dixon ever wrote. The first stepping stone on his journey to being one of the most underrated Joker writers of all time, amongst his many, many other accomplishments in the Bat-mythos.
I won’t lie: getting through this story was something of a chore, and I think that I might actually rank it the lowest out of all of Dixon’s Joker stories. All in all, it’s definitely something I would recommend more to Tim fans than Joker fans – from the title alone, you can tell that it’s Tim’s story before it’s the Joker’s, and the Joker’s role ultimately boils down to being The Villain to Beat for our young, intrepid hero. It's a story that relies more on the Joker's threat level, and his reputation as the biggest, baddest rogue in Batman's rogues gallery, than on what the Joker's personality can offer; and in later years, even Dixon himself would poke fun at how unimaginative the Joker's big plan here is.
In addition, Dixon's dialogue and narration feel rather clunky and overly expository here, unlike the smooth, laconic style he'd develop as the 90's went on. A large chunk of the plot also revolves around computer hacking and counterhacking (such is/was Tim's forte, especially since this story predates Oracle becoming a regular fixture in the Bat-books), which I, really, really can't bring myself to care about. Such is the nature of a child of the twenty-first century, I suppose.
Then, of course, there’s the small matter of Tom Lyle’s artwork, which I’ve always found to be rather hit-and-miss. Some panels and pages in this mini, I wish I could cut out and frame on my bedroom wall; others, I can barely glance at without cringing. I’ve often heard that the paper, printing, and color quality of DC’s late eighties/early nineties output was total crap, and boy, does it show here.
But maybe I’m being too harsh. This was one of Dixon’s earliest DC stories – his third-ever, if I remember correctly – and no writer can knock one out of the park on their first try with every character. Plus, there are a few genuinely golden moments with Dixon’s Joker here, including several scenes and story elements that would go on to be recycled and refined for Dixon's later, better Joker stories.
Our story begins, appropriately enough, within the walls of Arkham Asylum, where a very, very tense standoff is happening in the director's office...
Wait, the Joker is an American citizen now? For that matter, he has a birthday?!
Naturally, the asylum director's Genre Savviness and careful precautions are no match for the incompetence of Arkham's guards and/or the demands of the plot:
I've no idea if this was Dixon's intention, but it's weirdly fitting to see Arkham's director - by all appearances, a rank-and-file conservative - be undone by a gimmicked Bible. It's also rather interesting to see Dixon/Lyle (or whoever is in charge of these things) try to paint the fourth wall here by playing with the borders, though the execution is somewhat... lacking.
Anyhoo, everyone's favorite lavender-loving lunatic makes it out with nary a scratch, while the real star of this story makes his first appearance:
Tim goes on to make a one-liner worthy of Dick, grumbling about how he wishes he was "in Rio by the Sea-O" with Bruce. And as ouch-worthy as that line sounds, it is a nice little tie-in if you know the full setup behind this story when it first came out. See, at the time of this story's release, the main Batman publications (Batman and Detective Comics) were undergoing Peter Milligan's gloriously bizarre four-part "Idiot Root" arc, which more or less pit Batman against a physical god in the jungles and on the streets of Brazil.
(Tangent: I might get around to reviewing that one sometime down the road; for now, all I'll say is that it should be impossible for a story to perfectly fit the art of both Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle, and yet that story somehow managed it.)
So anyways, that story provided a convenient way to get Bruce out of Gotham so that Tim could face the Joker alone in this story, though I have no idea which one was conceived first. I've heard that Milligan's story was cooked up solely to serve this story, and considering how heavily DC editorial was investing in Tim during this period, I wouldn't discount that theory.
Alright, back to the main story. While swinging around, Tim sees the Bat-Signal fired up. Like a dutiful little superhero, he swings over the Police HQ, where Gordon informs him that the Joker has escaped. Tim is appropriately horrified.
Meanwhile, the Joker returns to his old hideout and gang, only to realize that times have changed:
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's everyone's favorite second-rate Captain Cold, pre-BTAS Mr. Freeze! And in his Super Powers Collection costume, for extra nostalgia points!
The Joker is less than impressed:
According to Dixon, Freeze's death here was done at the specific request of then-editor Denny O'Neil, who apparently hated Freeze. I've heard of no other accounts to back this up, save for a friend of mine on LJ who said that O'Neil had penned a Freeze story for a 1997 prose collection called Legends of the Batman that was supposedly "everything that's wrong with Denny O'Neil in less than ten pages". For better or worse, though, this won't be close to the last time that we see Freeze under Dixon's pen.
In the meantime, Tim's busy dealing with typical teenage superhero stuff: wake up, go to school, deal with the popularity food chain, hunt down the recently-escaped mass murderer. One visit to Arkham and subsequent brainstorming session in the Batcave later, Tim gets his first lead: most the reading materials in the Joker's cell pointed to a fascination with the computer expert Osgood Pellinger.
Tim goes to stake out Dr. Pellinger's house, and even with his thermal costume, it's not an easy wait. After an hour ticks by, he's about to call it quits, when Osgood suddenly leaves for a night drive. At which point, this happens:
Tim jumps down to confront the Joker, leading to what is probably the most famous moment from this story:
I've heard some people call this part a continuity error, since the ending to A Lonely Place of Dying (which had come out only a few months ago, and tends to be regarded as an even more integral part of Tim's history) established pretty firmly that Joker already knew that Batman had gotten a new Robin after Jason. Me, I see no problem at all - sure, the Joker acts like he doesn't know Batman has gotten a new Robin here, but he's never been one to let reality get in the way of having a little fun. The way I see it, his dramatic bellow of "I KILLED YOU!" is just him hamming it up for his "audience" - Tim, the goon who's driving the snowplow, and/or the readers of the comic (depending on how meta you like your Joker).
Anyways, since we're only one-fourth of the way through the story, we're still comfortably in "nothing goes wrong for the bad guy" territory. So Joker effortlessly shakes Tim off of the snowplow and drives off with Dr. Pellinger, car and all. What dastardly plans does the Homicidal Harlequin of Hate have for our little computer expert?
Find out in my very next post! (Because apparently, the cut system has a limit. Who knew?)
... yeah. I'm really not sure how the heck this is supposed to work - I would think that massive amounts of brain-altering drugs would screw up a genius computer expert's talents something fierce. Also, dig Joker's E.R. outfit here - Dixon's Joker always had a penchant for playing dress-up, and it'll only escalate in subsequent stories. Gotta love a villain that's so dedicated to every little stage of his plan!
Meanwhile, Tim and Alfred are hard at work, using hologram projectors to try and fool Gotham (especially the underworld) into thinking that Batman is still in town. Tim briefly suggests bringing out the Batmobile, but is shot down when Alfred informs him that 1.) neither of them know the Batmobile's security codes, and 2.) Tim is still too young to drive.
Tim concludes that what they need is an extremely public opportunity for Batman to appear - something in a highly-crowded area. His reason for going to all this trouble?
"Batman's presence is the only thing that's making the Joker keep a low profile."
Huh? We're... talking about the Joker, right? The guy who goes around kidnapping, shooting, and lobbing bombs solely to get Batman's attention? Jeez, Tim, I know you're new to the job, but still!
Shortly after, we cut to an aspiring actress who has gone, alone, to abandoned theater in a not-particularly-nice part of town for an audition, apparently following nothing but the word of some random guy and a business card. To paraphrase Frank Miller, something like this would probably constitute attempted suicide in Gotham, but to be fair, she did start getting second thoughts as soon as she saw that no one else was at the "audition".
Unfortunately, the taxi driver who brought her there promptly drives off, stranding her in that not-very-nice part of town. Left with few options, she decides to go inside the theater anyway:
Best. Method. Acting. Device. Ever.
One cut-scene later, we see that our little Meryl Streep passed her audition, and has been put straight to work. Her first role? A suicide jumper, of course! And in downtown Gotham, which pretty much guarantees an audience several hundred (if not several thousand) strong, to boot!
This part is interesting to me mainly because it's pretty much a dry run for a plot element that would pop up in one of Dixon's later Joker stories. Here, though, it's not really clear here how much the actress is doing this out of her own free will. Anyone care to speculate?
Down below, professionals and pedestrians alike are enjoying the little show (and wondering where Batman is). So much so that - much like in real life - absolutely no attention is being paid to the kind folks that actually arranged for the production:
So, yeah. That's the gist of the Joker's big plan here: using the schematics and instructions that Osgood (unwillingly) created to fuck up the city mainframe, thus sowing random chaos across Gotham. Not terribly original, is it?
As a side note: I find it rather amusing that Joker starts taking off his "disguise" as soon as they're inside the phone company, and doesn't even bother putting it back on as they leave the place. I could say that this is an indicator of how (over-)confident he is - once he's gotten what he came for, he's certain that he can't be stopped even if someone spots him - but given that he did little to hide his face and hair color even when he was in full phone repairman getup, I'd say that it's more likely he just plain didn't care that much about hiding himself.
Several hundred feet up, Tim has just barely managed to save the would-be jumper. Mistah J decides to stop sneaking around, and openly congratulates the Dynamic Duo on their latest success the only way he knows how: with a hail of lead.
As the Joker stands around, gaping like an idiot, he gets spotted by Tim. Tim promptly goes (even further) into SRS BZNS mode, complete with obligatory reference to Jason. Mistah J and his merry men beat a hasty retreat, but Tim, suicidally courageous little bird-boy he is, swings down and confronts the Joker man-to-man:
Smoke/gas bombs can let him teleport away now? Must be the same ones that Andrea Beaumont uses...
That aside, it's pretty interesting to see that Tim needs the GCPD to bail him out, a situation that rarely arises with any member of the Bat-family in any era. This won't be the last time that Dixon uses this situation, either - it's a handy way of establishing Tim's status as a newcomer to crimefighting, to make it feel like he's earning the right to be Robin instead of just appearing in the costume like Jason did. At the same time, it also gives the GCPD something to do in a story besides giving exposition and getting slaughtered like cattle to show how badass the villain is - Dixon always did seem to have a soft spot for the boys in blue, and he would often give the police a bigger role (or at least more creative dialogue) in his stories than most other writers of his time did, even penning several stories that focused entirely on the GDPD.
And on the portrayal of the Joker here: I don't think that Dixon has ever had him rely more on gimmicks and gadgetry than he does in this story. When one takes into account all of Dixon's later Joker stories, which tended to play more to the Joker's intellect, wit, and unpredictable personality, the heavy reliance on gadgets and joke weapons seems more like a crutch. Lord knows how easy it is for so many writers to have him just whip out Joker Venom, the acid-spewing posey, or the electric joybuzzer at every possible opportunity so that they won't have to strain themselves thinking up actual, funny jokes.
To Dixon's credit, however, he does try his best to give the Joker a sense of humor here, intertwined with the malice and competence that the story demands from him. Let's see all of these in action, as the effects of Joker's little prank make themselves felt across Gotham:
Whoo. Civil unrest, property damage, and miscarriages of justice! I admit, though, that it's a bit unclear whether the Joker (with Pellinger's help) orchestrated every step of these specific mishaps, or if it's more a matter of errors and glitches occurring in Gotham's mainframes at random, with Joker just swooping around and picking up all the highlights.
So, Gotham's been brought to its knees, but the mayor, like a true Gotham bureaucrat, puts all responsibility for solving the matter firmly on Gordon's shoulders. He refuses to even let the public know that the Joker is behind everything, because that would mean admitting that the city administration is totally at the Joker's mercy (because the public has so much trust in Gotham's administration after the last twenty times they needed a guy in tights to come in and take down the green-haired clown for them).
Gordon holds another meeting with Tim, and tells him that Gotham's top experts have only been able to deduce that the Joker's virus began at the phone company's terminals, and is now sitting snugly in a web of self-destructs and failsafes and whatnot. "I don't pretend to understand it all."
Neither do I, Jim. Neither do I.
Back at the Joker's hideout, Mistah J is happy as a rubbed rhubarb, so proud of the fact that he's become "the main boob on the tube". Well, all except for the pesky Hammer Bowl game that's going to be played at Gotham Stadium tomorrow... that'll surely eat into a chunk of the airtime dedicated to the mayhem that he's worked so hard on...
Ever the generous soul, though, he gives the football game its own role in his master plan:
Yep. Joker's realized that Batman's little helper just might be home alone, and he's daring them to prove otherwise. So, naturally, at this critical juncture, Alfred sends Tim off to go play some
All things considered, that sounds like it would be a pretty fun Elseworlds. Probably moreso than the Batman-as-high-fantasy one we did ultimately get.
So, anyways, Tim's friends happily exploit the big glitch in his scenario - and thus, Joker's plan. All Tim has to do is trace all the "mystical energies" back to the "psycho spellmaker's" lair - in other words, scan Gotham's power grids for any large-scale draws. Tim, in true teenage superhero fashion, runs off with a half-assed excuse and leaves three friends to play a four-person game.
Down in the Batcave, Tim's all suited up (sans mask), and ready to... sit at the Batcomputer all night, waiting for a ripple from the power grids. Alfred makes a brave attempt at understanding what he's trying to do, and how it all ties into
Several hours later, Tim's gotten his first bite. Soon, he's enveloped in a program where you have to complete the punchlines to old jokes to progress... or something. I kinda like the fact that Joker was apparently computer-literate enough - and enough of a hands-on kind of guy - to co-write the program with Pellinger, but I still can't muster up much enthusiasm for it.
Unfortunately, Tim falls victim to one of the Joker's oldest (and now, sadly-underused) tactics: downplaying his own threat level and lulling you into thinking that this is all a game. Tim winds up wasting hours jumping through hoops for the program, only to be rewarded with:
Over at Joker's hideout, Mistah J is furious that Tim managed to abort their little game before he could upload a virus into the Batcomputer, or even trace the Batcave's location. But the deck is still stacked in his favor - now the Batcomputer's down, Robin's out of the picture (or so he thinks), and Batman's still gone.
And Joker's little prank with Gotham's computers hasn't let up, either. Traffic lights are going on the blink, hardened criminals are getting release orders, hospitals are losing power, homeless shelters are filling up, the police are severely weakened, and worst of all: phones are getting random crank calls with recordings of Joker's laughter in a story that predates BTAS, thus forcing Gotham's citizens to settle for Cesar Romero and/or Jack Nicholson instead of Mark Hamill! Oh, the humanity!
Oh, and there's something about an approaching blizzard that'll leave Gotham under a foot or two of snow. That too.
In the midst of all this, Tim resolves to get his act together, and returns to Pellinger's house to do what he does best: detective work.
Meanwhile, over at city hall, a bomb threat's been called in:
For all the two-dimensionality of the mayor in this story, I do like that exchange in the last panel. Gotham in a nutshell, if I do say so myself.
So, the bomb squad boys open up the package...
Now all the pieces are in place. Joker's ultimatum is reaching its deadline, and Tim explains to Gordon that he's got a plan to turn the ransom delivery into a trap. Understandably, Gordon balks at the part that calls for Tim faces the Joker alone, and Tim - despite the front he puts up - isn't that confident himself.
(You know, now that I think about it, I think I've pinpointed what I like - and don't like - about Lyle's art. Everyone he draws has a ton of wrinkles in their faces; it's a work that definitely works for the likes of Alfred and Gordon, and to an extent it works for the Joker, but it just looks weird on a teenager like Tim.)
With the moment of truth drawing near, Tim goes out in costume and finds a certain someone to pour his heart out to: Batman's gone and unreachable, Joker has the city by the throat, everyone in Gotham's holding out for a hero, Gordon keeps voicing doubts about his abilities, he's failing world cultures
Oh, Jack Drake. Always listening to his son's worries. Whether he wants to or not.
Tim returns to the Batcave, and prepares to put his plan into action. It's a pretty clever trap, meant to not only take down the Joker but also rescue Dr. Pellinger. But more than that, it's a team effort - Alfred, Gordon & the GCPD, the mayor, and Tim himself all have their own vital roles to play.
(For shame, Tim. Has Bruce taught you nothing? How are you supposed to be a paranoid jerkwad who shuts all his allies out if you keep relying on them like this?)
As the snow starts a-falling, both the red truck and the briefcase containing the ransom money are ready to go. Tim swings by to put on the final touches:
Nice to see Tim turning the Joker's own tactics back on him. Not to mention all the faith that Bruce and Alfred have in him, even though he's still new to the job.
Soon afterwards, the plan enters its next stage, and the mayor steps up to address the Joker personally:
Huh. Bit hard to imagine that The Simpsons was that big a deal even back in '91.
The Joker quickly responds to the mayor's capitulation, and gives the exchange point: the middle of East Harbor Bridge. Tim, seeing that the "capture Joker" part of his plan is going smoothly so far, gives Alfred marching orders for the "save Pellinger" part: find a payphone and hook it up to Tim's laptop, which will make a special program of Tim's own design run through every e-mail and public interactive system in the city.
How is this supposed to help Dr. Pellinger? Well...
Man's best friend, indeed.
The sight of his childhood pet gives Pellinger the strength he needs to break free of Joker's drugs, and he manages to tap out a quick response, allowing the GCPD to track his location. And with that, Pellinger's and the GCPD's parts in the story are all wrapped up, leaving plenty of room for Tim's big final showdown with Mistah J.
Tim drives the big rig (via remote control) into the middle of the bridge, and waits for the Joker to come snap up the bait. The Joker doesn't disappoint:
Joker's as pleased as punch to see that his Christmas wishes have all been granted: red truck, Batman behind the wheel, and a billion bucks onboard. Sadly, his idea of gratitude consists of ten sticks of dynamite and a detonator.
"But boss," one random henchman asks. "What if there really is a billion dollars in that truck?"
(Is there anyone else who finds that the Joker with long, preferably windswept hair is kinda hot-looking? No? Okey-dokey then.)
That last panel really speaks volumes about the Joker's actions during this story, not to mention his character in general. It was never about the money; as thousands of people have noted, the Joker's crazy, but he's not stupid, and he knows that a city can't pony up cash when it's flat broke. But it can pony up an insufferable do-gooder in tights...
... or a dummy of one.
As the Joker and his gang all stand there and gape like idiots (again), Tim swings in and begins to kick some serious ass. All his fear, all his nervousness has evaporated: "I've dreaded this moment, facing the Joker and his gang. But now that it's here... it feels right."
Unfortunately, while he's putting all the henchmen down, he fails to pay sufficient attention to their boss...
Yep. Joker was belting out the old "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" a full year before "Christmas with the Joker" premiered. Suck it, BTAS! (Also, where the hell did Joker's skates come from? I'm gonna guess they retract into his shoes, much like the Dynamic Duo's did in Batman & Robin.)
With Tim hot on his heels, the Joker finds a convenient sewage treatment plant to hide in. Plenty of vapors there to render him virtually invisible, so he can get the jump on Tim and pull off something like this:
... not that I'm an aspiring homicidal maniac, but does anyone know where I can get a pair of gloves like those?
(Funny story: according to Dixon himself, Tom Lyle screwed up the design on Joker's gloves. They were supposed to be mittens with Muppet faces - see Kevin Maguire's cover for the fourth issue - and a brief gag scene would've featured Joker making them talk to one another. Once Dixon saw the mess-up in the proofs, he had the entire scene re-done before the comic shipped.)
Sadly, Joker seems to have forgotten that getting into close-quarters combat with any member of the Bat-family is generally not a good idea. Tim is happy to remind him:
... okay, ew. Getting beaten by a greenhorn Robin is bad enough, but getting tossed into a tank of human sewage? No wonder Joker hates Robins so much. But don't worry - he gets his payback several Christmases later!
In any case, all's well that ends well: Dr. Pellinger has been rescued, Gotham is getting back to its normal levels of crazy, Tim has just completed another rite of passage in the Bat-family with a minimum of injuries, and Bruce has made it back to the states just in time to hear all about it.
We finish up with one last epilogue scene at Arkham, featuring the Joker's obligatory vow of vengeance. More interestingly to me, it's also the first time that Dixon wrote two other iconic Bat-rouges that he would go on to (for better or worse) use again and again throughout his time on the Bat-books.
... aaaaand that's about it for Robin II: The Joker's Wild! From here on out, Dixon's Joker stories only get better and better (with one notable hiccup toward the end of his time at DC). Join us again in a couple of weeks (or months...) for the next installment in what I hope to be a long-lived series!
For those of you who wish to purchase this story, to see all the parts I had to leave on the cutting room floor (several great Alfred moments, in particular) or just to fill in all the blanks in this story... well, as far as I know, DC hasn't reprinted this in trade or put it up on Comixology yet. Your only option is pretty much lounging around the back-issue bins, or trying to shell out for them on eBay. Be warned, though - DC was semi-successful in pushing the collect 'em all mentality, and most people charge three-figure sums for the entire set of covers/cards instead of individual issues.
The entire story's also been collected in the Robin: Tragedy and Triumph TPB, but I don't think that's in print, either. If you can find it, though, I definitely recommend buying that one - you get this story in addition to Alan Grant's "Rite of Passage" arc, featuring awesomesauce Norm Breyfogle art, kinda-relevant political undertones, and another defining moment in Tim's career as Robin (not to mention the reason why his dad is comatose in the first place).
Not to mention this sweet, sweet cover by Travis Charest and Scott Hanna:
Ahhh, yeah. That's the ticket.
Happy 2014, everyone!