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The Man Who Laughs: Reinventing Batman And The Joker’s First Encounter
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The Man Who Laughs: Reinventing Batman And The Joker’s First Encounter

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Bat-Classics is a regular column in which How To Love Comics recommends Batman stories from yesteryear. You can find all the reading recommendations here.

Batman and The Joker have faced off countless times over the decades. These encounters have resulted in many classic stories, with many readers considering them some of the Dark Knight’s best stories of all time. But where did it all begin?

The Joker first appeared in 1940’s Batman (1940 series) #1 – written by Bill Finger, art by Bob Kane, and inked and lettered by Jerry Robinson. This issue contains multiple stories, including a Hugo Strange encounter and the first appearance of Catwoman. However, Joker is the primary villain, with his first and second stories featured within. From a storytelling perspective, these stories are very much of their time – tightly compressed and never lingering on a moment. The kind of tales that some readers, especially those who largely read modern superhero comics, might find jarring and a little antiquated. If only there was a modern retelling…

Batman: The Man Who Laughs cover by Doug Mahnke and Dave Baron.
Batman: The Man Who Laughs cover by Doug Mahnke and Dave Baron.

Well, there is. Batman: The Man Who Laughs – written by Ed Brubaker, art by Doug Mahnke, coloured by David Baron, and lettered by Rob Leigh – is a modern interpretation of Batman and The Joker’s first confrontation. Using the first story from Batman (1940 series) #1 as base, this 2005 one-shot expands the scope this tale with new facets and a modern lens.

A fun aside: This one-shot shares the name of Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel. This is because Conrad Veidt’s depiction of Gwynplaine in the 1928 film adaptation was the visual inspiration for The Joker.

The broad strokes of the 1940 story is as so: The Joker has announced via hijacked radio broadcast that rich socialites will die at a specific time and their prized possession, such as a ruby or diamond, would be taken too. Even with proactive police action, The Joker is successful without being in the room. It’s up to Batman and Robin to figure out how the Clown Prince of Crime is doing it and stop him.

Batman: The Man Who Laughs page by Doug Mahnke and Dave Baron.
Batman: The Man Who Laughs page by Doug Mahnke and Dave Baron.

The Man Who Laughs takes these elements, sans Robin, and expands upon them through an early 21st century lens. Where the original story is a fast-paced and densely compressed 13 pages, the 2005 retelling takes it’s time to breath over 63 pages. The 1940 tale is a fast volley of events that’s all go-go-go. We’re moving from one event to the next at a neck-break speed. The Man Who Laughs has time to tell events over multiple pages and reflect on them. While it doesn’t go all-in on the “widescreen comics” approach to page layouts, – which was becoming dominant in the early 2000s – there are elements of it. Full-length panels are common and most pages consist of two or three rows. There is still some density to it, likely due to being a one-shot, but it doesn’t feel as cramped as first telling. (When DC published Joker: Year One earlier in the year, that was told over three 30-page issues.) As a result, it’s a smoother read – especially for modern readers – that allows the story to unfold at a more natural pace.

This slower and methodical pacing also allows the story to explore other more things around it. This includes including a wider variety of different Joker crimes, instead of variations of the same one. As a result, there’s a completely new ending, that escalates the stakes. Another way The Man Who Laughs fleshes itself out is by linking to other stories set in Batman’s early crime-fighting career. There are references to the flashback scenes in The Killing Joke and it’s heavily implied the story is set not long after the conclusion of Year One. These references are not essential to understand as they’re presented with all the knowledge reader needs to know. What they do do, however, is flesh these out to not feel siloed, while still remaining self-contained.

When reading Batman (1940 series) #1, you’ll notice that The Joker is not too far removed from the modern interpretation. The unflinching murderous attitude is their from the very start. However, his motivations are aligned with villains of the era – stealing precious jewels and expensive items. The Man Who Laughs opts for the modern interpretation, where his motivations are less clear and more chaotic evil. While it might not add anything new to the character, it does open up for broader storytelling options with more varied crimes.

Batman: The Man Who Laughs page by Doug Mahnke and Dave Baron.
Batman: The Man Who Laughs page by Doug Mahnke and Dave Baron.

Doug Mahnke and Dave Baron’s visual interpretation aligns with the contemporary presentation. The signature purple is used for jacket and pants, with the green string bow-tie and yellow shirt are all present. Mahnke continues the tradition of the more elongated face, with sharp nose and narrow protruding chin. It’s all recogniseable and on brand. The artist makes this interpretation his own through the linework. This includes small and fine lines to create detail. These additions are never feel busy due to their width and add plenty of depth to characters and the surroundings. An nice little addition is a borrowed que from Batman: The Animated Series, with moments of exaggerated acting from the villain. Mahnke knows when to ham it up and when to make The Joker look deadly serious.

The Man Who Laughs is a solid retelling of Batman and The Joker’s first encounter. By using the 1940 story as a base, the creative team have successfully fleshed it out through a modern lens to complement other modern tales and epics. Those looking to see where it all began between the Dark Knight and the Clown Price of Crime should check out this one-shot tale.

Batman: The Man Who Laughs has been collected in multiple formats and can be found at all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, and Amazon/Kindle.

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