Batman #251 (“The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge”) Facsimile Edition Review
By Jesse Baker
A new trend in comics, with the return of single issue reprints, is the “Facsimile Edition”. These special editions reprint of a classic comic book in full, with all of the classic advertisements, editorial pieces, monthly release checklist, letter page, etc from the original copy of the issue in question.
Collecting classic Batman comics can be expensive, especially those from the early 1970s. And one of the most expensive and sought after books from this era, is Batman #251.
Batman #251 contains the story “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge”; an important and iconic story in the history of Batman and in the Joker, Batman’s most famous villain. It was the first appearance of the Joker after a lengthy four year hiatus, bringing Joker firmly into the “Bronze Age” of comics. Once Batman’s most iconic villains, the character had fallen into comic book limbo as Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were given the keys to the Batman franchise. Their tenure over the book had seen a move towards darker, Gothic stories with supernatural and international intrigue as the main threats Batman encountered. As such, many of Batman’s older enemies had been “rested”, as part of this revitalization. This was done largely as a repudiation of the 1966 Batman live action series, resulting in a shift towards a more “mature” tone for the book and to expand Batman beyond the usual suspects he dealt with.
O’Neil and Adams were fans of the Golden Age era of Batman and drew from the stories from Batman’s first two years of existence when they took over the Batman franchise. Back before the franchise was sanitized and the earlier edginess of the franchise were sanded off to make the characters more kid friendly.
And no character had been whitewashed or sanitized for the masses worse than Joker. The original Joker, during his first couple of appearances, was a monstrous figure. And murder was his favorite crime of all. Joker killed people left and right, but this was done away with once DC Comics saw the number of kids buying the Batman comics and wanted to go all-in on that target audience. So Joker went from murderous fiend to criminal mastermind with a wicked sense of humor and a flair for dramatic criminal schemes Batman had to unravel. One who wasn’t so much Death itself, but a master thief who saw crime and comedy as one and the same and planned his heists accordingly.
With a lengthy absence providing them something of a clean slate, O’Neil and Adams take Joker back to his roots in this tale of murder and revenge. While still bound by the Comic Code Authority’s censorship restraints, the two reinvent Joker as a calculating figure of evil that kills without pity or hesitation. Furthermore, they begin the long association of Joker and madness; with Joker himself comparing his insanity to Batman’s razor sharp detective skills.
The plot of “Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” is, as the title states: revenge. Joker’s lengthy absence is explained away as Joker having been sent to prison for several years. His conviction achieved by way of testimony from five of his most trusted henchmen, Joker has escaped from prison to seek bloody vengeance against his former underlings. All but one of which survives the end of the story, as Batman repeatedly fails to save his quarry from Joker’s schemes.
Most of Joker’s henchmen are shown to be jerks, so O’Neil and Adams allow for the fans to root for Joker as he carries out his killing spree. Two of the kills are from Joker-Venom (Joker’s trademark poison that kills and causes his victims faces to contort into an inhuman grin upon death), one is killed by a cigar that is filled with Nitro-Glycerin (which explodes due to the henchman waving the cigar around).
While most of the murders are done quickly, the fourth henchman (a long haired hippie named Melvin) is given the most attention. Having killed a man in a mugging prior to the events of the story, Melvin has to be chased by Batman before caught and given the news that his old boss wants him dead. Melvin convinces Batman to let him go back to his home for “his toothbrush”, then turns on Batman and seeks to put together a bug-out bag before leaving town. Sadly Joker is waiting for him in the shadows and kills his wayward henchman and leaves his corpse hanging from a noose when Batman enters the house.
Adams treats this installment as something out of a horror film, with Joker looming in the background just before he kills Melvin. Besides bringing Joker back to his murderous roots, O’Neil and Adams would also make changes to Joker’s visual design as well. Originally drawn for decades as a husky type, Adams’ Joker would be slim and thin and feature a super-deformed style elongated jaw that made his face look more ghoulish and inhuman. These changes to Joker’s visual design would become his default visual style going forward, copied by artists that would come after Adams.
The story climaxes with a sunrise battle on the beach, outside an aquarium where Joker has stashed his final victim; who he plans on feeding to the shark. It is here that O’Neil begins the transition of Joker, from cruel and calculating criminal mastermind to madman who’s insanity drives him and fuels his rivalry with Batman. As Joker compares himself to the shark he plans on using to eliminate his turncoat henchman, Batman realizes that Joker is truly insane. It’s a powerful moment that would be a turning point, for Joker’s rivalry with Batman. Joker’s madness would become his defining feature, one that allowed him to face Batman as an equal as the chaos to Batman’s order.
As with DC’s new “Facsimile Editions” series of reprints, this edition of Batman #251 contains all of the original advertisements from the original issue and letter page and other bits, like the mail-in subscription page. It also restores the house ads that ran in the middle of the story pages, as DC often would have a page with two panels at the top of the page and then the rest of the page dedicated to promoting another title. With reprints of Silver and Bronze Age comics, all of he house ads featured in such manner are removed, resulting in many an awkward page with a huge white blank segment underneath the two panels.
In conclusion, I have to strongly recommend picking up the facsimile edition of Batman #251. Original copies of this landmark issue of Batman sells for over a hundred bucks easy, so being able to read this mini classic for the price of a regular priced comic is a steal for anyone interested in Batman or the Joker.