In the early 1970s, the Caped Crusader was going through quite a transition period. For decades, Batman had been less “Dark Knight” and more “Old Chum,” and thought of as the one-two punching hero that Adam West portrayed on television. But when Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams took on the character, they took Batman back to the shadowing roots that he hadn’t seen since his early days in Detective Comics. The now legendary team basically sculpted what we know as the modern day Batman, in addition to creating several staple characters like Ra’s Al Ghul, and one of their most unforgettable classics took place in Batman #251 with “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge.”
The above image is the gloriously horrifying first page that countless readers were met with, and I challenge you to find a more entrapping first page for a comic book than that. Joker is obviously back on the loose, and as the title would suggest, he has revenge on his mind. When Batman and Commissioner Gordon discover a dead body with the Clown Prince of Crime’s signature grin, they soon realize this is no random murder, but the first of many executions of Joker’s former gang of henchmen. The first stop in Batman’s investigation takes him to former boxer Packy, where Batman implores the old-timer to go into protective custody. Though reluctant, Packy agrees, only to soon be laughing himself to death after consuming some poisoned water.
In another location in Gotham, Joker claims his third victim of the night with an exploding cigar. This series of panels is my favorite piece of the whole book. We’ve all see the cartoonish Dick Sprang style Joker with the exaggerated chin and impossible smile, but Neal Adams designs his Joker to the form of an actual person, which makes the Joker even more terrifying.
Batman makes his way to the warehouse holdings of other former Joker henchman, Bigger Melvin. Bigger catches wind of the Dark Knight’s prowling, and dashes through an elaborate escape root, but just when Bigger thinks he’s ditched the Bat, there he stands ready to warn the crook about his possible doom. Batman convinces him to enter protective custody, but Bigger first asks to go home to get his toothbrush. Batman deems this a reasonable request, only to get clobbered by Bigger once his back is turned. This was my only real problem about this story. Batman goes from looking like a genius detective by anticipating Bigger’s elaborate escape, to looking like a gullible moron for actually going with this guy to “get his toothbrush.” And, of course, while Batman lies unconscious in the street, Joker has his way with Bigger. Joker actually ends up getting the drop on Batman once he comes to, sending him back into unconsciousness. This is followed by a very cool monologue from Joker about how the end of the “game” him and Batman are playing should be a poetic victory and not end in such a simple, unfunny manner.
Once Batman wakes up for the second time (way to go, Bats!), he finds himself with very little to go on about Joker’s next move. Soon, Batman finds Joker and his next victim at an old warehouse miles away from the city by the beach. With a man’s life on the line, Batman faces off with a shark inside a massive water tank, and quickly overcomes it, not only saving a life, but once again bringing in the Joker.
Storytelling in comics was still evolving, but by 1970s standards you’d have a hard time finding a more quality comic book for your 20 cents. And Neal Adams’s art in this issue is worth ten times that price. I don’t have to tell you how brilliant an artist Adams is, but he doesn’t need words on a script to tell him how to bring emotion to a story. Anything by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams is worth reading, but if you can find it, Batman #251 is a comic worthy of the most prestigious of comic book collections.
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