16 years ago, the Joker found out he was dying and decided to go out with a bang. What resulted was a multi-issue crossover that involved much of the DCU and Jokerized a slew of DC's best-known villains.
But the story that resulted - the Joker's Last Laugh event - was a little different from what the story's architects originally pitched. Not only were writers Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon planning to have more actual killing and long-term deaths in the series, but even the cover art was scaled back.
And the current U.S. collection of Joker's Last Laugh is missing the entire first chapter (much to their chagrin).
Newsarama talked to Beatty and Dixon to find out more about the genesis of the story and what worked in the execution of Joker's Laugh Laugh - and what didn't.
Newsarama: Chuck, let's talk about the story. What was the basic idea behind it?
Chuck Dixon: The high concept was to 'Jokerize'a lot of classic DC villains when they get exposed to a weaponized gas. The fun of it was to see a lot of villains facing off against heroes they, traditionally, don’t usually fight. And the villains would be wild and psychotic versions of their normal selves.
Nrama: Scott, was there an overarching goal for this story?
Scott Beatty: We wanted a crossover with consequence rather than a reset to the same status quo that preceded the event. Somebody had to die. And consequently, there would be mourning and ire and grand drama that would drive the Bat-titles for a year afterward.
Nrama: OK, take us back to the circumstances at that time in-story. Where was the Bat-family, what was the tone of Batman comics, and how would you describe Joker at that time?
Dixon: The theory at the time was that the Joker re-invented himself every day. That left him wide open to interpretation. At the time the Bat-family was still in their 1990s iteration: Robin, Nightwing, Huntress, Cassandra Cain as Batgirl, and Barbara Gordon as Oracle.
Nrama: Scott, how much planning did the two of you do for how the story would cross over? How involved were you guys in the overall publishing plan?
Beatty: Actually, our initial plan was to have Joker's Last Laugh be self-contained as a Bat-Crossover only. Chuck and I had lunch with then-DC Executive Editors Mike Carlin and Denny O'Neill to pitch the project. It was Mike's edict that we go large and make it a "Fifth Week" publishing event that involved every DCU title the month of its release.
Given that directive, Chuck and I had the hard task of creating an overarching plot outline that gave each week's title releases a germ of the story that would carry over into the various books as our main story advanced.
Chuck and I spent a long day in a DC Conference room with a white board to map it out and present it to the various DC editors, who came in one-by-one to get their marching orders.
Nrama: What tone were you hoping to achieve? And how did the artwork help set that tone?
Beatty: We had a great bunch of guys handling each issue, beginning with mega-talented Pete Woods, who designed the overall look of the series, including DC's metahuman prison the Slab.
It was series editor Matt Idelson's idea to have each issue drawn by a different artist, which made for a lot of front-end work to make sure each issue was consistent, especially since we had written the series to completion before penciling began.
We were also blessed to have bookending covers by Brian Bolland and Scott McDaniel doing the ones in between.
Interestingly, Brian's initial run at the final issue cover was deemed too bloody for DC's standards and Brian had to tone it down. Given that the Joker cut his own face off just a few years later, you can appreciate the irony.
Nrama: Times have certainly changed. So looking back at the crossover, Chuck, what worked and what didn't?
Dixon: The core of it, the stuff Scott and I did, worked just fine. I was regular writer on a number of Bat-books and was able to maintain a through-story even beyond the mini-series. We also created a raft of brand new villains. That was fun.
The only problem we had was that some of the other editors and writers were indifferent to the whole idea. What Scott and I designed was a very high concept that was easy to play with, a crossover that wouldn’t necessarily interrupt a book’s current continuity. We thought the other creators would have fun with it. It was an excuse to use a villain who would normally never appear in their title. But a lot of the writers stuck with Jokerized versions of bad guys they would normally have used anyway. Sort of defeated the purpose.
Nrama: Scott, you mentioned the "too-bloody-for-publication" cover. Were there any ideas that didn't make it into the story that you wish had? Or maybe you're happy didn't? You have said before that there was an idea that involved Superman killing the Joker?
Beatty: If you follow Chuck's or my own writing blogs, it's no secret that our initial plan was to have the Joker kill Ralph Dibny. Somehow, in our musings, having the Clown Prince of Crime kakk the Elongated Man seemed like the button that would ignite the fan base in righteous outrage.
Of course, we both love Ralph, but again the point was to create a story with real consequence. Killing the most affable member of the Justice League of America, and in our original outline, stretching his body across the Gotham Gate Bridge with the words "SEE WHAT I CAN DO?" - or a terrible pun like "HE WAS STRETCHED TO THE BREAKING POINT" - would have been the catalyst that pushed even Superman to end the Joker once and for all.
That was our original plan. DC Editorial made us go in a different direction.
So instead of having a killer splash page with Batman trying to pull Superman off of the Joker, we reconfigured the narrative to have the perceived death of Tim Drake (yet another Robin!) at the Joker's hands to be the final straw for Dick Grayson, who was already running ragged to keep his true love Barbara Gordon from obsessing over watching the Joker all of the time on closed-circuit security cameras.
Since Chuck was writing Nightwing and Robin and Birds of Prey, the collateral damage would be explored throughout those books (and was) for the next year.
Otherwise, in addition to killing the Joker for real, our endgame was to replace Mister J. with a Jokerized Rancor, a new villain whose power was an empathic ability to enhance negative vibes to riot-level madness.
DC would still have a Joker, albeit a worse one.
And following that, we were setting up a raft of new titles. Tim Drake would be forced to take on the identity of Blue Beetle - a paid position mentored by a convalescing Ted Kord - in order to take care of his own ailing father.
Meta-Marshals would have been a buddy cop book with Joker's Last Laugh players Shilo Norman and Dina Bell as skip-tracers hunting down the remaining Jokerized and other metahuman villains using Dina's cop skills and Shilo's traps from his internship with Mister Miracle Scott Free.
We also had loose plans to do a DC prison book like Oz on steroids to explore life in the Slab.
Nrama: So Chuck, what do you feel like the actual ramifications of the story were?
Dixon: The big takeaway for me was that Nightwing stepped up and did what Batman would never do. He 'killed' the Joker. That caused a rift between the characters that I continued to deal with for the rest of my runs on the Bat-books I was assigned to.
Nrama: Is there something you want fans to know about Joker's Last Laugh if they go back and check the story out - or maybe even for long-time fans of the crossover?
Dixon: Fans of the crossover should ask DC for a compete re-printing of the series including the ancillary regular issues that Scott and I wrote that related to it.
There’s some lovely hardcovers in Europe that do just that. The only paperback collection done here in the USA doesn’t even include the first 22 pages of the mini-series!
Nrama: That's nuts.
Beatty: Chuck's right. We broke ranks at DC by having the Last Laugh Secret Files come out first, instead of at the end of the run. We made the book integral to the story by having the first chapter of Last Laugh appear in the opening. All the rest, from the profile pages of new characters to the "Easter Egg" material like the Joker's prison personal inventory form, were intended to enhance the reading experience.
Oh, and one more thing. The Bolland/McDaniel covers were great, but did you know that Matt Idelson originally wanted to have cartoonist Fred Hembeck pencil each cover and have him inked by Bill Sienkiewicz? Try wrapping your Jokerized brains around that!