A recurring topic of conversation at the comic store I frequent, amidst the standard “Who would win if so-and-so fought so-and-so” and “Which publisher is the best,” is the always favorite question “What are the greatest comics that have not been collected in a trade paperback?” There are a number of wonderful comic books that, for some reason or another, have never been released in a complete graphic novel, and picking which one is the most absent from our respective libraries and collections is a favored pastime in my circle of fanboys. My contribution to this discussion has previously always been the one long-lost gem that that any fan of the Joker hoped desperately to see in trade format: “The Reign of Emperor Joker.” This epic Superman story feature Batman’s greatest nemesis assuming the powers of a god after tricking Mxyzptlk, the all-powerful imp from the 5th dimension. With Batman MIA, only Superman can save the day of a world that’s been remade in the Joker’s twisted image.
The story begins with Superman being forced to break out of Arkham Asylum every night, only to have Bizzaro and other villains return him to captivity. Superman’s memory has been altered but he is positive that there is something very wrong with the world that now thinks of him as the planet’s greatest villain. Many of the characters and places have been ludicrously altered into insane imitations of their normal selves. A few issues into the story Superman finally escapes and is able to enlist aid in his quest to find out what has happened. It is on the moon at the former JLA Watchtower where the Man of Steel is shown that the world has know been taken over by the Joker who now wields unimaginable power. With the help of the JLA he is able to prevent the world’s new Emperor from fulfilling his dream of destroying the universe in one last, grand apocalyptic gesture.
While I am thoroughly glad that “The Reign of Emperor Joker” has finally been collected in a trade paperback, it is sadly one of those stories that was better in my memory. It has several writers, and unfortunately it is not the seamless collaboration that one usually expects from DC. Furthermore, the Joker is one of those fascinating characters that has several different incarnations and iterations. His traits extend from one extreme of a dark and sadistic murderer, all the way to a slap-stick, cheesy bad comedian. In this case they chose the latter version of the Joker, and while that Joker has his place, it only makes me think of how cool this story could have been if they had tried for a more serious tone.
Despite these issues, the book still has many things to offer someone looking for an interesting new story (or older story, as the case may be). In order to illustrate the insanity of the world the writers utilize several unique plot points that really allow them to play with the DC universe. Instead of Lex Luthor as the evil bald billionaire who seeks to take over the world, Lois Lane is the evil bald billionaire who spends much of the book trying on ridiculous wigs to hide her shame. Incidentally Lex Luthor, sometimes rival and sometimes collaborator with the Joker, is now the jester in the Emperor’s new court. Superman eventually discovers that Batman is killed by the Joker every night only to be resurrected the next day. As the story unfolds Superman gets his heart ripped out by Joker, and Darkside screams, “Whassupp” in an imitation of the ubiquitous Budweiser commercial from years back. It is these funny moments that ensure that while it may not be a great book, “The Reign of Emperor Joker” is still a fun book that fans should check out.
There is one particular aspect of this comic that is worth noting that is emblematic of a
larger trend going on in popular culture today. As anyone who has watched E! Entertainment Network or VH-1 can attest to, pop culture is becoming ever more self-aware. Movies, books and other forms of mass media are becoming much more self-referential and engage in a subtle yet pronounced dialogue with the consumer. “Emperor Joker” accesses this trend several times throughout its pages — the writers make many references and inside jokes that are only noticeable if the reader forgoes the suspension of disbelief and acknowledges the real world in the decoding process. Many comics have utilized this trend, but in “Emperor Joker” it is a central theme. The book uniquely expands the levels of engagement that the reader can interact with, essentially bringing them into the story; passive viewing now is replaced with an increased level of inclusion. Some may argue that such a stylistic choice diminishes the credibility of the work and delegitimizes the function of the medium, but it is none-the-less a methodology that has become more prevalent in today’s pop culture obsessed world. Many of the creators have continued this trend in the popular comic series, Superman/Batman. That series is the thematic inheritor of a trend that can be traced directly to “The Reign of Emperor Joker”.
So while the story of Joker taking over the world was not as enjoyable as I had remembered it, it is still an important aspect of the Superman/Batman mythology. I’ll now have to find a new comic to add to my list of trades that still need to be released, but I do not regret “The Reign of Emperor Joker” holding that coveted spot in my mind for so long. Despite it not holding up to my expectations, I am glad that it is out and can only say that it’s about damn time.