Though Batman's rogue's gallery is arguably the greatest in comics, the early Bronze Age saw the Joker, the Riddler and Catwoman sidelined in favor of more conventional killers, gangsters and lowlifes, and the occasional supernatural terror.

The hugely popular live-action television show of the 60s had conferred an unprecedented celebrity to Batman's more colorful foes, but it had also made them symbols of high camp to the general public. As the 70s dawned, DC Comics was determined to return Batman to his roots as a "dark avenger of the night," and as shadows and dark alleys re-entered the visual lexicon of the books, the brighly colored supervillains of an earlier age were sent packing. In their place came a new collection of villains more in keeping with the more "realistic" and spooky spin given to the Bronze Age Batman.

Easily the most important of these was Ra's Al-Ghul, an evil genius whose mad dreams of reshaping the world led Batman on a series of James Bond-style international exploits. Throughout the 70s and into the 80s, Batman would pursue Ra's across arid deserts, through snow-capped mountains and finally even to outer space. Like the Bond villains he resembled, Ra's had a global network of loyal agents and high tech, secret bases. Plus of course a beautiful female helper who falls in love with the hero, only this time she was Ra's own daughter, Talia, and Ra's actually approved of the romance. In fact, when he wasn't trying to take over the world, Ra's chief hobby was trying to make Bruce Wayne his son-in-law. Several adventures seemed to end with the villain's demise, only to see him later resurrected in his "Lazarus Pit," a literal deux ex machina which, it was suggested, had been keeping him alive for centuries.

Harking back to Batman's earliest days in Detective Comics, there was a new emphasis on supernatural foes, from vampires to werewolves to immortal madmen. Most of these were one-off's but one "monster" foe who came to stay was Man-Bat, a grotesque figure combining a bat's ears, wings and talons with the body of a man. In reality bat-researcher Kirk Langstrom, Man-Bat set out to fight crime alongside the Caped Crusader, but often ended up battling him instead. Treated alternately as a villain, a hero and a nuisance, Man-Bat attracted enough of a following to co-star in several issues of Brave and the Bold before getting his own title (for a mere 3 issues).

Other Bronze Age foes included The Spook, a cloaked killer who could escape Gotham Penitentiary seemingly at will, the improbably outfitted Calculator, and a third version of Clayface, this one with the ability to reduce victims to puddles of protoplasm with a mere touch of his diseased hand.

Meanwhile, the allure of Batman's A-list villains soon proved irresistible and they made their inevitable return, albeit in ramped-up, newly lethal forms. The Penguin and the Riddler became more dangerous and less comical. Two-Face, whose acid-scarred face kept him sidelined throughout the kid-friendly 50s and fun-loving 60s, now took his place among the top ranks of Bat-villains in the horror-tinged 70s. Hugo Strange, AWOL since Batman #1, returned with his Golden Age, monster-making M.O. intact.

No villain went through more changes in this period than the Joker. Portrayed in the 50s and 60s as a larcenous prankster devoted to humiliating Batman with corny gags, the Joker returned to Batman's world in the 70s as a homicidal maniac, a four-color nightmare who proved that yes, kids, clowns can indeed be scary. In the classic and oft-reprinted "Joker's Five-Way Revenge," (Batman # 251) writer Denny O'Neill and artist Neal Adams presented a Joker unseen since the earliest tales of the Golden Age; a psychotic killer who left his victims' faces twisted into horrible smiles. Later Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers would complete the Joker's evolution into a true madman who "masterminded" such insane plots as putting smiles on schools of fish in order to copyright seafood and earn millions in royalties.

Before slipping into abject madness, the Clown Prince of Crime made history of a sort by being spun off into his own magazine, easily one of the oddest experiments in DC's history to that point. In the nine issues of his own book, the Joker escaped repeatedly from his cell at Arkham Asylum to travel the country in his "Ho-ho-home on wheels" and match wits with fellow villains Two-Face, the Scarecrow, Lex Luthor and (perhaps inevitably) The Royal Flush Gang. Also joining the fun were heroes Green Arrow and the Creeper. This version of the Joker, primarily written by Denny O'Neill was somewhere between the "old" and "new" models; a prankster more comic than lethal; dangerous to be sure, but not the homicidal killing machine he would later become. And small wonder...devoting a book to a villain was challenge enough, but making a murderous lunatic into a protagonist was too tall an order even for a comic book writer.

A memorable four-part story line saw Batman's rogues gallery take center stage. With the hero apparently deceased, the Joker, the Riddler, Lex Luthor (!) and others claim to have done him in, and one by one enter "testimony" before a jury of their fellow villains to determine who will get the credit. In another memorable arc, Batman himself becomes Public Enemy Number One when it appears he's fatally shot Talia in the back...with Commissioner Gordon himself as witness. For the next few months, Batman has to stay one step ahead of Gordon and his men as he struggles to clear his name.

In all, the Bronze Age was a great time for Bat-villains, with new ones joining the rogue's gallery and older ones taking on a greater sense of menace. But of course no era can be truly "great" from the bad guys' point of view. In the end, they're always going down!


In issue #4 of his own book, the Clown Prince of Crime matched wits not with the Caped Crusader, but with the Emerald Archer. Oliver (Green Arrow) Queen and Dinah (Black Canary) Lance guest star in this off-beat tale that reflects the odd stage of transition in which the Joker found himself in the 70s.

The Joker's scheme here falls somewhere between the flashy pranks of his TV days and the genocidal excesses of modern comics. Similarly, there is an odd dynamic at work in a tale featuring a protagonist who (a) is a self-confessed raving nut job and (b) leaves a body count in his wake. Perhaps in deference to the comics code, the Joker seems to meet his demise at story's end, but given that the next panel advertises his adventure for the following month, it's hard to count him out.

Two Superman alums handle creative chores on this one, with Elliot S! Maggin writing and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez on pencils. Maggin had an affinity for Green Arrow that shows through here, and Lopez's layouts and figures are so masterfully rendered that, for once, even an ink job by the dreaded Vince Colletta can't spoil the fun.

No Batman in this one (except for a brief "cameo"...don't blink!), but "Gold Star for the Joker" provides a great example of one of the odder offshoots of Bat-mythology in the Bronze Age.



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