PAUL KUPPERBERG: My 13 Favorite Things About BATMAN #251

The celebrated Mr. K pays a 50TH ANNIVERSARY tribute to one of the all-time classics…

NOTE FROM DAN: I don’t generally write intros to others’ columns anymore, but I’m making an exception here: Batman #251 — which came out 50 years ago on June 21, 1973 — is, to my way of thinking, the single greatest Batman issue ever published. Hyperbole? Maybe. But you get my point — and it is worth noting that the ish, about the Joker knocking off former henchmen, was voted the best single-issue story by our Batman 80th Anniversary Blue-Ribbon Panel in 2019. I’ve written a lot about Batman #251 over the years, so for the 50th I wanted a fresh point of view — and here’s columnist Paul Kupperberg to take you the rest of the way. But do be sure to check out the links at the bottom of this piece to find other coverage — including Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ own perspectives. Dig it, folks!


As fate would have it (Gasp! >Choke!<) I recently had occasion to give some serious, one might even say scholarly, thought to Batman #251 (cover date September 1973). The occasion was my essay (“Mountebank to Monster: The Bloody Road from ‘The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge’ to ‘The Killing Joke’) for the forthcoming Crazy 8 Press anthology, The Man Who Laughs, Exploring the Clown Prince of Crime, edited by Lou Tambone and Rich Handley.

On its face, “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” is a solid Batman vs. Joker tale, a fitting return of the giggling gangster after an almost four-year absence thanks to editor Julie Schwartz’s dislike of the villain. But a lot had changed in four years, including many of the creatives working on the book — notably Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. The next generation of creators had arrived and nothing, seriously, would ever be the same.


1. Denny O’Neil. Such things are always up for debate, but for my money Denny O’Neil was the defining writer of his time, shaking up Batman and the superhero genre in general with his humanistic approach to characterization and comic book storytelling. “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” wasn’t the 34-year-old writer’s first use of a classic Batman villain, and he had already introduced a bad guy who would reach nearly equal iconic status with the Joker, Ra’s al Ghul, but Denny really let the crazy flag fly with his killer clown take, knocking over the first domino in what was to be a decades long ride.

2. Neal Adams: Everything I said about Denny? Same goes for Neal, just change “writer” to “artist” and “34-year old” to “32-year old.” Just six years earlier, the Joker looked like this — from Detective Comics #365, July 1967, by Sheldon Moldoff and Joe Giella — albeit under a great cover by Infantino and Murphy Anderson.

Under Neal, he looked like…well, see the next item…

3. The Cover: Suddenly, the Clown Prince of Crime ain’t so funny no more!

4. Page 1: And if you weren’t sure what to make of the pale-faced whack job on the cover, here’s the iconic splash page, a mood setter if ever I’d read one.

From the Batman #251 Facsimile Edition

5. Page 4: If the Joker had made a move to the dark(er) side, Denny and Neal’s Batman had already shifted tone. He was less the sunny “Caped Crusader” and much more the “Darknight Detective.” I know it was for Packy White’s own good, but Batman beating on the old punch drunk old fighter always seemed kind of harsh to be.

The best available scans of the entire issue feature modern re-coloring.

6. Pages 7-9: It’s no secret that Bigger Melvin, the next ex-Joker mob member Batman goes after, was modeled on inker and one-time Continuity Associates employee, Steve Mitchell, who was also a friend of my brother. But familiarity aside, Bigger’s “escape” through the Gotham sewers, only to find Batman waiting for him at the other end of the manhole, is a classic Batman moment. (By the way, the real Steve Mitchell told some Neal Adams stories of his own when we spoke for Direct Conversations: Talks With My Fellow DC Comics Bronze Age Creators, still available wherever finer books are sold.)

7. Page 11. Why did the Joker do what the Joker did? For the first 30 years of his existence his motive was vague, pretty much being whatever the particular story needed it to be. Denny, who understood that story flows from character, not from schtick, needed a motive for his Joker and he found it in the struggle between the bat’s rationality and goodness and the clown’s madness and evil. “Without the game that the Batman and I have played for so many years, winning is nothing!” Elegantly simple.

8. Page 14. Panel five. Symbolism at its best.

9. Page 16. Panel four. Just to reiterate!

10. Page 20. This page? Because it blew me away how Neal handled the water, especially Panel four.

11. Page 21. Because, classic!

12. Page 23. The Joker’s petulant little “No! Not funny!” made me laugh the first time I read the story and it still makes me smile today.

13. The Lettering. At last, it can be told… not that it was a big secret or anything! The uncredited lettering on “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” was by my brother, Alan Kupperberg, who also worked out of Neal’s Continuity Associates studio at the time. It was Alan’s only lettering job for DC, so I assume it was Neal’s idea for him to do it as an aid to a deadline crunch.


— BATMAN #251: DENNY O’NEIL and NEAL ADAMS on Bringing Back the JOKER. Click here.

— BATMAN #251: How Fans Reacted to the Return of THE JOKER. Click here.

PAUL KUPPERBERG was a Silver Age fan who grew up to become a Bronze Age comic book creator, writer of Superman, the Doom Patrol, and Green Lantern, creator of Arion Lord of Atlantis, Checkmate, and Takion, and slayer of Aquababy, Archie, and Vigilante. He is the Harvey and Eisner Award nominated writer of Archie Comics’ Life with Archie, and his YA novel Kevin was nominated for a GLAAD media award and won a Scribe Award from the IAMTW. Now, as a Post-Modern Age gray eminence, Paul spends a lot of time looking back in his columns for 13th Dimension and in books such as Direct Conversations: Talks with Fellow DC Comics Bronze Age Creators and Direct Comments: Comic Book Creators in Their own Words, available, along with a whole bunch of other books he’s written, by clicking the links below.



Author: Dan Greenfield

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1 Comment

  1. I loved this issue! I bought it at the grocery store in one of those plastic baggies that had three comics for like a buck (I don’t remember!) probably a year after the issue came out. I had read the Batman/Joker story (the first one?) in the Jules Feiffer edited collection that came out a year or so earlier and loved the killer-clown. I wasn’t even in High School yet!

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