THE JOKER – Time to examine another neglected Pulp Hero in the tradition of Balladeer’s Blog’s looks at the Moon Man, Silver John, the Nyctalope, G-8 & His Battle Aces and Northwest Smith. This time it’s the Joker, but not THAT one. Before the comic book villain and even before Conrad Veidt’s turn as Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1926), came the 1919 Pulp Magazine figure called the Joker.
NOTE: Sometimes people mistakenly think Pulp Magazines were the same as comic books, only earlier. However, the Pulps were TEXT STORIES, not sequential art like comic books. The Pulps did have colorful, striking covers like later comic books would have and sometimes a few illustrations in the stories but the Pulps were a much higher level of storytelling.
The 1919 Joker was created by Hugh Kahler, who the year before had created the White Rook, another hero/ villain of the Pulps. In some ways the Joker was a rehash of Kahler’s own White Rook crossed with Guy Boothby’s Simon Carne/ Klimo crime figure from 1897.
Kahler’s first Joker short story, Left by the Joker, appeared in the July 8th, 1919 issue of Detective Story Magazine. The Joker is a colorful and daring master thief who leaves Joker cards with taunting messages at the scenes of his crimes. His archenemy is Martin Quay, an ex-cop forced out in disgrace by the department’s corrupt higher-ups.
Quay has become a private detective whose struggling business gets a huge boost when he proves to be the only one capable of thwarting some of the Joker’s criminal endeavors, even managing to retrieve some of the thief’s stolen goods and restore them to their owners. The newspapers turn Martin Quay’s detective agency into a sensational success while playing up his ongoing rivalry with the Joker, who even robs Quay’s office at times, leaving his usual taunting calling cards.
In reality, Martin Quay IS the Joker, who conjured up his larcenous alter ego as a high-profile menace that he could take on and attract a lot of positive press for himself. The criminal proceeds that he does not “heroically” manage to return to their owners as Martin Quay he secretly contributes to charity. As Quay our hero describes his other self the Joker as “the most whimsical, impudently clever rascal in criminal history.”
Not only is that whole schtick similar to Hugh Kahler’s earlier White Rook, a master safe-cracker who donates all the money from his capers to charity, but it is similar to Guy Boothby’s phony detective Klimo who opposes master thief Simon Carne. Klimo and Carne are one and the same person, unknown to the public.
Kahler’s Joker appeared in three more stories, all of them in 1919 and all of them in Detective Story Magazine. With the Help of the Warden was published on August 12th, followed by A Deal In Silence on September 16th. By that third story the Joker’s secret identity came so close to being publicly exposed that Martin Quay decided to fake the master thief’s death, quitting while he was ahead.
Police Inspector Kane didn’t believe that the Joker was really dead and he continued investigating the colorful criminal, intent on tracking him down. With Kane breathing down his neck, Martin Quay daringly returned to his Joker identity for one last caper in The Joker’s Last Card on October 14th.
That final robbery involved a huge diamond (okay, not Diamond the Size of the Ritz huge, but still …). In the end Martin Quay succeeded in his efforts, then retired his Joker alter ego for good and successfully escaped Inspector Kane’s manhunt.
And so ended the saga of pulp fiction’s original Joker. In the 1930s Frederick C Davis’ short stories about his costumed Robin Hood called the Moon Man borrowed elements of Hugh Kahler’s Joker AND White Rook.
FOR THE MAN IN THE BLACK CLOAK (1886), WHO PRECEDED JUDEX AND THE SHADOW, CLICK HERE.
FOR MORE PULP HERO ARTICLES CLICK HERE.