Friday, November 26, 2010

The Joker Isn't Playing with a Full Deck of Cards!

Before the animated Joker founded a team of troubled teens to become his own gang under the same name, the Royal Flush Gang and the Crime Prince of Crime had a long if not storied history in comic books.

There were two official incarnations of the Gang, each comprised of one of two suits... first the Clubs and later the Spades... with three Aces, two Kings, two Queens, three Jacks and three Tens. Behind each was a mastermind who made his claim to fame as a solo supervillain before realizing that such pawns may prove advantageous against the Justice League.

Meanwhile, the members of the Justice Society had their own threats to face in the form of the Four Cards and the Black Sphere Gang, each with four felons, as well as the golden age Joker and fellow Gotham goon the Gambler, and a pair of problematic players as well.

To start with, Professor Amos Fortune recruited four of his childhood friends into the initial Royal Flush Gang, using "Stellaration" energy to attempt to manipulate the outcome of their felonies. With Amos as the Ace of Clubs, he had the following occupy the remaining positions in his quintet: Kerry was the King of Spades, Queenie the Queen of Spades, an unnamed ally as the Jack of Spades, and Thomas Dillon as the Ten of Spades. Twice the Justice League defeated these Gangsters, after which Fortune abandoned them to seek out other schemes, whereby his former fiendish friends found leadership elsewhere years later.

However, a card-classified cadre of crooks was first introduced on Earth-Two. In Batman #5, after his last encounter with his arch-foe, the Joker was found out of in the sea by three struggling criminals looking for a new angle. After saving the Earth-Two Joker's life, he christens Queenie as the Black Queen, Diamond Jack Deegan as the Jack of Diamonds, and Clubsy as the King of Clubs. The Four Cards of the Joker! Concurrent to these events, the adventurer know as Tex Thompson aka Mister America had twice encountered a Colonel Rushmore, the first time facing the colonel in his other identity as the Ace of Spades where he threatened the lives of others, and later when his own life was lost leading to Tex tracking down his killer. This Ace had a cosmic twin in a second Ace leading the Royal Flush Gang under a new suit.

While the golden age Joker was at least initially amiable to rival "cards" cutting into his action, his Earth-One counterpart was not. The four remaining members struck off on their own under the leadership of a new Ace, Under the new boss, the Gang found their taste in stolen artwork was shared by the Chaplain of Chicanery in Joker #5 (same issue number as the Four Cards introduction... odd ain't it?). This Ace of Spades transformed this fearsome foursome into the King, Queen, Jack and Ten of Spades.

With his new recruits matching his suit, this Ace provided them with gimmicks including gaming weaponry and flying card vehicles.

As for Ace aka Professor Fortune, he created a "Luck League" that had even less success then his Gang, while his Earth-Two counterpart Professor Zobar Zodiak had a different modus operandi with his own henchmen while adopting his Alchemist alias.

However, how would this newly reconstituted Gang fare against the Joker in this battle of gimmicks and greed?

In fact, they were beaten and left imprisoned by their clownish competition (it was HIS comic book after all). Sometime later, a new leader retrieved Ace, King, Queen and recruited a new Jack with a different mission. Their thefts led to battles with Wonder Woman at Lyndon B Johnson Space Centre in Houston. Once more, the Gang flopped.

The Ten of Spades who orchestrated this latest foray into felony was in actuality a coworker of Diana Prince, Mike Bailey. Bailey replaced Ten of Clubs aka Thomas Dillon, who was the muscle man of the original Gang, a role he didn't relish which led to his abandoning his teammates at this time. This caper decision by Bailey would correspond to the caper wherein the Gambler recruited a gang on board the Pleasure Queen gambling boat, and were also quickly vanquished by the Emerald Crusader.

Back on Earth-Two, Deuces Wilde was a professional gambler who like Dillon kept being unwillingly drawn into criminal endeavors by crooks like Ace Wolfe, himself a master strategist and gadgeteer like Bailey.

Both Wilde and Dillon were frequent foiles of their world's respective Flashs, although Wilde was in the end an ally of his scarlet speedster.

Returning to the spring of 1941, the golden age Joker decided to setup shop on a casino ship three miles from the coastline of Gotham City. One of his Cards, the Black Queen, quickly fell under the charms of Bruce Wayne... who was investigating a strange series of crimes aboard the vessel over several weeks.

After being left for dead by a disguised Joker, and then finding his partner Robin captured by the quartet, a simple nick of the chin while shaving tipped of Queenie to Bruce's double identity. And saved his life... at the cost of her own! Or did she lose it?

Interestingly, Batman mused that the one suit that Joker overlooked for his gang was a heart, which was what Queenie ultimately became.

Actually, his three card criminals corresponding with members of a later Royal Flush Gang, with Clubsy the King of Clubs corresponding to Kerry the King of Clubs,  Queenie the Black Queen corresponding to the Queenie Queen of Spades, and Diamond Jack Deegan corresponding to the first Jack of Spades. These three crooks never met either of their contemporaries, Deuces Wilde nor Ace Wolfe, as they operated in a different city than the pair.

Stephen Sharpe aka the Gambler of Earth-Two would correspond to the Jack of Spades who would later become the most famous  Hi-Jack (there would be a Jack Jackson and Jack Spade of each Earth who used this alter ego once).

Both gamblers joined sinister Societies and worked alongside the Wizard. And both would face a Green Lantern during their initial solo missions as well as alongside their criminal confederates who opposed the Lantern's teammates on their respective Justice teams.

Besides being the first case to introduce the Batmobile, which thanks to the Joker's schemes was totaled as it collided over a cliff, this incident was also memorable for one other event. A femme fatale, prior to Catwoman, who was able to deduce the dual identity of the Dark Knight. Despite seeming to meet her tragic end, this moment perhaps humanized the then hardened Batman and conditioned him for accepting his future one true love. Meanwhile, Joker ended up again drifting in the surf.

And, in fact. The Black Queen had not perished but was saved by Clubsy aka Ivan, and instead returned shortly thereafter. Disguising herself as chess champion Olga Romanoff, Queenie was involved in a con job with Ivan "Clubsy" that ensnared assistant museum curator Justin Arthur, who' alter ego of the Shining Knight discovered her ruse and avoided her deadly traps. The hero soon captured "Olga" and left her with the authorities, who imprisioned her for her crimes. Still, she ended up pining for two knights, first a dark one and then a shining one.

Her doppelgänger Queenie returned along with her allies in the Royal Flush Gang on a second occasion wherein she adopted the disguise of Queen Elizabeth where she worked alongside her teammates who appeared as a knight, a judge, a politician and a snake. The Justice League for a second time vanquished them.


And this would not be the last time that Earth-Two's Joker dealt with these particular card characters. In the later 1940's, he would base a series of capers revolving around a royal flash, targeting various prominent individuals along with his henchmen. These five persons were dime store owner Harley Cottonworth, baseball tycoon Diamond Jack Barnes, beauty queen Roxane Wilder, match king Rupert Dazel, and air force Eddie Hoyle. The Dynamic Duo once more defeated the Joker's scheme. While these quintet were not counterparts to the original Gang of Earth-One, this tale corresponded to the introductory tale wherein Amos "Ace" first enlisted his childhood colleagues in their initial battle versus Batman and his Justice League allies.

As for the aforementioned last incarnation of Royal Flush Gang on Earth-One, this involved Green Lantern's foe Hector Hammond recruiting hobo Joe Carny, alcoholic actress Mona Taylor, a gigolo named Jack and test pilot Wanda Wayland to be his King, Queen, Jack and Ten respectively. This Gang was more successful then its predecessor, and equally as deadly as was its Earth-Two counterpart in the Black Sphere Gang of Horace Rowland aka Money Master, Claire Morton aka Gem Girl, How Chu and the Smashing Sportsman aka Martin Baxter... all of whom were powered by black spheres from another universe and nearly capable of defeating the Justice Society and a visiting Justice League on two occasions!

Back to the Gambler, he attempted to hit the big time alongside other masterminds in the Injustice Society on two occasions, as had his counterpart Jack of Spaces/Hi-Jack, and each time this too was a bad bet for the bad guy. In each instance, these rogues bet the house that they could break the back of their heroic adversaries. Each time, they came up short and had to fold.

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