With Joker coming out this week, we thought this would be a good time to talk about who the Joker really is. We’ve covered before alternate versions of Clown Prince of Crime, but at his core, who is he? That question is more difficult than it would be with any other character, because the Harlequin of Hate is the most fluid and flexible character you’ll see.
As we’ve covered before, the Joker was first introduced in Batman #1, and his design was based on Conrad Veidt‘s character in The Man Who Laughs. Joker was created to be the Moriarty to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes. Though creator Bill Finger was worried that a villain returning would imply that Batman is bad at his job (an argument some still have), editor Whitney Ellsworth decided that having an ongoing villain would be better in the long run.
As superhero comics began to depart from the Pulp Magazine styles of early sci-fi, the stories began to be more directed towards children. Because of this, they changed Joker from a serial killer, to a prankster.
As we move into the ’50s Silver Age of Comics, Finger wrote the beginnings of the most widely accepted Joker origin story, that he was a criminal known as the Red Hood, but fell into a chemical vat, which bleached his skin and stained his lips and hair. Though Joker’s origin story has not evolved, but been ignored and changed so many times, this was still an idea that is still influencing Batman stories as a whole.
As the Comic Controversy continued, where people blamed comics for violence (in the same way they do video games today), comic books were brought way down in terms of mature content by the Comics Code Authority. Without all the murdering the Joker was known for, he could have been lost to the ages, had it not been for the ’66 Batman series, where they really played up the “campiness” of comics, having Cesar Romero’s Joker try to defeat Adam West’s Batman…for the title of Gotham Surf King!
It was also during this time that the Joker got many of his own gadgets, such as lethal joy buzzers, acid-squirting flowers, and trick guns.
Return of the Joker
Once the ’70s hit, the Comic’s Code began to evolve, allowing more mature content to return to the pages. With it, the Joker was able to return to MURDER. They created Arkham Asylum, solidifying that Joker is criminally and legally insane, so he could have somewhere more interesting to break out of all the time. This is also the time where Joker began to come more into his look we are familiar with, the tall skinny guy with the sharp jaw line.
The Joker was also the first villain to have his own comic, where instead of fighting Batman, we would see him being the best villain in Gotham. While his comic wasn’t super successful, it’s existence solidified the Joker as one of, if not the, best supervillain in comics.
As the Joker, and comics, evolved into the ’80s and ’90s, stories began to become darker and darker.
In 1988, the four-issue storyline A Death in the Family shows one of the darkest moments that the Joker has ever had. He managed to kidnap Jason Todd, the second Robin, took him to a warehouse, and beat him to death with a crowbar, laughing all the while.
This story is continued, 17 years later, with Batman: Under the Red Hood, where Jason Todd returns, taking on the persona the Joker used when he first became a villain, and decides to go full Punisher on the criminals of Gotham, since Batman won’t.
Also in the ’80s, we were able to see an expansion on the Red Hood origin story for the Joker in The Killing Joke. The story goes that the Joker was a struggling stand up comedian with a pregnant wife who he couldn’t support with his failing career. When offered a job with some mobsters to rob a factory he used to work at, Joker took it, so he wouldn’t have to resort to the 9-5 grind. Of course they gave him the big fancy helmet, or Red Hood, so that if they got caught, they would think the new guy is the leader. And it worked. When Batman caught them, Joker jumped into a vat of chemicals in an attempt to escape, and you know the rest. .
Of course, this isn’t the only origin story for the Joker, because in that same comic, he mentions…
Keeping on the darker note of this Joker, The Killing Joke also saw probably the second darkest moment on the page, aside from killing Jason Todd. As the story continues, we see Joker turn Barbara Gordon from Batgirl to the Oracle, by shooting her in the spine, causing her to be paralyzed. Lastly, he takes Gordon through a carnival ride from hell, and attempts to break his mind and spirit, showing that anyone can go crazy, with just one bad day…
Joker On Screen
We have seen a handful of Jokers on screen over time, some animated, some live action. In a previous article, we went through 10 Alternate Versions of the Joker, so we won’t need to repeat that here, but I did want to point out that it seems the people are unsure of how to handle the more comic-accurate Joker in Live Action. Instead, with both Heath Ledger, and the new Joaquin Phoenix, Joker is a very messy man with long, scraggly green dyed hair, wearing makeup. Of course by most hardcore Batman fans, the best characterization of the Joker is Mark Hamill, either in the Animated Series, or the Arkham video games.
A large reason why the Joker has become so popular since his creation, is that though he is in the organized crime world, he is completely different from the mob bosses that usually fill that role in stories. He doesn’t do what he does for money, or power, or a sense of protecting his family, Corleone style. The Joker truly believes that he does what he does as a favor to the people of Gotham. He believes that people are trapped in the rat race of the world, trying so hard to do things they don’t want to, to get things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like. He believes that modern society is a prison, and he is giving them permission to break free.
I’ve always appreciated the Wisecrack Philosophy series, and here they break down the Joker alongside some real philosophical study.