With The Dark Knight primed to enter our cinemas this week, it would appear to be a good time to take a look back at the exploits of everyone’s favorite costumed crusader. But let’s be honest: between the comics, the five movies (six if you count the Adam West one), the sixties show and his various appearances in animated form, everyone knows who Batman is, and you don’t need me to guide you through the character.
Ah, but the Joker. Now there’s an enigma. The Joker is about as recognizable and as ubiquitous as the Batman, yet few people actually know the story behind his creation. And for better or worse, the big story in this movie isn’t the man in black, but the man in purple.
The Joker’s beginnings are subject to a degree of controversy. He first appeared in 1940, in the pages of Batman #1, written by Bill Finger with art by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. Robinson claims to have created the character after being inspired by a deck of playing cards. Finger and Kane disputed this, claiming that the design of the Joker was inspired by the ghastly image of Conrad Veidt from the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs. The film was an adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel. It’s about an English nobleman who as a child, had his face mutilated into a clown’s visage, a permanent grin carved into the edges of his mouth. Robinson claims that they only thought of Veidt after having seen the playing card. The resemblance to Conrad Veidt is unmistakable, however: the white make up, the painted eye bags, and the wild, manic grin.
The Joker’s origin inside the pages of the comic book is just as shrouded in mystery. Different writers have given him different beginnings, and they’ve never revealed his true identity. There are some plot points that are more or less common to all versions, however. Before he was the Joker, he was a criminal known as the Red Hood. He was robbing a chemical plant and Batman came to stop him. As he was being chased, he accidentally fell into a vat of chemicals, dyeing his skin chalk white, turning his hair green, and giving his lips a bright red sheen. In one version of the story, he’s an aspiring comedian trying to get money to support his pregnant wife, duped by criminals into doing the crime. In another, he’s a career criminal making a name for himself in the underworld. In another, he’s a gentleman thief kind of a character, who Batman sells out to the mob.
It’s confusing, but it hardly seems to matter. It’s not where he started that makes this character so great. It’s where he went. Throughout the years, the Joker proved himself to be the perfect counterpoint to the Batman character, perhaps the greatest villain ever created.
It’s hard to get a good grasp on the Joker character. There have been so many versions of him over the years, as the tastes of writers, audiences and even government changed and changed again. He’s also a terribly complex idea of a character, one that has provided some of the headiest, most complicated stories in the history of comics.
Summing up the character in bullet points seems futile, but here are some of the key character elements that have cropped up over the years:
POWERLESS: Like Batman, the Joker is not superpowered. He can’t fly, he can’t shoot lasers from his eyes, and he can’t lift a dump truck. The threat of the Joker isn’t that he’s so much stronger than you, or that he possesses abilities far beyond the human norm. It’s too easy to imagine growing mad with power. It’s much more terrifying to imagine that people can go so wrong with so little.
MAD GENIUS: The crux of Joker’s abilities as a criminal is that he’s mad enough to dream up the most improbable schemes. He succeeds because normal people just don’t have the imagination to defeat his schemes. He will always find an opening that no sane person would even think about, using methods inconceivable by anyone thinking straight.
MURDERER: This wasn’t so prevalent in the fifties and sixties, where the paranoia about comics turned Batman into a campy crime fighter who drove around in the daytime. But the Joker was introduced as a brutal murderer. He has no qualms about killing people, and in fact, takes joy in it.
AGENT OF CHAOS: The Joker isn’t motivated by greed or thirst for power or revenge like most other criminals. His schemes don’t end with him getting away with a boatload of cash. At most, he just wants to show everyone that the world is as crazy as he is. He wants to instigate chaos, because order is terribly boring.
DUALITY: When you put it all together, the Joker is the antithesis of the Batman. They’re both unpowered humans. Both are brilliant thinkers, with opposite approaches (logic for Batman, madness for the Joker). Batman cannot kill, while the Joker makes light of it. Batman represents order, and the Joker chaos. They are the very extremes of what the darkness of the world can bring out in people. But they are the product of the very same darkness.
It’s this duality that makes for one of the most compelling enmities in literature. Batman, in its purest form, is a meditation on crime, and what it does to people. It is about living in fear, and how it drives people to become something more than normal. The Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin, and it is through the Joker that we see that maybe Batman just isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. Because when you boil it all down, he’s just a crazy guy dressed up like a bat. That may be the funniest joke of all.
The Dark Knight isn’t the first time we’ve seen The Joker leap off the page. He’s taken several forms over the years, each with their own distinct little touches:
CESAR ROMERO - Batman: the TV Series (1966): Government paranoia about how comics were affecting the youth pretty much neutered comics through the fifties and sixties. Batman, in particular, underwent a radical change from its dark inception, and turned completely silly. The 1966 TV series followed this tone, and we got a pretty campy Joker as a result. Cesar Romero played an almost subdued Joker, who seemed to treat crime like a hobby. Romero did look the part, though, and he really brought a manic glee to the role that manages to be endearing.
JACK NICHOLSON - Batman (1989): Tim Burton’s Batman formed its own mythology and gave the Joker a real identity. In the film, he’s Jack Napier, a mob captain and all around bad guy who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents and is sleeping with his boss main squeeze. Nicholson’s performance is pretty memorable, mostly because he’s Jack Nicholson. His participation in the film was notoriously difficult, with him making all sorts of demands, from script rewrites to control over his own shooting schedule. While it’s hard to argue against the strength of any Nicholson performance, what we got from him didn’t seem very imaginative.
MARK HAMILL - Batman: The Animated Series (1992): For a while, the animated incarnation of the Joker was considered the definitive portrayal of the character. While being in a cartoon kept him from being the truly brutal murderer that he is in the comics, they made for it with an iconic character design and some truly fantastic voice acting from Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill. Hamill’s Joker captured the manic glee that makes the Joker so terrifying and charismatic at the same time. The Joker was fun to watch, but it always felt like he could just turn a corner and bring everything down.
HEATH LEDGER - The Dark Knight (2008): I’ve seen The Dark Knight, and I have to say, Ledger’s performance is really great. His Joker is a far more complex creature than we’ve seen on screen before. His Joker carries a real sense of danger about him, an unsettling, magnetic coldness that’s impossible not to watch. His Joker is more than a criminal. He’s Joker the anarchist, more an unpredictable force of nature than a human being. He’s everything that could go wrong, and inevitably, will go wrong. This was a defining performance.
BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE (HARDCOVER) by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
The Killing Joke is thought by many to be the definitive Joker the story. It features the most widely cited origin of the Joker, and introduces the idea that Batman may just be as insane as the criminals he fights. It also shows us a madly sadistic and evil Joker, someone for whom murder might not be enough. It’s a chilling tale, one that’s sometimes difficult to read, but it became the basis for many Joker stories afterwards.
This new hardcover, which features remastered art from Brian Bolland, was released just this year.. It’s a really slick collection, one that any Bat-fan really ought to have on his or her shelf.
BATMAN: THE MAN WHO LAUGHS by Ed Brubaker and Dough Mahnke
Set just after the events of Batman: Year One, which fleshed out Batman’s first years as a crimefighter, The Man Who Laughs tells the tale of Joker’s first few crimes post-transformation. It’s a great story, one that really captures what makes the Joker so dangerous.
BATMAN ADVENTURES: MAD LOVE by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm
Batman Adventures was a comic series that took place in the Batman animated universe. Here we get the story of Harley Quinn, a former psychiatrist who treated the Joker at Arkham and fell in love with him. She figures that she needs to kill Batman in order to impress the Joker. The book is for kids, and features none of the brutality of other Joker tales, and yet, it’s one of the most revealing and intelligent portrayals of the character.
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