He May or May Not be a Midnight Toker
Hoo boy, we got ourselves a big one today folks. Now, I’m sure that, obviously, almost everyone in the country, if not the world, has heard of the Joker. He is, after all, the single most popular and well-appreciated villain in all of comic book fiction, with fans in every circle, from die-hard comic nerds to edgy kids who hang out in Hot Topic and like to talk about how Heath Ledger would have understood them. So obviously, I’m not going to be introducing the character to you guys. Sure, I’ll do the usual summary and education on the in-universe history of the character, but this week, since almost everyone knows at least some bit of the Joker’s continuity (And since he’s one of the rare few characters where it doesn’t really matter beyond a couple sticking points), I’m going to try and mix in a little bit more real world history this time around, as well as talking more about the significance of the Joker and why people like him so much. That last bit’s pretty important in my eyes, actually, due in no small part to his less than stellar portrayal in Suicide Squad helping with a resurgence in people not understanding the character. Seriously, if I have to listen to one more person tell me Jared Leto’s performance is “closer to how the character was originally created than any other”, I’m going to vomit.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, let’s fake an education in comics!
The Subject: The Joker
Secret Identity: ??? (Pronounced “Jack Napier”, if you’re Tim Burton)
Pop Culture Lifespan: 1940-2011, followed by the New 52’s 2011-today. Additionally, he will likely last until long after we die.
Raditude: Pretty damn radical, but arguably more badical.
Appearances Outside Comics: A whoooooole bunch of stuff, including the 1966 TV show, the first Tim Burton movie, pretty much every Batman cartoon ever made, as well as almost every other DC cartoon ever made, the Dark Knight, a shitload of video games, and he might have showed up on Gotham, but considering they’ve teased like, three or four different people as the Joker and the fact that the show is terrible, who cares. Oh, he’s also in the Lego Batman movie.
Played by: Cesar Romero (Good), Jack Nicholson (Good), Mark Hamill (Arguably the best), Kevin M. Richardson (A controversial portrayal, but I liked it), Heath Ledger (Also arguably the best), John DiMaggio (Different, but good), Brent Spiner (Pretty awful, but more a victim of writing than performance), Michael Emerson (Pretty alright, I guess), Troy Baker (Eh), Jared Leto (Unequivocally the worst), Zach Galifinakis (Perfect for a comedic take on the character). Probably some others, but that’s about all of them.
Created by: Bill Finger, and also Bob Kane was there too, I guess.
Best Books: Hoo boy, this is a tough one. Okay, everybody’s got different opinions on this one, but for my money, it’s The Laughing Fish, The Killing Joke, Batman R.I.P., and some parts of Endgame, as well as some bits of his appearance in Superheavy. Azzarello’s book (Just called “Joker”) is pretty good if you only like the Heath Ledger portrayal, but can be a bit too grimdark for my tastes. If you love scary-ass art, but hate being able to read legible fonts, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth is for you. Emperor Joker is pretty okay too, come to think of it. Beyond that, I don’t have much else to say on the matter.
Favorite Steve Miller Band Song: Jet Airliner, obviously.
Who Can He Beat Up?: While hardly physically strong enough to take on most superpowered characters, Joker more than makes up for it with his cruel and twisted cunning, making him a threat to almost anyone. It is worth noting, however, that the Punisher once crossed over to the DCU and scared the Joker so badly that he almost pissed himself.
When to Bring Him Up: In any discussion of the greatest villains in pop culture, as well as when looking for a low effort couples costume for Halloween or a convention, or when you’re looking for a crazy person to mistakenly idolize in a vain quest to show how different you are.
So way back in the day, right around when Batman was finally bumped up from Detective Comics to his very own solo title, like a big boy, Bill Finger was tinkering with some ideas for villains. Someone eventually pitched him the idea of “creepy court jester” which he initially shot down, but after some time realized had merit. Bringing the idea to work partner/credit thief Bob Kane, who immediately loved the idea due to his background in gag comics, the two realized that maybe, just maybe, they had one gold on their hands, prompting Finger to spend a couple nights staring intently at a photo of Conrad Veidt dressed up as The Man Who Laughs, presumably in a cold sweat. The end result was the genesis of one of the greatest comic book villains of all time, though it would be a long, long time before he would take on any sort of long-term, stable characterization. You see, originally, Batman didn’t give a fuck about murdering his villains, and Joker was intended to die at the end of his second story. However, once again realizing that they had created something truly special, Kane and Finger decided to keep the character alive, with the time-honored explanation of “Idunno man, he’s just alive again”. Over his next dozen or so appearances, the Joker would cement a reputation as a deadly spree killer, a man dedicated to causing as much carnage without rhyme or reason as humanly possible, racking up a truly impressive body count for what amounted to a normal dude in a universe of demigods and super weapons.
This continued on for a while, but as the Golden Age of comics began to draw to a close, so to did the era of the Clown Prince of Crime. After many, many narrow escapes and death defying antics, the Joker had begun to seem like, well, a bit of a joke. After all, if Batman can’t keep this single man from wreaking havoc as often and consistently as he does, doesn’t that make the hero of our story rather impotent? So serious offenses such as murder or large-scale crime sprees were eventually relegated to one off villains, who were easily killed or similarly punished in order to conflate Batman’s stature. Meanwhile, long-term pests such as Joker, Penguin and the rest were slowly rewritten into nuisances. Eventually, the Golden Age finally came to a close, and in the dark times before the Silver Age, the Comics Code Authority was forged, and suddenly, everything was different. Heroes were no longer pulpy, noirish rogues, but rather swashbuckling cartoon characters. Killing and other such violence in comics, while not entirely outlawed, was strongly frowned upon, and as comic books drifted ever further into ridiculous camp and colorful shenanigans, Joker became less and less of a serious threat. While still the most popular comic villain of that era by far, Joker had become a shade of his former self, and by the late fifties, under the pen of Julius Schwartz, Joker eventually faded back into the shadows from whence he came.
Over a decade passed. Batman fans weathered the absurdity of the height of the Silver Age, watching such unbelievable horseshit as Batman turning into a flying saw blade or Alfred dying and coming back as a mutant who hated his family, until finally, at long last, the Silver Age began to die out. Dennis O’Neal and Neal Adams (famous for being an actual crazy person) came into the position of the heads of Batman comics, looked around, and promptly decided that there needed to be a change. And you know what? They were absolutely right.
By 1973, Batman, as well as comics in general had already begun to revert to darker, more serious storytelling. But something was still missing from the equation. True, Batman had a great number of interesting and threatening villains, but none of them had the real staying power that a great nemesis has. After all, who could take the Riddle, a self-sabotaging goon in a onesie, as the main antagonist of Batman’s book? Or the Penguin, a doddering fop with an umbrella fetish? No, it was clear that something had to be done. Thankfully, the Neals knew exactly what to do. Digging back nearly twenty years into the past, the two revived one of the most iconic and legitimately intimidating foes of all time, and in one story, immediately reestablished him as a perfect villain. Gone were the days of mildly inconveniencing Gothamites, or of barely hindering Batman and the Justice League. Sure, he would keep the pranks, the impractical gadgets and the vaudevillian sentiment, but they would be used to a much more deadly effect. The Joker was back in town, and he was not to be trifled with. Casually murdering those who got in his way while maintaining complex battles of wit with Batman, the Joker had truly evolved into the during symbol of mania and evil that he remains today. Even as he passed from writer to writer, the core of the character largely endured, with each successive scribe leaving their own unique marks on the character. Such was the popularity of the newly reintroduced villain that he managed to secure his own miniseries, which, unfortunately, sort of ruined a lot of the character’s traits by making him a nonlethal protagonist. Thankfully, the… admittedly less-than-stellar Death in the Family took the Joker back to exactly where he should be as a villain, where he infamously clubbed Jason Todd to death at the behest of hundreds of thousands of beleaguered Bat-Fans, who had grown tired of the Robin’s obnoxious attitude and voted for his death (Though it was a surprisingly close vote). Arguably, this might have made him a hero in some people’s eyes at the time, but I digress. Unfortunately, Death in the Family is also a story where this happens:
Look, there’s not exactly a ton of loopholes available for comic writers to get a character out of being punished forever, alright? Sometimes they have to go for the dumbest, most mildly racist option available. It’s worth noting that Joker actually met real world political figure Ayatollah Khomeini, who gave him the position of Iranian ambassador to the U.N., making this not only stupid, but a ham-fisted political statement as well. If there was one good thing to come out of this, however, it was that Joker was still free to be used by future writers, and with the murder of a minor on his resume, the sky became the limit for the Joker’s antics. Of course, sometimes there were extenuating factors pushing him to be bigger and better, like during the Last Laugh storyline, where a doctor falsified Joker’s CAT scan results in order to convince the clown that he had a lethal brain tumor, prompting the Joker to attempt to go out with a bang. He did this by Jokerizing a significant portion of the superpowered criminal community, defacing multiple national monuments, attempting to artificially inseminate Harley Quinn with his child, and waging a war against then-president Lex Luthor. Of course, this couldn’t go on forever, and it came to an end when an enraged Nightwing, convinced that the Joker had killed Tim Drake (He got better), beat him to death. Seeing as DC refuses to let the Joker be dead, however, Batman resuscitated his longtime nemesis so that Nightwing wouldn’t have any blood on his hands, thereby ensuring that thousands, if not more, would suffer in the future. Joker continued to reach ever higher with his shenanigans, taking advantage of the cataclysmic earthquake during the events of the No Man’s Land story to kidnap all the babies in Gotham. All of them. Every single baby. He threatened to kill them, of course, but wound up using them to kill Jim Gordon’s wife, continuing the elaborate “joke” Joker had begun to pull on Gordon during the Killing Joke.
Of course, not much the Joker ever did could top what he accomplished during Emperor Joker, where he managed to steal Superman foe Mr. Mxyzpltk’s reality altering powers and effectively become God. During this time period, Joker trapped Batman in a Prometheus-like time loop of infinite deaths, as well of all sorts of other goofy bullshit, like eating everyone in China.
Once this situation was resolved by Superman and the withered husk of a man that Batman had become, Joker didn’t really have much else to do in the comics beyond occasionally popping in and out of big events or storylines, functioning more as set dressing than anything else. Taking a backseat during the Hush and Under the Hood story arcs, Joker finally had a mild return to prominence during Infinite Crisis, where he killed Alexander Luthor. Some time after, Joker gets shot in the face, putting him out of commission for a bit while he got surgery to look even more fucking horrifying. Oh, and to get the bullet out of his face, I guess. Jimmy Olsen interviews Joker on the subject of the death of Duella Dent (A.K.A. the least shitty, obnoxious, horrible version of the Joker’s Daughter), but for some reason Joker retains his classic appearance during this, which is lame, but he does express some knowledge of the DCU multiverse and continuity, so that’s kinda neat. Following a bit of a return to street-level roots and horror influence with the character, DC said “Fuck it” and dumped the Joker on a prison planet with a ton of other super villains during the Salvation Run storyline, which was pretty alright, but can basically be boiled down to “Lord of the Flies, but with super villains”. Not really much else to say about it. Joker’s involvement in the event is substantial, but can again be boiled down to something very simple, being that the Joker goes through a little bout of depression, but then he got better and murdered some folks.
After returning to Earth, Joker resumed being an incredibly scary son of a bitch, becoming incredibly prominent during the amazing Batman R.I.P. storyline, where he joins up with the Black Glove in their attempts to murder Batman. However, being the Joker, he is completely aware that their efforts will end in catastrophic failure, and basically joined just to troll them. When their plan inevitably fell through, Joker casually murdered his way out of the group’s hideout, escaping just briefly enough to be almost-killed by Damian Wayne, who is the greatest Robin, and if you disagree you can fight me. Interestingly enough, when Damian rams Joker’s escape vehicle off the Gotham Bridge, he is not even aware that it is the Joker, and simply believes it to be some erratic driver that needs to be murdered, cementing my desire for a crossover where Damian teams up with the Punisher to kill jaywalkers and loiterers with extreme prejudice. Joker would not show up again until Final Crisis, but he was barely in that, so we don’t really need to talk about it. Eventually, he would pop up again when Dick Grayson had taken the mantle of the Bat from a now “deceased” Bruce Wayne, posing as mystery author Oberon Sexton, as well as a masked murderer known as the Domino Killer, targeting high ranking members of the Black Glove. Joker spends several weeks screwing with the Black Glove, Batman, and El Penitente, a gang attempting to blackmail Joker without realizing how impossibly shitty of an idea that is. Eventually, Dick uncovers the Joker’s true identity, and the fact that Joker’s long term plan was just to fuck with everybody he could, leading to a confrontation between the Joker and Damian, who flips the script on Mr. J by beating the absolute shit out of him with a crowbar.
Of course, Joker escapes by poisoning Damian with his own blood, which has become completely infused with Joker Venom after so many years of working with it. Reclaiming the crowbar, Joker also takes Damian’s utility belt and mounts a full scale attack on the Black Glove, culminating in a showdown between the Clown and two Batmen, as Bruce Wayne had recently returned from the not-dead. Re-incarcerated in Arkham “Frequently Escaped” Asylum, Joker is able to make a break for it when a guard touches his skin and becomes infected with Joker Venom, because the Joker is literally a big pile of poison at this point. On the run, the Clown is then pinned with an assault on the Gordon family, but is revealed to be innocent shortly before everything got flipped turned upside-down by the NEW 52.
Okay, look. We all have different opinions on Snyder and Capullo’s run on Batman, and I’m not going to deny that some aspects of it were fairly overrated. But I firmly maintain that it had one of the most interesting incarnations of the Joker we’d seen in a long time. Initially, the Joker vanished for about a year or two after having Dollmaker slice his face off and escaping Arkham Asylum. Now, it’s understandable to have been worried when this happened, after all, almost all of the New 52 wasn’t exactly promising at this point, and having a character known for being an insane anarchist cutting his face off points more to “90s Liefeld edge” than quality storytelling. But when the Joker made his grand return in Death of the Family, he was absolutely fascinating. Reminiscent of the borderline romantically obsessed Joker of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, this new Joker was a breath of fresh air, especially considering how worried I was they were just going to mimic Heath Ledger’s portrayal. Joker’s new plan (Scheme? Whatever) was to murder all of his own former allies and Batman’s family and friends, thereby uncomplicating their “romance” and returning them to square one, both potentially creating simpler stories and providing a small amount of meta commentary on fans who crave the “good ol days” of comics. Creating a series of horrific vignettes and set pieces, the Joker torments everyone involved with both himself and the Bat, while also cradling a gross mutant lion for the full visual effect. Oh, and he claimed to have everyone’s secret identities in a little notebook, but that turned out to be a blank book that he was using to trick people.
Briefly disappearing once again after being defeated, the Joker wouldn’t resurface until near the tail-end of the New 52 run, wherein he masterfully orchestrated a multi-pronged attack on both Batman and all of Gotham, all because he had grown bored of his stagnant rivalry with the Bat, once again providing a degree of meta commentary on the nature of these two eternal rivals. During this arc (Called Endgame, incidentally), it is also implied several times that the Joker is near immortal, and that he has been active in Gotham for at least over a century, later corroborated by the discovery of Dionesum, a chemical compound that the Joker has been using to regenerate his body after every battle. In the culmination of the arc, Batman and Joker fight in the underground caverns where the Dionesum was found, ending with Batman seemingly sacrificing himself in order to end both his and the Joker’s legacies, having accepted that the two of them are forever bound, and therefore must end together, an idea the Joker finds, for once, less than hilarious. Of course, because comic books are resurrection engines for merchandising opportunities, Batman and Joker are both revived by the Dionesum, albeit without their memories. Both are finally given a chance to live normal lives, and Joker becomes an average man, working at a butcher shop, feeding pigeons, contemplating suicide, that sort of thing. Bumping into a resurrected Bruce Wayne, who is contemplating his own identity crisis (No, not that kind), Joker begs him not to become the Bat once again, as that would shatter Joker’s sanity and force him back into a life as a mass-murdering psychopath. Of course, because Gotham can’t keep itself together for more than five minutes without Bruce, he eventually reclaims the mantle of the Bat, implying the return of the Joker at some point in the near future. This return is something that I believe is eagerly awaited among us all, especially after the reveal in the lead-up to Rebirth that Joker has actually been three people throughout Batman’s lifetime, and we need to see how the fuck that worked.
Now, while I still have you all here, let’s talk about why the Joker is such a perfect villain. Any old hack can cook up a generic crazy guy, and it’s one of the worst tropes in entertainment. For a good example of this concept done poorly, take a look at Tyrian from not-quite-anime RWBY, who is about as interesting as a twelve-hour symposium on watching paint dry.
Alternatively, you could just watch Suicide Squad to see several shitty takes on this trope, but I digress. The cackling, maniacal killer has been a literary recurrence for years, appearing in all manner of classic storytelling and modern tales, but done justice so rarely often, perhaps due to the difficulty in keeping such a character consistent. After all, beyond maybe one or two core motivations, it’s nigh impossible to keep an utter agent of chaos a consistent and engaging character, and as such, they often devolve into an orgy of ineffectual posturing, becoming no more haunting or captivating than plastic skeleton in a twelve-dollar haunted house. However, when infused with pathos and something beyond generic insanity, they become some of the most interesting characters in fiction, playing off the genuine terror that resides in all humanity, holding up a mirror to the reader and asking them if some aspect of this madman truly resides within them as well. This is effective for many reasons, particularly because of how fascinating most audiences find broken minds, allowing the reader/viewer to pore endlessly over the numerous cracks and flaws in the character’s psyche. Combine this with an interesting visual motif and a heaping dash of comedic relief, and you have the core concepts behind the Joker, who has managed to buck the shackles of weaker characters in his peer group and embed himself in the minds of the general public for decades. Perhaps this is simply by virtue of being one of the first extremely popular examples of this type of character, but I like to think that he endures due to something more. Namely, his relationship with Batman, which almost everyone these days recognizes as being the whole “two sides of the same coin” idea. However, this phrase alone can’t sum up the dichotomy between the two, although it certainly comes close, it misses out on just how similar the two are deep down. Both are so utterly, singularly devoted to their respective causes that the only real confidant they could ever find is the other, yet due to their very natures, they are forever destined to be at each other’s throats. Even when Batman comes close to redeeming the Joker, like at the end of The Killing Joke, they still cannot reconcile, leaving them to be locked in an eternal struggle, two men broken beyond repair by past events beyond their control. In a sense, they are less two sides of a coin and more akin to a man looking at his reflection in a funhouse mirror, seeing a distorted, monstrous rendition of himself. More than anything else, the Joker is not representative of the chaos that must always oppose the Batman’s order, but he is instead representative of the shadow of the man Bruce Wayne became, a man who snapped and lashed out at the world at large when confronted with insurmountable tragedy rather than attempt to solve its problems.
Anyways, that’s my two cents on the matter, if you’ll forgive my lack of education and subtlety. Lord knows I’ve gotten rusty in my little absences.
I hope you guys all stuck through this, because I’m pretty sure this one was basically unsalvageable until the very end, and that’s part of why it took me so long, beyond rereading a lot of reference material. Joker’s one of my favorite characters in fiction, and I really hope I did him justice at the end there, but if not, hey, whatever, no one reads these anyways. And if people do turn out to read this one, well… that’ll be embarrassing for me, won’t it?
Anyways, next one’s gonna be out much, much quicker than this one, mostly by virtue of being a character with a much, much less dense history than ol Mistah Jay. See you all next week, and as always, thanks for sticking with me.