Comic Origins: The Joker

Heath Ledger as the Joker

Things come better in pairs. What good is T without A? Who would want something that was only new and not improved? What good is a black and white cookie if its just a black or white cookie? That’s damned racist. So it should come as no surprise that one of comics greatest heroes must be paired with one hell of a villain. When talking about Batman there is no question as to who his foil is, his arch nemesis, his dance partner at the edge of hell. With other heroes, you may have to think long and hard for that one constant presence and arguments break out, but no, not with the caped crusader. With him, there is only one answer – The Joker.

Knock Knock

Conrad Veidt in the Man Who LaughsMuch like the origins of The Bat-Man, the beginnings of the man who would laugh are a bit more complicated than simply listing a name or an artist or telling a knock knock joke. If you ask original Batman creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane where the Joker came from, the response is simple – Bill Finger showed Bob Kane a picture of Conrad Veidt from the silent film The Man Who Laughs and said “Here’s the Joker.” Kane took his inspiration from that and after some pencil work, the character took shape.

Ask Jerry Robinson, a distinguished artist who worked on Batman in the 1940s, and the issue is a bit more hazy. Robinson contends that he drew a playing card sized image of the Joker from a deck of cards that inspired him and handed it off. Upon seeing the drawing, Robinson says that Finger saw the card and was reminded of Conrad Veidt and the story resumes from there.

Clearly, both the playing card Joker and the Conrad Veidt photograph look remarkably like what the drawn Joker would become, so there may never be an actual punchline to this knock knock joke.

The Joker made his first appearance in Batman #1 (1940) as a mass murdering, oddly painted fellow who developed a “Joker toxin” that he used to perform murders that he’d announce ahead of time. In his second appearance, Batman was about to put an apparent end to the Joker before editor Whitney Ellsworth suggested the character remain alive.

In these early appearances, the Joker managed to rack up an impressive murder count up in the 30s and managed to survive many circumstances that could have easily resulted in death. By the mid-1950s though, the Comics Code Authority began its reign of censorship, and the Joker went from a calculated killer to a campy, laughing fool who posed little threat to anyone. Consider The Joker from the Adam West Batman TV series, and you won’t be far off on his intimidation level. The character became such a joke (no pun intended) that in 1964 under the editorial oversight of Julius Schwarz, he disappeared from the storylines altogether.

Back Soon, Gone Crazy

The Joker in The Killing JokeArtist Neal Adams and writer Dennis O’Neil, who helped bring Batman back to his darker roots, brought the Joker back to Gotham in Batman #251 in a story entitled “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge.” O’Neil wanted to bring the character, in fact the entire Batman continuity, to its darker, pulpier roots and thus the Joker went from bumbling fool to casual killer on the page in 1973. This Joker remained, a wanton killer of the innocent menacing Gotham, until the 1988-1989 storyline “A Death in the Family,” where he cemented himself as Batman’s most dangerous and personal foe by killing Jason Todd, the then-current Robin. After battering the boy to death’s door with a crowbar, he left an explosion to finish him off. Joker wasn’t the only one who wanted his death, of course, as readers had a chance to vote on whether Todd lived or died. They spoke, and the Joker secured his position as top among the Batvillains.

The 1980s had one more major turnabout for the vaudevillian villain with Alan Moore’s 1988 classic “The Killing Joke.” In this One-Shot that inspired aspects of The Dark Knight, an engineer turned failed comedian turned reluctant criminal is blackmailed into helping a pair pull off a robbery. Double-crossed with his pregnant wife murdered, the engineer finds himself in the midst of a shoot-out and face to face with Batman. Diving to freedom, he manages to escape through a waste disposal tube which bleaches his skin, dyes his hair green, and warps his now bright ruby red lips. The main plot revolves around the Joker attempting to illustrate that just one bad day can ruin any man’s life and turn him insane by kidnapping and torturing, physically and mentally, Commissioner Gordon and crippling his daughter, Barbara (unknown to Joker and Gordon, she was previously Batgirl).

There are several origin stories for the Joker, many similar to the one above, with various differences. But as the Joker himself said: “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

The Batman, The Joker, and Fate Walk into a Bar

Joker Gets KOd by Batman

And joker beats Robin to death with it. Sorry, had to. The relationship between Batman and Joker is complex and cleverly intertwined. Both were created in a single night of loss. Batman lost his parents and devoted himself to fighting crime. Joker lost his looks, his wife, his life, and his mind and dedicated himself to chaos. Whereas Batman will go far out of his way to save anyone, Joker will casually kill anyone who comes into eyesight if it would provide him a laugh.

In Frank Miller’s oft-cited “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns”, the Joker has sat comatose for years in an asylum until he sees a news report indicating that Batman has returned. Within seconds he awakens from his subdued state and the evil grin creeps back across his face. The Joker exists as the exact counter to Batman. Without Batman, there is no Joker. With no Batman, there is no Joke. In a theme that was expressed at the end of Batman Begins, Batman’s escalation of the war on criminals may directly have resulted in the rise of supercrime, with The Joker as the ultimate example – something of an evil counterweight.

In “Batman: Dark Detective” the Joker goes as far to say that Batman is his perfect foe and if he actually killed him, he would no longer have a perfect enemy and then, without a perfect enemy, he would no longer himself be perfect. In failing, or often just not fully committing, to kill Batman, the clown prince revels in his own sense of perfection. For as long as they both exist, Batman and The Joker will be tied together, each trying to defeat the other mentally without ending the life of the other.

Joker’s Wild

What does it take to be the top dog of Gotham’s criminals? The one even the hardened bad guys don’t want to cross? A whole lot of crazy and a good bit of determination, as well as a clever purple suit. The Joker is most often reflected as a nameless man who has either gone complete batshit (get it?) crazy or someone on the verge of hyper-sanity, adapting to any situation as is deemed necessary to survive. His list of crimes is thousands long. He has executed singular individuals on a whim, killed random targets for no reason, and murdered hundreds in a single afternoon in a single gas attack. Had he the opportunity, the clown would have detonated a nuclear weapon in a major metropolitan area.

With all this comes a twisted relationship with Batman. The Joker wants to convince the Bat that his crusade is meaningless and absurd. To win, he must not kill, but convert. One method he deems appropriate in this crusade is murder and he has many tools at his disposal. The Joker has used bombs, crowbars, guns, knives, gas, and a variety of other instruments in his war on, well, society. Most often depicted in a purple suit with or without a matching hat, the psychopath is a fan of acid or gas or water spewing flowers and palm buzzers capable of killing. One particularly humorous weapon was a gun that upon pulling the first trigger released a “BANG” sign – the second pull fired the sign into the victim. However, when it comes to hand to hand combat, the joke is often on the Joker. While he’s agile and durable, once Batman is within arms reach, it’s no difficult task for the caped crusader to put the man who laughs out cold on the floor.

The Punchline

From a villain who almost took the big dirt nap on his second outing to one of the most popular villains of all time, responsible for one of the longest standing and most shocking deaths of all time, The Joker has captured readers attention as the Anti-Batman. In a world with a force fighting for good and order, nature dictates there must be balance, and the clown prince fills that role perfectly. The classic image of the clown or the jester, a symbol of childhood fun, warped into a murdering madman who would just as soon take the lives of an orphanage’s worth of children as he would have orange juice for breakfast.

The Joker, while not overreaching in terms of his goals manages to bring interesting and dangerous stories to the world of Gotham and impact Batman in a way that few others can – on a personal level. While we may not always understand the joke, the man telling it has secured his place among the evil elite.

Recommended Reading:
The Killing Joke
Batman: The Man Who Laughs
Batman: Dark Detective
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

Robert Fure is many things: horror expert, ruggedly handsome man of the world, witty prose composer, and writer of his own biography page. Beneath the bravado is a scared little boy, ready to grow into an awesome man and make lies about a scared little boy inside of him. Wait a minute...

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