How the Joker Works

By: Matt Hunt
Heath Ledger as the Joker in 'The Dark Knight.' See more Batman pictures.
Photo courtesy Warner Brothers

"Once again a master criminal stalks the city streets -- a criminal weaving a web of death about him -- leaving stricken victims behind wearing a ghastly clown's grin -- the sign of death from THE JOKER!"

-- Batman #1, 1940


Green hair, white skin, a red grin and an unlimited supply of purple suits -- when a certain playing card made its appearance at the end of the big-screen relaunch "Batman Begins," fans started clamoring for every grainy image or leaked plot detail about everyone's favorite Bat-villain. The Joker, played by Heath Ledger, made his return to the big screen in "The Dark Knight" in summer 2008.

But long before the Joker was mixing it up in big-budget summer movies, he was making Batman's life miserable in the monthly titles of DC Comics' Batman and Detective Comics series.

The Joker's First Appearance

The Joker was originally conceived during the Golden Age of comics as an evil court jester. He made his first appearance in Batman #1 (1940). The original Joker resembled actor Conrad Veidt as he looked in the silent film "The Man Who Laughs."

Baffling both Batman and the Gotham Police Department, the Joker made his debut as a master thief and mass murderer. He announced the name and exact time of death of his next victim over the radio. The Joker accomplished this feat by poisoning his victims with a time-released, facial-contracting poison known as Joker Toxin.

The Joker first appeared in Batman #1 (1940). His first cover appearance followed in Batman #11.
Photo courtesy DC Comics

In this first portrayal, the Joker was a calculating killer who left victims with a permanent death grin. While he was slated to be killed off from a knife wound in his second appearance in the same issue, the DC editorial department felt the character had potential. At the last minute, a panel was added at the end of the comic revealing that the Joker was still alive. This started the trend of having the Joker meet his apparent demise only to be revealed as alive and well.




The Joker's Comic Origin

The Joker’s origin was first revealed in Detective Comics # 168 and expanded in "The Killing Joke."
Photo courtesy DC Comics

"I'm not exactly sure what happened. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another ... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"

-- The Joker, "The Killing Joke," 1988


In comics lore, as revealed in Detective Comics #168 (1951), the man who would become the Joker first masqueraded as a criminal known as the Red Hood. During a botched robbery at a Gotham chemical plant, the Hood jumped into a vat of hazardous chemicals in order to escape from Batman. Upon emerging from a drainage pipe, he discovered that his skin had been bleached white. His hair had turned green, and his mouth was permanently distorted into a large grin with bright red lips. The chemicals caused him to go insane, thus transforming him into the Joker.

Although this origin is considered canon in DC Comics continuity, the Joker's earlier life is up for debate. So are the circumstances surrounding why he wore the Red Hood guise. The most accepted origin is found in Alan Moore's "Batman: The Killing Joke." Moore presents the pre-toxed Joker as a chemical engineer who quits his job to become a stand-up comedian. Failing miserably as a comic and desperate to provide for his pregnant wife, the man accepts a job to guide two thieves to the Monarch Playing Card Factory through the neighboring chemical plant where he worked. During the planning stages of the heist, police inform the man that his wife has been killed in a household accident. It's possible she was killed by corrupt police involved in the heist. Although he's hesitant to continue the caper, the man is strong-armed into donning a red helmet and leading the two thugs through the plant.

While "The Killing Joke" is the most accepted comic-book origin of the Joker, the desperate engineer is not the only version of the villain's beginnings. In another retelling, the young Joker collects the bones of animals he tortures. He also takes pleasure in his mother's abuse at the hands of his father. This version reveals that the Joker's first murder was committed on a neighborhood boy who discovered his "pet cemetery" and that the young Joker later murdered his father.

In addition to the different stories of how the Joker came to be, there is much debate over who should be called the father of the Clown Prince of Crime. Comic-book artist Bob Kane, fellow artist Jerry Robinson and writer Bill Finger all stake a claim to having created the Joker. Kane maintains that he and Finger created the joker, while Robinson contributed only the Joker's playing card [source: Frank Lovelace]. Robinson, on the other hand, alleges that he had already drawn the Joker before Finger ever showed him a picture of Veidt [source: Epstein].

­Next, we'll look at changes to the Joker's character over the years.­­


Calming the Clown

The seal of the Comics Code Authority

"Batman! I accuse you of interfering with the right of criminals to commit crimes!"

-- Batman #163, "The Joker Jury"


During the 1940s and 50s, comic books featuring horror and criminal themes were among the most popular titles being published. Believing that these books were helping to fan the flames of juvenile delinquency in young men, Dr. Frederick Wertham published "Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books On Today's Youth" in 1954. In his book, Wertham reprinted gruesome, violent and sexually thematic images from popular comics. He argued that comics encouraged anti-social and homoerotic behavior in American youth.

The public responded with disdain towards the comic industry. Many forbade their children from reading the books. In order to stay in business and win back the trust of the general public, the major comic publishers created the Comics Code Authority and began self-regulating the content of their books. Comic-book publishers had to abandon the zombie-, monster- and crime-themed books that were their chief moneymakers in favor of less-popular comedic and toned-down books. Many publishers had to close their doors. If not for the successful revival of superhero comics by Marvel and DC in the 1960s, the comic book might have vanished altogether.

As a result of pressure from comic-fearing parents and the creation of the Comics Code Authority, the Joker was portrayed as a more comedic figure during the 1940s and 50s. His tone was shifted from that of a crafty, dangerous murderer to a wacky, annoying prankster. He became a mischievous thief who concocted elaborate heists that often involved intricate puzzles and disguises.

The Joker's assorted bag of tricks included cruising in the Joker-Mobile (Batman #37), masquerading as a genie (Batman #49), creating anti-Batman utility belts (Batman #73) and playing ear-piercing bagpipes (Detective Comics #149).
Photo courtesy DC Comics

While the Joker now practiced a more non-lethal array of activities, he remained one of Batman's most intelligent adversaries. He employed numerous gimmicks such as "Crime Costumes," Joker utility belts and even a Joker-Mobile that featured a large Joker face on the front grill to help further his criminal schemes. This version of the villain lasted until the 1960s. Then, Julius Schwartz, who was not a fan of the Joker character, started editing the Batman comics. The Joker nearly disappeared into comic-book oblivion.


The Joker Today

Cover art from "The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told"
Photo courtesy DC Comics

"Zip-a-dee-do-da, zip-a-de-oom, my-o-my, what a wonderful boom …"

-- Joker #3, "The Last Ha Ha"


When writers Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams were tasked with updating the Batman line in 1973, the Joker came back to the forefront. In his latest incarnation, the Joker returned to his more murderous ways. But instead of a cold and calculating thief, this Joker became a homicidal maniac with no reservations about impulsive and sporadic killings.

This more lethal Joker envisioned himself as Batman's equal in terms of intelligence and wit but did not hesitate to employ the occasional gimmick, like Joker Toxin. He displayed increasingly sociopathic behavior, such as continuously murdering his henchmen. It was during this time that the Joker even received his own limited series. In it, he battled a different hero each issue only to be re-incarcerated at the conclusion of each story. During the late 1980s, this maniacal behavior was taken to the next level in several episodes. His crimes included beating the second Robin, Jason Todd, with a crowbar before apparently killing him in an explosion. He also kidnapped and tortured Commissioner Gordon and paralyzed Batgirl, Gordon's daughter Barbara, by shooting her in the spine.

In current DC continuity, the homicidal harlequin incarnation of the character has remained firmly in place while the Joker has engaged in some of his most ambitious endeavors to date. Such campaigns include stealing Superman foe Mr. Mxyzptlk's reality-altering powers to reshape the world in his image, as well as infecting a large population of super-villains with his insanity-producing Joker-Venom.

The Joker has also managed to find a sidekick of sorts in Harley Quinn, his one-time psychiatrist who he manipulated into becoming obsessed with him. Though occasionally thinking big, the Joker has remained no stranger to random sadism. This is evident in the murder of Commissioner Gordon's second wife and the shooting of Zatanna, magician and Batman ally, in the throat.

Most recently, the Joker has declared himself emperor (Superman #161), released an army of Joker-Venom-fueled super-villains ("Joker: Last Laugh" #2), nearly been beaten to death by Batman (Batman #614), and played mind games with Superman's pal, Jimmy Olsen (Countdown #50).
Photo courtesy DC Comics

Most recently, the Joker was shot in the face by a corrupt police officer masquerading as Batman. He nearly died before being resuscitated at Arkham Asylum. Extensive reconstructive surgery was required to revive him, and now the Joker has been left with a permanent grin that makes it difficult for him to speak.

Believing himself to have been shot by the actual Batman and once again facing further disfigurement, the Joker emerges with an even more lethal and psychotic persona. Able to communicate by blinking his eyes in Morse code, the Joker orders Harley Quinn, masquerading as his speech therapist, to execute each of his former henchmen. Sparing only Harley herself, the newly dubbed "Crown Prince of Killers" and "Harlequin of Hell" now believes that he must up the ante in order to compete with Batman, who he believes is willing to murder him.


Last Laughs

Following his insanity-fueled return (Batman #247), the Joker got his own series (Joker #1), killed Robin (Batman #249), and returned from the dead, yet again, to deal with an impostor (Batman #451).
Image courtesy DC Comics

"I did it! I finally killed Batman! In front of a bunch of vulnerable, disabled kids!!!! Now get me Santa Claus!"

-- Batman #655, "Batman and Son Pt.


The ongoing battles between Batman and the Joker raise a couple of questions. Why haven't the Joker and Batman killed one another? And if the Joker has murdered so many people, why is he still alive?

As far as Batman is concerned, it is against his personal code and mission statement to kill his enemies and thus become as they are. The Joker's excuses, on the other hand, are a little more complex. On numerous occasions, the Joker has gotten the drop on Batman only to refuse to finish his foe. His reasons include it not being a dramatic enough ending to their rivalry or feeling that putting a prone Batman down would be anticlimactic. The Joker feels that it is his destiny to defeat Batman in a worthy manner that finally proves his random madness is superior to the Batman's calculating detective skills. It has also been hypothesized that the Joker fears that without Batman as a catalyst for his actions, his life would become meaningless, as evidenced in Batman #663 when the Joker states, "I could never kill you. Where would the act be without my straight man?"

The Joker has managed to avoid the death penalty due to being labeled criminally insane. In the graphic novel "Arkham Asylum," writer Grant Morrison proposed that the Joker suffered from a kind of "super-sanity" of heightened sensory perception and that he lacked a true personality of his own, adapting his psyche to whichever was the most beneficial. Morrison revisited his ideas on the Joker's sanity in Batman #663 and proposed that each time he escaped from confinement, a new personality would emerge, explaining the changes in the Joker's character through the years.

Thus, instead of being sent to prison following his capture, the Joker is sent to the Gotham City psychiatric hospital, Arkham Asylum. Originally created to house only the mentally disturbed of Batman's foes such as Joker and Two-Face, Arkham Asylum has evolved into the destination for most of the Dark Knight's rogues gallery. It's also where the Joker met his ex-shrink turned sidekick, Harley Quinn.

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