Gotham City is home to many of the greatest comic book villains ever created, meaning that Batman never has any shortage of bad guys to challenge him or compelling stories to be told about his adventures. But it’s telling that in a list of rogues that is considered by most comic books fans to be the best in the business, there is also one criminal mastermind that stands above them all. The pure antithesis of The Dark Knight has just celebrated his seventy-fifth anniversary this month, and it’s only fitting that the final Supervillain Spotlight of June 2015 is dedicated to The Clown Prince of Crime.
Little is known about who The Red Hood was before he fell in a vat of toxic chemicals while confronting Batman at the ACE Chemical factory. Did the chemical bath turn a decent human being into a psychotic killer, or simply reveal the monster that was already there? It matters little: The Joker was permanently changed into a ghoulish figure with sickly green hair, ghastly white skin and blood red lips almost always fixed into a laughing grin. That image has been terrifying Gotham ever since, his obsession with Batman driving him to create chaos and murder wherever he goes. While the city’s greatest hero was a grim, dark symbol of vengeance, the greatest villain would be a brightly colored, smiling clown.
Created by Jim Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, The Joker debuted in June of 1940, as the primary villain of Batman #1, the then bi-monthly companion piece to Detective Comics, the title where Batman had made his debut a year earlier. Joker was based on a combination of the famous playing card jester and Conrad Veidt’s appearance in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs. The Joker was a deranged serial killer with a knack for gallows humor, murdering civilians with his trademark “Joker Toxin”, a poison that left the victim’s face in the same horrible grin as the villain. Though he was intended to be killed off by the creative team in the first issue, the DC editing team saw dollar signs on the character and Joker would go on to become Batman’s arch nemesis.
The Man Who Laughs
Despite his origins as a monstrous serial killer, The Joker managed to endure the massive shifts in the comic book world brought on by The Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code Authority. Writers had already softened the character to make him more comical and less murderous as a way to make him accessible to their primary audience (young children). But the new standards of the CCA forced writers to make The Joker more of an irritating trickster archetype instead of the monster he had been. This wasn’t completely a bad thing; the Silver Age introduced much of the thematic gadgetry that allows Joker to put up a fight against Batman; electric joybuzzers, acid-spewing flowers and the like. Joker’s sense of humor also became less grim and Joker became as well known for his comedy as his penchant for murder.
Dennis O’Neil and Neil Adams combined the two elements in 1973, setting the tone for how Joker would be portrayed for the next four and a half decades. Joker was able to kill again and often did so in truly gruesome ways. His design was also changed to be more menacing rather than the comical, non-threatening makeover he was given in the sixties. But some of the more appealing aspects of the Silver Age remained intact; his humor and his insanely high-concept crimes. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers once wrote a story called “The Laughing Fish”, where Joker poisoned all of the fish in Gotham so they carried his famous face… so that Joker could make money by getting a patent on the fish. It was utterly ridiculous yet completely entertaining and served as the basis for my single favorite episode of Batman: The Animated Series. This era also made it clear that Joker was obsessed with Batman, something that become expanded upon more in the 1980’s.
The Harlequin of Hate
While I am loathe to admit that Frank Miller ever wrote anything good, it’s impossible to deny his impact on the genre in the 1980’s. His extremely popular story The Dark Knight Returns, set in a dystopic future where an aged Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl one more time to defend Gotham City does have a very important take on The Joker. When Batman retires, Joker stays in Arkham Asylum and never bothers to get out; there is no challenge anymore. This idea that Joker needs Batman to be who he is not only makes the character more interesting, but also opens up the idea to questions about whether Batman is responsible for creating the villains. After all, would Joker be as much of a menace to Gotham if Batman weren’t around for him to fixate his psychosis on?
The 1980’s also saw The Joker and Batman’s rivalry become a more personal one. Thanks to reader votes (and a bit of controversy), The Joker murdered Jason Todd, the second Robin, in the climactic chapter of A Death in the Family. He also shot Barbara Gordon (Batgirl and daughter of Police Commisioner James Gordon) in The Killing Joke, leaving her paralyzed before he removed her clothes and took pictures of her bleeding, naked body in order to torture Gordon and prove that one bad day could make the sanest man alive lose their mind. This story, often considered the definitive take on the character, shown both the horrible depravity of the character while also bringing up his more tragic side. These horrible crimes left a deep mark on Batman, who has to live with the fact that his refusal to kill The Joker has had terrible consequences.
Joker in Other Media
Batman has been adapted into both animated and live-action television as well as film and video games, and unsurprisingly The Joker has followed him everywhere he’s gone. Actors like Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson have made their own marks on the character, though perhaps the most famous version was Heath Ledger’s incredibly dark take on the character in The Dark Knight, a role which earned Ledger a posthumous Oscar award for Best Supporting Actor and has cemented the Joker as one of the great villains of cinema. But many Batman fans consider to be the definitive version of the character to be from Batman: The Animated Series where he was voiced by Mark Hamill. Hamill’s ability to capture everything from the camp silliness to the murderous menace makes him perhaps the most complete interpretation of the character, and he proved that evil laughter can indeed be an art form.
This series also added a new layer to The Joker character by introducing the world to Harleen Quinzel, the perky female sidekick and love interest of The Joker, going by the name of Harley Quinn. This new dynamic of having a love interest for a murdering psychopath allowed the writers to toy with the idea that Joker has a softer side that most of us never see. But it also allowed for exploring abusive relationships; Joker is verbally, emotionally and physically abusive towards Harley, and yet she enables him out of a mad love for him, believing that he really loves her despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Whether it inspires the viewer to see Joker as a misunderstood madman or just a loathsome evil scumbag (guess which camp I fall into!), it certainly makes him a more interesting villain.
The Clown Prince of Crime
In my unbiased opinion, Joker is the greatest pure villain in comic book history. To me, he is absolute evil incarnate, wrapping himself up in a colorful package that fools some people, while continuously showing that he is an unrepentant murderer. Chaos, anarchy and madness are all The Joker truly loves, and everything else is just there for his hatred and amusement. He doesn’t need superpowers or gadgets even a gun; his depravity and imagination are the most lethal tools in his arsenal. While some villains have layers that make them more sympathetic or even seem justified, The Joker is simply a madman who wants the world to burn. And I wouldn’t have him any other way.