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Supervillain Spotlight – The Joker

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.

Golden Age

The Joker

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.

Joker

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.

Killing Joke

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.

Bomb

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.

Ledger

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.

The Top 12 Batman Villains

Batman is one of the longest running characters in the history of comics, and there are many reasons why he has been so successful. One of the main reasons is that he has, without reasonable debate, the best rogues gallery of any superhero. Here, I’m counting down my Top Twelve Batman Villains, based on a combination of factors such as quality of the character, their presence in popular culture, and personal preference. But the main determining factor was “how well does this villain work in contrast to Batman?” A strong protagonist-antagonist relationship is one that helps both characters come out looking better at the end of the day.

Clayface

#12. Clayface (Basil Karlo/Matt Hagen)

Choosing the#12 spot was not easy, and basically boiled down to personal preference. Other characters that were considered include Killer Croc, Mr. Zsasz, The Red Hood, Man-Bat and Black Mask. But there’s something about Clayface that just speaks to me as a reader. I am a fan of monsters (think Frankenstein and the Wolfman) and I also enjoy villains who have a tragic backstory that makes me feel for them. Clayface fits both of these bills nicely. While the original Clayface was simply an actor named Basil Karlo who used make-up to make his face look however he wanted, the Clayface most people recognized was Matt Hagen, a treasure hunter who turns into a massive shapeshifting blob of mud. My favorite interpretation of the character is from Batman: The Animated Series, where Hagen’s name and powers are used, but he is given Basil Karlo’s backstory. Clayface is also a rare Batman villain who can challenge him physically, adding an extra element of danger to stories involving him.

Freeze

#11. Mr. Freeze (Victor Fries)

Very few Batman villains benefitted more from Batman: The Animated Series than Dr. Victor Fries, a scientist who suffers through a horrific accident that turns him into a being that has to stay at zero degrees in order to survive. Taking on the alias of Mr. Freeze, Victor creates a survival suit and a cold gun capable of rapidly freezing anything to terrorize the people who ruined his life. Originally a one-note character from the Silver Age named Mr. Zero, the television show fleshed out the character and in turn made him one of the most sympathetic bad guys of all time. In addition to his accident, it was revealed that Victor’s primary motivation for his crimes was to raise money to save the life of his wife Nora, the victim of a rare disease. To save her life, he had her chryogenically frozen, only to be made into a monster by those same chemicals. He is a villain motivated by love and loss; in many ways, a representation of what Batman could become if he allowed his emotions to cloud his judgment.

Harley

#10. Harley Quinn (Harleen Quinzel)

Almost from the moment she arrived on our television screens as The Joker’s perky but psychotic girlfriend, Harley Quinn started accumulating a fanbase that has turned her into one of DC’s most successful marketing machines despite only being around for about two decades. Funny, dorky, and more than a bit off of her rocker, Harley brought a new layer to The Joker but more impressively carved a niche for herself. Her mad, inexplicable love for the madman allowed DC to explore an emotionally and physically abusive relationship in a complex way, something that I am sure has contributed to Harley’s popularity. The reason she is low on the list is that she very quickly became an anti-hero because of how easy she is to root for, and because ultimately, she’s not that much of a Batman villain. She’s gone up against the Bat a couple of times, but she is mostly a character that contrasts with The Joker and more importantly, a compelling character in her own right.

Riddler

#9. The Riddler (Edward Nigma)

Conundrums and puzzles are obsession of Edward Nigma, perhaps the smartest idiot in the DC universe. Intellectually superior to most, his narcissism compels him to leave clues to his crimes in the forms of riddles. While he is smart enough to fool the Gotham Police most of the time, he is rarely ever a match for Batman. While not a physical threat, Riddler is perhaps the best villain for one of the most important roles that Batman plays; the Detective. Requiring an intelligent and creative writer in order to use effectively, Riddler is somewhat underutilized but still has a place among Batman’s greatest rogues because when he’s done right, he’s just a brilliantly entertaining character. I also think readers identify with him as he tries to think of a problem that Batman cannot solve.

Bane

#8. Bane

Bane was one of the hottest villains in comics when I was a child; the brand new menace to Batman who was both a mental and physical threat. Bane’s greatest story was his debut story; a brilliant strategist with a burning hatred of Batman, he planned a massive escape from Arkham Asylum that stretched the Batman to his absolute limits as he battled every major foe he’d ever been put up against. Knowing that Batman was Bruce Wayne, Bane waited until he was was physically exhausted before assualting him in his home, breaking Batman’s back in one of the most famous Batman moments ever. While his intelligence and physical skills are already impressive, Bane’s most unique source of power is “Venom”, a unique blend of steroids that exponentially increases his strength. While there aren’t many great Bane stories aside from that debut, he made an incredible first impression and dominated Batman comics for the better part of two years.

Harvey

#7. Two-Face (Harvey Dent)

Harvey Dent was once the handsome, noble and popular District Attourney of Gotham City, one of Batman’s strongest allies in his fight against crime. However, Harvey carried a dark secrect, a dual personality that was one of the most sadistic men in Gotham. When a vat of acid was thrown in his face during a trial, Harvey was left physically scarred on the left side of his face and his personality was split down the middle. A criminal mastermind whose every deed, good or ill, is determined by the flip of a two-headed silver dollar, Two-Face is an interesting look at duality. He was a noble man on a crusade for justice, much like Batman, but one bad day turned him into a monster, albeit one who still occasionally acts on the side of good when his better nature wins out. I think the story of how Harvey becomes Two-Face will always be a compelling tragedy, but I do think that the villain only has a limited amount of use after that point.

Penguin

#6. The Penguin (Oswald Cobblepott)

While most of Batman’s rogues serve as twisted reflections against Batman, Oswald Cobblepott is more of a dark reflection of Bruce Wayne. Born poor and ugly but determined to improve his lot in life, the man who would come to be called The Penguin fought his way through Gotham’s criminal element to become one of the most influential crime lords in Gotham. Known for having an element of class but also ruthless cruelty, Cobblepott is kind of Batman’s version of Lex Luthor; more interesting as a guy that Bruce can never quite put away but is always fighting against. He’s also an interesting example of how a character can have a sympathetic backstory without being sympathetic; he’s a cruel, heartless man and I love him for it.

Ivy

#5. Poison Ivy (Pamela isley)

Poison Ivy is probably my second favorite Batman villain, a femme fatale who is one of the most powerful female villains in comics. Possessing the ability to manipulate plant life to her will and also producing deadly toxin through her lips and pheramones that no man (or woman) can resist, Pamela Lillian Isley is truly a beautiful nightmare. She’s also a great analysis of extremism; Bruce Wayne is not unsympathetic to taking care of the environment, but Ivy values the lives of plants more than people. Ivy just stands out as a unique character in the Batman pantheon and I think that’s what draws me to her; she’s different and fantasticly so.

Demon's Head

#4. Ra’s al Ghul

Ra’s al Ghul is the Moriarty to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant man with a twisted sense of morality who wants to remold the world into one that fits his vision of perfection. Nearly immortal thanks to numerous baths in mystical pools called Lazarus Pits, Ra’s possesses near infinite resources and limitless ambition. While he views Batman as his rival, he also views him as his equal and would like to sway to his point of view, inheriting the earth as the bride of his daughter Talia. Ra’s is a character that I’ve personally never been fond of, but I respect that he is a great concept for a villain and has been a part of some of Batman’s best stories.

Catwoman

#3. Catwoman (Selina Kyle)

I debated whether to put Selina on this list at all, since she is less of a villain these days and more of an anti-hero; however, I think that her role as an antagonist to Batman is a crucial element to the character that can’t be ignored. If nothing else, she is one of the most essential characters to the Batman mythology, giving the character a gray area of morality in a world where most people are either wholly good or wholly evil. Selina is a little of both. Catwoman is one of the greatest comic book characters of all time, and one of my favorites, but when it comes to the best Batman rogues, two men are superior foes in my opinion.

Crane

#2. Scarecrow (Jonathan Crane)

Scarecrow is my favorite Batman villain and it really isn’t close. The master of fear is perhaps the truest dark reflection of Batman; both men use fear as a weapon, but Crane uses it against the innocent. He is the one preying on the fearful, and that makes him the perfect antagonist for Batman. One of the reasons that Scarecrow is one of my favorites is that his character is unsettling and terrifying psychologically, not just physically. This is a man who enjoys to torture people through horror, and often targets children. And what’s perhaps scariest is that Jonathan Crane is not psychotic or even sociopathic. He has a full grasp on what he is doing, but does it deliberately. He is just a screwed-up, evil human being.

Joker

#1. The Joker

The Clown Prince of Crime is Batman’s greatest nemesis, a ruthless psychotic monster obsessed with killing Batman and willing to go to any means necessary to do it. If you want to know how screwed up of a place Gotham City is, the greatest hero is a man who dresses like a demon and the most vile terrorist is a man dressed as a clown. Batman is stoic, The Joker is always laughing. They play off each other perfectly because they have absolutely nothing in common, except that they will never budge. Joker is also one of the all-time greats because he is incredibly versatile as a character; he can be an almost harmless trickster suitable for children’s television, or a deranged lunatic that is one of the great cinematic villains in history in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The fact that both versions of those character feel completely true to the Joker character is a testament to how perfect he is an archetype and how effective the rivalry is. He is the obvious choice for the top spot.

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