The Pale Man, the Thin White Duke of Death, the Agent of Chaos, the Clown Prince of Crime. No matter what name he goes by, audiences know that when the Joker shows up, they’re in for a wild ride, one where nothing is sacred, not even our heroes. More than any other fictional characters, I’ve always loved the Joker and Batman the most. Over the years, they’ve become far more than a vigilante and a criminal mastermind. They’ve taken on legendary qualities, becoming the ultimate hero and villain. A comics fan since I could read, I’ve always been fascinated by the Joker. But before I was even aware of his thematic resonance or had even read his greatest stories, I was drawn to one specific thing: his grin. A lover of Vincent Price tales of suspense and the grainy black and white horror flicks that used to run on AMC, I was mesmerized by the scarred villains, the disfigured freaks that hid in the shadows until in the film’s final moments when they stood revealed in all of their latex glory. There’s something deeply unsettling about a figure whose scar, whose disfigurement, is a smile. Yes, there’s the bleached white skin and green hair to go along with it, but none of those things are particularly frightening without that ear-to-ear rigamortis grin front and center. But what was it about the smile that struck me so? It was the lie, the falsehood of friendliness and pleasure, masking the malevolence and sickness of a mind gone to rot.
Created by Jerry Robinson, Bob Kane, and Bill Finger, the Joker first appeared in Batman #1 in 1940. Inspired by Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, much of what makes the character work was there from the beginning. While so many villains have been altered and changed in both look and origins over the years, the essential elements of the Joker were discovered right away. It was almost as if he’d just been waiting for someone to dig him up, a fully formed child of blood and madness left undisturbed since a time before stories were written down. His look, his penchant for “Joker Venom,” his unpredictability, and mass murdering sprees were all established in that first appearance. So popular was the character that he appeared in the first 12 Batman issues in a row, entirely breaking the rules of early comic books’ serialized, one-off nature. Over the years, he’s changed as Batman has changed. After the introduction of the Comics Code Authority, he became a more lighthearted trickster in the 60s, popularized on television by the mustachioed Caesar Romero. By the 70s, he disappeared from the Batman books for a while until he was brought-back to his murderous roots by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. While famed comics scribe Frank Miller is often credited with putting the darkness back in Batman, and subsequently the Joker, his Dark Knight Returns came out after over a decade of Batman’s world becoming a more violent and frightening place. But Miller helped popularize the idea that there is no Joker without Batman. This notion was later expanded in the works of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, each adding key thematics and philosophical inquires that make the Joker the destructive force he is today. But for me, the best take on the character didn’t come from comics at all.
Outside of a few random comic issues of varying quality, I didn’t have a clearly defined idea of the character until Batman: The Animated Series. To this day, Bruce Timm’s BTAS remains the best take on Batman and his world in any medium. And the Joker? Mark Hamill tapped into something that was just as frightening as it was funny, a gleeful moroseness that manifested itself like a bullet coming out of a prank gun. Hamill understood the beauty of the lie that is the Joker. It was the seventh episode of the series that first introduced me to Hamill’s Joker and it remains one of the greatest Joker stories. In “The Joker’s Favor,” an ordinary man cuts the Joker off while driving home from work. the Joker follows him and after the man begs for his life, decides to let him live. Years later, the Joker returns to call in the debt. It’s a story that perfectly defines the Joker’s nature, his wrath that can stem from the smallest of injustices. It was the perfect introduction, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how the Joker became the Joker.
For what seemed like a lifetime, I was too young to watch Tim Burton’s Batman. I remember picking it up at the library every time I went, reading the back of the cover and imagining the celluloid goodness that lay beneath the plastic case. I’d seen pictures of Jack Nicholson as the Joker, I even knew he fell into a vat of chemicals, but I wanted to see the transformation. When I finally did see it, I loved every moment but admittedly the scene that I’d created in my head had been far more satisfying. As I made my way through childhood in the 90s and early 2000s, reading issues of Knightfall and No Man’s Land, collecting the cheapest Joker back issues I could find, I became deeply interested in the varying depictions of the character, the wild shifts in his personality. I didn’t know why at the time and didn’t care, only later realizing that it was the psychology of Batman and his villains that led me searching through longbox after longbox in an attempt to complete the puzzles that were these characters.
It wasn’t until high school that I discovered Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison, and with them the best Batman stories. With them, the puzzle began to fall into place while also becoming infinitely more complicated. It was Miller who introduced the idea of the Joker’s sexual fluidity, something neither straight, gay, nor bi, but another level of queerness entirely. It was Loeb who established that Batman’s war on organized crime gave way to disorganized freaks. It was Moore, who in a reimagining of the Red Hood story from 1951, convinced readers that “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” And it was Morrison who introduced the idea that the Joker had some kind of “super-sanity” that meant he was aware of things we had no concept of. It was these stories that began to flesh out the world of comic books for me and made me realize comic books weren’t simply action-adventure stories. Like a disciple of Grant Morrison, I realized comic books were our modern mythology, the way in which we could understand the world and all the good and bad that happened within it. And as someone growing up in the post-9/11 world, there was something comforting about that, the idea that the stories I’d read all my life were more than escapism, a means for understanding.
The Dark Knight changed everything. Christopher Nolan tapped into the fear of terrorism and the Patriot Act and crafted a cinematic villain to rival the likes of Darth Vader. While people had always loved the Joker, in the summer of 2008, his popularity reached almost feverish heights. You couldn’t walk down the streets without hearing a quote from the film, catching bits of conversation concerning chaos and anarchy, seeing graffiti pictures of Heath Ledger on the side of buildings. Nolan understood the mythic quality of comic books, their ability to be adapted and transformed into something topical. Ledger’s performance, which still remains one of the best of the decade, made the Joker cool, a punk-rock amalgamation of the character’s then 68 years of history. The Joker became the villain for comic and non-comic fans alike, just as relevant in college courses as college parties, the talk of NPR and comic shops. Despite the brilliant take on his multiple-choice origins, The Dark Knight did something that hadn’t been done in years, it made the Joker knowable. Once a character who could pop up whenever or stick around for 12 issues in any character’s book, he became someone whose stories had to carry weight and usher in change. Overexposure stripped him of his surprise, and even some of his threat. When you had millions of people dressing up as him for Halloween, scratching his face into dollar bills and Obama signs, and the sudden ability of people who’d never read comics to consider themselves Joker experts, the character had to fade away from the spotlight or loose what made him work in the first place.
Now, the Joker is an event-level character, the kind that comics hint at in advance, keep in the shadows or disguised, and craft yearlong stories around before putting him away for years at a time. It’s become a necessary means to keep the character scary. As a result, the idea that the Joker’s personality and look are always changing in reaction to Batman’s constant has accelerated his character evolution. Currently in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman run, the storyline Endgame explores the idea that the Joker may be immortal, a seed of madness that’s been growing in Gotham since it was founded. It’s quite the terrifying read, steeped in gothic horror and intrigue, one that adds new layers to the character while offering no clear answers…yet. The arc will reach its conclusion next Wednesday and after that the Joker will be put away for some time, until he can arise as something new again, something dangerous and unknowable, presumably right around the time Jared Leto debuts his take on the chracter.
The Joker is violent, funny, sadistic, genius, romantic, satirical, and ultimately completely unsolvable because he must be. He’s whatever the story needs him to be, a villain for all seasons- a stranger peering through the frosted window from the inside looking out and from the outside looking in. Over the course of 75 years we’ve come close to figuring out what makes him tick many times over, seen his origins depicted, settled on a look and a voice, only to watch it all slip from our grasp as he changes yet again. As we, as a culture comprised of pop and more, become something new, he becomes something new while committing to the ultimate lie. His grin has become a source of comfort, a means to convince us we know the character and what he’s capable of. But behind the permanence of those stretched lips and yellowing teeth, there is something constantly shifting–a multi-purpose devil, a dark reflection of our society’s fears, there to remind us that yes like Batman himself, we’re still crazy after all these years. After all, he couldn’t exist if that wasn’t so.