The Man Who Laughs

The cover of The Killing Joke, which changed the Joker forever.One of the more interesting characters in comics is the Joker. He’s one of the most well-known villains in history, and he has remained popular over many decades as a result. Because of his long history, he also provides examples of both how to write a great villain and how to write a terrible villain. Over his long history, the Joker has been both.

The Joker made his debut in 1940, after Batman comics had been on the shelves for two years. In his first appearance, he wasn’t crazy – he was just evil. This is a distinction that becomes important later on. The early Joker didn’t cackle maniacally all that much, and he didn’t theme his crimes around puns and jokes. His first crimes came after a series of announcements over the radio, where the Joker picked out high-profile individuals and told them what time they would die. Sure enough, those individuals dropped dead at the very time the Joker mentioned, even with the police protecting the victim and with Batman lurking outside. Upon their death, the victim’s face would contort into a hideous rictus grin, lending more menace to the Joker’s crimes.

The early Joker also managed to outfight Batman on more than one occasion. His combat prowess would disappear over the years as DC Comics decided to make Batman more and more superhuman by turning him into the best martial artist and strategical mind in the world. Batman wasn’t completely outdone by the Joker, however, and defeated him not once but twice in the same comic book during his first appearance (which contained two Joker stories). At the end of his second appearance, the Joker accidentally stabbed himself while lunging at Batman with a knife. This was supposed to be his death scene, but Editor Whitney Ellsworth had some amazing foresight and had a panel added to the comic that hinted that the Joker had survived. If it hadn’t been for that last minute addition, the most popular comic book villain ever might have died in relative obscurity.

Unfortunately, that early version of the Joker, with his sharply evil criminal mind and his surprising prowess in battle, disappeared fairly quickly. Comic books in general lost their popularity going into the 1950s. More damaging than that, though, was the fact that the government stepped in, convinced that comic books were evil, just like jazz music, rock and roll, role-playing games, violent movies, and video games have also been branded as corruptors of the youth. The Comics Code Authority began censoring comics, and mandated that all villains lose completely to heroes at the end of every story. Since the Joker looked like a clown, that’s what he became – a buffoon whose biggest schemes were often just to make Batman and Robin look silly. By the mid 1960s, the Joker disappeared almost entirely, except for Cesar Romero’s portrayal on the Batman television series.

Just in his first couple of decades of existence, the Joker demonstrates how a villain can be written impressively and then how he can be ruined. The original Joker did something few people could do – he matched the Batman stride for stride. While he was always ultimately defeated, he remained a menace that Batman had to pull out all the stops against. In the 50s and 60s, though, he became a buffoon who existed more for comic relief than anything else. A villain simply doesn’t have any teeth if he isn’t shown to be a match for the hero, which is why the character became stagnant very quickly.

Fortunately, the rules of thesis-hypothesis-synthesis eventually took control. In the 1970s, Batman comics began moving back toward a darker tone. The Joker returned as a homicidal maniac, but his time as a clown also became incorporated into the character. Rather than return to his diabolical ways, the new Joker was mentally unbalanced, and killed people because he thought it was funny. An example of the Joker’s murderous insanity can be found in the story “The Laughing Fish,” which was later adapted for use in Batman: The Animated Series. In that story, the Joker used a chemical to give all the fish in Gotham City his unique grin. He then demands a patent on the fish, hoping to get rich off the royalties. When the bureaucrats of Gotham have the gall to tell him that the law doesn’t work that way, he starts killing them one by one until Batman eventually stops him. And so the Joker returned to fame, taking from his roots as an evil mastermind and adding the jokes and insanity that the 50s had given him.

It’s also worth noting that the Joker by this time was insane, not evil. There is a significant difference between the two. In several comics, the Joker has been temporarily cured of his insanity, and has expressed immense remorse for his crimes. Although such moments of clarity are only temporary, they serve to highlight why the Joker is constantly put back into Arkham Asylum rather than executed for his mass murders. Somewhere buried deep down, the Joker is actually a good person – just one who has gone so completely insane as to become the epitome of evil.

In the 80s, Alan Moore came out with the reason why the Joker had gone insane in his one-shot The Killing Joke. There it is revealed that the Joker was an ordinary person who was pulled against his will into a life of crime. Acting as the Red Hood, he encountered Batman and was knocked into a vat of chemicals which gave him his unique face and completely shattered his mind. As if to stand out against this newfound sympathy for the character, the Joker’s crimes became more brutal at this point. In The Killing Joke, he paralyzes Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) by shooting her in the spine, and then strips Commissioner Gordon naked and tortures him in a carnival. In another story, the Joker finally wins over Batman in a way when he beats Robin to death with a crowbar and then blows the building up as he leaves.

The 80s also brought about the development of Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, which features Jack Nicholson as the Joker. I’ll just say that I think Burton screwed up the Batman mythos in a lot of ways, including his treatment of the Joker. Nicholson’s Joker is too much of a buffoon, committing crimes out of vanity or a desire for publicity. He also focuses way too much on gags, thus never proving himself to be an actual menace to Batman. Throughout the movie, the audience knows that Batman will defeat the Joker eventually. It’s just a matter of time.

A much better portrayal of the Joker comes from Mark Hamill’s rendition in Batman: the Animated Series and the various spinoffs of that show that ran from 1992 to 2006. That Joker is much more true to character, showing both his insanity and evil. The animated series also introduced Harley Quinn, an Arkham doctor who the Joker seduces and drives insane. At times, it seems that the Joker actually cares for Harley. Other times, he is downright abusive to her, even trying to kill her when she almost succeeds in killing Batman.

The definitive Joker scene from the animated series, in my mind, comes in the episode “The Man Who Killed Batman.” In that episode, a small-time crook has apparently killed Batman, an honor that the Joker wanted himself. He kidnaps the crook, gives a touching eulogy to Batman, and then throws the crook into a coffin and dumps him in a vat of acid. The Joker even sheds a tear during Batman’s “funeral,” but then immediately after says, “That was fun. Who’s up for some Chinese?” That once scene encapsulates the Joker’s willingness to murder, his obsession with Batman, and his utter insanity. Mark Hamill’s rendition of the character leaves the audience always wondering if the Joker is a stone cold killer or a complete wacko.

The other amazing portrayal of the Joker came in the summer of 2008 with the movie The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger plays the Joker in that film, and literally gave the performance of a lifetime. (Sadly, I think this performance also contributed to the issues that eventually led him to an accidental overdose before the movie’s release.) This Joker is a complete anarchist, and tears apart Gotham City for most of the film. He has some elements of the evil mastermind from his first comic appearance in 1940, but also has a healthy dose of sheer lunacy. This Joker switches plans constantly throughout the film, abandoning one after the other when he’s decided that it’s getting boring. He constantly lies about his origin, and might not even know his own past. He also has a healthy bit of inspiration from The Killing Joke, as his main goal seems to be proving that anyone can become a monster when put in the right circumstance. Sadly, this Joker won’t be coming back again, as no one is ever going to nail it as completely as Heath Ledger did.

Since the 70s, there have been a lot of good Joker stories. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of bad ones, too. Since the brutality of his crimes in The Killing Joke and his murder of Robin, a lot of writers have seemed to think that the only way to keep the Joker’s menace is to have him top his last killing spree. As a result, every Joker story these days seems to be a race to see how many people the Joker can kill before he’s caught. And, since Batman is such a popular character and now has several titles a month, the Joker seems to appear on an almost monthly basis. That’s a lot of the same story being recycled, and it’s frankly overkill. When the Joker kills that many people, it’s more and more unrealistic for him to be left alive. Even if he can plead insanity, no society in their right mind would willingly let such a public danger live – especially not when he has proven time and again that he can escape from any asylum or prison he’s put into.

Personally, I think the Joker should be given a few years off. Let him cool his heels for a while, and give Batman and the audience a break. Then, when the Joker returns, he will feel like a breath of fresh air, rather than a story that has been used over and over again. Hopefully, the writer of such a return would remember what made the Joker’s return in the 70s and 80s so popular. And, to be fair, the Joker did get a little bit of a break following Batman’s “death,” disappearing for a year or so. Unfortunately, during that time we also got a lot of Joker in flashback stories, be it a one-shot of The Brave and the Bold that had the Atom trying to save his life for some reason or his old sidekick from the 60s, Gaggy, showing up disguised as him and trying to kill Harley Quinn. And now that Batman’s back, the Joker is too, albeit in a snazzy new outfit. Unfortunately, it seems like only a matter of time before he goes on another huge killing spree, once again trying to top his already over-the-top crimes. Only one thing remains certain: the Clown Prince of Crime is going to be around for a very, very long time.


One Response to “The Man Who Laughs”

  1. Change_Leopardon Says:

    Seems DC hear you. As far as the new reboot goes, the Joker is “dead” and new villians are taking off the books of the bat.

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