Joker (comics)

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The Joker, detail of a panel from the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (Brian Bolland / DC Comics)

The Joker is a comic book villain created as Batman's nemesis for the spring 1940 issue of Batman #1 by DC Comics, and was the creation of Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Frank Robinson. As the personification of destruction and chaos, the Joker has become one of the best-known villains in comics, novels, and film; his portrayal by actor Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight earned for him critical praise and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.


The inspiration for the Joker: Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1928, Universal)
The first appearance of the Joker, from Batman Issue #1, published Spring, 1940 by National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics)

Kane, Finger, and Robinson are credited with the creation of the Joker, but what exactly transpired is a bit of a mystery. Robinson, according to some sources, produced a playing card bearing the image of a joker and suggested that it was DC's next villain. Kane, the creator of Batman, insisted that it was himself who had done so, basing his interpretation on a character named Gwynplaine from a 1928 silent film titled The Man Who Laughs[1]. The image of an unearthly, knife-carved grin - as portrayed by German actor Conrad Veidt - stuck with Kane, and were reflected in the panels of the Joker drawn for Batman #1[2].

The Joker was portrayed as a psycopathic murderer who left an unusual calling card: the bodies of his victims with their faces contorted in a grotesque smile, but his actual origins were not established until much later. In 1951 Detective Comics #168 presented "The Man Behind the Red Hood", which placed Batman against a criminal who struck once more after a ten-year hiatus. The revealing of the Red Hood to be the Joker also revealed his origins: once a lab worker, he was going to retire off of a million dollars stolen from a nearby playing card company, but his escape with the loot through chemical wastes had altered his appearance, bleaching his skin white and turning his hair green.

In the mid-1950's public backlash against comics in the wake of Dr. Frederic Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth forced many comic publishers to either change their format or go out of business; indeed, much of what was published - either in mainstream comics or so-called "underground" versions - was dark, violent, and sometimes gory. The Joker went through a change as a result: the insane, homicidal character was reduced to a campy prankster who used a lot of jokes and puzzles in his crazy, yet seemingly harmless, crimes. The additions of a "Joker-mobile" or a Batman-like utility belt didn't help his stories, either, and when Julius Schwartz - who hated the Joker - took over the Batman editorial position, the Clown Prince of Crime was relegated to the trash can.

Film Adaptions

But the Joker wouldn't die so quickly, as producer William Dozier placed the Joker in the fifth episode of his 1966-69 television series Batman[3]. Played by veteran actor Cesar Romero[4][5], this new film version kept in line with the campyness of the comic character. One of the big-name stars who was attracted to film guest appearances in the series (Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar, Frank Gorshin, Vincent Price among others), Romero had an unusual trait which he insisted not be touched: a well-groomed mustache, which was hidden under his white make up.

With Batman still in prime time as a live-action series for ABC in 1968, the animation company Filmation brought to CBS Saturday mornings The Batman/Superman Hour, a cartoon series featuring the main DC superheroes in various seven-minute shorts; Joker appeared in several and was voiced by veteran comic actor Larry Storch. This very-tame version of the Joker was carried over to an episode of Hanna-Barbera's New Scooby Doo Movies in 1972, where he and fellow villain Penguin run a counterfeiting ring while enjoying their new stolen "ride": the Batmobile[6].

1970's remake

Cover to "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge", from Batman #251 (1973, DC Comics)

In 1973 DC did an extensive revamping of the Batman series and characters, returning to their earlier roots of dark and compelling stories. Brought out of the trash can, the Joker committed his homicides once again according to the writer-artist team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams in the pages of Batman #251 (Sept. 1973), in an instant classic titled "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge." Escaping from the "state hospital for the criminally insane" - the first instance of what would be called Arkham Asylum - the Joker hunts down his former henchmen in an effort to get revenge on the man who put him there for twenty years, with the added pleasure of taunting both the police and Batman to stop him in a dark format that O'Neal and Adams have deliberately made to be as close as possible to film noir.

In the story "The Laughing Fish," (Detective Comics #475, March 1978), writer Steve Englehart and and artist Marshall Rogers defined the Joker's psychosis further, in which the Joker had applied for a patent for a chemical which causes a wicked grin in fish, of which he would be able to collect royalties for his "invention," with the added joke that he would kill anyone who pointed out just how crazy his invention was. Although a two-part story with no more than three murders, "The Laughing Fish" left an impression on readers: the Joker's madness had risen to new levels, and the stories were getting more compelling.


In the 1980's Frank Miller was an artist/writer for Marvel Comics; he had revamped the character of Wolverine and placed a film noir look in Daredevil - creating a love interest with Electra along the way - to critical acclaim. When he moved to DC he had the beginnings of a story that would set the comics industry on fire, and the Joker was part of it. In Batman: The Dark Knight Returns [7]the Joker had spent ten years of a dystopian future locked away a Arkham as a dormant shell of a man, while the Batman had made a similar disappearance. The news of Batman's return to fight crime once more has the Joker convincing his doctors that he has been rehabilitated; his release into the public allows him a killing spree like Gotham had never seen before.

At the same time as The Dark Knight Returns, another influential tale hit the stands: Batman: The Killing Joke (1986)[8]. Essentially a graphic novel, writer Alan Moore elaborated on the Joker's origin from the earlier "Red Hood" story, and changed him to a stand-up comedian who turns to crime after he fails on the stage, becoming a victim of a chemical bath when a factory break-in goes wrong, partially because Batman arrived on the scene. The central point of The Killing Joke was the Joker's attempt to prove to Batman that given the right conditions anyone can go insane, and he nearly proves it by the kidnapping and paralyzing of Commissioner Gordon's daughter, Barbara.

As The Killing Joke was gaining critical reviews, A Death in the Family was released as a normal four-part comic[9]. According to the story, Jason Todd - Batman's sidekick Robin - had embarked on a search for his mother, an aid worker in Ethiopia then being embezzled by the Joker; as the story continued would take Robin hostage as well, beating Robin nearly to death while while at the same time taunting Batman. This story had the added twist of fan participation to determine if Robin lived or died, via a pair of toll-free numbers to DC.

Next film adaptions

Batman (1989)

In 1989 Tim Burton's Batman was released, with Jack Nicholson going all-out as the Joker[10] in a performance that many felt upstaged the title character. In this film the Joker's origins remain true with the Red Hood story but are slightly-modified; he is given a name - Jack Napier - and is portrayed as a mob enforcer who is double-crossed by his boss while attempting to fake a case of industrial espionage at a chemical factory. A police raid on the factory, as well as the arrival of Batman, ends with Napier falling into a chemical tank, creating the Joker. Burton's version also has Napier shown as a much-younger man (played by Hugo Blick) via a flashback scene: he was the one who committed the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents, the act which eventually created the Batman.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Tim Burton's series of four movies eventually departed to the camp of the 1960's television series with the release of Batman and Robin in 1997, a critical and financial flop. Rebooting the franchise led to the Christopher Nolan film Batman Begins in 2005; the success of which enabled a sequel which was released in 2008. Using the comic book stories The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke as inspirations, Nolan returned the Joker to the big screen in The Dark Knight[11]. Almost universally lauded by critics and shattering numerous box-office records, The Dark Knight featured the final performance of Heath Ledger as a monstrous version of the Joker[12], a psychotic who thinks the only sane way to live is without rules and wants to prove it to the world - and at the same time giving the artists and writers who penned the Batman stories a version of the Joker they thought was closest to their own. "He's trying to police a villain the likes of which he's never seen," said actor Gary Oldman in a recent interview, describing just how evil he thought this film version of the Joker actually is. "He makes Voldemort (the villain of the Harry Potter series) look like a Sesame Street character"[13]. The premise of the film, which begins in a hopeful manner with the arrests of mob figures and the reduction of crime, spirals downward as the remaining elements of the mob turn to the Joker, who turns out to be "a man they didn't fully understand"[14], and someone who is just as dangerous to the mob as he is to Gotham City.

The effect of Ledger's performance has caused some fans to ask Warner Brothers to cease placing the Joker in any future films[15].