The man who laughs, the man without an origin, the man with hundreds of origins. The final part of the Batman at 75 articles can’t look at anyone else but the Clown Prince of Crime and try to touch on his roots…
THIS FINAL BIRTHDAY POST FOR BATS MAY BE A LITTLE LATE…. BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN IT ISN’T PERFECT. WHILE LAST YEAR WAS BATMAN’S ANNIVERSARY, THIS YEAR IS THE JOKER’S 75TH BIRTHDAY.
Yes, the Joker. The Harlequin of Hate. The Clown Prince of Crime. The villain with a hundred nicknames. And quite possibly the greatest fictional nemesis ever devised. He’s a villain, though not one restricted by his matching hero. He’s famous in his own right, a symbol and a sign, a definite statement of something… So, it’s a welcome luxury that the Joker has surpassed mere origins for his 75 years of existence. When it comes to his nocturnal and ultimate foe, retcons may alter facets of his origin story – the role his butler took or perhaps the ‘rediscovery’ childhood friends – but up to the bat and the window he’s very much defined by the strict facts of his origin. The Joker isn’t. The Harlequin of Hate is Batman’s opposite after all, despite classic stories that have drawn out the similarities as much as those polar difference.
And of those stories, some of the greatest stored in the Bat Computer have given, or at least hinted at origins for the laughing rogue. But one was never afraid to contradict another, or pick and embellish them as they wanted. It’s absolute freedom (within editorial reason); it’s continuity chaos.
Off page it’s a similar story. Various influences have been cited as an influence by a number of comic legends, including the father of the Dark Knight Bob Kane. Add to that the vast number who have filled in to expand and explore it since. Of course, as this is the Joker we’re talking about nothing’s straightforward. And just like his villain’s own autobiography, neither any writer’s attempt nor Jokerside’s dip into the acid can be exhaustive.
So dotting through the life, times and media of the Clown, here are some select glances at Joker’s many zero years. Of course, the joke’s on everyone. For a character all about obscurity he sure has a lot of people trying to redefine him. And for every fact you think you learn, by the end you find that he hasn’t given a quarter. No matter how many times he seems to come last.
1940 – Cold-blooded murderer
“The Joker has spoken!”
Last September, Jokerside’s hot off the press review of Batman #1 caught the arrival of the villain who was to quickly rise above the greatest rogues’ gallery in comicdom:
“First and foremost is the debut of that deadly clown, a grim jester known only as the Joker whose statement of intent is immediately made clear when he makes a sinister ‘return’ before the book is even done.”
In his first tale, this grim jester is quite savagely homicidal and unhinged, besting Gotham’s (then New York’s) defender and proving his match in science and intellect. Well, until the end. Cutting a rather morose figure when he can’t show off, the Joker arrives fully formed, if a little humourless:
“In contrast to the pains made to explain our hero in this book, little is given away about this villain’s origins, beyond oblique references to a previous jail term that may or may not be true. This may prove a strength for an enigmatic rogue who could reasonably have any number of origins. That said, he’s not as mirthful as he appears. In fact, this rogue may as well be called the Ironicist or Wryisist with his poor line in jokes. His chief feature is death, inexplicably announcing a crime on radio before staging it and planting a grim calling card grin on his victims.”
His second appearance, in the same comic, finds him making a lair of a graveyard, having already made good of his earlier promise to escape. Still prone to announce his crimes before they are committed, his inability to accept that anyone could possibly imprison him starts to draw the strong and parallel lines between him and the Batman. In particular, it gifts the clown his best motivation: revenge.
“It’s wise to continue the story in the same book. He first targets Chief of Police Chalmers along with political reformers who speak against him. It’s another stab at the Cleopatra Necklace (an attempted nab in the first story) that leads to a further confrontation with Batman which the pale-face Pagliacci once again wins. It’s a gripping encounter in the Drake Museum which reminds us of one thing: both the Joker and Batman are fugitives from the law; Batman’s only escape is to knock two coppers flying while the jester is long gone.”
And they’re still running today. Little did Batman realise when he failed miserably to rouse himself to pursue this new Clown on the block.
DC Comics though, are always one for a crisis. And in 2005, Ed Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughsrewrote the Joker’s first appearance following the universe reset 20 years earlier. A less mysterious Joker, Brubaker decided to draw direct links between the Joker and the Red Hood, cementing several previous stories including Alan Moore’s seminal The Killing Joke (but more on that gem in the next section…). It would prove to be a seminal influence, directly picked on by later stories as the definitive post-crisis origin, including Scott Snyder’s current run in The New 52. In a deliberate nod, the story’s name refers to Conrad Veidt, the actor whose startlingly altered visage appeared in the 1928 film of Victor Hugo’s novel of that name. A visage that was quite believably a great influence on the Joker’s creation. Veidt also gave his name to Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias in Alan Moore’s definitive Watchmen…#
The Killing Joke – The Sadist
“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
You couldn’t really hope for a better collaboration on a Joker one-shot novel than Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. More than any other involving the Harlequin, it’s a perfectly contained yet open-ended tale that left a lasting impression on the DC Universe. Seldom is the Joker more sadistic than when he shoots Barbara Gordon through the spine, unwittingly ending her career as Batgirl and confining her to a wheelchair. It’s sometimes called the definitive Joker tale; aside from being brilliantly written, it’s as comprehensive as it gets. Holding each character up as a mirror of the other, Moore plots the Joker’s origin as a tragic accident, brought to his current conflict much as the Dark Knight is.
The Joker’s origin is shown as failed stand-up comedian, preyed upon by a gang to take the mantle of the Red Hood as he guides them through the chemical plant he once worked at, to rob the card factory next door. It’s about as full an origin as you get – although the Joker is an admittedly unreliable narrator.
It built on Detective Comic #168 which suggested that the Joker had been the Red Hood, and fleshes out the most widely repeated origin, and one that would be referenced up to the present day.
Moore would later criticise the unreality of two fictional constructs who are by no vehicle to convey anything interesting about humankind.
Grant Morrison, general comic legend, was one of the big hitters who suggested that The Killing Joke was pitched as the final batman story, with the Dark Knight killing the clown in the ambiguous final panels. That’s rather ruined by the massive and immediate effect The Killing Joke had on the Batman line and wider universe. Oddly, the New 52 hasn’t made that any more viable. In that rebooted universe, The Killing Joke remains entirely intact, although Barbara Gordon has since recovered from her injuries and donned the cowl again…
The Clown at Midnight – Beyond Evil
“Isn’t it ironic!”
And that no doubt means the same is true of most of Grant Morrison’s seminal work, which included ta the Joker’s culling of his former associates, including henchmen who assisted in The Killing Joke. No discussion of the Joker is complete without a look at Morrison’s work. Morrison had previously delved into the idea of the Joker possessing some form of super sanity, and even allowed him to be temporarily made sane during his JLA run. The Clown at Midnight was a prose comic, outlining not an origin, but a suitably twisted logic to the Joker’s career. In Clown the Joker, rendered mute after earlier dices with death prepares to be reborn, just as he does every seven years. This explains away the athletic pun-avoiding homicidal maniac of his first appearances, the heist days, the clowning around days with comedy hammers, the loved up days, the savage Bat family destruction and now, an enigmatic and darker figure seemingly beyond humanity. A new being every seven years. Like a more slender, happier Solomon Grundy.
The Death of the Family – The Thin White Duke
“Now stop me if you’ve heard this one…”
In his most recent incarnation, Scott Snyder produced two stories that delved into the Joker as Batman’s nemesis. Highly referential, Snyder delved back into the Joker’s past, as you may expect from a writer who’s made quite a name for himself through brilliant storytelling and a gift for retconning the history of characters that we thought we knew inside out. These two tales show the villain consumed both by his love for the Dark knight and hate respectively. As with Morrison’s, this new take reinforced the mystique in the clown, while drawing new and sadistic lines through the pair’s relationship. Just as Grant Morrison had done the time before with A Clown at Midnight; as Alan Moore had with The Killing Joke.
Shorn of a face, the Joker returns to Gotham after a year away to finish what he had started when he battered and exploded 80s Robin Jason Todd in A Death in the Family (Batman #426 – 429). His much anticipated return found a new version of the Joker, vital and deadly, mixing and perhaps besting previous versions (See Morrison’s law of seven). This Joker is preceded by tension, soaking up suitable horror connotations as he reclaims his removed face and kills 19 police officers on the way. He’s immensely effective – able to coerce and trick the other criminals of Gotham, take down Arkham Asylum with nobody noticing and best Batman’s whole family. However, he’s also deliciously delusional and unhinged. A major set-piece and the denouement rely on early appearances, picking up many from Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs, but this Jokers not needlessly sentimental. Delving into the past and exploring dark sides of the nemeses Snyder manages to further sculpt the Joker while revealing little.
A year later, Snyder concluded his run on the Joker with the flipside Endgame, ongoing into 2015. While Death of the Family was all about the Joker’s love for his nemesis, Endgame was quite the opposite. And by this time, again brilliantly realised by Greg Capullo, he’s dropped the chic-mechanic look and fly orbiting face and is in pure Thin White Duke mode. Hey, today is Bowie’s birthday after all…
The Dark Knight – An Agent of Chaos
“You wanna know how I got these scars?”
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is huge. It’s not only likely to stay the greatest Batman film for a good long time, but is one of the greatest Hollywood films of the 21st century. Particularly impressive after the rather introverted Batman Begins. After that film ended with a playing card teaser it was hard to rationalise the Joker in this far more realistic Gotham. But Nolan, his brother Jonathan and all round DC ambassador David S. Goyer shaped a story they said followed his first appearances. Sure, there are references to various Joker storylines such as the Arkham acolyte he attracts, James Gordon as fall guy… But in fact the iconic Joker that Heath Ledger brought to the screen was actually far more reverential to his first appearances than seemed possible. After everything, the Joker would come back to prominence with a return, if not to his origins, his roots…
What themes, moments and traits have made it across the decades from page to screen?
- This Joker is introduced with a highly effective bank heist, using the same measures as his 1940 counterpart if not necessarily for the same reasons. In fact, rather than crave the jewels, he burns money just for the chaos kicks. To see what will happen…
- Handed a Joker calling card at the end of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight hardly leaps out his Cave to stop the clown. It’s the same lethargy that affected him 75 years ago, just with less pipe puffing. You’ll have to shout louder Gordon! So the Harlequin has time to infiltrate the mob, dispatching some on the way…
- The Dark Knight is a great film of escalation as hope, order and success gives way to chaos. It’s the rise of the masks. While the exploration of Batman’s role in shifting Gotham from Mob to Mask came more recently, he emerged in 1940 with theatrical crimes in the wake of Batman… As this Joker may say, it’s an escalation of freaks. As Alfred says, Batman crossed the line first so the Mob turned to a man they didn’t fully understand. Do any of us?
- When the Joker strikes, leaving his calling card beforehand, the citizens retain their confidence in a police force continually foxed.
- The Joker likes to publicise his crimes, but we’re well beyond the wirelesses of the 1940s. He releases a videotape to the media after the death of his fake Batman. But then…
- Announces his intention to destroy a hospital to Gotham – although with an added twist, that he gives the citizens of Gotham 60 minutes to kill former Wayne Enterprises employee Mr Rees.
- This Joker’s far more about Chaos than sulking in his JokerCave upset that his genius will never be revealed.
- Not such an outstanding physical combatant, despite the alarming death wish, but this Joker can take a kicking and certainly gets involved in a fight.
- That said, he’s a pretty good kidnapper – especially of fake Batmen.
- He’s a man of his word, just as he is in 1940 when he promises to have the “last laugh”. Well, it’s the thought that counts…
- He announces deaths until Batman reveals his identity, killing Commissioner Loeb and the Judge presiding over the Mob trial on the way…
- This Joker’s all about multimedia – putting the target of Mayor Garcia in the Gotham Times…
- And he nearly gets away with it to, disguising himself as a policeman just as he did in the most chilling part of his 1940 debut… a set-up echoed in the infamous interrogation scene.
- Whether he’s a chemical genius or not, despite his protestations that he’s no man with a plan, he’s clearly a master strategist. What he does best is turning plans in on themselves.
- And in an utter relief after the events of the 1989 Batman, this Joker lives to be incarcerated.
- But we never know who he is, carrying no identification of any kind and of course, giving us multiple potential and conflicting histories. Just as in 1940, he bursts onto the scene, seemingly from nowhere. A corrupted criminal, a victim of tragedy, the natural response to Batman’s escalation..? In any event, as his comic book counterpart found out soon enough, he’s found his balance…
“You complete me”.
Hahahaha. Hehehehe. Heh.
Happy birthday Joker.
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