Beginners Guide: Joker

For Episode 17 of the podcast, you sent us in a direction we had been itching to take: Supervillains For Dummies, that’s right, you led us to Joker. Villains sometimes have a reputation for being simple characters that lack backstory or complexity. It’s fair to say when you start looking into the crown prince of crime, complexity is most definitely not lacking.

Confused Origins

The origins of Joker, both in reality and in stories, is a topic for much debate. In the real world, we know Joker was created by a combination of Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. The inspiration for the character came from a film called ‘The Man Who Laughs’ starring Conrad Veidt. In the film, Conrad plays a man whose face is disfigured such that he has a perpetual grin. Recollections of the events that followed differ between the three creators, but they all agree that this film was the inspiration and that Robinson created a sketch of Jokers playing card. Which of them created the full concept will forever be lost in time.

The story origins of Joker are not much clearer. Joker debuted in Batman #1, 1940, as a serial killer who uses ‘Joker Venom’, not only killing his targets but leaving them with a deformed grin. Initially, Joker was meant to die at the end of the comic as they didn’t see the need for recurring villains. Seeing promise in the character, however, a new panel was hastily added to allow the possibility of his return.
And return he did, in 9 of the first 12 issues of Batman, cementing him as Batman’s ongoing foe. It wasn’t until Detective Comics 168, 1951, that we get the first idea of his origins. Joker was a renowned mysterious criminal, Red Hood, who attempted to escape Batman’s grasp by swimming through chemical waste. The chemicals permanently discolouring his skin and hair, allowing Joker to cause fear amongst many.

A Changing Character

This was the last we heard of his origins until The Killing Joker,1988, written by the great Alan Moore. In this we learn he was a failed comedian, struggling to provide for his pregnant wife. In a state of desperation, he is convinced by a criminal gang to dress up as Red Hood and lead them through the chemical factory he used to work at. As they plan the heist, he learns his wife and unborn child have been killed, but the criminals press him to continue with the plan.

All does not go well at the factory, as a security guard discovers them and shoots the criminals. Batman appears, and as he tries to escape, ‘Red Hood’ falls into the chemical waste. Rather than the choice that had previously been portrayed, his transition to the Joker is one born of mental breakdown. Through the loss of his family and the permanent disfigurement from the chemicals, this one bad day led him on a path of criminal insanity.

Whilst attempting to solidify an origin, Killing Joke also does the opposite; In telling his story, Joker accepts that he prefers his history to be one of multiple choice. This has been played on through the years, with some stories showing him as a criminal and others as an innocent who suffered from a wrong turn. In the recent Three Jokers story, Killing Joke is accepted as the truth, but with some bombshell revelations (no spoilers).

The Three Jokers

Three Jokers tries to make sense of a strange reality of the jokers changing history. From his first appearance as a serial killer, he soon softened with pranks beginning to become part of his criminality. This ‘softer’ side took over in 1954, with the advent of that old friend of ours, The Comics Code Authority. The CCA was a response to the public disapproval of violence in media, and in particular, comics. Stripped of violence and gore, characters like Joker were reduced to being clown-like tricksters, foiled at almost every turn. Although the Batman tv show kept him going for a while, the decline of Joker through this time was inevitable.

It wasn’t until 1973 when the CCA began to soften, that Dennis O’Neil brought Joker back. O’Neil was able to bring back the mix of a comedic murderer from before the CCA. Tricks and pranks still played their part, but his homicidal intent was clear.
Although the CCA had softened, its presence was still felt. Joker had regained some of his intent, but each appearance ended with his capture. This era of the ‘revolving door’ of Arkham Asylum meant Joker still struggled to maintain his popularity.

It was during the ’80s, and in particular with the publishing of Killing Joke, where this started to turn. CCA was beginning to relax more and more, and the publishers were becoming more ambitious. A so-called “dark-age” of comics began, pushing previous boundaries into more mature themes. Themes that Joker could thrive in, as he let his criminality and violence run amok. This was the era that brought Joker beating Jason Todd with a crowbar and the crippling of Barbara Gordon.

Three Jokers brings everything together with one simple question: who said all these Jokers where the same person?

So Much More

Whichever way you look at it, Joker has had a confused and troubled history, but that takes nothing away from him. The possibilities afforded by such a character mean you can pick up so many great stories. As ever, I’ve only just scratched the surface here. In the episode, we cover all the possible origins, the different eras and so much more. More about his storylines, some of his alliances, and the occasional time where he acts like a good guy.

Steve‘s Reading List

  • The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told
  • Batman: Joker
  • Batman: A Death In The Family
  • Batman: The Killing Joke
  • The entire Scott Snyder: New 52 Batman run (9 volumes in total, but most importantly for Joker stories:
  • The Joker: Death Of The Family
  • Batman: Zero Year – Secret City
  • Batman: Zero Year – Dark City
  • Batman: Endgame
  • Batman: Superheavy
  • Batman: Bloom
  • Batman: Cacophony
  • Dark Days: The Road To Metal
  • Dark Nights: Metal – The Resistance
  • Dark Nights: Metal – Dark Knights Rising
  • Dark Nights: Metal
  • Batman: Last Knight On Earth
  • Batman: Three Jokers
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