(This post is part of "The Great Villains Blogathon" Hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings, and Shadows & Satin)
When it comes to comic books it is definitely superheroes who enjoy the limelight. The average person who has never even read a comic book could easily name several of them: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and yet others. Supervillains don't have it so lucky. The vast majority are only known to comic book fans. A notable exception is Batman's archenemy The Joker. In fact, it seems likely that if the average person, even those who have never read a comic book, were asked to make a list of supervillains, The Joker would be at the top of the list. In the end it seems likely that The Joker could be the most famous comic book villain of all time.
|The Joker card sketched|
by Jerry Robinson
|Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine|
in The Man Who Laughs
Bob Kane, who co-created Batman with Bill Finger, told a different story of the creation of The Joker. According to Mr. Kane it was he and Bill Finger who created the character. He said that Bill Finger had a book with a photo of Conrad Veidt from The Man Who Laughs in it. Bill Finger showed it to Bob Kane and told him, "Here's The Joker." He dismissed Jerry Robinson's claim, stating that Mr. Robinson's only contribution to the character was bringing in a playing card that was used for a few issues as the model for The Joker's calling cards.
Unfortunately the mystery of just who created The Joker will probably never be solved. Bill Finger died in 1974. Bob Kane died in 1998. Jerry Robinson died in 2011. Anyone working at Detective Comics, Inc. (one of the companies that would become DC Comics) at the time, including "Batman" editor Whitney Ellsworth, is also dead. For simplicity's sake most comic book historians then credit Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson jointly with The Joker's creation. Regardless of who actually created The Joker, one thing would seem certain. Given the resemblance between Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine and The Joker, it seems extremely likely that The Man Who Laughs provided part of the inspiration for the character.
Even in his first appearances The Joker generally eschewed guns. Out of his victims Brute Nelson is the only one he shoots. On his first two victims he used his Joker Venom, a toxin that sends its victims into fits of laughter and leaves their dead bodies with a fixed grin. He poisoned Judge Drake. In the second stories he killed Police Chief Chalmers with a dart and Edgar Martin with a poisoned deck of cards. While many comic book characters evolve over time, it would seem that The Joker as we now know him emerged fully developed in his first appearances. He was already a master criminal with a penchant for theatrics and murderous tendencies.
Bill Finger had planned to kill The Joker off in that second story in Batman #1. Mr. Finger worried that a recurring villain might make Batman look incompetent. He was overruled by editor Whitney Ellsworth, who thought The Joker was much too good of a character to kill off. As a result, a panel was quickly added to the story to show that The Joker had escaped death. It would not be the last time he would do so.
The Joker proved popular from the outset. In the first twelve issues of Batman he appeared nine times. During that time he remained a murderous psychopath and criminal mastermind, killing almost thirty people in his first twelve appearances. Given the number of people The Joker killed, it was certain that if he had been caught he would have been sentenced to death. In fact, in "The Joker Walks the Last Mile" in Detective Comics #64 (June 1942) The Joker actually turns himself into the authorities and confesses to his crimes. As might be expected, he is sent to the electric chair. As it turns out, however, The Joker once more cheats death and returns to a life of crime
In The Joker's earliest appearances no explanation was ever offered as to why his hair was green, his face white, and his face fixed in a perpetual grin. While the given names of other villains were often known (The Penguin was Oswald Cobblepot, Catwoman was Selina Kyle, and so on), none was ever given for The Joker. It was in "The Man Behind the Red Hood" in Detective Comics #168 (February 1951) that the origin of The Joker was finally revealed. The Joker was a lab worker who took on the identity of The Red Hood in order to burglarise the company he worked for, the Monarch Playing Card Company. When Batman showed up in the middle of the robbery, he dived into a vat of chemicals and emerged as, well, The Joker. "The Man Behind the Red Hood" would provide part of the basis for the 1989 movie Batman, as well as the graphic novel The Killing Joke. Despite having had a lasting impact on the "Batman" mythos, today it is unclear whether "The Man Behind the Red Hood" should be regarded as the definitive origin of The Joker. Over the years other origins have been offered for The Joker, and in The Killing Joke he confesses, "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another ... if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!
From the late Forties into the early Fifties comic books would increasingly come under attack for violent and often gory content. In response in 1954 the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) was formed. In turn the CMAA created its own code, the Comics Code, as to what was and was not acceptable in comic books. The Comics Code was enforced by the Comics Code Authority. If anything, the original Comics Code was even stricter than Hollywood's Production Code of the Thirties. Among other things, excessive violence was prohibited and the portrayal of kidnapping and concealed weapons were severely restricted. The end result was that The Joker ultimately became a somewhat harmless prankster.
In most of the comic books published in the remainder of the Fifties through the Sixties it was as a somewhat light-hearted prankster that The Joker appeared. When sales of "Batman" comic books dropped in the wake of the cancellation of the classic Batman TV series, writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Addams returned Batman, who over the years had evolved into a respected citizen who just happened to fight crime dressed as a bat, to his roots as a sometimes brutal crimefighter who operated primarily at night. Perhaps because he had appeared so often on the television show, The Joker was then absent from Batman comic books for a period of about four years.
Since Denny O'Neil and Neal Addams reintroduced the character, The Joker has, if anything, become even more violent. He has even struck successful blows against those closest to Batman, including murdering Jason Todd/the second Robin (in "A Death in the Family Part III" in Batman #428, December 1988 ) and crippling Barbara Gordon, also known as Batgirl (in the graphic novel The Killing Joke).
As might be expected given his status as Batman's greatest enemy, The Joker has appeared in several film and television projects featuring the superhero over the years. Curiously The Joker did not appear in either of the serials (The Batman in 1943 and Batman and Robin in 1949), which both utilised villains who never even appeared in the comic books. The first appearance of The Joker on any sort of screen would then be in the classic Sixties TV series Batman in the episode "The Joker is Wild", which aired on January 26 1966. Throughout the series The Joker was played by Cesar Romero.
|Cesar Romero as The Joker|
One condition that Cesar Romero had on playing The Joker is that he would not shave off his moustache. As a result his moustache was simply covered up with make up. Regardless, Mr. Romero proved well suited to the role. He endowed The Joker with a maniacal laugh and the sort of energy one would expect from the villain. At the same time there was a real sense of menace about Cesar Romero's Joker. He may not have been the psychopathic killer originally portrayed in the comic books, but one got the sense he was capable of murder.
Indeed, The Joker of the TV series Batman would seem to owe more to the elaborate thief of the late Forties and early Fifties than the practical joker of the late Fifties and Sixties comic books. After all, on the TV show The Joker tried to kill either Batman, Robin, or both of them repeatedly. He tried to electrocute them, suffocate them in a smokestack, crush them, and impale them, among other things. In his second appearance on the show, "Batman Gets Riled", it is unclear whether a joy buzzer The Joker used on a newscaster merely knocked the man out or actually killed him. In "He Meets His Match, The Grisly Ghoul" The Joker tried to kill Cheerleader Suzie (played by Donna Loren) with poisonous perfume. While The Joker in the comic books of the time generally no longer killed people, The Joker on the TV show at least tried to.
Not only would Cesar Romero be the first man to play The Joker on television, but he would be the first man to play him in a feature film as well. William Dozier had wanted to make a feature film before the TV show even debuted in order to generate interest in the series. Unfortunately 20th Century Fox turned the idea down because it would have had to pay the whole cost of a film, while the television network ABC would share the costs for the TV show. Fortunately Batman would make it to the big screen on July 30 1966. In the film The Joker teams up with four other members of Batman's rogue's gallery (The Penguin played by Burgess Meredith, Catwoman played by Lee Meriwether, and The Riddler played by Frank Gorshin) in a plot that involved kidnapping the United World Organization's Security Council.
|The Joker from The Batman/Superman Hour|
In 1977 another Saturday morning cartoon starring Batman, The New Adventures of Batman, debuted. On The New Adventures of Batman, Batman and Robin were voiced by none other than Adam West and Burt Ward from the Sixties TV show. While The Joker had returned to being a homicidal maniac in the comic books by this time, The Joker on The New Adventures of Batman was more or less the prankster of the Fifties and Sixties. He was voiced by Lennie Weinrib, who among other things had been the voice of H.R. Pufnstuf. The Joker would appear in another Saturday morning cartoon in the Eighties, The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, on which he was voiced by Frank Welker.
While The Joker of Saturday morning cartoons in the Seventies and Eighties was more or less the practical joker of the Fifties and Sixties, the same could not be said of The Joker of the 1989 film Batman. Batman (1989) marked the first ever appearance of The Joker as the murderous psychopath of the comic books of the early Forties and the comic books published after 1973. Unlike the Sixties TV series, Batman (1989) embraced the darker, more serious tone of the early Batman comic books and Batman comic books published from the Seventies afterwards. In fact, the film was influenced by Steve Engleheart's run on Detective Comics from 1977 to 1978, Frank Miller's graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, and, most importantly for The Joker, Alan Moore's graphic novel The Killing Joke.
|Jack Nicholson as The Joker|
In its portrayal of The Joker, Batman (1989) drew upon almost the entirety of the character's history. Smilex, a combination of chemicals that leaves its victims with fixed grins on their faces, is nothing more than a "rebranding" of the Joker Venom introduced in Batman #1. And just as The Joker broadcast his plans over the radio in Batman #1, he broadcasts his plans over television in the film. The plot of the film draws heavily upon "The Man Behind the Red Hood" in telling the origin of The Joker. The film even draws upon the Sixties TV series. At one point The Joker kills a rival criminal with an electrically charged joy buzzer.
As to Jack Nicholson's portrayal of The Joker, it was pretty much the homicidal maniac with a penchant for elaborate schemes that had been appearing in the comic books since 1973. Mr. Nicholson's performance also brings to mind two of his earlier roles: Mac in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980). While it might sound odd given the difference in tones between the TV series and the film, there would also seem to be a bit of Cesar Romero's Joker in Jack Nicholson's portrayal, particularly in his laughter. The Joker would become one of Jack Nicholson's best known roles and for many he is the definitive Joker.
The feature film Batman (1989) was followed by another TV series, Batman: the Animated Series, in 1992. Batman: the Animated Series drew upon the feature films Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), as well as classic Fleischer Studios "Superman" theatrical cartoons from the early Forties. As might be expected, The Joker would play a major role on the show. In the vast majority of the episodes in which The Joker appeared he was voiced by Mark Hamill, then most famous as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films.
|The Joker from Batman: The Animated Series|
While The Joker never killed anyone on Batman: The Animated Series (after all, it was an animated cartoon airing on television), there was a sense that he was both truly evil and truly insane. As in most of his portrayals he loved complex schemes and his behaviour was unpredictable on a good day. Mark Hamill would go onto portray The Joker more than any other actor. He reprised the role in the 1993 animated feature film Mask of the Phantasm, Superman: The Animated Series, the 1997 TV film The Batman Superman Movie: World's Finest, The New Batman Adventures,, the straight to video film Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, the animated series Static Shock, and the animated series Justice League. He also provided the voice of The Joker in the debut episode of the TV show Birds of Prey (Roger Stoneburner provided The Joker's body). Mark Hamill is set to play The Joker again in the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke, which will debut later this year.
Over the years yet other actors would assume the role of The Joker in various animated projects. Kevin Michael Richardson played the Clown Prince of Crime in the animated series The Batman. Billy Davis played The Joker in the animated short Batman: Mad Love. Several different actors have played The Joker in various direct-to-video, animated films over the years, including John DiMaggio in Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010), Michael Emerson in The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 (2012), Dee Bradley Baker in Son of Batman (2014), and Troy Baker in Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014). The performances of the various actors varied slightly. John DiMaggio (best known as Bender on Futurama) drew a bit from Cesar Romero. Troy Baker drew a good deal from Mark Hamill. For the most part, however, the actors who have portrayed The Joker in various animated projects over the years have managed to incorporate many of the older portrayals of the character while at the same time making their own contributions.
While The Joker in Batman (1989) and the animated projects that followed it largely drew upon The Joker as he was in the late Seventies and the graphic novel The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight (2008) would draw upon other sources. Director Christopher Nolan based The Joker in the film on the graphic novels The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. The Joker in The Dark Knight also appears to have drawn upon The Joker in his earliest appearances in Batman #1. Indeed, The Joker in The Dark Knight largely eschews many of the trappings of The Joker of the Fifties, the Sixties, the Seventies, and onwards. There are no lethal joy buzzers or razor sharp playing cards. The Joker does not even use Joker Venom in the film. His permanent grin in the film would appear to be a Cheshire grin, scars in the shape of a smile caused by a knife or other sharp object. It would also appear that he is wearing makeup rather than his skin having been bleached white, although the film is not entirely clear on that point.
|Heath Ledger as The Joker|
While Christopher Nolan drew upon The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Earth, actor Heath Ledger drew upon other sources for his portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime. While Mr. Ledger read The Killing Joke, he was unable to finish Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Earth. For further inspiration for The Joker, Heath Ledger then looked to Alex in both Stanley Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Anthony Burgess's original novel of the same name, as well as the late Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious.
Sadly, Heath Ledger died before the release of The Dark Knight. His performance received widespread acclaim upon its release and he would be awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor posthumously. Not only was this one of the few times in which an Oscar was awarded to an actor after he had died, it was also perhaps the first time that an actor ever received an Oscar for playing a supervillain.
Heath Ledger would not be the last man to play The Joker. Batman: Under the Red Hood, The Dark Knight Returns Part 1, Son of Batman, and Batman: Assault on Arkham have all been released since The Dark Knight. As mentioned earlier, Mark Hamill is set to reprise his role as The Joker in The Killing Joke. Later this year will see the release of Suicide Squad, in which Jared Leto plays The Joker. As long as Batman movies are being made, it is a safe bet that The Joker will continue to appear on the big screen.
The Joker is possibly the most famous comic book villain of all time and certainly one of the most popular. He is certainly one of the most frightening. He is a homicidal maniac who often kills for little or no reason (or at least reasons that make sense only to him). What is more, he kills very frequently. There are many who have good reason to believe that, short of entities capable of destroying entire cities or entire worlds, The Joker has the highest body count of any DC Comics character. If The Joker was merely a very effective serial killer, however, we would not expect him to have remained so popular for so long. Serial killers in the mass media are a dime a dozen, and most are swiftly forgotten. For that matter, it must be pointed out that for several decades (from the late Forties into the Seventies), The Joker hardly killed anybody. Despite this The Joker was still regarded as The Batman's archenemy and was still arguably the most popular comic book villain around. Since The Joker's homicidal tendencies don't seem to account for his continued popularity, his appeal as one of the most popular bad guys must then be sought elsewhere.
|Cesar Romero as The Joker as Canio in Pagliacci|
That having been said, evil clowns, like serial killers are a dime a dozen in popular culture. From Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King's It to The Killer Klowns From Outer Space, there is no shortage of evil clowns, yet none can make a claim to either the fame or popularity of The Joker. It would then seem again that the source of The Joker's longevity as a character must be sought elsewhere. Looking at the portrayal of The Joker through the years, from his first appearance in Batman #1 to his last big screen appearance in The Dark Knight, I suspect it comes down to two things.
The first is that The Joker is totally, utterly unpredictable. He frequently kills his henchmen for apparently no reason at all (in The Dark Knight he even sets it up so they kill each other). He might rob a fur store only to take a few hairpins (as in the Sixties Batman episode "The Joker Trumps an Ace"). He might endow fish with a smiling face and try to copyright them (as in Steve Englehart's aforementioned "The Laughing Fish" and "The Sign of The Joker"). The Joker's mind operates according to its own sort of warped logic, so that there is little way to tell what he might do next. This makes The Joker a dangerous opponent and a frightening one as well. After all, if you have the bad luck to be in the same room as The Joker, how do you know that you won't be the next person he kills at any given moment?
The second factor in The Joker's continued popularity is the sheer outlandishness of his schemes. The Joker is certainly a follower of the creed "Go big or go home." In “The Cross-Country Crimes” from Batman #8 (December 1941/January 1942) The Joker kills the head of the FBI immediately after he has given an honour to Batman and Robin, then begins a crime spree that literally spans the nation. In Batman (1989) he tries to poison all of Gotham City with Smilex. In the Batman: The Animated Series episode "The Last Laugh" The Joker covers the city in laughing gas and then embarks on a crime wave. Not only are The Joker's schemes often grandiose in scale, but he pulls them off with a theatricality that would put Flo Ziegfeld to shame. He can't simply shoot someone. He has to use Joker Venom on them, kill them with razor sharp playing cards, or kill them with an electrically charged joy buzzer. Even when escaping from prison or, in later years, Arkham Asylum, The Joker tends to be very theatrical. In the Sixties Batman episode "The Joker is Wild" he escapes from Gotham State Penitentiary using an explosive baseball and springs. Given his tendency to theatrics, it should be no surprise that he often makes a grand entrance when committing a crime. In the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Joker's Favour" (which was also Harley Quinn's first appearance) he pops out of a cake at at a testimonial dinner for Commissioner Gordon.
While The Joker has evolved over the years, from a psychotic killer to an elaborate thief to a harmless prankster to a psychotic killer again, the unpredictability of his actions and his taste for theatrics have remained a constant in his portrayals. In the end it is those two qualities that have made him possibly the most famous comic book villain of all time. Very nearly killed off in his second appearance, it seems certain that The Joker will never end.