The Evolution of the Joker: Best Joker Stories by Decade
Many of comics’ most popular characters have been around for decades, and in the case of the big names from the publisher now known as DC Comics, some have been around for a sizable chunk of a century. As these characters passed through the different historical eras known in comics as the Golden Age (the late 1930s through the early 1950s), the Silver Age (the mid 1950s through the late 1960s), the Bronze Age (the early 1970s through the mid 1980s) and on into modern times, they have experienced considerable changes in tone and portrayal that reflect the zeitgeist of the time.
With this feature we’ll help you navigate the very best stories of DC Comics’ most significant characters decade by decade. This week, we’re taking a look at the best Joker comics.
Though the exact story of the Joker's creation is somewhat contested, we know that some combination of Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and Bob Kane devised the character by taking inspiration from the character Gwynplaine from the film The Man Who Laughs, as portrayed by actor Conrad Veidt, and a drawing of a playing card sketched by Jerry Robinson that had reminded Finger of Veidt. The Joker was intended to become a memorable arch-nemesis for Batman, rather than just another forgettable one-dimensional gangster character. I'd say it worked.
The Joker's first appearance features two stories that introduce many of the elements we still associate with him today: a remorseless serial killer who commits whimsical acts of violence that follow a logic that only he understands, the Joker threatens the lives of three important Gotham citizens, including the mayor, with his toxic Joker venom, which leaves its victims with a hideous rictus grin. The Joker originally died at the end of this issue, but the book's editor shrewdly saw the potential in him and had a hastily-drawn panel added to the end of the story revealing he was still alive.
Early Joker stories from the Golden Age can be found in the Batman Chronicles series of paperbacks.
Best of the rest: “Knights of Knavery” (Batman vol 1 #25), “The Cross-Country Crimes” (Batman vol 1 #8), “The Riddle of the Missing Card” (Batman vol 1 #5), “Rackety-Rax Racket” (Batman vol 1 #32), “The Joker Walks the Last Mile” (Detective Comics vol 1 #64), “The Case of Joker's Crime Circus” (Batman vol 1 #4)
Detective Comics vol 1 #168, by Bill Finger and Lew Sayre Schwartz
Even as early as 1942, the creators of the Batman comics realized that it was easier to market their books to children if Batman's main nemesis were not a terrifying unpredictable mass murderer. As such, the Joker was gradually softened into a whimsical prankster rather than the disfigured serial killer he debuted as. By the 1950s and the advent of the Comics Code, this transformation was complete and would last for nearly thirty years.
“The Man Behind the Red Hood” is a cool little mystery story that I — or, more accurately, sixty-five years of subsequent comics continuity — have kind of spoiled the ending of by including it on this list, but c'est la vie. This story is the first to offer any kind of origin for the Joker, and later writers have come back to the well of this story again and again.
(And before any commenter offers up the comedy option and asks why it wasn't included: the infamous “boner” story is, in fact, on this list. It's “The Joker's Comedy of Errors” from Batman #66. Look, look there with your eyes: there it is.)
Many (but by no means all) of the stories on this list can be found in the Joker: A Celebration of 75 Years hardcover.
Best of the rest: “The Joker's Utility Belt” (Batman vol 1 #73), “The Joker's Comedy of Errors” (Batman vol 1 #66), “Superman and Batman's Greatest Foes!” (World's Finest Comics vol 1 #88), “The Joker's Millions” (Detective Comics vol 1 #180), “The Man Who Wrote the Joker's Jokes” (Batman vol 1 #67), “Crime-of-the-Month Club” (Batman vol 1 #110), “The Joker's Crime Costumes” (Batman vol 1 #63), “The Crazy Crime Clown!” (Batman vol 1 #74), “The Crimes of Batman” (World's Finest Comics vol 1 #61)
Wacky prankster Joker hit a high of popularity in the '50s and early '60s and then all but disappeared from the comics after the Batman books were revamped in 1964. There was a pretty simple reason for this: Julius Schwartz, editor of the so-called “New Look” era of Batman, hated the Joker. He wouldn't have included him in the books of this era at all if it weren't for the character's renewed popularity with mainstream audiences due to Cesar Romero's portrayal of him on the 1966 Batman TV show. Nonetheless, he only made a few appearances mid-decade, and then disappeared altogether for several years after the TV show was canceled.
The Joker stories of the New Look era all feature the camp sensibilities that were prevalent of that era, both in the comics and on the show, so the official selection for this decade is made in deference to Batmanologist Chris Sims, who stumps vehemently for this story in which the Joker steals an anti-gravity device in order to commit moon crimes. But you don't have to take my word for it.
Best of the rest: “The Great Clayface-Joker Feud!” (Batman vol 1 #159), “The Son of the Joker” (Batman vol 1 #145), “The Joker's Original Robberies” (Batman vol 1 #186), “The Joker Jury” (Batman vol 1 #163)
After a hiatus of several years, the Joker returned to comics when the Batman titles were revamped again in the early '70s in an attempt to recapture the moody darkness of the first few years of the Golden Age Batman. Joker's big return came in Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams's “Joker's Five-Way Revenge” (runner-up for this decade by the slimmest of margins), and the new-old take on the character proved so successful that the Joker even headlined his own solo series, the first villain to do so.
“The Laughing Fish” is, however, perhaps the most influential Joker story of the era, truly making the Joker a scary character again, even as his scheme — disfiguring fish with a hideous grin in his own likeness in an attempt to copyright them — is superficially whimsical and illogical. The impulsive, unpredictable killer of today's comics can be traced back to this story and “Five-Way Revenge.”
Best of the rest: “Joker's Five-Way Revenge” (Batman vol 1 #251), “Death Has the Last Laugh” (The Brave and the Bold vol 1 #111), “The Last Ha Ha” (The Joker #3), “This One'll Kill You, Batman!” (Batman vol 1 #260), “The Joker's Testimony” (Batman vol 1 #294), “Sherlock Stalks the Joker” (Joker #6), “The Joker's Double Jeopardy” (Joker #1)
If the 1970s ushered in the re-darkening of the Joker, the 1980s took it to another level. Stories from this decade saw the Joker kill Robin, paralyze and otherwise assault Batgirl, torture Commissioner Gordon, and snap his own neck just so the police will chase Batman. Of course, this decade also saw the Joker cemented in the minds of fans as Batman's number one foe thanks to his portrayal by Jack Nicholson in the 1989 Batman movie.
I'll be honest: I almost didn't pick The Killing Joke for this decade. Much has been made lately of the problematic nature of the story, and writer Alan Moore has famously distanced himself from the book. However, this story in which Joker maims Barbara Gordon in an attempt to show that one bad day is all that is necessary to make a man as violently insane as he is, which updates Bill Finger's story from Detective #168 into a possible origin for the Joker, is undoubtedly the definitive and most influential Joker story of the '80s and, indeed, of all time, for better or for worse.
Best of the rest: “Hunt the Dark Knight” (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #3),“A Death in the Family” (Batman vol 1 #426-429), “Catch as Catscan”/”The Last Laugh” (Detective Comics vol 1 #569-570), “Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker” (Batman vol 1 #321), “Last Laugh” (Batman vol 1 #353), “The Joker Is Wild” (Batman vol 1 #366), “To Laugh and Die in Metropolis” (Superman vol 2 #9), “Batman vs the Incredible Hulk” (DC Special Series #27)
A new element was added to the Joker's character in 1992, thanks to the ground-breaking and hugely influential Batman animated series: Harley Quinn, a psychiatrist from Arkham Asylum who fell in love with the Joker and subsequently became his harlequin-themed sidekick/assistant/partner/moll/target of abuse/whatever. Her character was so popular that she was added to the main continuity comics in 1999 during the No Man's Land storyline and has since gone on to be basically the most common cosplay subject of all time.
Mad Love is a close look at the relationship between Joker and Harley, written and drawn by two of the men behind the success of Batman: The Animated Series. It shows not only how Dr Harleen Quinzel gained first sympathy and then love for a maniacal killer, but also the abuse that she suffers at the Joker's hands, despite which she still devotes herself to him.
Best of the rest: “Going Sane” (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight vol 1 #65-68), Joker: Devil's Advocate, “Return of the Joker” (Batman vol 1 #450-451), World's Finest #1-3, Robin II: The Joker's Wild #1-4, “Fool's Errand” (Detective Comics vol 1 #726), “A Savage Innocence” (The Spectre #51), “Laughter After Midnight” (Batman Adventures Annual #1), “Joker's Holiday” (Aztek: The Ultimate Man #6-7), “Endgame” (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight vol 1 #126, Batman vol 1 #574, Detective Comics vol 1 #741)
If the Joker hadn't already been crowned DC's de facto top villain and Batman's number one foe by such stories as the ones in which he gains the nigh-unlimited power of a fifth dimensional imp, destroys a cabal of upstarts who would dare to try to murder Batman, and takes Robin on a terrifying joyride through Gotham, his portrayal by the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight — a movie that made a literal billion dollars — has secured his legacy as a pop culture phenomenon for years to come.
“Soft Targets” is a little more down-to-earth than some of those stories described in the last paragraph, but no less frightening. This story, as all of Gotham Central, focuses on the effects that Batman and his villain have on the regular day-to-day police officers of Gotham City. In this instance, the Joker has the cops pinned down with a sniper rifle, with which he is murdering both cops and civilians, and — to ratchet tension up even higher — has set up a website on which there is a countdown to each successive murder.
Best of the rest: “Slayride” (Detective Comics vol 1 #826), “Clown at Midnight” (Batman vol 1 #663), Batman: The Man Who Laughs, “Batman RIP” (Batman vol 1 #676-681), “Emperor Joker” (Superman vol 1 #160-161, Adventures of Superman vol 1 #582-583, Superman: The Man of Steel #104-105, Action Comics vol 1 #769-770, Superman: Emperor Joker #1), “The Demon Laughs” (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight vol 1 #142-145), “Trust” (Detective Comics vol 1 #833-834), “The Joker's Tale” (Birds of Prey vol 1 #16)
And that's it for the decades we've experienced so far! The 2010s are halfway over; we'll have to see who comes out on top in five years! Will anything be able to beat “Batman and Robin Must Die”? Let's find out together, shall we?
[gallery galleryid="622:136599" inititem="34" showthumbs="no" enablefullscreen="yes"]