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The Evolution of The Joker: Still Crazy After All These Years

Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery is a twisted trip through the darkness and horror of modern life; for every anxiety that plagues us, there’s a Batman baddie to personify it, accumulating the most impressive array of villains in comics. And standing out like a knife glinting in the darkness is the Joker. With a new metamorphosis in the works in the 52 and the HC edition of The Joker: A Visual History of The Clown Prince of Crime now in bookstores (remember them?) it seems like a capital time to look at the various interpretations of the Joker throughout the years.The Joker was created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane — Robinson and Kane disagreed on who did what exactly, but the initial sketch came from Robinson, which reminded Finger of a 1928 German Expressionist film called The Man Who Laughs, and the ghastly appearance of the lead actor, Conrad Veidt. The figure of the Joker was immediately arresting, his pale, cachinnatory psychoses wet and apparent at first glance and cast an interesting visual dichotomy with The Batman. Batman, was dark, and physically menacing while this new breed of villain was a gleaming pop of color and life.

Even now, 70 years after his first appearance in Batman #1, the initial Joker stories seem a little disturbing. Killing three of Gotham’s most powerful with “Joker venom,” leaving them all with a permanent rictus grin, he made a game of his murders, predicting his crimes with radio broadcasts, playing shell games with the police, and seemingly motiveless. He announces his plan to steal the Claridge diamond and kill Henry Claridge at midnight, so the police post a guard around he and his diamond.

Suddenly, Claridge drops to the floor, his face transforming into a gruesome mask as he dies. The cops then open the safe to discover that the diamond has been replaced with a fake, the theft and poisoning having occurred twenty-four hours before. In addition to his intelligence and psychoses, the original Joker was a physical threat, knocking the Batman out in their first scrape. To be fair, Bruce Wayne was a smoker at that time.

The Joker remained pretty consistent throughout the Golden Age, vexing Batman and the police with the unpredictability and spectacle of his crimes, and becoming sillier, more colorful, and larger-than-life along the way. Batman and the Joker maintained a Holmes-Moriarty dynamic, and on more than a couple of occasions, the Joker appeared to have died, with no body found. In Detective Comics 168, in 1951, it was revealed that he had once been a criminal called the Red Hood, and revealed an origin of sorts: 10 years earlier, costumed as the Red Hood, the attempted robbery of a playing card company led to Batman’s intervention and a leap into chemical waste runoff, and the Red Hood emerged with bleached skin, green hair, and a new outlook on life. In truth, it wasn’t a great story, and really seems almost unnecessary. But some interesting broad strokes were put in place, and the chemical bonds that linked Batman and the Joker were given new strength.

With the administrative heat on comics in the late forties/early fifties, Joker’s homicidal tendencies were seriously curtailed. With the enactment of the Comics Code Authority, violence and mayhem were lanced from the form, and throughout the Silver Age the diabolical monster was reduced to a mildly threatening trickster. Some good stories were still told using this tamer version, and great groundwork was laid for broadening the culture’s awareness. While no longer a serial murderer, he was still crazy. The addition of schtick like trick guns, acid-spitting posies, and silly, elaborate crimes added to the mythos and over-the-top personality of Batman’s defining archvillain. This was the Joker that made the transition to television in Cesar Romero’s 1966 portrayal, adding a cackling soundtrack to the clumsy ha-ha-has that had been mocking Batman and the Boy Blunder (hah!…classic) since 1940. By the early 1970s, though, the character’s use had tapered off significantly.

When Denny O’Neal and Neal Adams revived the Batman franchise they did so with a return to the darker edge pre-Comics Code prohibition, and that naturally involved a revamp of the Joker, who apparently hadn’t even appeared in the comics in four years! O’Neal and Adams’s second-generation approach brought a new sense of sophistication and realism to the character’s lunacy, and the looser restrictions of the age allowed the character to return to his sanguine roots while refining the ridiculousness of his modus operandi into a demented pantomime. All interpretations of the character since, in all mediums, have been enjoyed the dichotomy of O’NAdams’s totemic run.

That razor mix of mayhem and camp rearranged mental continuity, finally allowing those previous versions of the Joker to come together in a perfect point of contention for Batman, emerging from time like a gaudy mutilated butterfly as the Dark Knight’s defining villain. The kind of villain that not even the ultimate detective could figure out, one who might go on a murder spree because he can’t patent smiling fish. (He wasn’t allowed to patent it because you can’t trademark things that just grow, even if you alter them. Can somebody tell that to the companies that try to patent genetically-altered seeds?)

For the next decade-plus, the Joker ran wild through Batman and Detective Comics, racking up a pretty impressive body count. More and more realistic violence crept in, peaking in Batman: The Killing Joke by Brian Bolland and Alan Moore. Though seriously flawed by a formal approach that seems almost like a clumsy impression of Moore’s own Watchmen, the one-shot brought depth and pathos to the character while still ramping up the insanity. Having escaped from Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane once again, the Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, tortures him in the rape carnival, and tries to prove that all it takes is one bad day to turn a good man insane.

As the Joker’s flashbacks in Killing Joke recall, he too was once a normal guy trying to make it as a stand-up comedian and expectant father, and all it took was one bad day. After a couple of goons convince him to let them into his former place of employment, he’s given the Red Hood costume to hide his identity. Just before the job, though, he discovers his pregnant wife has been electrocuted and killed, and they force him to perform the job anyway, leading to his fall into the chemical waste and transformation into a demented force of nature. The plotting is good and Bolland’s artwork is ecstatic, but the story is too abrupt to answer the questions it asks, slipknotting around the points it raises with an admittedly unreliable narrator and an ending that seemed really awesome when I was twelve.

The late 1980s were especially rich in stirring portrayals of the Joker. Shortly before then, he appeared in Frank Miller’s Batman:The Dark Knight Returns as a slick David Bowie pop figure; in 1989 as a disfigured agent of chaos in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth; in ’89 Jack Nicholson imbued his portrayal with a greasy sexual danger that helped cultivate the character’s coolness. And in regular-ass comics continuity, he went ahead and clubbed Jason Todd to death at the fans’ request. A composite of these eighties sources dominated his portrayal in comics for the last twenty years. Recently, though, there have been attempts to update the character once again.

When Grant Morrison took over Batman in 2006, he immediately set to work to reshape the Joker for a new audience, having the character shot in the face in issue 655 to set up a return in 663 as a permanently-scarred Thin White Duke of Murder that jibed better with Heath Ledger’s portrayal. The current doings in the DC Universe’s new continuity seem to have derailed that direction, though, turning the character into a workout fetishist, and restoring his face only to have it seemingly ripped off? Spoilers. Really, I wouldn’t know. You think I can afford comics?

Sooo I guess the joke is on me. That’s okay. Continuity is fluid, great stories immortal, and the pillars of the Joker’s myth firmly intact.

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