He goes by many names, the Clown Prince of Crime, Mister J and even the Jester of Genocide but most people know him simply as The Joker. One of the biggest known villains in popular culture. The Joker has transcended from the pages of a comic book to every known medium with ease and continues to be one of the most recognisable characters today.
The Joker was created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. He first appeared in the debut issue of the comic titled Batman back in 1940. A master criminal and psychopath, Joker has been Batman’s arch nemesis for over 70 years.
Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson have all given slightly different versions of events when it came to the creation of The Joker. One thing they almost agree on is the inspiration came from a joker playing card in a deck of cards.
One of the most interesting things about a character this crucial to the world of DC Comics, is that he has no origin story. There have been many variations of the Joker’s origin, with none of them ever officially declared to be the one true origin. The origin many fans cling to as the best backstory is ‘The Killing Joke’ a graphic novel from Alan Moore, released in 1988. A story that has inspired many Batman TV and movie plots and it even got a full animated feature in 2016.
This story sees an unsuccessful stand-up comedian falling on bad times get in with the wrong crowd. He ends up becoming the ‘Red Hood’ and while fleeing Batman, falls into a vat of chemicals. Presumed dead, he resurfaces with his trademark white skin and green hair to learn about the death of his pregnant wife. These traumatic events send him insane and becoming The Joker.
Batman #251 front cover created one of the most famous images of The Joker. An image of the Joker holding a playing card with Batman on can been seen on merchandise today around the world. Overshadowed by the image at times, this was also one of the best Joker stories ever told. ‘The Joker’s Five Way Revenge’ is a story about revenge as the Joker vows to kill his old gang who betrayed him. This was also a rare story in which Joker gets the better of Batman and could have killed him if he wanted.
In 1986 Frank Miller gave us ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. Acclaimed as one of the greatest graphic novels in history. A definitive Batman story just wouldn’t be the same without the Joker turning up to create havoc. Not the main villain to the story but is crucial in the second half of the story and a catalyst for the infamous showdown between Batman and Superman.
A story that has once again been used over the years to inspire plots in other medium ‘Arkham Asylum’ was a 1989 graphic novel from the mind of Grant Morrison. The art by Dave Mckean is some of the more graphic you will see on page and not a story for the faint hearted. A chaotic story in which the inmates at Arkham Asylum, led by Joker take over the facility and demand Batman to surrender himself to them.
In 1975 Joker got his own solo series that only ran for 9 issues until its cancellation. Collected in a trade paperback called The Joker: The Clown Prince of Crime. Not the greatest of books and didn’t do a lot for Joker as a books main protagonist however there are still some fun stories here to read.
Telling the Joker’s story wouldn’t be complete without talking about his one true love, Harley Quinn. Created in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley is the first mainstream character go from TV to comics rather than the other way around. The best story of Joker and Harleys whirlwind romance is the book ‘Mad Love’. Written by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in 1994 and serves as an origin story for Harley Quinn.
I can’t think of any other character that has transitioned from page to screen as consistently successfully as The Joker. We have had animated versions, live action versions, computer game versions, all of which have been incredibly well received.
Certain popular culture characters continue to evolve year after year because of how universally popular and successful they are. The likes of Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Incredible Hulk and Peter Pan are characters whose stories will always be told. However, with every good version of these characters there is a bad.
We have the 1978 Superman, 1989 Batman, The Dark Knight and Avengers movies which are some of the greatest, most popular and financially successful movies of all time. In between those movies we got The Amazing Spiderman, Justice League, Superman Returns and Batman and Robin. Movies that gave us below average performances of our favourite characters.
Every performance of the Joker on screen has been different but positively received. All the way back in 1966 on the TV series Batman, Cesar Romero was the first on screen version of the Joker. A fitting addition to the show, Romero’s performance was a jovial light-hearted interpretation and still highly regarded today.
Mark Hamill provided the voice for the Joker on the popular Batman: The Animated Series. A cartoon that hooked children and adults alike and became the introduction to Batman for many people. An animated series that was created with such love and care, tackling real life issues. Across 85 episodes Mark Hamill became the voice of the Joker. Becoming that popular with his distinctive voice and harrowing laugh he went on to voice the Joker on many animated features and the award winning, incredibly popular Arkham video games.
When people think about the Joker it is often the big screen movie versions people relate to. Jack Nicholson took the role in the Tim Burton 1989 movie and delivered to many people the best ever on-screen portrayal. In 1989 Nicholson had been nominated for an Academy Award 9 times, winning twice. A head line actor to play the role of the villain some said was a gamble. A gamble that paid off delivering a classy, outlandish Joker who put on one hell of a show.
Almost 20 years later we got the next big screen version in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 movie The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger was the actor playing the clown prince of crime this time and he didn’t come into the role with as welcoming arms as Nicholson did. Ledger was also an Academy Award nominated actor for his role in Brokeback Mountain. It was this role portraying a homosexual cowboy that stood out in people’s mind and a section of social media did not want him for the role. All those doubters were well and truly silenced when Ledger delivered a mesmerizing psychopathic and schizophrenic portrayal of the character who had a thirst for creating chaos. A performance winning Ledger an academy award for best supporting actor which was unfortunately awarded posthumously following his tragic death.
Heath Ledger’s image as the Joker is one of the most popular cosplay costumes to be seen at conventions around the world today.
With over 250 recorded productions featuring the Joker across TV, Film, Animation, Books and video games. One of the most recognisable characters in popular culture and possibly the most recognisable villain ever (Darth Vader possibly his only rival) it’s taken 79 years but he finally has his own solo movie.
Due for release in October 2019 a movie with some serious names behind it. Written and directed by Todd Phillips (Hangover, Old School, War Dogs) produced by Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born, American Sniper) and Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas). The titular character is being played by Joaquin Phoenix an Academy Award nominated actor for Gladiator, Walk The Line and The Master.
Information has been very scarce surrounding this movie but this is what the synopsis says:
“In 1981, a failed stand-up comedian turns to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City, slowly rising to become a frightening legend.”
Check out the trailers here.
If any of this has sparked your interest in the clown prince of crime then below is a list of books I would recommend picking up. This is not a definitive guide, but a good collection of books that can be easily purchased at all good comic book shops and online.
Batman: The Man Who Laughs (2005) – Writer: Ed Brubaker Artist: Doug Mahnke
The Killing Joke (1988) – Writer: Alan Moore Artist: Brian Bolland
Arkham Asylum (1989) – Writer: Grant Morrison Artist: Dave Mckean
Mad Love (1994) – Writer: Paul Dini & Bruce Timm Artist: Bruce Timm & Glen Murakami
Header image courtesy of That Joker Guy who is a trained graphic designer and artist who can be found on Instagram sinjoverload and @imthatjokerguy