Sinister Smiles: Joker’s Wild History

Serial killer, anarchist, broken man, and comedic relief - over the course of seven decades, Batman’s most infamous villain, the Joker, has been a man of many personas in hundreds of storylines. Despite having such a long history in comics and other media, there is a paradox at the heart of the Joker character; he has never had a consistent backstory to explain his origins, psychological motivations, and actions. This is an exploration of the many faces who portrayed Joker and the varied roles this most storied of DC Comics’ villains has played over the years. How many forms can the Clown Prince of Crime take?

Villainy’s Dawn

The inspiration for the Joker would appear very early on in 20th-century popular culture, predating even the formation of DC Comics itself. The 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs, based on a Victor Hugo novel, featured Conrad Veidt in the role of Gwynplaine, a tortured soul whose face had been hideously disfigured so that his mouth was permanently trapped in a rictus grin. Gwynplaine, unlike the coming Joker, was a romantic hero who remained sane and good-hearted throughout the story, but he did share two important traits with Batman’s arch-nemesis - an association with carnivals and a disturbing, warped smile. Although the stories of Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson on the Joker’s creation all vary somewhat, they all center around the common element of a still image of Veidt being the inspiration for the Joker’s design.  

Joker debuted in Batman #1 in 1940, roughly a year after Batman’s own creation. Batman’s earlier foes tended to be stereotypical mobsters and thugs, frequently killed off within the issue they were introduced, as this was before the Silver Age and the creation of Batman’s “no killing” code of honor. The Joker’s schemes were far more distinctive and elaborate, designed to push Batman’s physical and detective skills to the limits, and he quickly became a favorite of the comic’s fans, appearing in nine of the first twelve issues of Batman. Despite being a popular character for over a decade, he only received an origin story of his own in 1951, in Detective Comics #168. This brief tale of a career criminal named Red Hood who falls into a vat of chemicals and names himself “Joker” after comparing his face to one of his playing cards after seeing himself in a mirror was very rarely referenced in the following years, and many Batman fans over the course of the ‘50s and ‘60s considered Joker’s origin a topic that only the most obsessive Batman fans would remember.

The Age of the Comedic Criminal

The 1950s would see widespread censorship of the American comic book industry, as psychologists and public “intellectuals” saw fit to blame comics for everything from juvenile delinquency to encouraging homosexuality in America’s youth. Some lines, such as EC Comics' Tales from the Crypt and other horror comics, were forced to shut down entirely. Although DC Comics (Detective Comics) continued publishing Batman stories, the nature of these adventures greatly changed. The Joker’s homicidal streak was greatly reduced in favor of comedic, ridiculous schemes involving circus-themed gadgets like powerful joy buzzers and elaborate heists. With his edge gone, the Joker’s popularity fell, and his appearances in the Batman comics were greatly reduced. 

The Joker may well have became a forgotten footnote in the history of Batman villains had Cesar Romero not gotten the villainous role in the 1966 Batman series. Although the series was greenlit because of the popularity of the 1940s Batman serials on college campuses, those films did not utilize the Joker, instead making use of generic criminals and foreign saboteurs as the Dynamic Duo’s enemies. The makers of the Batman TV series realized they would need villains from the comics in order to sustain interest for the course of the TV series’ run, and cast Romero, a veteran actor of many romantic roles in his younger days, as the malevolent clown. Romero’s casting shocked many in Hollywood, as the Joker character was nothing like his earlier roles, yet Romero loved the cackling, flamboyant villain, enjoying his time on the set with Adam West and Burt Ward and willingly performing in character whenever children, adult fans, or interviewers asked him to. He appeared in 22 of the show’s 120 episodes and even got to be the first Joker on the movie screen in 1966’s Batman: The Movie! The Joker’s popularity rose in the comics once more, as Romero’s portrayal heavily influenced the villain’s visibility in the comics.

Return to Danger: A Madman’s Edge Revived

Although many Batman episodes were produced, the series only aired for three years, and the popularity of the comics began to fall again after its cancellation. This began the Joker’s “multiple choice” portrayal in popular culture. Although the “goofy Joker” remained popular in the media through reruns of the Batman series and cartoons like Superfriends, the Joker in comics began to become a darker character once more. His murderous streak returned during the 1970s Bronze Age as America’s major cities became more run down and violent, and the Comics Code Authority was ever so slightly relaxed in response to society’s ills. Although intensity and darkness returned to the Batman comics, even more time would pass until Joker’s origins were explored once more in 1988’s Batman, the Killing Joke

Considered one of the greatest comics ever written, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke was a far more detailed character study of Joker than his earlier 1950s origin. Here, Joker claims that he was once a failed standup comic who turned to a life of crime to support his ailing wife and developed a lifelong hatred of Batman after falling into a vat of chemicals following a heist. After relating these events, Joker reveals that this may not have been how the events happened, and that he prefers to have a “multiple choice backstory.” The story climaxes in Joker’s shocking crippling attack on Batgirl, permanently marking him as a dangerous, psychotic fiend in his standard DC Comics characterization. The “multiple choice backstory” would also allow future writers a great deal of freedom in terms of how they interpreted Joker’s origins and motivations.

Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie was written at roughly the same time as The Killing Joke, but also played with the Joker’s origin. Here played by Jack Nicholson, the Joker began as a hitman and gangster named Jack Napier who (distinct to this version of the story) was also the man who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. Nicholson’s “gangster Joker” was wonderfully hammy and over-the-top, and with his memorable catchphrase, “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” he created an almost impossible standard for the villains of 80s and 90s Batman films to live up to. Sadly, Nicholson only got to play the character once, but he absolutely dominated the movie he appeared in, and made Batman one of the biggest hits of the 1980s. 

Without Nicholson to reprise the role onscreen, the Joker’s portrayal shifted to TV cartoons, and the voice work of Mark Hamill. Once a squeaky-clean actor in Star Wars, Hamill’s Joker was the exact opposite of what you would expect from his live action performances. His Joker was sarcastic, witty, conniving and extroverted, a consistent characterization he developed and maintained over the course of three decades. Starting in 1992 with Batman: The Animated Series, the Joker would become the role that would define Hamill as a voice actor, as much as Luke Skywalker defined him as a live action one. Hamill has portrayed the Joker well into the 2010s in numerous animated films and video games and is typically cast as villains in other animated works due to his initial popularity as a voice actor coming from his Joker portrayal.

Back to the Silver Screen: Recent Portrayals

Another live action portrayal of the Joker would have to wait until 2008 with the debut Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger’s Joker in the film was much more of an anarchist than the earlier “gangster Joker” of Nicholson, preferring not to have a fixed crew, lair, or even a specific explanation of his past, taking Alan Moore’s “multiple choice backstory” to the extreme. Ledger’s Joker had charisma like a rock star and a penchant for speeches like a Bond villain, including his memorable “we live in a society” monologue. The purpose of this Joker was not simply to kill Batman or even to commit mass murder, but to show to the world that everyone in Gotham was as mad as he, and his elaborate schemes were designed to push citizens beyond the edge of insanity. Sadly, Ledger died a tragic early death, cementing audiences’ final mental image of him as the Clown Prince of Crime laughing madly into the night even as Batman finally thwarts and captures him. Few actors would have such a memorable final role or performance.

Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker as a man who could “infect” others with his madness would go on to influence the character’s portrayal in the TV series Gotham. This series provided a glimpse into Gotham City in Bruce Wayne’s younger days, before Jim Gordon was Commissioner and the rise of Batman. Here, the Joker was not just one man, but two brothers, both portrayed by Cameron Monaghan. Alike in their love of chaos and ruin but completely different in their methods, physical characteristics, and relationships with Bruce and Gordon, the two Jokers find ingenious ways to terrorize Gotham over the course of the five-season series. This represented another development of Moore’s concept: that the Joker not only didn’t have a fixed origin, but that anyone could become the Joker over the course of “one bad day” after witnessing enough horrors.

The latest, and perhaps most unorthodox, Joker film has only recently been released. Simply titled Joker, this is the rare Joker story to not feature Batman at all. Instead of beginning as a small-time criminal, Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a wounded soul who seeks a more fulfilling life and a successful career as a standup comedian. His fascination with - and later exploitation by - the talk show host Murray Franklin recalls the early Martin Scorsese film The King of Comedy. As events in his life spiral out of control and Arthur is driven into a world of hallucinations, terrible revelations, and violent murder, the once passive and disengaged Arthur slowly begins to acquire the charisma of the Joker, ripping away the shreds of his older self like a snake shedding its skin. Arthur’s weak, faltering being is replaced by the powerful, feral Joker, as a man wavering between light and darkness is forever lost to the abyss. In this darkest of Joker stories, the focus is not bizarre gadgets or elaborate action scenes, but exactly how far a man can fall on “one bad day”...and how horrific he can become afterwards. 

The nature of Joker stories has changed greatly over the course of American history. From simple pulp crime stories to comedic farces to dark tales about America’s unrest in the Great Recession and beyond, Joker’s nightmarish schemes have been a kaleidoscope of chaos, always shifting to reflect the moods and fears of the time. The chaos, unpredictability, and impermanence inherent in the Joker’s nature have allowed him to endure and outlast more one-dimensional villains in comic book lore. Social order, politics, technology, and Gotham City itself may change, but madness is forever. The Joker’s laughter will eternally echo across Gotham City, haunting the darkened streets of our minds.