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I’m a Grinner, I’m a Lover, I’m a Sinner…

… I’m a Joker, I’m a Smoker, I’m a Midnight Toker

What is it about the Joker that makes him such a great villain. He’s appeared in just about every media form where Batman has appeared since Batman #1 way back in 1940. He is one of only two villains to appear in both of the more recent Batman film franchises and he seems to be the only character in the history of the Batman family who has survived every era of the character unblemished. Be it the light comic relief of the Dick Sprang era reflected in the Adam West show (where Ceasar Romero is clearly wearing a mustache under his makeup), the darker sense of humour of the animated Joker voiced by Mark Hamill in The Animated Series through to the anarchist/nihilist terrorist portrayed by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight – none of these incarnations are any less in character than any of the others. What is it about the Joker that makes him one of the great villains of our time?

The world's leading cause of coulrophobia...

The world's leading cause of coulrophobia...

Batman is generally accepted as having one the strongest rogues galleries of all comic book heroes (random people can name the core group of his rogues without dipping below B-list opponents), so it isn’t a case that the Joker has been pushed to the fore in other media to make up for the shortcomings in other adversaries. Lex Luthor has been the focus of almost every major Superman movie since Richard Donner’s original (and when Gene Hackman refused to appear, a stand-in Luther-themed villain was used), but it’s hard not to get the sense that he is being bumped up because writers and directors can’t figure out what to do with the other villains.

It’s also hardly because the Joker is linked so well with Batman. Sure the two share a comedian/straight man dynamic and the Joker is fixated on getting a laugh out of his old foe, but the two aren’t themed opposites in the same way that Superman and Luthor are (brawn/brains) or the Green Lanterns and Sinestro are (green/red and yellow) or Wolverine/Sabretooth are (manimal/animan, if that makes sense) or Captain America and the Red Skull (American/Nazi) or any number of other villains and heroes are. Clowns and bats aren’t really themed well together. And the Joker has existed independently of Bats, appearing in his own short-lived comic book series.

The character does benefit from the whole ‘fear of clowns’ thing that has crept into our collective subconsciousness. I’m so exposed to media which takes great pleasure in the whole ‘killer clown’ thing that I don’t see how clowns could ever be anything but scary to kids. There’s just something… wrong about a laughing man with white skin in ridiculous clothes with all manner of things-that-aren’t-what-they-appear (squirty flowers, guns that shoot flags, shock buzzers). Clowns are fairly sinister – you don’t want to be victimised by something as inherently nonsensical and illogical as that. Their ridiculousness defies understanding. In the same way, the Joker defies understanding – he wants a million different things from one moment to the next; one minute he’s telling an old joke and the next minute he’s machine gunning an orphanage. I think the Joker benefits from being so strongly associated with the ‘monster clown’ notion that has drilled its way to somewhere near the heart of our pop consciousness.

The Joker is so strongly associated with that notion because he’s been around so long. He’s been around so long because the very nature of his character allows him to be flexible. Need a cold-blooded sociopath for the early Bob Kane stories? Here’s the Joker. Need a light hearted relief character to fit the mood since the Comic Code removed any hint of actual menace and violence from comics? Here’s the Joker. Need a character who can be subersively menacing as we try to bring that hint of darkness back to the Batman franchise? Here’s the Joker. Need a character to embody the darkness at the heart of the modern era of comic bookdom? Here’s the Joker.

He works well in any incarnation – Jack Nicholson’s scene-stealing madman is a much the Joker as Heath Ledger’s city-destroying terrorist. While fans will argue over whether Adam West was really a part of the Batman legacy or an abomination that set the franchise back decades, Ceasar Romero’s Joker is relatively sound (even if he is helping children cheat on their SAT’s so that they will later drop out of college and turn to crime). Batman: The Animated Series shied away and necessarily watered down some of the darker adversaries from the comic books (serial killer Mr. Zsasz never appeared, nor did power-drill-wielding sociopath the Black Mask, and Bane wasn’t allowed to break Batman’s back), but Mark Hamill’s twisted portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime remains a fan favourite.

Contrast this Lex Luthor, for example. He was introduced as a red-haired thief; then he became a bald, mad scientist; more recently he’s been a corrupt business man. I don’t pretend that there haven’t been severe changes made to the character – his origin story, for instance – but the character is much more flexibly able to react to them. One of the best aspects of the Joker as portrayed in The Dark Knight was that the character gave several different origins for himself – it’s never made clear whether any are true, but they all seem plausible.

Jack Nicholson's biggest crime? Stealing the show...

Jack Nicholson's biggest crime? Stealing the show...

One of the more interesting theories on the Joker came through in Grant Morrison’s lead-up to Batman R.I.P – the Joker has a bizarre case of multiple personality disorder. He creates a new identity every time he escapes from Arkham. Whether it’s lovable prankster to sociopathic comedian to serial killer, it’s all up to chance. There’s another theory that has seeped through the comics (and indeed into Nolan’s films): what if the Joker isn’t insane? What if he is supersane? What if he sees the world as it really is in its depressive form and has gleefully accepted that the only logical response to an illogical existence is madness? Several writers have played with this, even incorporating metafictional theories. If the Joker is supersane, he must realise he’s in a comic book and is simply playing along. At several points the character has acknowledged the audience (and this has also bled through to The Animated Series) and even turned the page for them. There’s one very clever theory out there which postulates that the reason the Joker never kills Batman (and only tries when he’ll fail) is because he knows (or believes)that if Batman dies, the comic ends. His fate is tied with his arch enemy’s.

The addition of The Joker was one of the strongest things about The Dark Knight – and I can understand why there were originally plans to include the character in a sequel. He’s a fascinating character, the very embodiment of madness and yet brilliance that compliments Batman in a very subtle way. I don’t believe that the character should be locked away from the screen following the death of Heath Ledger – as some fans have protested – but I do understand if Christopher Nolan doesn’t want to bring him back for his own third film (if that happens at all). I think heath Ledger’s portrayal was brilliant, but not definitive.

The Joker defies definition.

_______________________________________________________________

This is one of a series of articles being published to celebrate the anniversary of the release of The Dark Knight and the seventieth birthday of the character. There will be one-a-day for the week – but don’t worry, it won’t interrupt our other coverage of pop culture happenings.

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5 Responses

  1. Another awesome post, you seem to have read a lot of comics that featured the Joker. Any recommendations?

  2. […] the goddamn joke.”) Tying the character together in such a manner works because of the very nature of the Joker. It’s when Morrison attempts to do the same to Batman that we run into trouble. Oh, Batman, […]

  3. […] it. The character doesn’t really scream lethal threat. Certainly not in a way to compare with the Joker or Two-Face or The Scarecrow or Ra’s Al-Ghul or Mr. Zsasz, the featured villains of the […]

  4. […] in the comic book medium, because of his metafictional nature. When I wrote a piece discussing what makes the Joker such a compelling adversary for Batman, I mentioned that there’s the more-than-possible explanation that the Joker is aware he is a […]

  5. For me personally, I think this is one of the weakest articles you’ve written. (I am a huge Joker fan and wanted to see something far better). I personally think the reason Joker is tied to Batman so easily is because he helps serve a direct opposition to our standard hero/villain stereotypes. Here our hero hides in the darkness, relies on fear to succeed, is doing what he does because he is tramatized, and is often compared to a vampire/demon. Our villain is the one who is in the spotlight, is bright and colorful, and is generally always smiling. In the grand scheme of the Batman mythos, I think Joker makes himself into the archenemy because of around ten reasons I’m too lazy to type. I refuse to watch Beware the Batman, since they strictly do not want to use the Joker. I’m sorry, but those writers are shooting themselves in the foot with a creative decision like that.

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