The Joker(pop culture)
Call him what you will—the Clown Prince of Crime, the Harlequin of Hate, the Ace of Knaves, or even “Mr. J”—but Batman's arch-foe the Joker is one of the most recognizable of all supervillains. His chalk-white skin, green hair, rouge-red lips, and toothy, macabre smile are etched into infamy, evoking the clown fears that have traumatized countless children and have lingered in the nightmares of many adults. When the Joker debuted in Batman #1 (1940), he appeared without the benefit of the customary device of an origin, heightening his mystique. In an untitled tale he interrupts a Gotham City radio broadcast to predict in “a toneless voice” the murder of millionaire Henry Claridge and the theft of his priceless Claridge Diamond, to occur at midnight. Despite a police cordon, a panicky Claridge dies laughing at the stroke of twelve, a “repellant, ghastly grin” creeping across his lifeless face. This is calling card of the Joker, the insane serial killer in a purple zoot suit who uses a toxin to cause his victims to, in the words of Jack Nicholson, who played the villain in director Tim Burton's live-action Batman (1989), “go with a smile.” His other trademark, a Joker playing card, is established in this first tale, luring Batman and Robin onto the Harlequin of Hate's trail. Once cornered, the crackpot, crackshot Joker attempts to ventilate Batman's chest, which is protected by a bulletproof vest, and winds up behind bars, where he diabolically cackles that he will have the last laugh upon his new foe. “The Joker Returns” also appeared in that very multi-story issue, three tales later, and in it he's back to his murderous tricks, wielding an ax at Batman; the Joker almost dies as a knife he attempts to plunge into the hero's chest winds up in his own. The Joker's chilling Batman #1 premiere succeeded in scaring DC Comics' editors as well as its readers, as the character's homicidal tendencies were jettisoned for practical joke-laced crimes. The Joker became the chaos to the Caped Crusader's order, worming his way into story after story, and soon onto the covers of Batman and Detective Comics themselves, which had, in Batman and Robin's earliest outings, usually featured generic poses of the heroes rather than story-specific teasers (artist Fred Ray's original cover art to 1942's Batman #11, featuring the Joker, fetched an astounding $195,500 in an August 2005 auction from Dallas, Texas' Heritage Comics). He was also seen in newspapers during the mid-1940s, in the Batman syndicated strip. By the time “The Joker Follows Suit” was published in Batman #37 (1946), the Clown Prince of Crime had been firmly established as Batman's demented doppelgänger, tooling around Gotham around in his Jokermobile, taking to the skies in his Jokergyro, and illuminating the night with his Joker Signal, each dastardly device bearing his smirking face. The origin of that famous face is marred by controversy, as if the madcap Bat-foe himself orchestrated a cruel joke to disorient historians and fans. Artist Jerry Robinson, originally the assistant to Batman's credited creator and first artist, Bob Kane, is said to have created the Joker, drawing from the obvious playing-card inspiration for the arch-foe's look. Conversely, Kane claimed authorship, in collaboration with Batman's unsung champion, writer Bill Finger. Finger's son Fred cited yet another different source for the Joker's visage: a drawing of a man with a ridiculously wide grin that appeared on advertisements for “the funny place,” George C. Tilyou's Steeplechase attraction at Coney Island. Penciler Kane and inker Robinson concurred that when drawing the Joker in Batman #1, they based the villain's looks on stills from the silent movie The Man Who Laughs (1928), provided to them by Finger, the writer of the first Joker tale. In that film, actor Conrad Veidt portrayed Gwynplaine, a disfigured, rictus-faced character. The Joker was finally awarded an origin … of sorts … in “The Man Behind the Red Hood” in Detective #168 (1951). A tuxedoed thief whose features are hidden behind a crimson cowl returned, having evaded Batman early in the hero's crime-fighting career. Batman discovered that the Red Hood was actually the Joker, who, in his original Red Hood adventure, escaped from Batman by swimming through a “pool of chemical wastes” that permanently altered his appearance. His original face was never shown, nor was he named. (A new Red Hood has appeared in 2000s Batman continuity.) Often aided by hapless goons and headquartering from abandoned amusement parks or reconfigured buildings (his lair in some texts has been called his Ha-Ha-Hacienda, even bearing his likeness and deathtraps for uninvited guests), the Joker continued to laugh his way through zany capers throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, donning his own utility belt, filming his own movies, starting a newspaper, launching a “Crime-of-the-Month Club,” and joining forces with Lex Luthor, schemes intended to line his pockets and pester Batman and Robin (and sometimes Superman). While the murderous Joker of Batman #1 was a distant memory, his arsenal was still quite hazardous, from electric joy buzzers to acidspraying boutonnières to exploding vest buttons. During this era, artist Dick Sprang's manic interpretation of the Joker stood out as the villain's signature look. After editor Julius Schwartz retooled Batman with an updated “new look” in 1964, the Joker flounced into the mainstream as the third villain to be introduced to a television audience in ABC's live-action Batman (1966–1968), with screen Latin lover Cesar Romero first appearing as the villain in the two-part episodes “The Joker Is Wild” and “Batman Is Riled” (original airdates: January 22 and 23, 1966). “Jose Ferrer was my first choice for the Joker,” series producer William Dozier revealed in a 1986 interview; actor Gig Young was also considered. Ferrer reportedly regretted passing on the role after the show became a runaway success (his son, actor Miguel Ferrer, voiced DC Comics supervillain the Weather Wizard on the animated program Superman, 1996–2000). In retrospect, Dozier was ecstatic over the giggling foolishness his old friend “Butch” Romero brought to the Joker, never regretting going with his second choice: “I was thinking [Ferrer] may have taken himself a little too seriously as an actor to do that.” While chuckling through numerous episodes and the 1966 Batman spin-off theatrical movie, Romero as the Joker took one thing very seriously—his mustache, which he never shaved for the role, his lip hair visible under the heavy Joker greasepaint. The Joker was close under Batman's merchandising wing during this era of “Batmania,” appearing on Batman lunchboxes, plastic coins, figurines, Topps trading cards (a 1966 series of painted Batman cards featured the Joker with Caucasian ears, artists Bob Powell and Norman Saunders' mistaken impression that the Joker was a criminal in makeup), an ultra-rare hand puppet available only in a gift set, a mini-comic book distributed in boxes of Pop Tarts, and a paperback collection of his 1950s adventures from Signet Books (Batman vs. the Joker, 1966). The Joker was seen in various DC titles, from his home turf of Batman and Detective to guest shots in other series, and in Batman's syndicated newspaper strip. After Batman's TV cancellation, the Joker maintained a television presence in animation on CBS's The Batman/ Superman Hour (1968–1969) and The Adventures of Batman and Robin (1969– 1970); ABC's The New Scooby-Doo Movies (1972– 1974); and CBS's The New Adventures of Batman (1977–1978). Mego produced Joker action figures in a variety of sizes during the 1970s. Batman comic books returned the hero to his darker, gothic roots in the early 1970s, and after a few dormant years while the Dark Knight was fighting ghosts and gangsters, “The Joker's Five-Way Revenge” in Batman #251 (1973), by writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams, took the Harlequin of Hate back to square one: serial killer. “Though I wasn't aware of it at the time,” O'Neil recounted in a 2004 BACK ISSUE interview, “I now know that the Joker is probably the best embodiment of the trickster motif in all of modern fiction, though Hannibal Lecter might be a close second.” This was a trickster embodiment with a body count, as the Joker offed his enemies with wild abandon, and came close to doing the same to Batman, even to artist Adams' surprise. “Yes, I wanted to do the Joker, and yes, I wanted him to be bad, but Denny made him real bad,” the artist told BACK ISSUE. But Adams ultimately jibed with O'Neil's back-to-brutal-basics approach, elongating the Joker's face to a look that, despite minor variations reflecting artistic preferences, remains canonical in the twenty-first century.
The Joker's rebirth in Batman #251 reignited his comics career. He received his own title, The Joker (1975–1976), a series that ran out of steam after nine issues as the governing Comics Code Authority required the villain to be apprehended at each issue's end; he also “teamed” with Batman in several issues of The Brave and the Bold. Writer Steve Englehart, joined by artist Marshall Rogers, explored the Joker's craziness in Detective #475–#476 (1978), in which the Joker ludicrously attempted to copyright freakish “laughing fish” contaminated by his smile toxins. “My sense of it was if you really got to the essence of the Joker, he still had another dimension to go, which was to become insane,” Englehart remarked to BACK ISSUE in 2004. (The popular Englehart/Rogers team reunited for a 2005 miniseries titled Batman: Dark Detective, featuring the Joker's gubernatorial campaign with his persuasive campaign slogan, “Vote for me—or I'll kill you!”) The next milestone in the Joker's career was Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), writer/artist Frank Miller's noncontinuity, futuristic vision of a fiftyish Batman grudingly coming out of retirement to battle, among other things, the Joker. Miller's Joker added a new element to the villain's dichotomous relationship with Batman: homoeroticism, redefining the reasons for the Crime Clown's fixation upon his foe. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, which is part of DC's continuity, built upon the classic “Red Hood” tale by showing the face behind the hood, a nameless working stiff with stand-up comedy aspirations who turned to crime to support his pregnant wife, who died in the story. Since this is an origin told by the Joker, its legitimacy remains uncertain, although events taking place in Batman: Gotham Knights #54 (2004) suggest that for once the Joker might not have been pulling readers' legs. The Killing Joke is best known for the Joker's kidnapping of Commissioner James Gordon and his debasement and shooting of Gordon's daughter Barbara (the former Batgirl), which left her confined to a wheelchair. The next year the Joker committed the iniquitous act of killing Jason Todd, the second Robin the Boy Wonder, in the storyline “A Death in the Family” (Batman #426–#429, 1989), an execution sanctioned by DC readers who voted for Todd to die in a rather morbid phone-in publicity stunt. Also that year, the Joker returned to movie houses in the blockbuster Batman (1989), with Jack Nicholson cast as mobster Jack Napier, who, while on the lam from the Dark Knight, fell into a vat of chemicals and crawled out of a sewer having been transformed into the Joker. The movie further linked the Joker to Batman by revealing that Napier was the gunman who murdered young Bruce Wayne's parents before the boy's eyes, the tragedy which led him toward his Batman career. Nicholson's Joker, while at times hamfisted with screentime, occasionally displayed Englehart-like moments of mania (not entirely surprising since Englehart was involved with early treatments of the film), and the Joker's grin-inducing toxin received a name, “Smilex” (used for the movie only; in comic books, it is called his “Joker Venom”). Nicholson returned the Joker to merchandising ubiquity: board games, video games, action figures, T-shirts, and a rubber Joker Halloween mask were among the many items bearing his facepainted likeness. Bantam's The Further Adventures of the Joker, a collection of prose short stories, was published in early 1990. The 1990s and 2000s have anchored the Joker's position as a pop-culture figure. He has continued to run amok throughout the DC Universe, becoming more deranged each time he is liberated from his cell in Arkham Asylum. He escaped a death sentence in the graphic novel The Joker: The Devil's Advocate (1996), joined the Injustice Gang and fought the JLA in the late 1990s, co-starred with Dark Horse Comics' own grinning goofball in the 2000 Joker/Mask crossover, and “Jokerized” criminals in his own image when thinking he was about to die in the miniseries Joker: Last Laugh (2001). Despite his gargantuan smile, it is no laughing matter when the Joker shows up, brandishing his pistol that fires a “BANG!” flag (and sometimes spears) or a smiley-face bomb brimming with his deadly Joker Venom. The Joker has kept television viewers enthralled since 1992. Mark Hamill, having brought another DC supervillain, the Trickster, to life in two episodes of the live-action series The Flash (1990–1991), voiced the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) (1992–1995) and in appearances in Superman (1996–2000), The Adventures of Batman & Robin (1997–1999), Static Shock (2000–2004), the made-for-video animated movie Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000), and Justice League (2001–2004). Hamill's vocalization became so heavily identified with the Joker that he was hired to provide the villain's voice for the first episode of the live-action Birds of Prey (2002–2003) and received an outpouring of fan support to play the Joker in a forthcoming sequel to the live-action box-office hit Batman Begins (2005). A Joker playing card left behind at the scene of a crime in Batman Begins' epilogue suggested the Clown Prince of Crime's future appearance, and a “casting game” swept fandom and the Internet, with Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Steve Carell, and Hamill among the names bandied about as Joker candidates. Hamill's indirect contribution to the Joker canon was the villain's gun moll, Harley Quinn (whose pet names for the Joker are “Puddin'” and “Mr. J.”), introduced on BTAS and eventually proving so popular that she was incorporated into DC Comics continuity. The Batman (2004–present), the animated relaunch of the Batman concept, has introduced a revamped, wild-haired, straight-jacketed martial artist Joker played by Kevin Michael Richardson. A collector could easily fill a bookcase with the Joker action figures and accessories (such as Jokermobiles) produced since the early 1990s to tie in to the various animated and comic-book interpretations of the villain, incluidng a 2005 Red Hood figure, with a removable hood exposing the Joker's sneering face.
The Supervillain Book: The Evil Side of Comics and Hollywood © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.