10 Essential Joker Stories

You may not be as ready for The Joker as you think. Seb sets some essential comics background to Heath Ledger's character in The Dark Knight...

In case you hadn’t noticed (and who can blame you – they’ve kept it all very quiet) – there’s a new Batman film on the way. And as Batmania prepares to engulf the globe once more (yeah, we were just kidding about that “quiet” thing), once again it’s not old Pointy Ears himself that’s getting everyone excited, but the presence of a certain green-haired, red-lipped malevolent clown. Therefore, we at Den of Geek thought that some of you could do with a bit of a primer on the Clown Prince of Crime’s most memorable comics appearances. So if you want to be fully clued-up come the end of the month, you could do a lot worse than hunt a few of these down. And we start right at the very beginning…

Batman vs. The Joker (Batman #1, 1940) Intended as a one-off character (right down to the fact that he was originally supposed to die at the end), the original Joker, inspired by Conrad Veidt’s performance in The Man Who Laughs, is a marvellous creation. There’s none of the theatrics and showboating of later portrayals – simply a grim, malevolent sense of humour as he appears on t’wireless to announce the names of his intended victims. Bob Kane’s moody, noir­ish artwork suits the tone of the story perfectly, and the white skin and green hair are played in more of a creepy, ghoulish fashion than the “clown” of subsequent appearances.

The Joker’s Utility Belt (Batman #73, 1952) The excesses of the zany, campy Dick Sprang era of Batman comics (those which would later inspire the Adam West TV series) saw a surfeit of Joker stories, but the flipside of this is that none of them were particularly standout, as he was reduced to something of a comic foil – the sort of “villain” that would go to the trouble of capturing Batman and Robin but not even bother to unmask them, and one for which committing murder was as likely as going straight. Nevertheless, in being one of the most gloriously over-the-top stories of the time, this one’s actually a lot of fun – because, let’s face it, the idea that the Joker would invent his own Batman-esque utility belt filled with joke-shop materials is something that could only have come from the Silver Age.

The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge (Batman #251, 1973) It wasn’t just Batman that needed a healthy dose of rehabilitation after the TV show battered his “serious” reputation, but his arch-nemesis also. His first appearance of the Denny O’Neil / Neal Adams era, however, certainly helped along the way, and established a trend whereby his appearances would be far less frequent – and thus hold more impact. Here, in taking violent and twisted revenge on the former gang members that betrayed him, he’s re-established from the opening page as an unsettling and murderous psychopath once more, and the duel between himself and Batman turned into a classic battle of wits. Oh, and just in case you thought things had gone entirely po-faced, it also features Batman fighting a shark.

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The Laughing Fish (Detective Comics #475, 1978) Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ run on the title was popular with a great number of fans for the further work it did in restoring gravitas to Batman, and for its strong use of supporting cast – in particular with love interest Silver St. Cloud. It also featured this excellent two-part story that mixed classical Joker elements (the grinning, poisoned fish idea could almost have come from the ‘50s, while there’s a direct reference to Batman vs. the Joker when the Clown Prince appears on TV to announce a victim’s imminent death) with his modern portrayal as a deranged sociopath. Rogers was also among the first artists to lessen the exaggeration on the Joker’s chin, resulting in a far more realistic look than that of contemporaries such as Adams and Jim Aparo.

The Killing Joke (OGN, 1988) There are better places than here to discuss the more distasteful elements of The Killing Joke – those that even writer Alan Moore admits to regretting – but what can’t be denied is the sheer power of pathos and moral ambiguity in the scenes that show the Joker’s possible (and we really must stress that it’s far from a definite origin) life before his transformation. A failed stand-up comedian for whom sheer desperation and the absolute worst day imaginable combine to turn him into a monster, the story presented here suggests (as the Joker himself chillingly tries to prove) that “one bad day” can drive anyone mad. The closing scene, as brilliant and iconic an image as it is, feels somewhat uncomfortable considering the events that come before it, but the book remains an absolutely essential part of Joker history – a huge influence on The Dark Knight – and in Brian Bolland’s brilliant pencils, it contains perhaps the definitive visual portrayal of the character.

A Death in the Family (Batman #426-428, 1988-89) As the ‘80s drew to a close, DC took drastic steps to deal with the distinct lack of popularity shown by Jason Todd, the second Robin, by throwing open the phone lines to allow readers to vote on whether they should kill him off. Amid accusations and rumours of vote-rigging, Todd got a firm thumbs-down, and the Joker was duly given the job of beating him to a bloody pulp with a crowbar before blowing up the evidence. The main problem, though, was that even in his final story Jason was such an annoying brat that you couldn’t help but root for the Joker – which surely isn’t right. Furthermore, the conclusion to the story, in which the Joker manages to snare diplomatic immunity by becoming the Iranian ambassador, is both unconvincing and faintly racist (this was before DC invented the catch-all nation of “Qurac” for all their murderous terrorist needs). Nevertheless, an utterly landmark story, even if it really should have been the last straw for Batman’s holier-than-thou approach to his nemesis.

Arkham Asylum (OGN, 1989) Master Glaswegian scribe Grant Morrison’s first take on the character is the centrepiece of a dark and twisted psychological piece. Though the story itself is far from flawless, the Joker himself is particularly memorable – moments such as pretending over the phone to have stabbed out the eyes of a hostage with a pencil, before declaring “April Fool!” upon her discovery unscathed highlight both his terrifying psychosis and his warped sense of humour. What really defines the character in this story, though, is Dave McKean’s abstract and utterly unique artwork, which makes for a truly disturbing – and barely even human – vision.

Going Sane (Legends of the Dark Knight #65-68, 1994-95) A curious and often-overlooked story, J.M deMatteis’ four-parter sees the Joker finally achieving his goal and killing Batman – after which point, he takes the only course of action left to him: going entirely sane. His murderous psyche is buried under plastic surgery and the unassuming and likeable personality of Joseph Kerr (do you see?), who even finds time to fall in love. Of course, once ol’ Pointy Ears is discovered to be alive and well, his very existence triggers latent memories, and… well, you can probably guess the rest. To be honest, not everything about the story works (especially the weak artwork), and in particular the shifts in personality feel all-too-sudden and forced, but there’s a degree of pathos (albeit one already explored in The Killing Joke) about the man and life that might have been.

Slayride (Detective Comics #826, 2007) An excellent standalone story by Batman : The Animated Series co-creator Paul Dini, this Christmas-themed issue sees the third Robin, Tim Drake, fortuitously kidnapped by the Joker in an SUV and forced to watch as he mows down innocent people. Dini’s Joker is an unsettling mix of black humour (calling 911 to report a hit-and-run shortly before ploughing into a pedestrian, shooting a drive-thru manager for getting his order wrong) and genuinely scary psychosis (the look in his eyes as he calmly explains to Robin that his attempted means of escape was planted there deliberately to instil false hope is truly disturbing), while his undoing turns out to be, of all things, a Marx Brothers quote.

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The Clown at Midnight (Batman #663, 2007) “There’s something about clowns at a funeral and it’s hard to say if it’s sad or if it’s funny”. Grant Morrison’s currently-ongoing run on the main Batman title had to alight on the Joker at some point, and so it proves with this rather bizarre issue – a prose story, illustrated by computer-generated art and deliberately littered throughout with overwrought simile. At the beginning of his run, Morrison had had the Joker shot in the face by a deranged cop masquerading as Batman – providing the excuse here for a transformation, both mental and physical, into a terrifying new incarnation of the character. The visual of the scarred, twisted grin is clearly intended as a tie-in to The Dark Knight – but it’s contrasted with the clinical white of his hospital garb, a departure from the flamboyant purple outfits of the preceding sixty-odd years. Early indications – as the character has yet to appear again since, save for a brief and ominous cameo in the opening chapters of the current “Batman RIP” arc – are that Morrison is playing with an idea established in Arkham Asylum of the character’s “super-sanity” constantly creating new personalities, but it remains to be seen how this current interpretation will develop.

See also: The man who was The Joker (Conrad Veidt)

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