The Joker is the most recognizable villain in all of comics, and as such, there are as many takes on him as there are creators who have worked on a Batman comic. Fortunately for us, for every Jared Leto out there, there are 15 awesome comic stories. So if you’re coming out of the Joker movie with a thirst for more good, thoughtful, interesting stories using the Clown Prince of Crime, we’ve got some comics for you.
Batman: The Killing Joke
This is probably the most influential Joker story of all time. Alan Moore’s dense psychoanalysis of the Joker is formative to just about every writer who came afterwards, and Brian Bolland’s stunningly gorgeous pencils combined with John Higgins’ perfect colors to create an eerie, dark, vicious story that has become the generally accepted origin for the character.
The story bounces back and forth between showing how an unnamed, down on his luck schmo got wrapped up in a heist that ended with him at the bottom of a pool of chemicals, and showing that schmo, now a criminal mastermind, kidnapping Commissioner Gordon and trying to drive him to the same kind of mental break that the story implies is at fault for the Joker’s creation. It’s the first one to really draw strong parallels between the Joker’s mental state and Batman’s, casting the two of them as two possible outcomes to the same break.
And did I mention it’s incredible to look at? Whether you’re a comics scholar or new to the medium, I can almost guarantee you’ve seen that cover, with the Joker holding a camera sideways in front of his face telling you to smile.
Batman: The Man Who Laughs
Ed Brubaker isn’t often talked about as a seminal Batman writer, but he’s defined entire swaths of Batman’s world over his career, and The Man Who Laughs is a big one. This book, drawn by the great Doug Mahnke, takes a look at the Joker’s first interaction with Batman. He’s poisoning people all over Gotham City, and he has a plan to poison the reservoir. Batman works to stop him.
It’s a much more straightforward, less avant-garde Joker, and the story is told with a modern sensibility and outstanding art from Mahnke. Brubaker (and Greg Rucka, who we’ll talk about in a second) writes detective Batman as well or better than anyone in a generation, and The Man Who Laughs is full of really great detective work, with Bruce piecing together who the Joker is and what he’s trying to do. And the fight sequence at the end of the issue is good, classic, straight up Batman/Joker brawling. If you want a way to ease into Joker stories, this is a great one.
The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge
It’s not often an entire character can be distilled down to a single panel of comics, but Neal Adams effectively did that in Batman #251. Adams is a tremendous artist who changed the entire industry with his panel layouts and action sequences, but the Joker’s “ta daa!” hands and his smile next to a bearing down shark as he says “We resemble each other!” is incredible.
This one-off story has the Joker breaking out of a pre-Arkham Asylum mental hospital and hunting down the five ex-henchmen who might have betrayed him to put him away. Only one of them did, but he’s covering his bases, and the issue ends with a wheelchair-bound ex-aide precariously balanced over a tank with an angry shark in it. Batman gets dropped in and has to beat the shark and then save the henchman. It’s one of the best Batman sequences of all time, and the issue captures so much about the Joker that makes him great: his meticulous planning and forethought and his absurd, violent sense of humor. This one is collected in The Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told and will likely be wrapped up in a Neal Adams omnibus sooner rather than later.
The Laughing Fish
Detective Comics #475-476 is another quick story that was incredibly influential on how both Batman and the Joker were portrayed moving forward. That importance stems from two things: the ridiculous, malicious joy of the Joker’s plot, and Marshall Rogers’ art.
The plot was turned into the episode of the same name for Batman: The Animated Series. A fish wholesaler has made fish that look like the Joker for branding purposes, and the Joker, mad he can’t monetize his own visage the same way, goes on a killing spree to get his rights back. This is darkly hilarious, especially the deeper you dive into the metaphor – the mid ‘70s was a big time for comic creator rights, and Rogers was a big part of that. This comic is basically an effigy for comic creators rights.
It’s also incredible to look at. Rogers is one of those Batman artists everyone should read at some point, a definitive Batman artist who used the Joker to get even better. Rogers’ Batman is bulkier than some of the Batmen of the time, powerful and intimidating. By contrast, his Joker is long and lanky and bony, the kind of guy who hangs with Batman in a fight not with brute force, but with deceptive speed and a weird amount of torque. You can find these issues collected in Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers vol. 1 along with another handful of Batman comics from the same era. These creator compilations are some of the best money you can spend. Especially if you get them on sale digitally or find them in a sale pile at your shop.
A Death in the Family
Great Joker stories are often about what they bring out in Batman. “Death in the Family,” an event story from 1988, is memorable because it brought out pure, shaking, rage from Bruce. This is the story where fans called in a vote on whether or not to kill Robin.
Jason Todd was the second person to hold the Robin mantle. He was a street kid who fell in with Batman and didn’t really know his mother. After he gets benched by Batman for being unreliable, he runs off to try and find out who his mother is, finds (maybe) her working for Shady Doctors Without Borders in Iran, and promptly gets captured by the Joker, beaten almost to death with a crowbar, and then blown up in a warehouse by said Clown Prince. And right afterwards, the Joker is given a position with the Ayatollah’s government and gains diplomatic immunity, effectively pulling a Lethal Weapon 2 on Batman and Superman.
This story is odd, but it’s also significant in the history of Batman, and revealing for the Joker’s character. He’s not all high-concept death traps. Sometimes he’s just a guy with a crowbar. In either case, he’s one of the most dangerous villains in the DCU.
If you really enjoyed Heath Ledger’s aesthetic in The Dark Knight, you’re going to love Lee Bermejo’s Joker in this book. He’s everything Ledger was in the movie – disheveled, magnetic, menacing without being intimidating – but he’s also fashionable in a street level mob boss kind of way. That break from Ledger’s Joker is the perfect match for this story.
This Joker is grimy and street level. He’s EXTREMELY violent but without the comic book panache he usually has. Here he’s just aggressive, with bottles and guns and knives and no sharks or hot air balloons or parades. But he still maintains that core Jokerness, that unpredictability that makes the character so terrific.
The Batman Adventures: Mad Love
Paul Dini and Bruce Timm are responsible for the greatest and most definitive Batman of all time – the animated one. They also created Harley Quinn, and told a bunch of great stories with her (“Harley’s Day Out” is one of the best Batman stories ever told), but Mad Love also functions as an excellent examination of Batman and Joker’s relationship.
If you’ve watched the show, you probably know what happens in this comic, as it was adapted in a later episode of the cartoon. The Joker won’t pay any attention to Harley because he’s obsessed with killing Batman, so she decides to do it for him so they can spend time together. We get a look back at her origin, working as a doctor at Arkham and falling for the Joker as she tries to treat him, with all the unreliable narration that entails. The weird hate-triangle this issue explores is a fantastic dynamic to add to the Joker’s backstory, and the issue is by a pair of Batman masters.
Gotham Central: Soft Targets
Gotham Central is incredible. It was a police procedural comic, following the cops of the Major Crimes Unit in Gotham as they worked on all of the various awful stuff that happened in the city, from regular old crimes of passion to a parade of dead teenagers in Robin outfits being left randomly across the city. It was written jointly by Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, with Rucka writing the day shift cops, and Brubaker taking the night shift. “Soft Targets” is the storyline that ran from issue 12 to 15, where the Joker just starts sniping people. For the hell of it.
Police procedurals are comfort food, but Gotham Central succeeded because it added something to the formula that made it shine. The characters felt familiar and real at the same time. The conflicts were down to earth for a superhero comic – the first issue dedicates about a third of its story to the Mayor and the Commissioner arguing over overtime pay for the Major Crimes Unit. And even the Joker’s plan, spree killing for chaos’ sake, was remarkably toned down. But it gives us one of the best interrogation scenes in comics history, just by taking the Joker out of his predictable formula, too.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and The Clown at Midnight
A word of caution here: these books are challenging for even serious comic readers. They’re very rewarding, but they’re not comics you can just pick up an see the Joker and Batman fighting. Both are written by Grant Morrison, with Arkham Asylum drawn by Sandman cover artist Dave McKean. This book is a dense, psychological character study of a LOT of Batman’s villains, but it spends a lot of time on the relationship between Batman and the Joker, as Batman is in the Asylum trying to shut down a riot.
The Clown at Midnight is also written by Morrison and…drawn…by John Van Fleet. I hesitate because what art is there is very evocative, intentionally early period computer graphics. This issue, Batman #663, was published in 2007 (and again as part of the Batman & Son collected edition), but the art looks like it was made on a Compaq 486. That’s intentional – the issue is full of prose segments about how the Joker sheds old personalities like a snake sheds its skin. It’s a very granular way to understand who the Joker is and what he does, but it’s also very good – it’s part of Morrison’s larger Batman story that starts with Batman & Son, runs through R.I.P. and Batman & Robin and finally ends with Batman, Inc. Arkham Asylum is kind of a precursor to this run, so if you want to get started here, it’s worth doing both of these collections and seeing how you enjoy them.
For more Joker comics you should read, more Joker movies you should watch, or more about the Joker’s best video game appearances (spoilers: #1 is Shang Tsung’s fatality in Mortal Kombat X), stick with Den of Geek!