The Joker may well be the greatest villain ever created. He has intrigued readers for decades, nearly defeated Batman countless times, and created a sick, anti-hero appeal of his own. Go to any convention and you’re likely to see as many Jokers as Batmen, many of them with a Harley Quinn on their arm. Whether just a fascination or a sick admiration, the Joker is one of the most talked about characters in popular fiction.
Compared to a Batman villain like the Riddler, a comparatively neglected character who never really reached his true potential, the Joker is easily the most popular supervillain ever created. Unlike the Riddler, the Joker has been involved in nearly every major Batman related project from TV to film to video games, resulting in dozens of distinct interpretations over decades of media. His fate is inescapably tied to Batman’s.
Frank Miller has spoken of the importance of stripping a character down to its core. In much of his work, Miller would use this technique to find the humanity in a character, but the Joker lacks some of this humanity to start. Miller himself acknowledges this in Joker’s final act of framing Batman for murder by commiting a particularly gruesome suicide in the pages of The Dark Knight Returns.
What’s more, the Joker’s history has historically been shrouded in mystery. “If I’m going to have a past,” Joker quips in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Killing Joke, “I prefer it to be multiple choice!” With no solid origin, a human motivation is difficult to establish. In fact, when you strip the pieces away from him, Joker is revealed as something more elemental.
It’s no secret that the Joker’s appearance was influenced by Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, but there’s much more to the story. When a young Jerry Robinson accepted the task to write his first Batman story (yes, the story has been credited to both Bob Kane and Bill Finger, but it is generally accepted that it was Robinson who is responsible for the Joker himself) he began to think of the nature of comic book villains. At the time, most of the industry cast simple, easily defeated villains as the opposition to the (not yet labeled) superhero. The logic being that since the hero had to triumph once per issue, it was better to give them something disposable.
As he mentioned in a 2009 interview, the young Robinson had a very different idea. Still studying literature at Columbia University, Robinson sought to draw from what he had seen in the great villains of the past on his first major assignment. First, he wanted Batman to have a true antagonist; a real threat to the seemingly unbeatable hero. Second, and perhaps the best decision in the history of comics, Robinson wanted his villain to have a sense of humor. A villain who could be as entertaining as his nemesis.
After some thought, he settled on the familiar visage of the playing card Joker. A powerful image for a powerful character. Jerry Robinson, with some intuition and a little inspiration from his family’s favorite game, changed the course of popular fiction forever.
The Joker debuted in the lead story in Batman #1 (1940). While it’s not the first Batman story, he’s still the lead story in the first issue of Batman’s own title. That’s quite an honor.
The villainous Joker was not yet “The Clown Prince of Crime”, but a serial murderer…a wild card. The Golden Age Joker was pretty close to complete, something not always guaranteed in the fast paced world of comics, especially at the time. He’s all but fully formed in his first appearance. While the iconic design would gain and lose details over the years, the Joker is a striking and unique image. In comic books, that’s nearly as important as the story. The Joker also debuts a serum/gas that not only kills his enemies, but leaves them with a smile, something which would later make a significant pop culture impact when it was brought to horrifying life in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie.
The fact that the Joker was such a complete character from the outset was no doubt a direct result of young Jerry Robinson’s foresight. Sure, there had been “super” villains in earlier books, but the Joker was designed as the greatest adversary possible, one who is not only a threat, but who mocks the sensibilities of the hero (and in turn, the audience) as he does it. It worked, and the Joker became one of only a handful of supervillains to have lifespans as impressive as the heroes they fought.
The Joker arguably lost a step over the years, though. The conditions under which writers and artists of comics’ Silver Age had to work dictated a turn away from the kind of high body count mayhem the Joker had been known for in his early days. He changed from a brutal and disturbing murderer into an elaborate thief. The Joker developed a taste for the theatrical, and his visage and outfit became more explicitly clown-like.
Still popular and frequently used at the time, it was this version of the character that debuted on the Batman television series in 1966, famously portrayed by Cesar Romero. Though this iteration of the Joker would be the first to reach a wide television audience, it was only the element of themed crimes and circus/clown imagery that truly remained from 1940.
As the 1970s arrived, the Joker was briefly cast aside. After a four-year absence, Denny O’ Neil and Neal Adams relaunched the character in 1973’s Batman #251. In this issue, they combined the over the top crimes of “The Clown Prince of Crime” with the twisted murderer first conceived in 1940. From this point on, the Joker would claim his place as the favorite villain in a less restricted comic book industry, even becoming that rarest of birds: the villain who gets his own book.
But now the Joker also had another way to play. The addition of those Silver Age grand schemes to his repertoire now allowed him to attack on a scale that the original vision didn’t. Combine that theatricality with the calculating bloodthirstiness of his earliest appearances and the Joker could now be a threat to the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman. Well…if he wanted to.
These are all essential components of any super villain, but nothing too uncommon. So, why has the Joker become so prominent? Part of this is Batman, himself.
Batman is an incredibly complex character who allows the writer to create villains that truly stand in opposition to him. The Joker is able to fill multiple roles in this sense: he is in opposition visually, with his bright color scheme, but he also believes that life is a joke and not something to be cherished. He is chaos while Batman is order. He’s an easy fit for any interpretation of Batman, and thus appears frequently, allowing the public to familiarize themselves with him. While that is certainly important, I believe there is something that goes even deeper…
I’m not entirely sure if he was the first to imply it, but in 1989’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel, Grant Morrison made a simple yet important claim: The Joker isn’t crazy. Now, most of Batman’s villains are psychotic, driven by some damage that turned them against the world. Sure, they may buy into their basest instincts but at the core this makes them at least a little sympathetic. In Arkham Asylum, Morrison writes that the Joker “creates himself every day.” Certainly this wasn’t the intent of every writer who tackled the character, but it is perhaps the only explanation one could give to match the character’s narrative history.
Morrison would revisit this concept over a decade later in Batman #663 entitled “The Clown At Midnight.” In that tale, the reader literally experiences one of these shifts alongside The Joker, waiting for midnight to destroy his previous persona (even intending to murder Harley Quinn) and assume his new one. Within the story, this reveals something quite disturbing: If The Joker is in complete control of his actions, lacking psychological damage or any sort of typical human desires, then his only true motivation is the suffering of others. He may be more violent one day and far less the next but it isn’t any sort of ethic, its simple whim. This makes him not only more dangerous out of sheer volatility, but it makes him pure evil.
This is what I believe to be the core of his functionality and resultant popularity. In any situation, and against any foe, the Joker is a threat. He lives to torment sentient life. Strip away the gimmicks and the entertainment he provides, and you are left with one impression…the Joker is Satan.
Don’t confuse this with Paradise Lost, I don’t mean Lucifer cast down into Hell. I’m speaking about an older idea, a figure that one could never truly sympathize with. An evil that exists only to torment humanity and although it can never truly conquer them, will continue to taint them. Recent Batman comics have hinted at the idea of the Joker as a more primal evil, as well.
The Joker may intrigue the public thanks to his sense of humor, but we also want to see Batman to stop him. His power may be attractive, but when confronted with his presence, its luster fades. No Batman project feels complete until he meets – and defeats – the true embodiment of evil. If Batman is the greatest hero ever created (and I believe he is), it is only logical that he face an immortal enemy into eternity. While I doubt that Jerry Robinson had this in mind in 1940, he most certainly designed the Joker well enough to make a it a possibility.
The Joker doesn’t need an origin, we know what he really is. He’s the Boogeyman. He’s the reason you lock your doors at night. He’s the crook in the alley. He’s the nightmare you awoke screaming from. The Joker is whatever evil he wants to be, or perhaps more accurately, whatever evil is haunting us.
A version of this article originally appeared on December 13th, 2013.