[This is excerpted from an episode of It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast, our superhero comics podcast. You can listen to the whole thing at the end of this article, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher.]
The Joker is the most famous comic book villain of all time. This is a difficult statement to prove, but it doesn’t need much evidence. His exposure has gotten a serious boost from a series of memorable adaptations, involving everyone from Jack Nicholson to Mark Hamil to, of course, Heath Ledger. But even without the movies and television shows, the Joker would stand on his own a singularly memorable figure from superhero lore; a creature of inscrutable motives and chilling appearance. And while he and Batman’s 75-year history is often upheld as an archetype of good and evil, the relationship between the two is far more complex.
In a 2004 essay for Esquire, Chuck Klosterman writes on the difference between the archenemy and the nemesis, calling them “the two most important characters in the life of any successful human.”
According to Klosterman, the difference between an archenemy and a nemesis isn’t complicated. The nemesis, he says, is one step removed from being a friend, even though you deeply hate him. A nemesis is more like your competitor. You’ve got more in common with your nemesis than you’d care to admit, and when your nemesis passes, you’ll feel the loss.
An archenemy, well, an archenemy is your opposite. You hate your archenemy without reservation. When your archenemy passes, it’ll be because you killed him.
One of literature’s great nemesis is Moriarty, the chief villain in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional universe, and the only character who could truly match wits with Sherlock Holmes. And it was Moriarty who was being studied by an 18-year-old journalism student at Columbia named Jerry Robinson. It was 1940, and Robinson was making ends meet as an inker for the recently launched Batman comics. While studying Moriarty, it occurred to Robinson that the still fledgling superhero comics industry had yet to give any of their heroes a real test. At the time, the thinking was that since the good guys always had to win, the bad guys had better be disposable. There was no reason to make the bad guys interesting or memorable since they’d be locked up in jail by the end of every comic book anyway.
Robinson grew interested in the idea of something different: a character who would provide a true challenge to the Batman. What if there was a villain who threw the inevitable triumph of good into doubt? A maniacal psychopath who could serve as a continuous thorn in our hero’s side?
Something else Robinson learned while studying villains at Columbia: a key part of their intrigue is the contradiction. So, Robinson decided to give Batman’s mass murdering archfoe something off: a sense of humor. While most comic book villains of the time were bumbling Nazis or bloviating gangsters, this new character would have a sharp wit and a propensity for mixing heinous crime with jokes. From there, coming up with a name was easy.
There are different stories of just what inspired the Joker’s look. Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the co-creators of Batman who were technically Robinson’s bosses, said they drew their inspiration from a 1928 film called The Man Who Laughs, and it’s easy to see the connection.
Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of a man with a permanent grin scarred onto his face is the stuff of nightmares. But other accounts of how Joker came to be give the credit to a joker playing card, or an advertisement at Steeplechase Park on Coney Island. Kane, Finger and Robinson all told different stories of just how the Joker came to be, and they all died before the story could ever be truly hashed out.
In some ways, this only adds to the Joker’s mythos. One of pop culture’s most enduring and repellent characters seemed to spring fully formed from the shadows, laughing maniacally.
In retrospect, it’s truly remarkable how complete the Joker was from his very first appearance in Batman #1 (before that, Batman’s adventures had all taken place in Detective Comics.) From the get-go, the Joker was a sinister figure with a ghastly smirk painted across his face. This was 1940, and superhero comics were still widely considered kids stuff, but nobody told the Joker. He debuted as a mass murderer, whose trademark “Joker gas” killed his victims and left their corpses with a death smile permanently etched across their faces. It was chilling stuff, well beyond the bounds of what Batman had faced before. It was beyond the bounds of what any superhero had.
The Joker was a curious mix of contradictions that were brought into even sharper contrast against Batman. Batman was grim and monochromatic, who used fear as a weapon against his enemies. But Batman isn’t as scary as the Joker’s bright, colorful twist on a circus clown, and his usual methods don’t work on the Joker at all. Batman stands for order, and he spends his evenings beating Gotham City into that order. If Joker stands for anything, it’s anarchy. He doesn’t want money or power. He wants chaos.
In the ‘50s, the U.S. Government grew concerned about the level of violence in comic books, and the Joker was recast from a murderous psychopath to a mostly harmless prankster who robbed banks and set elaborate, Rube Goldberg-type traps to ensnare Batman and Robin, but he was always bested and humiliated in the end. This proved unpopular, and the character might have disappeared from culture altogether if not for the ‘60s Batman television show. The show was famously campy, but it was a huge hit, and the writers soon cast Cesar Romero as the Joker. While this Joker’s tricks were definitely cut from the same cloth as the rest of the show’s self-aware schtick, Romero delivered a memorably over-the-top performance that put the Joker back on the cultural radar. In the ‘70s, legendary comic book creators Neal Adams and Denny O’Neal returned Joker to his roots as a sick and twisted lunatic driven only by anarchy.
More than a few comic book writers and adaptations have drawn parallels between the Joker and various terrorist groups around the world who spread death and fear everywhere they go, and it’s a good analogy. What makes groups like ISIS and Boko Haram so chilling is that there doesn’t seem to be an endgame. Not really. In most wars there is some semblance of order. There are formal declarations, battle plans, structured retreats, and surrenders. But you can’t fight against someone who’s playing by different rules. You can declare war on a country or even an ideology, but you can’t declare war on terror. FDR said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” If that’s true, how should we feel about terror?
The Joker isn’t Batman’s most persistent foe because he’s Batman’s physical match—the comics regularly show the Joker getting easily beaten by the Dark Knight—but because there’s no real way to fight what the Joker does. Batman can bring all his considerable physical prowess and intellectual genius to bear against the Joker in much the same way the U.S. has brought its military muscle and strategy against various terrorist factions. But what do you do when the only response you get is laughter? What do you have left to fight with?
Past issues of Batman had given the Joker an origin story, involving a man who turns to stand-up comedy in an attempt to pay off some debt and provide for his pregnant wife (Side note: previous issues of Batman give us no reason to think the stand-up comedy business in Gotham was any more lucrative than it is anywhere else, meaning this idea was just as bad as it sounded.) His plan goes awry, his wife leaves, and the man becomes an un-remarkable costumed crook known as “The Red Hood.” The Red Hood gets pushed into a vat of chemicals, bleaching his face and driving him insane.
This is a pretty boring origin, made much more interesting by later revelations that it may not be true. Over time, the Joker started throwing the story of how he came to be into question, before finally admitting in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
The Killing Joke was a single comic published in 1988 which, more than any story before it, pulled the Joker into a new level of psychosis. In the story, Joker invades the home of Commissioner Gordon and paralyzes his daughter, Barbara, who was Batgirl, at the time. He proceeds to kidnap Gordon and psychologically torture him in an abandoned carnival, convinced that “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”
Upon its release, mainstream comics hadn’t really seen anything as dark as The Killing Joke. There was a general feeling that parts of the book had crossed the line—Alan Moore would never confirm his story’s hints that the Joker’s torture of Barbara had veered into sexual violence. Such excesses were new to DC Comics, and Moore handled them clumsily—even offensively.
For all that, The Killing Joke ends on a telling note that manages to make the hairs on your neck crawl without involving any blood or violence at all. [Mild spoilers follow] Batman finally corners the Joker and sincerely offers to help him. “I don’t know what it was that bent your life out of shape, but who knows? Maybe I’ve been there too. Maybe I can help.”
The Joker appears to sincerely contemplate the offer before saying, “No. I’m sorry, but no. It’s too late for that. Far too late.”
The Joker then goes into a lengthy, metaphor-laced joke about two lunatics trying to escape from an asylum. When he gets to the punchline, Batman can’t help but crack a smile, and the two sworn enemies burst into a fit of shared laughter. It was poignant, but also deeply unsettling.
This kicked off a new era in comic book writers’ understanding of the Joker, and his relationship to the Batman. There was something about it that went beyond animosity.
Klosterman actually mentions Batman and the Joker in his Esquire essay. He says Joker is Batman’s nemesis, which shows he put a decent amount of thought into his essay, even if there are a number of fans who would probably disagree with this assessment. Maybe, over the decades upon decades of reinterpretation, Batman and the Joker’s relationship has become something too complex to easily fit into categories like archenemy or nemesis. And if that’s true, that should tell us something about our own relationship with the world around us. Sometimes, the things we hate most are really just the shadows we cast, taking on a life of their own. Sometimes, we snarl threats at our greatest enemies, and the only response we get is a long peal of hollow, echoing laughter.