The Joker: The Nature of Batman's Greatest Foe

Feature Vinny Murphy 12/13/2013 at 1:35PM

What is it that makes the Joker such a compelling figure in popular culture? We take a closer look...

The Joker may well be the greatest villain ever created. At the very least, he has intrigued readers for decades, even creating a sick appeal of his own. Go to any convention and you're likely to see as many Jokers as Batmen, many of them with Harleys on their arm. We'll avoid the glaring self esteem issues that go with wanting to be the Joker's girlfriend for the moment, but the attraction to the Joker is certainly prominent. Whether just a fascination or a sick admiration, the Joker is one of the most talked about characters in popular fiction. With so much written and so much already said, where can we find the crux of his popularity?

Compared to a Batman villain like the Riddler, a comparatively neglected character who had never reached his true potential, the Joker is easily the most popular super villain ever created. Unlike the Riddler, the Joker has had some involvement in nearly every major Batman related project from TV to film to video games, resulting in dozens of distinct interpretations over decades of media. 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 murdering himself in 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 to be something more elemental.

[related article: The Riddler - The Lasting Appeal of Batman's Most Enigmatic Foe]

At this point, I think we've all heard about how the Joker's appearance was influenced by Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, but there are far more important details to his creation than this. 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 upon  the familiar visage of the playing card Joker. A powerful image for a powerful character. Jerry Robinson, with some intuition and 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 not the first Batman story, being the first villain the superhero faces in their own book is quite the honor. The villainous Joker was not yet “The Clown Prince of Crime”, but a murderer...a wild card. The image of the Joker is all but fully formed, with his green hair, pale white face, red lips and purple suit. Yes, the design would gain and lose details over the years, but even in his earliest appearance, 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. The Golden Age Joker was pretty close to complete, something not always guaranteed in the fast paced world of comics, especially at the time. This was no doubt a direct result of Robinson's foresight. Yes, 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 one who mocks the sensibilities of the hero (and in turn, the audience) as he does it.

The Joker arguably lost a step in the Silver Age. This isn't an attack on the era, we all know the conditions under which the writers and artists had to work. The Joker changed from a brutal and disturbing murderer into an elaborate thief. His outfit became more clown-like as did his persona. A taste for the theatrical, if you will. 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 would only be the element of themed attacks and circus/clown imagery that truly remained after.

During the revisions of the early Bronze Age, the Joker was briefly cast aside. After a four-year absence, Denny O' Neil and Neal Adams relaunched The Joker 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. The Joker now had another way to play. The addition of those grand schemes to his repertoire now allowed him  to attack on a scale that the original vision would not have. The Joker could now be a threat to the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman. Well...when he wanted to.

We have a striking image, some solid gimmicks, and the affirmation of being a real threat. All essentials components to a super villain, but nothing too uncommon. So, why has the Joker become so prominent? Part of this is Batman. As I mentioned earlier, Batman is an incredibly complex character that allows the writer to create villains who truly stand as an opposite to him. The Joker is able to fill multiple roles in this sense: he is in opposition visually; he believes that life is a joke and not something to be cherished; he is chaos while Batman is order, etc. 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 do believe that 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 everyday.” 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 the rogue 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. Even with hangers-on like Harley Quinn about, nothing truly controls his behavior. 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. The Joker may intrigue the public through his sense of humor, but the public also clamors for 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 faces an immortal enemy into eternity. While I doubt that Jerry Robinson had this in mind in 1940, he most certainly designed the Joker 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.

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