Who's That Joker?
Tuesday, July 24,2007
Author: Bill Ramey

Did you know that The Joker is going to be the main villain in the next BATMAN movie?

Uh, of course you do! And on that note, let’s take a look at some of the more famous, influential, and historic interpretations of the greatest comic book villain ever created.


The Joker’s first appearance in the world of Batman can be found in BATMAN #1 (1940) in two stories: “The Joker” and “The Joker Returns.”

In these two stories, The Joker’s classic look was established: green hair, white face, red lips and wearing a purple suit. This look has remained virtually unchanged for nearly 70 years.

In his original incarnation, there was nothing funny about this joker. He was a thief and a murderer who seems to do both just for the hell of it. He also proved to be someone who could stand toe to toe with The Batman in a fight -- well, at least for a little while.

Sadly, this grim and gritty portrayal of The Clown Prince of Crime was quickly replaced by a cackling prankster who was relatively harmless.


The first live-action portrayal of The Joker character was found in the BATMAN TV show of the 1960s. Veteran thesp Cesar Romero was the guy in the green wig, white greasepaint, and purple tux not only in the TV series, but the 1966 theatrical film, BATMAN.

The 60s TV Joker pretty much was inline with how the character was portrayed in the comics of the mid 40s thru the 1960s. He was definitely the cackling prankster previously mentioned -- although his ultimate goal was always to whack Batman and Robin.

While silly -- and very much the polar opposite of how The Joker was originally conceived and how he’s depicted today -- Romero’s Joker was long seared into people’s minds as "The Joker."


After nearly three decades of being portrayed as a basically harmless jester simply out to “get” Batman and Robin, The Joker was returned to his dark roots by writer Denny O’Neil in the early 1970s.

Beginning with BATMAN #251 in 1973, gone was the harmless harlequin, replaced by the murderous sociopath as he was intended to be when created in 1940.

The story in BATMAN #251 was the classic “The Joker’s 5-Way Revenge” and it is said to be one of the stories that influenced director Chris Nolan’s version of The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT.


To date, probably the most famous live-action portrayal of The Joker can be found in the 1989 film BATMAN in the form of actor Jack Nicholson.

While similar in looks to Cesar Romero’s 1960’s Joker, the Jack-Joker was certainly not a “cackling prankster;” “cackling killer” is probably a suitable description. The 1970s and 80s comic book Joker was a strong influence on how the character was written in BATMAN, and Nicholson’s Joker certainly was loyal to that depiction -- in both looks and in personality.

BATMAN also featured a subplot about The Joker’s origin and it was very much true to the comics books: a guy falling into a vat of chemicals and coming out with green hair and white skin. What was different was that The Joker was given a name -- Jack Napier -- and occupation -- gangster -- that was unique to the film.


Rivaling Jack Nicholson’s live-action turn as The Joker is Mark Hamill’s voice work as The Ace of Knaves in the various animated Batman TV shows of the 1990s. Hamill also lent his voice to the character in the animated films MASK OF THE PHANTASM and BATMAN BEYOND: RETURN OF THE JOKER.

This Joker was similar look-wise and in demeanor to Jack Nicholson’s Joker in BATMAN. In fact, they even had the same pre-Joker profession. Also like the 1989 movie version of the character, this Joker was a psychotic, laughing killer.

This animated incarnation of Batman’s arch enemy has such a profound affect on many fans, that many called for Hamill himself to portray The Joker in the live-action sequel to BATMAN BEGINS!


In Frank Miller’s classic THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, The Joker is portrayed as a catatonic nut job who has been put away in a mental hospital.

Upon hearing that The Dark Knight has, um, returned, he is awakened and soon returns to his old insane and murderous tricks.

The Joker here also "get" The Batman in a way that can not be topped: he breaks his own neck leaving the authorities to think he was killed by The Dark Knight.

Also of note is the sexual subtext that exists from The Joker towards The Batman.


Actor Christian Bale, who currently plays The Batman in the Warner Bros. BATMAN film series, has time and time again mentioned his affection for a certain Batman graphic novel.

ARKHAM ASYLUM: A SERIOUS HOUSE ON A SERIOUS EARTH is not only one of Mr. Bale’s faves, it is also among DC Comic’s best-selling graphic novels of all time.

It is also loved by fans and critics alike and just happens to be one of the darkest Batman/Joker stories ever told -- especially with Dave McKean’s macabre, disturbing, yet fascinating artwork.


“You had a bad day too, once, didn't you?" (The Joker to The Batman in THE KILLING JOKE).

So, is The Batman just as nuts as those he fights and puts away?

That question is the central theme of 1988’s THE KILLING JOKE by Alan Moore (writer) and Brian Boland (art).

One of the first quotes attributed to Heath Ledger after he was cast as The Joker in Chris Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT was that THE KILLING JOKER was one of the books he was given to read.


One of the most controversial adaptations of The Joker is found in the current animated TV series, THE BATMAN.

This Joker -- whose origin has never been really explained other than an offhand “chemical bath” comment -- looks like a red-eyed, green dreadlock wearing, barefoot freak.

He doesn’t kill -- at least we never see him blatantly do it on screen. Actually, he seems to a darker version of The Joker found in the comic book of the 1950s and 60s.


Aussie actor Heath Ledger being cast as The Joker may have generated the most controversy in regards to “Batman on film” since Michael Keaton was tabbed as The Batman back in 1988.

You can chalk it up as toting the company line, but every person associated with the production of the upcoming THE DARK KNIGHT has said basically that Heath Ledger is going to blow people away.

We know that Mr. Nolan was influenced by BATMAN #1, THE KILLING JOKE, and the story “The Joker’s 5-Way Revenge.” What affect will they have on “The Heath-Joker?” How does a guy who falls into a vat of chemicals -- and walks out with green hair and bleached skin -- fit into Chris’ “realistic” world of Batman remains to be seen.

But based on what Nolan gave us in BATMAN BEGINS, I’m anxious to find out.

UPDATED (12/22/07): A half a year has gone by since I wrote this article. Since A LOT more info on the “TDK Joker” and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character, I thought it was time for a quick update.

Director Chris Nolan has been quoted as saying that The Joker in TDK is an “absolute” and that the film’s story is more about “the rise of The Joker,” as opposed to his origin. I take that as Heath is The Joker from the beginning of the film until the end. No explanation for his look or why he does what he does (continuted after the trailer).

To put it simple, he just “is.”

How in the hell can anyone watch that trailer and say that Nolan and Ledger haven't flat-out nailed The Joker?

Based on the “PROLOGUE” and the first full trailer for TDK, it’s apparent that this incarnation of The Joker is absolutely like NOTHING we’ve seen previously. He’s an anarchist hell-bent to destroying Gotham just for the hell of it. And he’s one crazy, demented, SOB, that’s for sure.

From the shots of Ledger in both the “PROLOGUE” and the trailer, he’s just “The Joker” -- dude has simply disappeared into the role.

I for one can not wait to see his performance in full come July 2008.

"Jett" is the founder and editor-in-chief of BATMAN-ON-FILM.COM.

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