The Joker -- often called “Clown Prince of Crime,” “The Harlequin of Hate,” and “The Ace of Knaves” -- is a fictional character featured in DC COMICS‘ BATMAN comic books. He is a “supervillain” and considered to be The Batman's chief nemesis and the character is arguably the most famous and well-known comic book villain of all time.
The character was initially conceived by comic book artist Jerry Robinson and re-designed by Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger. He first appeared in BATMAN #1 in 1940.
Credit for the actual creation of The Joker has long been a sticking point between Kane and Robinson. Robinson has said the inspiration came from a pack of playing cards, while Kane claimed to have come up with the character on his own.
The Joker’s name is derived from his clown-like appearance -- green hair, white skin, and red lips. During the Golden and Silver Age he was portrayed as a silly prankster and thief, while Modern Age writers more often depict him as a sadistic psychopath who murders people with enjoyment.
The inspiration for The Joker is said to be actor Conrad Veidt in the silent film The Man Who Laughs (see right), and it was from a photograph of Veidt that the Joker was modeled. This was confirmed by Bob Kane, the man who is credited as the primary creator of The Batman.
This latter version of The Joker as scene in today’s comics has been responsible for many tragedies in The Batman's life -- the murder of Robin II (Jason Todd), the shooting and resulting paralysis of Barbara Gordon (the original Batgirl), and the murder of Sarah Essen, the wife of Commissioner Gordon.
The Joker has been featured throughout Batman's comic book history and has been seen in other Bat-media as well. Among these that are most well know are: Cesar Romero’s Joker from the 1960s BATMAN TV show; The Joker as portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the 1989 film BATMAN; and, The Joker in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES as voiced by Mark Hamill. The character will be featured as the main villain in the upcoming sequel to the 2005 film BATMAN BEGINS, titled THE DARK KNIGHT. A different take on The Joker can currently be found on THE BATMAN animated TV show.
From left to right, Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, The Joker from THE BATMAN, The Joker from B:TAS, and Heath Ledger.
The Golden Age Joker was finally given an origin 1951, in the February issue of DETECTIVE COMICS, in a story “The Man Behind the Red Hood!” It seems that The Joker was once a criminal known as The Red Hood. When The Batman cornered Hood at the Monarch Playing Card Company, TRH dove into a vat of chemicals to escape and a body was never found.
The chemical bath did affect TRH by turning his skin white, hair green, and lips red. He renamed himself “The Joker” and the rest is history.
"The Man Behind The Red Hood" (1951)
A definitive origin of the Modern Age Joker has never been established in the comics -- in fact, his origin is somewhat of a mystery. The most widely accepted origin (although there is no proof that it is canon) can be seen in the graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE.
It depicts the man who would become The Joker as originally being an engineer at a chemical plant who quit his job to pursue his dream of being a stand-up comedian, only to bomb massively. Needing to support his wife and forthcoming child, he agreed to help two criminals break into the plant where he once worked. However, during the planning, Police arrived and informed him that his wife had died in a freak accident at home.
Grief-stricken, he tried to back out of the plan, but is forced into keeping his promise. As soon as they entered the plant, however, they were caught by security and a fatal shoot-out followed in which the two criminals were killed. As he tried to bail, the future Joker was confronted by The Batman, who was investigating the disturbance. Cornered, he leaped over a rail and fell into a vat of chemicals. When he finally surfaced, he removed the red hood and saw his reflection: bleached chalk-white skin, red lips, and green hair. His change in appearance combined with the death of his wife, sent the guy over the edge and resulted in the birth of The Joker.
In his first appearances, starting with BATMAN #1 (1940), The Joker was a portrayed as a mass murderer. He was a tremendous thief who left behind smiling corpses along his path. During his second appearance -- "The Joker Returns", also in BATMAN #1 -- the creators planned to kill off The Joker! Luckily, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson changed their minds and allowed the character to live.
The Joker went on to become the most popular of The Batman’s rogue’s gallery -- although his murderous and psychotic ways disappeared as the character became a harmless, laughing annoyance. He was used constantly during the 40s and 50s but was seen less and less in the early 1960s. When editor Julius Schwartz took over the Bat-comics in 1964, The Joker was virtually eliminated.
The Modern Age Joker was introduced in 1973, as the character was revived updated in the Batman comic stories by Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams. Commencing with BATMAN #251 and the classic story "The Joker's Five Way Revenge", The Joker became a homicidal maniac who would commit at the drop of a hat. He does however, enjoy the battle of wits with The Batman.
This is the version of the character, for all intents and purposes, that exists today in the various Batman comic books.
Like many Batman fans, The Joker is my favorite Batman villain. I am of the belief that the character is the most well known comic book villain of all time. I also believe him to be the best of the lot as well.
I’m also in the majority that enjoys the current interpretation of the character in which he’s depicted as a murderous psychopath. He and The Batman are opposite sides of the same coin -- The Batman is order and justice while The Joker is total chaos and destruction. The Joker is the antithesis of The Batman.
As far as the non-comic book interpretations of the character, I rank The Joker from BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (voiced by Mark Hamill) as the best by far. While Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Clown Prince of Crime in 1989’s BATMAN was quite good, it was Nicholson on the big screen acting like The Joker first and foremost.
At the end of 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS, The Joker made a cameo appearance -- sort of. During a rooftop meeting between Gordon and The Batman, the newly promoted police Lt. informs The Dark Knight that there’s a new criminal loose in Gotham. “Armed robbery, double homicide. Has a taste for the theatrical, like you. Leaves a calling card.” Gordon tells The Batman, as he hands him an evidence bag with a joker playing card within. “I’ll look into it,” The Batman tells Gordon,” presumably setting the scene for the sequel.
And that indeed proved to be the case. In August of 2006, Warner Bros. officially announced the title of the BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT, and that Aussie thesp Heath Ledger had won the role of The Joker.
An unconventional choice for role, Ledger is quite a bit younger than Romero and Nicholson who previously portrayed The Joker. Director Christopher Nolan has promised a different depiction of the character than seen onscreen beforehand. He’s also alluded to the first two Joker stories from the comics and THE KILLING JOKE as the inspiration for his Joker. The 1970s Batman story, “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge,” is also been rumored as an influence on the upcoming THE DARK KNIGHT.
I’m sure I speak for all Bat-fans in saying that THE DARK KNIGHT, with The Joker as the main villain, will be one of the most highly anticipated films in 2008.