Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Let's put a smile on those faces: The Joker's first comics appearance (left) (Image: DC Comics), Cesar Romero (Screenshot: YouTube), Heath Ledger (Screenshot: YouTube), Jack Nicholson (Screenshot: YouTube)

A deck of Jokers: Going deeper with The Clown Prince Of Crime

Let's put a smile on those faces: The Joker's first comics appearance (left) (Image: DC Comics), Cesar Romero (Screenshot: YouTube), Heath Ledger (Screenshot: YouTube), Jack Nicholson (Screenshot: YouTube)
Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

In addition to all of the things the Joker publicity cycle has assured us Todd Phillips’ Batman-adjacent Scorsese riff is not—not an incitement to violence, not an endorsement of its main character’s actions, not subject to questions from red-carpet interviewers—there’s also this: Despite telling the story of an aspiring comedian who becomes an unhinged murder-clown, it’s not a canonical origin story. Joker has no connection to any ongoing onscreen saga set in Gotham City; Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck will not go on to become Jack Nicholson’s purring hood Jack Napier, the agent of chaos that earned Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar, or the chrome-grilled edge lord who stamped “damaged” on his forehead for Suicide Squad. Rather, he’s another voice in a giggling gestalt that has beguiled, tickled, and terrified audiences and creators ever since Jerry Robinson first laid down a sketch of a Joker card with crimson lips and a fearsome smile. The Joker, like his crime-fighting other half, isn’t a fixed idea but an ever-evolving archetype: the comical disguise Cesar Romero could don without shaving, the lanky killer of ’70s Batman comics, the villain who got Mark Hamill to give into the dark side.

As such, there’s not really anything you need to know about the character before seeing the first movie to ever put his name in the title. (Because let’s be straight here: This is far from the first time the Joker has ever headlined a movie.) But ahead of Joker, you might be wondering: What’s the deal with this clown, and why do we keep telling stories about him? Without delving too deeply into the obvious—in 2019, nobody needs to be out here championing the Tim Burton Batman, The Dark Knight, The Killing Joke, or The Dark Knight Returns (though, if you haven’t seen or read those, you really should)—perhaps the following recommendations can offer some insight. And if they don’t, maybe you need to ask yourself another question: Why so serious?

Batman, “Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under!” (1968)

Cesar Romero romanced Betty Grable and saved the day as the Cisco Kid before painting over his signature mustache in the role he’d be best remembered for: Scuffling with Adam West and Burt Ward in 22 episodes of the ’60s live-action Batman series (and its big-screen spin-off). Each of those appearances were memorable, but from a simply bizarre (and beachy) perspective, one stands out: Season three’s “Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under!” At the time, the surfing craze had engulfed so much of popular culture that even the Joker was trying to win over the kids at Gotham Point by catching a wave in a contest against his arch nemesis. It’s largely an excuse for the Batman cast (including Batgirl!) to trot out slang like “island pullout” and “cowabunga,” but Joker (and Batman, for that matter) have never looked more ridiculous than wearing their “baggies” in front of an obvious rear-projection setup. Naturally, Batman is the eventual winner, due to the timely use of his Bat-Shark Repellant, and the indefatigable Joker is defeated yet again. Romero’s campy portrayal may have been the most benign of all Jokers, but he was also a hell of a lot of fun. [Gwen Ihnat]

A Death In The Family (1988)

Illustration for article titled A deck of Jokers: Going deeper with The Clown Prince Of Crime
Screenshot: A Death In The Family

Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo’s A Death In The Family is famous as the story where the Joker captures and brutally tortures Jason Todd, the second Robin, before leaving him to die in an explosion. That’s the part everyone knows, but the Joker’s scheme goes completely off the wall in the final act. See, Jason got captured while he and Batman were investigating the Joker’s attempt to sell a nuclear weapon to Iran (this was the ’80s, after all), and Ayatollah Khomeini is so pleased with what the Joker is offering that he names the Clown Prince of Crime as his country’s representative to the United Nations and sends him to make a speech at the General Assembly in New York City—with the U.S. government actually using Superman to stop Batman from doing anything in hopes of avoiding an international incident. The speech turns out to be a sham and the Joker tries to kill everyone, obviously, giving Batman and Superman a chance to beat him up. Later, in a fit of grief over Jason’s death, Batman even allows the Joker to nearly get killed in a helicopter crash (though he somehow escapes unharmed). [Sam Barsanti]

Batman: The Animated Series, “The Laughing Fish” (1993)

This one’s a threefer, the plots of two legendary comics—“The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” and “The Laughing Fish,” each from a separate, legendary run in Batman’s flagship titles—synthesized by the TV series that dared to challenge Jack Nicholson for the title of definitive onscreen Joker a scant three years after his dance with the devil in the pale moon light. It could be a hybrid that looks as unnatural or unsightly as the episode’s smiling catch of the day, a televised cartoon recreating source material where the Joker bumps off innocent copyright clerks and attempts to feed an old man to a shark. This “Laughing Fish” hangs together thanks to the fact that those comics—widely credited with restoring the Joker’s sense of murderous menace (and in the case of Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil’s “Five-Way Revenge,” restoring the character’s presence on the comics page, period)—begin and end with some toothy sea creatures; it also helps that two of the driving forces behind Batman: The Animated, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, are there to guide the episode along the razor’s edge. But the most important name in the credits is Mark Hamill, whose crazed carnival barker approach to the Joker projects a threat (his cackling entrance is just aces) even as the character dons an angler’s cap, signals to henchman with a whoopee cushion, and interrupts regularly scheduled programming to plug the seafood he’s rendered in his image for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Leave it to the Joker to render trademark registration into rip-roaring superhero action. [Erik Adams]

Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker (2000)

The slick cyberpunk series Batman Beyond acts as a continuation of Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures, introducing viewers to a new Batman—the 16-year-old Terry McGinnis—and a new setting—Neo-Gotham in 2039. Beyond also abandoned most of Batman’s classic rogues gallery, the most notable exception being the direct-to-video feature, Return Of The Joker, released during the show’s third and final season. Return Of The Joker marked the first and only appearance of the original Clown Prince of Crime in the Beyond universe—until that point in the series, he was only referenced through the amateurish, Juggalo-looking street gang The Jokerz, who terrorized Neo-Gotham in his name. The film opens with the mysterious reappearance of The Joker (voiced by a returning Mark Hamill), who was presumed dead after an encounter with the original Batman. Without giving too much away, what follows is an intriguing expansion of the mythos surrounding Hamill’s Joker that occasionally drifts into unsettling territory—one scene in particular, a flashback involving the Joker and Batman’s former protégé Tim Drake, is genuinely disturbing. In fact, there was so much concern over Return Of The Joker’s imagery in the wake of the Columbine massacre, Warner Bros. Animation re-edited the film prior to its release. The “uncut” version was released on DVD shortly thereafter, and is now widely available. [Baraka Kaseko]

Batman #663, “The Clown At Midnight” (2010)

Illustration for article titled A deck of Jokers: Going deeper with The Clown Prince Of Crime
Screenshot: “The Clown At Midnight”

Few comic authors of the modern era have spent more time or energy on the question of what—not who—the Joker really is than Grant Morrison, whose character-redefining run on Batman in the late 2000s always seemed to circle back somehow to the Thin White Duke of Death. That tendency expresses itself most clearly in the prose-only “The Clown At Midnight,” in which the Joker methodically, and brutally, kills off all of his former henchman in an effort to wipe the slate clean and ready himself to become the next, even more monstrous version of his numerous personas. Morrison’s Batman run frequently falls back on the idea that every weird, nonsensical, magical, or science-fiction adventure that Batman engaged in back in the Silver Age really happened, in some form or another. “The Clown At Midnight” similarly argues that every Joker is the essential Joker, from the boner-spouting goofball of the “Satire Years,” to the cold-blooded killer of the New Homicidal, or the gleefully smiling clown of the Camp. (Those are all Mistah J’s terms, not ours.) In Morrison’s conception, the Joker is simply the ultimate survivor, “shuffling selves like a croupier deals cards, to buffer the shocks and work some alchemy that might just turn the lead of tragedy and horror into into the fierce, chaotic gold of the laughter of the damned.” Or, as Morrison also can’t help but note: Maybe he’s just nuts. [William Hughes]

Batman: Under The Red Hood (2010)

Jason Todd’s blood may have been on the Joker’s hands, but it was really the majority of Batman readers who (narrowly) killed the second Boy Wonder in 1988. But just like in soap operas, popular comics characters rarely stay dead forever, and Jason eventually returned, first in the “Under The Hood” storyline that ran from 2004 to 2006, and then an excellent direct-to-video movie in 2010. The movie reveals that after Joker beat Robin with a crowbar and blew him up in a warehouse, Ra’s al Ghul swiped Jason’s body and revived him in the Lazarus Pit. Jason grows up to be a crime boss known as the Red Hood (an alias that factors into the Joker’s classic origin story), but his biggest beef with Batman is the same as many of ours: Why is Joker still alive? Jensen Ackles impressively captures Jason’s combined rage and grief as he protests: “If it had been you that he beat to a bloody pulp, if he had taken you from this world, I would’ve done nothing but search the planet for this pathetic pile of evil, death-worshiping garbage and then send him off to hell!” Although Joker basically functions as a pawn here in the battle between Jason and his former mentor, Under The Red Hood uncovers the truth of Batman’s eternal moral quandary. Voiced by Bruce Greenwood, Batman painfully admits as much to Jason: He thinks about killing Joker every day, but once he started killing, he’d never stop, and his battle over the darkness in his own soul would be lost: “If I allow myself to go down into that place… I’ll never come back.” So Joker survives, continuing to torment Batman as long as the Caped Crusader exists. [Gwen Ihnat]

Endgame (2012)

Illustration for article titled A deck of Jokers: Going deeper with The Clown Prince Of Crime
Screenshot: Engame

A lot of Joker stories are about his perception of the relationship he has with Batman, like The Dark Knight’s “you complete me” speech, but Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Endgame story arc is an inversion of that. After years of trying to convince Batman that they’re essentially soulmates, the Joker is done. He just wants Batman to die. To do that, he releases a gas in Gotham that forces everyone (including the Justice League) to try and kill their loved ones. As he searches for a cure, Batman realizes that an Arkham orderly named Eric Border (who had been in Batman comics for a year or so) was actually the Joker in disguise, and he finds seemingly definitive proof that Joker is actually immortal. It’s more complicated than that, but the story ends with both Joker and Batman seemingly dying when an underground cave collapses on them. Make sure to stick around for the next story arc, where an amnesiac Bruce Wayne meets a somewhat “cured” Joker who is trying to live an honest life and pleads with him to never put on the cape and cowl again—because he’s afraid of what he’ll become if Batman returns. [Sam Barsanti]

Batman: Arkham Knight (2015)

Mark Hamill’s definitive vocal take on the Joker rarely got a better chance to shine than in Rocksteady’s trilogy of Batman-based Arkham games, where—dead, or alive—the Joker always seemed to somehow get the last laugh. Nowhere was that clearer than in 2015’s big finale to the series, Arkham Knight, where Hamill’s drolly cackling supercriminal refuses to let a silly little thing like dying at the end of the previous game get in the way of spreading some of his signature mirth. The game’s most brilliant twist—empowered by a dose of fear toxin from its ostensible “main” villain, Scarecrow—places Hamill’s Joker as the intangible, constantly snarking devil on Bruce Wayne’s shoulder, driving him deeper and deeper into green-eyed madness as the night wears on. Hamill has always been the funniest of the Jokers, but he really gets a chance to shine here, laying down one-liner after one-liner that only his increasingly harried “buddy” can hear. At the same time, he gleefully leans into the series’ vision of the Joker’s most terrifying trait: Not what he’s done to people, or what he will do. Rather, it’s the madness he represents, always looming and threatening to eat away at the mind of a hero who often seems like he might be one bad night away from finally getting the joke. [William Hughes]

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