With the release of Suicide Squad and The killing joke within a week’s gap, the comic book fan base has succumbed to a frenzy while the mainstream public is reminiscing a certain portrayal by Heath Ledger. The reason behind this unsettling hysteria and the pangs of nostalgia is the presence of Joker in these movies.
This character belongs to DC comics and is easily identifiable as the arch nemesis to their iconic superhero Batman. With the introduction of Batman in Detective comics #27(1939), the clown prince of crime made his way into the comics a year later. The character was brought to life by Bob Kane, Bill finger and Jerry Robinson which was inspired by the portrayal of Gwynplaine by Cornard Veidt in a silent movie titled “The Man Who laughs” (1928).
Bill finger had planned to terminate the character in the first issue itself by a stab wound through his heart which would have caused the premature death of the character, devoiding us of an encounter with one of the most enigmatic villains of all time. We may label it as some kind of divine intervention or creative instinct but a last minute editorial judgment added panels to show that the character survived the attack for the greater good.
In the early 50’s, the joker was tied to an image of a ruthless killer who faced off with the Dark Knight and his sidekick Robin on a recurring basis. With a change in editorial charge as jack Schiff came onboard; he navigated the character by turning joker into a non-lethal criminal with the sole purpose of pandering to the young readers. This move was complemented with the censorship by Comics Code Authority (CCA) introduced in the late 50’s which prohibited the use of violence and gore in comic books. As a result, the vicious killer was reduced to a tricking mugger locking horns with an equally muffled batman.
Although joker was a prominent character, disappearance of his murderous and psychotic ways created a void in the batman universe. In addition to this move, the appointment of a new editor named Julius Schwartz, whose hate for the character was evident, caused the jester of genocide to disappear from the comic panels before appearing on the TV screens. In 1966 the joker made a comeback with the TV series Batman which carried on his portrayal as a campy trickster. Ceaser Romero played the iconic character in series which comprised of 19 episodes. He managed to be the most appearing villain along with the Penguin over the span of two years. The TV series was transcended into a movie spinoff which saved the beloved outlaw from falling into the trap of obscurity. The 60’s also became witness to first adaptation of joker in an animation movie named The Adventures of Batman wherein the Harlequin of Hate was voiced by Larry Storch.
With the TV series concluding in the 70’s,comic book writers decided to go back to evolved storytelling in order to tackle the decline in sales of comic books. The character returned after from his exile after four years, revamped as a cold blooded killer who was on par with the caped crusader.
Neal Adams, a well-known commercial artist collaborated with Dennis o’ Neil `and did a great deal of service in establishing the Joker as a definitive character in the comic book lore. The joker was depicted as a fundamentally insane executioner and his appearance was restrained to create an impact which would solidify his claim to become the arch nemesis to the Bat of Gotham.
The year of 1975 saw an unusual twist by Dennis O’Neil who managed to create a solo series for joker projecting him as a protagonist. Being the ace of knaves, joker used to foil the evil schemes of batman’s villain’s before landing into jail at the end of each issue. This series faced severe backlash due to its inability to bring batman in a faceoff with joker as a lead character and the only possibility to project this scenario was by killing batman once in for all. It could not sustain the expectations of fans and died a sudden death after a short run comprising of only 9 issues.
In the mid 70’s Jeanette khan was added to the roster of Dc editors who is known to widen joker’s popularity to another level with the volumes such as Joker Fish. With an emphasis on maintaining a right balance between his mental instability and homicidal reach, the joker emerged as an intimidating character rather being an object of ridicule. Although darkness was pumped into the character in the comic books, the goofy portrayal continued in the episodes of The New Scobby Doo Movies and DC’s kid focused short series Super Friends.
The timeline of 80’s was a bumpy ride for DC comics as they were rehauling its continuity with the event Of Crisis on Infinite Earths which pushed the Batman’s series into grimmer dimensions. The induced insanity of the 70’s was furthered by the fiendish joker of the 80’s ,who grew darker in accord with his morally sound counterpart as their conflict transcended into a personal and violent space.
In the year 1988, The Killing Joke by Allan Moore was released providing readership with a back story for joker going against the culture to keep the character mysterious enough to be terrifying. Under the pressure of sustaining his family, the joker resorts to gang up with rookie criminals after a failed stint at stand-up comedy in this plot. During a pretty heist at chemical factory he was chased by batman before accidentally falling into a vat full of chemicals. Not only did the accident mutilate him but caused psychological damage giving birth to a deranged psychopath.
This portrayal of joker is considered as most terrifying take on the character as he paralyses batman’s accomplice Barbara Gordon and tries to turn her father Jim Gordon, who happens to be batman’s ally and close friend, into a maniac. His sole intent was to demonstrate it to batman that one bad day could push humans to banish assumed morality. Joker’s ruthlessness continued with new series Batman: A Death in The Family wherein joker kills the second robin Jason Todd with a crowbar leaving the dark knight in despair. This move was a double-edged sword for the DC editors as it served in writing off Jason Todd who was not a fan-favorite and at the same time made joker more despicable and threatening.
Tim burton’s take on caped crusader in the 1989 live-action movie Batman brought along yet another representation of the clown prince played by the veteran actor Jack Nicholson. The joker depicted here was a mobster named Jack Napier who was thought to be killed by batman, when he was knocked into a vat full of chemicals. This incident resonated the famous story line of The Killing Joke Comic and his original name was referred as Jack Napier which was borrowed by the Batman: The Animated Series later. Tim burton altered a sub plot which might be considered a sin by the present day audience, well-versed with character arc and storylines. He altered the iconic alley scene where batman’s parents die at the hands of a small time crook Joe chill. In the movie Jack Napier kills his parents to bring the conflict to a personal level which was an essential characteristic of the old school film making.
Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of joker was a mix Adam o Neil’s mobster and the campy joker by Romero who used comical gadgets such as Trick gun and acid flower. It was a dark take on the character similar to the characters trait in the 70’s.The movie faced an initial backlash but was a huge success as the last live action adaption was released way back in 1969. The 90’s was hugely influenced by the burtounisque joker and was subjected to least development apart from the character becoming a series regular. The popular storylines of the era include Legends of Dark Knight and Going Sane. While the latter delved into joker’s psychology in case he thinks the batman is dead, the Legends storyline was a re-iteration of first encounter between Joker and Batman.
Batman: The Animated series was a major highlight of the 90’s which carried forward the legacy of Tim burton’s Batman and Batman Returns .The second episode of the series titled Christmas with the Joker brought a new version of joker voiced by the Star Wars fame Mark Hamill whose take was that of a menacing character with unrestrained quirkiness. Being influenced by jack Nicholson, he became the voice of the character which led to his involvement in various joker related projects including Justice League (2005-06) and the Arkham Video Game series (2009-2015) creating a shared DC animated universe which lasted for almost two decades.
Batman: The Animated series has a special recognition in joker’s history because it introduced his famous sidekick Harley Quinn in the 1992 episode Jokers Favor. She was an Arkham Asylum
psychiatrist who fell in love with joker and turned to crime perceiving it as an act of passion. Her character became so popular overtime that she was included in the comic continuity in the 1999 arc No Man’s Land.
Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997) dropped the popularity of batman as a character with sloppy portrayal and incoherent scripting. Meanwhile the comic book carried forward the lead by jack Nicholson, portraying joker as a personal threat to batman rather than being a generalized villain. His sole objective was to point out that he is no different to batman to induce an emotional breakdown for the vigilante. In the 2001 issue of Emperor Joker, the joker finally succeeds in torturing and killing Batman by acquiring magical powers before it’s too late for him to realize that his existence will seem useless without his counterpart. During this period the character died and was revived on several occasions. Later it was revealed that jokers victim Jason Todd was alive and returned as a villain in the volume Under the Red Hood only to exploit batman’s reluctance to act upon vengeance.one of the significant adaptation of this decade was Bran Azzarello‘s graphic novel Joker which came out in the year 2008.This storyline was set out of the Dc continuity as a narrated account by one of the jokers henchmen. It brought out joker as one of the most inhumane character with a scene where he skins a person alive and presents him on stage.
Mark Hamill was excelling at the job of keeping the joker at his peak simultaneously on the animation front. Although after his continued band of amazing portrayal in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, he was replaced by, Kevin Michael Richards, an Afro-American actor when joker was revamped on the design front in The Batman cartoon series while still resembling to Hamills joker.
Following the success of Christopher Nolan’s live action adaption Batman Begins (2005), its sequel The Dark Knight arrived in 2008,wherein the actor Heath ledger known for his method acting skills aced the character with a fresh representation having anarchic undertones. His groundbreaking performance earned him a posthumous Academy award for the supporting actor category as he died after the movie released due to drug overdose. Although Nolan used batman’s origins to further the narrative, he chose to remain old school when it came to joker. By not using joker’s origin he added a certain layer of insanity, as the character juggles with his own origin story by providing a new one at different instances as the movie progresses.
After the conclusion of the Flashpoint crossover storyline, DC comics rebooted its continuity by revamping all of its ongoing storyline to entice new readers making all its characters modern and accessible. Joker was kept out of the batman storyline for a year after his face was peeled off by batman’s nemesis Dollmaker. The character popped back into the Dc timeline with Scott Snyder’s 23 issue comic book arc, Death of the Family where he is shown to steal his facial skin from the Police Department, which he strapped back on his face later. This storyline showed
joker attacking all the batman allies over the years including Batgirl, Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman, Red Hood etc. The storyline brought forward his belief that the bat-family had turned the hero into a weakling before he decides to act upon this issue.
Scott Snyder continued on with his fresh take on the character in the story arc titled Endgame. In this storyline, it was teased that the Joker was not just a psychopathic human, but an immortal, legendary figure with supernatural powers. Snyder was already under scanner for his rewrite of joker in Death of the Family as the joker happens to know the secret identity all of the batman’s allies. As soon as the Endgame series released, comic book Fans started objecting the fact that joker was being pushed into the realm of magic. Their argument stated that the current depiction lacked the essence of the classic joker portrayals, whose mysteriousness was elevated all along the years, with the fact that he was as human as batman. Other than Mark Hamill two other voice actors namely Troy Baker and Christopher Corey smith lent their cords to the trickster for the Arkham origin (2011) Game and the alternate videogame series Lego Batman respectively.
In the current year of 2016 DC re-launched its ongoing monthly comic books under New 52 into a Rebirth storyline. It borrowed character aspects from timeline before Flashpoint, while keeping the New 52 continuity in line. Batman’s storyline in the rebirth issues have already teased the existence of multiple jokers. This could turn out be an interesting development as it can lead to answers relating to jokers vague past and his numerous survival plots.
Batman has been a pivotal character in the Dc universe with a plethora of storylines and adaptations raking in character’s loyalists into the Dc family. Joker has been present side by side since the inception of batman being the backbone of his mythology. Taking cue from Heath ledgers joker we could say that the clown prince completes the Dark knight in the same way as Moriarity does to Holmes or Voldermort to potter.