Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker.
Bill Finger and Bob Kane knew they had a good villain when they created the Joker in 1940. Appearing just a few months after Batman himself was created, the Joker debuted in the pages of Batman’s very first solo series. In fact, he starred in the first of four short stories that were featuring in that first issue. So popular was the Joker that he also appeared in the unrelated fourth story in that very same issue. He was simply too good of a character to deny.
The Joker began as a very dark character. Originally, it was unclear if the Joker’s pale skin and green hair was done with make-up or was simply how his skin looked. Over time, it seemed clear that it was his natural state. Obsessed with diamonds and jewels, the Joker killed the elite of Gotham City and robbed them of their valuables. Instead of just using a gun or some other mundane tool, the Joker created a chemical compound that would stretch a ghastly grin across the faces of his enemies before their deaths. It was creepy, insane, and a striking image.
In the Joker’s first year, he battled Batman in five separate stories, which feels like some kind of record. In each story, the Joker appeared to die only to come back to again battle his arch-foe in a few short months.
Eleven years after he was first introduced, the Joker was given an official origin story. How he got the natural clown look was revealed to be the byproduct of his swimming through a vat of chemicals when he began his criminal career as the Red Hood. The story where this was revealed was actually a great one as it featured Batman looking into just who the Red Hood was and why he disappeared. Actual clues were littered throughout the story and the Joker’s reveal was a real surprise.
No where in this, or any other, story is the Joker given a real name. He is always simply “The Joker” who once went by “The Red Hood.” That’s all we’re given and that’s all we really need.
Success has a way of softening the edges of characters and the Joker is no exception. The Joker’s propensity to kill his victims eventually ceased and he was portrayed more as an annoyance of the lawful people of Gotham and not a madman who could destroy the city at a moment’s notice. He was an idiosyncratic thief and not a cold blooded killer. In fact, he was even allowed to co-sign on a manufacturing license with Lex Luthor.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the Joker really began a buffoon. While the 1966 TV version of the Joker didn’t do the character’s criminal credentials any favors, it would have been hard to have him fall any lower than that one theft where he rode a giant mechanical chicken and carried an oversized butterfly net.
It was official: Joker simply wasn’t scary.
That all began to change when Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil got their hands on the character. In a deliberate attempt to move away from the campiness of the 1960s, Adams and O’Neil were brought onto Batman to reinvigorate the franchise. They did this in 1970 by moving back towards the darker, more moody version of Batman not seen since the early 1940s. The Joker got a similar treatment in 1973 when he emerged after several years on non use. In “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” he again took to randomly killing people to get what he wanted. It was the return of the original Joker.
The Joker’s return proved to be so popular that the character was granted his own ongoing solo series, a first for a villain at DC. The Comics Code at the time forced the title into a less than ideal pattern. Every issue had to end with the Joker’s latest plan for villainy being thwarted. The series did allow the Joker to fight a variety of different characters in the DCU including Green Arrow, Lex Luthor, and even the Creeper.
Sadly, the series only lasted 9 issues. These issues have never been reprinted all together, which is really a shame. Though the Joker’s solo series lasted only a short time, he would continue to hound Batman until the Crisis on Infinite Earths reset the DCU.
After the Crisis, a new continuity began. Here, it was shown that during Dick Grayson’s last adventure as Robin, the Joker nearly killed him with a gunshot to the shoulder.
Batman was so concerned for Dick’s safety and so upset by his inability to properly protect Dick that it wasn’t too surprising when Bruce unilaterally decided that Robin was to be retired. Dick didn’t take the news very well. This incident set him well on his way to becoming Nightwing in the post-Crisis DCU and also created a major rift between mentor and former student.
This was simply the first in a series of incidents of the Joker causing great harm to befall members of the Bat family. During the now classic Batman: The Killing Joke, the Joker shot Barbara Gordon, adopted daughter of Commissioner Jim Gordon and who was also known as Batgirl, which shattered her spine and forced her into a wheelchair. While Batman pursued the Joker through a funhouse maze, the Joker attempted to explain his worldview. His audience wasn’t very receptive to his explanations.
Later that same year, the Joker removed another member of the Bat family from Gotham City’s skyline. Jason Todd, the young boy that Batman almost immediately replaced a wounded Dick with, was a problem child. After running out on his own to track down his missing mother, Jason stumbled across the Joker’s Middle East operations. Seeing an opportunity to take out another of Batman’s allies, the Joker beat Jason within an inch of his life and then blew up the building Jason was laying in.
It was a devastating loss for Batman, particularly after it came so soon on the heels of both Dick’s shooting and Barbara’s maiming. The Joker was now the most deadly of Batman’s enemies.
After killing Jason, the Joker attempted to escape justice by becoming the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations. This worked well up until the time that the Joker attempted to kill the entire U. N. General Assembly with his Joker Gas. Only the timely intervening of Superman and Batman kept these members of the world safe.
When Tim Drake took over the Robin mantel from Jason, he knew what had killed the young hero and he knew that the Joker wasn’t a foe he could take lightly. Still, with Batman’s help, Tim figured he could take on any foe. Unfortunately, the Joker turned up in Gotham City when Batman was working on a solo case out of town, meaning that it was Tim who had to face the maniac all by himself. The first time that the Joker saw the new Robin, he had a violent freak-out.
Luckily, Tim was able to take the Joker down completely on his own but it was a close call.
After devastating so many members of the Bat family in so little time, the Joker took the next few years off. Batman had larger storylines he was dealing with including his back being broken, Dick Grayson briefly taking over the role of Batman, and a massive earthquake that nearly destroyed Gotham. While the Joker did appear in small roles during these adventures, he didn’t really have any pivotal moments.
That changed at the very end of the No Man’s Land tale when he murdered Jim Gordon’s wife, Sarah Essen Gordon. Moments after the murder took place, both the police and Batman found the Joker’s hideout and started to cart him off to jail. Knowing who he had just murdered, knowing that he had now killed Gordon’s wife and crippled Gordon’s daughter, the Joker then threatened Gordon’s son. The kneecapping that the Joker then received was completely justified.
It was also during the No Man’s Land story that the Joker’s animated series girlfriend, Harley Quinn, made her DCU debut. Surprisingly, while Harley’s origin depends heavily on the Joker, the two villains didn’t spend a lot of page time together. They are just two big personalities who each have their own thing going on.
Later the same year that Joker feared he’d never walk again, he became an omniscient being. The Joker found a way to steal the fifth dimensional powers of Mr. Mxyzptlk, causing him to be able to bend time and space to his will. Those are the kinds of powers that let a man immediately heal his completely busted knee, which was one of the first things the Joker did. After that, he set about destroying his enemies including Batman and Superman. Only by understanding how the Joker’s mind work was Superman able to defeat the most dangerous man in the universe.
The very next year, the Joker was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Told by his doctors that he had very little time to live, the Joker decided to go to his final resting place in a way that no one would ever forget. Towards that end, he developed a new Joker Gas which didn’t kill the person who was exposed to it, but that caused them to look and think like the Joker. After exposing the new formula to the other villains currently living in the Slab, a prison for super criminals, the Joker set about causing terror among everyone in the DCU.
It was later revealed that the Joker’s tumor diagnosis had been a conspiracy among the Slab’s doctors to attempt to bring some sanity into the Joker’s life. The Joker was actually just fine. The plan completely backfired.
Back in the various Batman related titles, the Joker was still appearing every now and again. He was constantly able to escape confinement at Arkham Asylum and was back out on the streets as quickly as he liked. Perhaps one of my favorite Joker stories of all time was from this era. In a Paul Dini written adventure, Robin found himself in a tight spot when a mysterious SUV pulled up near him and offered him a lift. Jumping at the chance, figuring that the SUV’s driver was an ally of the Bat family, Tim was shocked to find himself face-to-face with the Joker. What followed was a harrowing ride through Gotham.
Meanwhile, over in the pages of Batman, Grant Morrison was also dealing with the Joker. Early in his run, the Joker got shot directly in the forehead. During his recover, the Joker once again wanted to make sure people remembered him and went on another spree. This story was told almost completely by prose text with some artistic embellishments by John Van Fleet. It was a surprisingly dense issue with the Joker becoming an even darker psychopath than he had ever been before. Readers were split on the issue, though it should be said that Conor was a fan.
The Joker would remain a key figure in Grant Morrison’s epic take on Batman, especially in the pages of Morrison’s Batman and Robin.
That brings us up to the New 52. The Joker is returning to the comics for his first new adventure in over a year. However, he did make a brief appearance as a narrator in the pages of Red Hood and the Outlaws‘ zero issue. There it was revealed that in the New 52, the Joker had been behind the creation of Jason Todd as Robin. Apparently, he made Jason Todd his special project and helped push the young boy into Batman’s arms. Then, he killed Jason just for laughs.
This new origin for Jason has some problems. If Joker knew that Jason Todd was Robin, wouldn’t it follow that the Joker also knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman? How did the Joker know that Leslie Thompkins is very close to Batman? Did the Joker know that Dick Grayson had retired from the role of Robin? Perhaps these tales are coming, but it’s a weird bit of business as the story currently stands. It makes the Joker out to be the new Mopee, the 1967 magical character who was behind the lightning blot that turned Barry Allen into the Flash. There’s a reason why Mopee was deliberately forgotten immediately after his debut: he was awful. Mopee made Barry’s story needlessly complicated and silly. Here’s hoping this new Jason Todd origin follows a similar path and is ignored.
Famously, the New 52 Joker has had his face removed by a villain named the Dollmaker. The Joker’s face nailed to a wall made for a striking image in the first issue of the renumbered Detective Comics and it got fans talking.
Now, the Joker is returning to the pages of the various Bat family books to take out more of Batman’s supporting cast. Here’s hoping he doesn’t kill or maim too many of your favorite characters this time. Chances are, someone’s going down.
Jeff Reid always wondered why that clerk let the Joker co-sign for a manufacturing licence. Do you think a license approved under duress is legal? Speculate with him on Twitter.