There could be textbooks written on the psychological implications of Batman and his unique variety of adversaries, but all of them pale in comparison to his chief rival, the Joker. The hyper-intelligent psychopath has been more than a thorn in the side for Bruce Wayne and Gotham City, as he’s been a one-man crime spree responsible for paralyzing Barbara Gordon, killing the second Robin, as well as killing Commissioner Gordon’s second wife. He’s become the classic yin to Batman’s yang, the chief villain chosen in almost all of Batman’s adventures outside of comics in movies, television, video games and more. But who is the Joker?
Created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane for 1940′s Batman #1, the Joker was originally a straightforward killer who just modeled his appearance on the Joker from playing card decks. The trio planned to kill off the character early on, but their editor convinced them to resend that death sentence just before the book went to print. His early appearances show him as quite dark, killing and maiming both friend and foe in pursuit of his agenda. In the 60s the Joker was toned down a bit to reflect the more playful prankster persona perpetuated by the Adam West Batman television series, but in the mid-70s his killer persona was brought back with a vengeance by Dennis O’Neill and Neal Adams in their celebrated Batman run. Since then he’s become one of Gotham’s most hated and feared criminals, going on to spread his unique brand of psychotic behavior past its city limits into epic struggles against everyone big and small, including a great face-off against Superman.
To better understand this complex and just-plain crazy character, we’ve come up with a set of six collections you should track down if you want to get inside the Joker’s head.
The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told: Although the title might be exaggerated somewhat, this tome does collect some of the Joker’s greatest stories but by no means is it definitive. The best of the lot is the aforementioned return to violence for the Joker in O’Neil and Adams’ Batman run, specifically #251′s “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge.” Also included is a standout two-parter from Steve Englehart and Marshall Roger’s celebrated run on Detective Comics, where the Clown Prince of Crime brandishes a pair of clown-faced fish (no, not clownfish) in pursuit of another hare-brained agenda.
Batman: Going Sane: What would Joker do with himself if he ever managed to kill his foe Batman? That’s the story explored in this great 4-parter by J.M. DeMatteis and Joe Staton from the Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight series. With his primary goal for life accomplished, this story posits the idea that the Joker would fall back into relatively normal life. This really turns the Joker concept inside out, and further explores the sad duality between Batman and the Joker that will forever keep them at each other’s throats.
Batman: The Killing Joke: Alan Moore makes yet another appearance in our “Where Do I Start?” series, delivering with artist Brian Bolland one of the key texts for both Batman and Joker in the past 30 years. This one-shot graphic novel was all about the Joker’s attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, and that agenda is complimented by flashbacks to Joker’s past before he attained his horrific looks. Narrated by the Joker himself, the series explores the idea of Batman’s duality with his archnemesis and gives good reason to think that Bruce Wayne may be just as crazy as the villains he fights.
Joker: If you were looking for a villainous equivalent to Batman’s turn in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, this is your ticket. Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo turn the knife into the tortured life of the Joker, showing the Clown Prince at his best — which is at his worst. With a body count in the double digits, the Joker relishes his release from prison by trying to retake the criminal underground, with a low-level thug named Jonny Frost along for the ride.
Superman: Emperor Joker: Joker might be able to hold his own against other non-powered foes like Batman, but most people think he wouldn’t stand a chance against Superman… but you’d be wrong. After tricking Mr. Mxyzptlk ino gifting him his powers, the Joker goes on a planet-wide crime spree. From eating the entirety of China in a not-too-subtle joke on Chinese Takeout, this story is quintessential Jeph Loeb with the man getting to play with all the toys in the DC toy chest and real dream up some imaginitive scenarios. Ed McGuinness really kills it on art here, especially in dreaming up this crazy world re-made by the Joker and all the crazy denizens of it.
Gotham Central Book 2: Jokers & Madmen: For a brief moment in time, we were gifted with an amazing grounds-eye view of Gotham City via its police officers with the series Gotham Central. And like a madman, when the Joker steps in it becomes even better. From being a mystery sniper to giving himself up to the cops for an even more sinister goal, seening the Joker played out in this more realistic book really focuses just how crazy he can be.