DC Histories: The Joker

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. klick here for the best jokes.

The Joker #1 (1975) Cover

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.

From Batman (Vol. 1) #1 (1940)

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.

From Batman (Vol. 1) #4 (1941)

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.

From Detective Comics (Vol. 1) #168 (1951)

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.

From World's Finest Comics #88 (1957)

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.

From Detective Comics (Vol. 1) #332 (1964)

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.

From Batman (Vol. 1) #251 (1973)

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.

From Joker #3 (1975)

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.

From Batman (Vol. 1) #408 (1987)

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.

From Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)

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.

From Batman (Vol. 1) #427 (1988)

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.

From Robin II #1 (1991)

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.

From Detective Comics (Vol. 1) #741 (2000)

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.

From Emperor Joker #1 (2000)

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.

From Joker: Last Laugh #1 (2001)

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.

From Detective Comics (Vol. 1) #826 (2007)

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.

From Batman (Vol. 1) #663 (2007)

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.

From Red Hood and the Outlaws #0 (2012)

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.

From Detective Comics (Vol. 2) #1 (2011)

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.


  1. No mention of the Joker story from Gotham Central? That was a good one.

  2. I’m definitely looking forward to the future of the Joker in the New 52, but hopefully, somewhere in the Death Of The Family storyline, we’ll get an explanation of some sort to the issues mentioned above from Red Hood & The Outlaws.

    • Read Ryan Haupt’s current article about making your own continuity for the characters you love. That’s how I’m approaching the whole Joker-made-Jason-Robin thing…

  3. Any possible chance that the Joker/Red Hood story that is mentioned above could be another one of those “Do you wanna know how I got these scars” Joker eff’n with you/the reader things?He’s just telling stories that make no sense? That’s how it is in my continuity anyway.

  4. Thanks Jeff, it was a really great and interesting article! Love the Joker and I get why he gets the credits for being Batman’s number one foe, though I prefer Mr. Freeze myself…

    I can go to bed a little bit more enlightened about the Joker hehe!

  5. In terms of the Joker knowing that Bruce Wayne is Batman, the R.I.P. storyline makes it almost impossible for him not to. There is plenty of reference to Bruce being Batman with the Joker around and Batman runs around without his cowl on for a lot of the story. I think he know’s but just doesn’t care because it’s Batman that is his true enemy.

    • That could very well be the case. I just wish it had been shown in the story itself. The fact that it wasn’t explicitly stated that the Joker knows who Batman is made the 4 page tale into a bit of a mess.

  6. No mention of Jerry Robinson? Guess that one is still up for debate (and always will be)

  7. Holy crap, that panel from Batman #408 reminded me that that was the first Batman comic I remember reading when I was a kid, I would have only been 4 years old when that came out and I don’t think I got it until a couple years later somehow. I had long since lost the issue and it was too long ago for me to remember what issue it was. I will now be searching high and low for a copy to replace it. Thanks for dropping that image in the article!

  8. I love love love Morrison’s prose Joker story and consider it to be the definitive interpretation of the character.

  9. I love Long Halloween/Dark Victory Joker. He wasn’t the centerpiece, yeah, but Tim Sale brings him to gothic-inspired life. That Christmas present scene in LH kind of just sticks in my memory.

  10. This was a great piece. I didn’t realize the Red Hood went all the way back to 1951.

    Given his propensity for taking out people close to Batman, I’m sure someone is going down in DOTF. Who, then, will snuff it?

    * Nightwing – I don’t see Dick going anywhere. His book is doing well enough, and he’s got legs still.

    * Jason Todd – Joker killed him before, it would seem fitting to kill him again. How’s the Red Hood book selling these days?

    * Barbara Gordon – Would anyone be surprised if Joker put her back in the wheelchair? This would also placate all the Oracle fans out there, and maybe get Stephanie Brown back in the picture.

    * Tim Drake – I fear for Tim. He’s so under utilized in the N52, it would be easy to off him. I think he’d be missed, but he’s so far out of the spotlight from where he was before…

    * Damian – If Kirkman were writing this book, I’d say the odds of Damian being killed or eat least severely injured would be pretty high.

    * Alfred – Same goes for him – it would be so cruel to kill Alfred. Like Bruce losing his parents all over again.

    I think it’s going to be someone that will hurt Bruce to his core. So I’m predicting Tim will die, Damian will get jacked up, and Alfred will die.


  11. The death of Sarah Essen is on my Top Five of comic book moments that genuinely moved me. I remember being really upset by it. The NML moment highlighted above was also one of my favorite Batman/Gordon moments. When Batman says “I won’t stop you, Jim.”? Phew. Heavy stuff, man. Joker’s time in No Man’s Land solidified for me the idea that when the Joker shows up, people die.

    He’s a man of his word.

  12. I’ve got a chicken / egg question: Which version of the joker came first, Lee Bermejo / Azzarello’s OGN Joker or Christopher Nolan / Heath Ledger’s Dark Knight Movie Joker? I’ve heard that Bermejo started drawing it before the movie came out, but they are so close in image it seems like one had to have influenced the other. Any thoughts?

  13. Based on the end of Snyder’s Batman #13…I’m pretty sure Joker knows who Batman is. Past stories have shown Joker knowing, but not caring. His foe is Batman. He recognizes Bruce Wayne as the mask and treats him as nothing more than that.

  14. the opening sentence fails to credit Jerry Robinson as a creator of the Joker.

  15. That prose Joker “comic” made me so angry that I tore it up before I threw it away. If I wanted a magazine, I’d buy a magazine.

  16. I haven’t read Grant Morrison’s Joker story, and doubt I ever will. I can’t stand his writing. He ruined the first year of Action in the new DCU. It was constantly jumping forward and backward in time, assuming we knew who characters were. The whole point of the new 52 was to bring new readers in, not alienate them.

    As much as I dislike Morrison’s work, I love the work that Scott Snyder & Jonathan Glapion are doing in Batman. And now the Joker! Great stuff.

  17. To my mind, Jerry Robinson created The Joker. He’s not even mentioned in this piece and neither is the 1928 movie ‘The Man Who Laughs’ (directed by by Paul Leni), which was the inspiration behind the character’s creation. That Robinson (and his claim to having created the character) is completely ignored is fairly reprehensible. This overview was nowhere near comprehensive enough for a dense and pivotal DC character like The Joker.

    Also: What about Brubaker’s ‘Man Who Laughs’ series, which shows The Joker’s origins and builds on the snapshots from ‘Killing Joke’?

    In addition, Joker was about far more in the 1990’s than this piece gives him credit for and played a part in nearly every major Batman story of the decade (if anything, he was overexposed). “pivotal moments” is, of course, a highly subjective term, but there were some very cool 90’s/early 2000’s Joker moments, pivotal or otherwise. Grant Morrison used Joker extensively in his ‘Arkham Asylum’ book, as well as his JLA run. How about Jeph Loeb’s use of the character in ‘Long Halloween’, ‘Dark Victory’, ‘Haunted Knight’ and ‘Hush’ or even Neil Gaiman’s teriffic (and bewildering) Joker reveal in ‘Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?’. In the 2000’s, A.J Lieberman and Al Barrioneuvo re-visited the character’s origins in their ‘Pushback’ series, which was an interesting (if not actually exceptional) Joker story.

    The Joker’s appearance in ‘Batman R.I.P’ and also in Morrison’s ‘Batman & Robin’ series actually revamped the character and his psychology as well, so I didn’t think it was fair to gloss over that series. With Grant Morrison’s Batman, you can usually read Joker as the central character and get a read that is just as rewarding (if not more so).

    It was nice to see Neal Adams getting some credit though, he is probably the main reason why comics fans still care so strongly about the character.

    Sorry for the essay, no offense meant to Jeff or anybody else.