How The Joker Works

Perhaps you’ve been wondering how computers work, or how spaceships fly. Well, is a good website for that.

But perhaps you wanted to know more about the Joker? They’ve got that covered as well. It’s not a bad overview at all.

Conor and I have had this conversation many times. The Joker works if he’s scary as all hell. I suppose you could say that he works if he’s silly too, but not for me. The character has to be as dangerous as Batman is capable. So there’s a fine line to be ridden.

There’s also a lot of talk about The Joker’s origin. The truth is, there isn’t an official story, which is just fine by me. Does anyone remember when there was a little mystery left to Logan? The day they definitively state The Joker’s origin in comics is the day that they tear a big chunk of what is important about that character right out. Because he’s not tied to any reality, they can do almost anything with him. He’s one of the only characters in the DC Universe who has a plausible explanation for why he’s had so many personality shifts over the decades. He’s psychotic!

The best thing about The Joker is the fact that he is, easily, the perfect opposite of Batman, but in many ways, he’s just a mirror for Bruce Wayne. Is Bruce that far off from being like The Joker? What constitutes the difference in their distinct obsession? Batman is dark and good, while Joker is light and bad. It makes no sense, but it works perfectly.


  1. Best Joker – Killing Joke
    Runner up – Arkham Asylum

    The origin story being done in Batman: Confidential right now isn’t bad – it shows the Joker to be crazy before being dropped into the vat (four issues into the storyline and that just happened – talk about decompression). However, it shouldn’t be cannon. I’m also of the mind that the Joker shouldn’t have a definitive origin – the mystery is the best part. What’s out there – failed comedian duped into a crime – works for the character.

  2. I believe it was Alan Moore that first suggested that the Joker’s origin remain multiple choice. It seems fitting with the character. This was reiterated by Mark waid (I think it was) in the backup origin tales recently in Countdown.

    The conclusion to No Man’s Land was unreal. Joker was pretty damn scary there.

    One of the best Joker stories recently (in the past 5 years) was Gotham Central’s Soft Targets (12-15). Brubaker/Rucka/Lark. Joker with a sniper rifle (hmmmm, maybe Green has read this story. His Joker is great with a gun too). What made this pretty scary for me was the fact that it was told not too long after the whole Washington Sniper incident. Even though it was Gotham, this had a touch of reality about it. Also, there is a fantastic Lark cover featuring Joker with his mug shots. Great stuff!

    I believe Dini is the only writer that can pull off a less scary silly Joker. That Christmas one-parter when he has Robin hostage in the car (SUV?) and he is running over Christmas shoppers was hilarious. The two-parter with Zatanna, not long ago, probably had one of the greatest cliffhangers that I’ve ever seen in an issue of ‘Tec.

    Joker is great. Scary Joker rocks even better.


  3. I agree that his origin is best left ambiguous. I’ve personally most enjoyed the characterizations from The Long Halloween, and The Animated Series. I have yet to read The Killing Joke, but boy did that cover scare me as a kid. I think the first time I realized he wasn’t the playful guy you saw Cesar Romero parading around as, was when I heard about what he does to Barbara Gordon in that story.

  4. Sale’s unique take of the Joker in the Long Halloween made me seek out the only action figure I’ll ever buy. I love those teeth!


  5. The Joker is definitely one of the best villains in all of comics. He has this silly side to him that counters his dark, mass murder side. Although I love the Killing Joke, I have to say that I liked him the best in Arkham Asylum and that one all text issue of Batman (issue #656ish…maybe?). Is it surprising that they were both by Grant Morrison? Possibly, but then again, Morrison is kind of a nut himself, so it’s a perfect match.

    Personally, I would love to see Grant Morrison pen a story with Batman duking it out with the Joker.

    Another great Joker story is in the animated series. I can’t recall the episode name, but it’s the one where he gets flipped off by a guy on the road. After pulling him over, the Joker lets him live by making the guy cash in a favor whenever the Joker needs him. The guy moves away from Gotham and is stunned when the Joker phones him to come and help. The kicker is that the favor he’s doing for the Joker is to open a door. Completely classic. Anybody know which one I’m talking about?

    What I’ve always loved about the Joker is that despite his craziness there is this amazing genius to his crimes as well as his complete ability to adapt even the most complex of plots. In a way, that’s what makes him the scariest: you never know what he’s going to do. He’s the wild card, whether he’s teamed up with someone or working on his own. It’s great.

    Part of me would like to see him in more stories, but the other part of me knows that when used sparsely, his character becomes all the more effective.

    So what’s the best Joker? For me, it’s not the scary one, but the crazy, maniacal killer that does the unexpected.

  6. I love the completely nuts joker too. Where he’ll squirt you with a flower and it could be water, urine, or flesh eating acid. You never know, hell, I don’t he even knows half the time.

    I really liked the line in Arkham Asylum about the girl’s eyes and he just yells “APRIL FOOLS!”

  7. While mystery for villains has some appeal, I don’t think the same is necessarily true for heroes. Logan works because of who the character is, not because of what you don’t know about him.

  8. I find the Joker’s silly side makes him more creepy. He’s scary when he’s just plain being scary, but when he takes a moment to make light of it and crack a joke… purely deranged.

    I’d agree with Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum as the best Joker stories (that I’ve read), and I really think Heath is gonna nail it. I have no proof of this, of course, apart from a 10-second soundbite from the teaser and the promo stills, but I’ve just got this feeling he’s gonna be awesome.

    If Michael Caine calls his performance “the scariest performance I’ve ever seen”… well, that’s high praise indeed.

    I’m willing to be corrected next summer, but I really believe it’s going to be incredible.

  9. My favorite and what I think is one of the best Joker stories –

    Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (uncut)

    It shows just how sadistic the Joker can be. and had tons of great quotes, especially reguarding Joker’s knowledge of a certain… secret. SPOILERS

    The Joker: What’s the matter, Batman? No witty comeback? No threat? Then I’ll provide the narration… [the screen flickers to life, showing “Our Home Movies”] I’ll begin with how I peeled back the layers of the boy’s mind. Oh, he bravely tried to fight it at first. You would’ve been proud to see him so strong – but all too soon, the shocks and the serums took their toll, and the boy began to share such secrets with me. Secrets that are mine alone to know… Bruce. It’s true, Batsy! I know everything. And kinda like the kid who peeks at his Christmas presents, I must admit, it’s sadly anti-climactic. Behind all the sturm and bat-o-rangs, you’re just a little boy in a playsuit, crying for mommy and daddy! It’d be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. [pause] Oh, what the heck, I’ll laugh anyway. HA HA HA HA HA HAA!

  10. It doesn’t seem to be the most popular interpretation, but for my money, the best Joker is always about a strong artistic logic.

    Behind the colours and noise there should always be a unifying logic tying everything together, as opposed to random “insanity.”

    Characteristic of a lot of the best interpretations, I think, is probably the recognition that the “genius” and “madman” of the Joker aren’t necessarily two autonomous qualities. Sometimes people tend to forget that the most common mental illnesses are built on their own logic. (Ie; OCD)

    In a lot of ways I think the best of the Joker is yet to come, but that’s probably a testament to the longevity of the character, more than a slight to fantastic and fun stuff like the animated series, and Long Halloween.

  11. I see what you’re saying Mike, but I think that what you do has to make sense to the Joker himself, but seem random to all others. It’s a thin line. But I don’t think the ideas are mututally exclusive.

  12. “I see what you’re saying Mike, but I think that what you do has to make sense to the Joker himself, but seem random to all others. It’s a thin line. But I don’t think the ideas are mututally exclusive.”

    Oh, for sure! I refer to it as an artistic logic, because it’s definitely not about being obvious to everyone else.

    I think that’s why the arc logic of the shifting super-personas that Morrison uses is so successful. It’s admirable to put some context on the history and the broader canvas, even if it’s acknowledging the weaknesses, just a tad.

    Leading a marching band down mainstreet, shooting tourists, and announcing the benefits of giant-sized typewriters is still silly, but that extra layer of motivation helps the medicine go down.

    I also think it’s crucial to the Batman/Joker relationship, because without that underlying intelligence and motivation, Batman’s personal jurisdiction is less relevant.
    You can spin the ‘you made me’ version any number of ways (as broad and removed from the Moore origin as the argument of escalation), but at the end of the day I think the page needs to represent the reason for their relationship on that grounded level.

  13. Batman Confidential’s joker origin story was fantastic! Now, I have yet to read the killing joke, so i’m not comparing it to the killing joke or taking the killing joke into context in any way. The story has been great and the art has been incredible. If you like the Joker check out the lst 4 issues of Batman Confidential.

    Also, thank you Josh for this link. Very informative and interesting. The picture of the Joker from the upcoming batman movie is super creepy and has gotten me very excited to see it when it comes out.

  14. One of the great things about Joker is the way he always knows things he shouldn’t

    I was reminded of this in the Haloween Special, where he can see Deadman or whoever it is in his ethereal form, the way he was the only non deity who could remember all the DC/Marvel Crossovers.

    Rather than the occasional moment of deja vu he knows exactly what’s going on, and even learns from one crossover to the next; particularly useful considering that his opponents (usually spiderman) got their memories wiped of the Crossovers each time they happened, and so always have no idea who he is, giving him the advantage. This is part of Morrison

  15. How do we feel about Scarecrow? Or Two-Face? Or Poison Ivy?

    Perhaps a vidcast on the psychology of Bat-villains?…

  16. I’m with Mike, I’d love a vidcast about Bat-villains. I really like Two-Face as a villain, unfortunately though my introduction to the character was Tommy Lee Jones’ shambolic performance in the movie. Urgh!

    I’ve since recovered and found the proper way the character should be from the comics and think he’s fantastic. Can’t wait to see what Nolan and Aaron Eckhart do with the character in TDK.