The Joker: Where Do I Start?

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. 

Comments

  1. With The Killing Joke, Joker (Azzarello) & Gotham Central, you truly get the full on modern day understanding of the Joker., IMO.

  2. Lovers & Madmen by Michael Green and Denys Cowan is another take on Joker’s origins, that controversially ignores The Killing Joke, and I love it. Equally as good as TKJ, with a few nods to the Dark Knight movie, that was being made simultaneously. Don’t know if there was collaboration there…

  3. dark knight the movie and 1989 batman why are they not there . that and killing joke is all u need

  4. Ed Brubaker did a really nice job retelling the first meeting between the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime in The Man Who Laughs (a nice nod to the 19828 silent film that might have inspired The Joker) with some brilliant Doug Mahnke art.

  5. I would add The Man Who Laughs by Brubaker and art from Mahnke which is a take on the Terri Austin and Marshall Rodgers tale The Laughing Fish, also awesome.

  6. I highly disagree with the Azzarello Joker GN, as I think it’s one of the worst depictions of him. I found it derivative, gory for the sake of being gory, and didn’t even really tell a story in the end.

    • AMEN to that. Plus it basically depicts the Joker as a common street thug. I didn’t get very far before I put it down and said, “No, I’ll just pretend that book doesn’t even exist.” Awesome cover though.

    • I also have to agree with this (though not as strongly). I felt it took the heath Ledger “Joker” as the real Joker (it is not), and went from there. It would be a good MAX Joker (or whatever the DC version of MAX would be), but not a canon DC story

    • I don’t think that GN was supposed to be canon (judging by most of the characters’ appearances), but I think the fact that this is technically a MAX book doesn’t help its cause. The strength of the MAX books (and this goes for most alternate reality stories) is that you’re exploring technically the same character under different lens and circumstances. The lens and circumstances are certainly adjusted here, but the character still doesn’t ring true.

    • the only thing that i didn’t like about the joker GN was the rape. i’ve never found the joker to be as pathetic as a rapist. rapists are pussies. and the joker is far from that. he goes up against batman, for fuck’s sake. i fine with all the murder and mayhem, but i can’t abide rape. not even on a fictional level.

    • Yep, my thoughts exactly. There were way too many things about that book that I just couldnt wrap my head around(also, HOW was Joker released in the first place?!?!) that I’ve preferred to just erase it from my memory. I think the only people who loved that book were people who loved Nolan version so much they wanted that version in the comics.

    • I’ve never read Joker, but I’ve heard so many mixed comments about it I can’t bring myself to read it. It really stood out to me as a book that should not have been on this list, for all the problems mentioned above.

  7. Anybody else think DC missed an opportunity to tinker with the Joker with the New 52? The Suicide Squad Harley Quinn origin story from a couple months ago make it apparent that they’re keeping the origin where both the Joker and Quinn fell into a vat of chemicals which somehow managed to bleach their hair green (or one side of it red, the other black) and skin white without any other cosmetic changes. This may just be me, but I remember being a kid watching the first Batman film and thinking this origin was silly.

    Especially now that we’ve all lived with Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger’s take on the character. That take is one of the few times where a film version of a character was made more interesting than the character presented in the source material. I think there’s two main reasons for this. First, the Ledger’s Joker is never silly, his humor is more reflective of Alan Moore’s Comedian than of a hack standup. Second, I remember hearing a lot of quotes of how Nolan didn’t want to tell the origins of Joker or even give him an overriding sense of purpose. Instead he wanted him to operate much like the shark from Jaws. He didn’t need a motive for causing havoc, because the desire to wreck havoc was his entire sense of purpose. “Some men just want to watch the world burn” and all that.

    I may be wrong, but considering the popularity of the The Dark Knight, a scary clown in a purple suit who fell in some weird paint seems like a missed opportunity.

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      We haven’t really seen the Joker yet in the New 52.

    • Well, we saw him in the first Detective. Then we saw him in Suicide Squad where he recreated his origin with Harley Quinn with baptism by chemicals that turn your skin white and turns half of your hair red and the other side black. Or green.

    • i didn’t think that orgin was silly when i was a kid, but i agree that they should’ve went with the nolan version.
      i guy with a glasgow grin who paints his face is not only way cooler(by villain standards), but is also way scarier.

    • *A guy with a glasgow grin…

    • Gotta disagree, while I love The Dark Knight, the comics version of The Joker is timeless and has much more range.

  8. I think if you really want a comprehensive look into the super sanity persona Grant Morrison put forward, you need to read Batman #663 “the clown at midnight” even though its a lot of pros i still haven’t found anything written depicting the joker that is half as twisted and creepy. And it provides a nice window into the character.

  9. That “Greatest Joker Stories” book was attached to me at all times when I was growing up. I brought it everwhere and I read the hell out of that thing! I have always been obsessed with The Joker, he is my favorite character of all time. Great article!

  10. In “Arkham Asylum,” (although not a Joker book) Morrison describes the Joker as the next step in human evolution; proposing that his lack of empathy and completely psychotic and violent thinking are evolutionary advantages for survival in the modern world. It was his doctor’s opinion, but to think that today’s selfishness could lead to a generation of Jokers is eerie. Paints an interesting concept of him, and also provides a social critique of Gotham. Killer article.

  11. Ok, so why doesn’t the Joker get his own comic book?