The Clown Prince of Crime. The Harlequin of Hate. The Ace of Knaves.
Nearly 70 years after “Batman” #1 first hit stands, there still is really only one name that perfectly fits the Dark Knight’s greatest adversary, a villain alternately portrayed as a harmless prankster and a vicious sociopath, a man who’s equal parts deranged, goofy, psychotic and comical: the Joker.
“Lightning in a bottle,” “Batman: The Animated Series” co-creator Bruce Timm said of the character. “Just a brilliant creation.”
What makes the Joker so brilliant, and why has he remained Batman’s greatest foe? We took a look at his various incarnations throughout history, up to and including his appearance in “The Dark Knight,” to find out.
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Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for the comic book’s first issue in 1940, the Joker — with his green hair, white skin and permanent smile — was based on photos of Conrad Veidt from the silent film “The Man Who Laughs.” Since then, he has remained the most prominent villain in Batman’s increasingly large gallery of rogues. This early version of the Joker was a straightforward mass murderer whose appearance alone seemed to set him apart.
“And it’s weird, because it’s not like Batman is the Human Torch, and his nemesis would be the Human Ice Cube,” Timm laughed. “A clown is not the antithesis of a bat.”
Except most bats, of course, aren’t this particular Bat — a man who has dedicated his life to ridding the world of evil, using cold, hard logic, an unwavering moral code and a strict adherence to the rules of justice.
“If you just told the Joker story, you’re talking about a guy with clown makeup on who’s psychotic,” comic-book legend Jeph Loeb surmised. “What makes him interesting is that it frustrates the hell out of Batman, who is a detective who needs to follow a series of clues in order to resolve an issue. It’s living in a very logical world. The Joker, meanwhile, is someone who doesn’t follow any rules. He’s a complete question mark capable of anything. All you get with the Joker is — ready for the pun of the year? — a wild card.”
The Joker spent his first few decades as that wild card, imagined mostly as a harmless prankster. This version of the character reached his nadir as portrayed by Cesar Romero on the “Batman” television show of the 1960s. His appearance never changed, but his motivations and crimes did. He ceased to be an anarchist and became, instead, yet another themed criminal.
It wasn’t until the ’70s and ’80s that the Joker went back to his roots (permanently it would seem), becoming both a vicious killer and a true mirror to Batman — someone who would go to any length to point out the absurdity of his enemies’ mundane lives, whether that meant capturing or torturing Commissioner Gordon, paralyzing his daughter, Barbara, or even killing the second Robin, Jason Todd.
But it was with Batman himself that the Joker would have his sweetest laughs.
“You had a bad day once, am I right?” the Joker asks Batman in the 1988 comic book “The Killing Joke.” “I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day, and everything changed.”
“As cool as Batman is, he’s kind of a stuffed shirt,” Loeb said. “The Joker is somebody who can make fun of that, point out the absurdity that it’s a good idea when your parents are killed in the street in front of you to go dress up like a bat. It’s an incredibly insane plan.”
By the time Tim Burton’s “Batman” live-action film came around in 1989, the Joker changed yet again. This time he was given a backstory that made him the man who killed the Waynes. Played by Jack Nicholson, the Joker was a stone-cold killer, but also a little bit campy, a little bit frivolous, a little bit too funny, perhaps.
“We both come from the cartoon world originally. We had similar ideas. Tim [Burton] said [the Joker] should have a humorous dark side to him,” Jack Nicholson MTV News last year .
Dark and humorous, yes, but maybe also too heroic. And how could he not be as played by Nicholson?
“The Joker was portrayed in that film as someone who’s likable, as someone who acts as a wish fulfillment part of us. It really is the idea that within us all is that notion that if you could get away with murder, you would murder someone,” Loeb asserted. “I find that message to be extremely disappointing in terms of human nature, but you can’t deny that that’s what makes film interesting.”
It would be 19 years before the Joker was given another shot at big-screen glory, in this summer’s “The Dark Knight.” Played by the late Heath Ledger , this Joker doesn’t crack jokes, he cracks skulls. He’s the embodiment of anarchy, an evil made all the more terrifying because he’s made real. His plan? Show Batman how absurd the world is by blowing up just about everything that he can.
“He has zero empathy,” Ledger told MTV News last year. “It’s the most fun I’ve had with a character and probably will ever have.”
Whether it’s been Romero, Nicholson or Ledger behind the makeup, however, and whether he’s been a maniac or a prankster, a clown or a killer, one thing has always remained constant with the Joker: the laugh — a laugh that with each breath seems to say he’s the only sane man in an insane world.
So, why so serious? Because for nearly 70 years the joke has been on Batman.
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Dark Knight.”
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