The World’s Greatest Detective, the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, or whatever you may want to call him, #Batman will always have a cemented place in our pop culture obsessions. It has been a long journey with no attributes of an easy feat — one with all kinds of censorships and reinterpretations along the way. Batman’s very existence has changed immensely since his inception, giving new connotations to the character depending on the decade or era that the character inhabits at the moment.
Created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger (who doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of credit that Kane has gotten), Batman had an immediate resonance, eventually working his way up from the Detective Comics series to having one of his very own. Primarily based in style from pulp fiction characters Zorro and the Shadow, Batman held his own as a much darker and moralistic character (if moralistic means a man dressed as a bat roamed around the nighttime streets and shot bad guys, which is what the original character actually did — look it up!).
Eventually, the character got deeper and more grounded, and a lot of that can be attributed to the further characterization of #BruceWayne. Forbes recently did an estimate of Wayne estate’s net worth and found it was close to seven billion dollars. That is more than Oprah or Donald Trump and ventures into Steve Jobs territory. The further characterization of Bruce Wayne not only helped Wayne (the character himself) but also helped in establishing Batman as a much more conflicted soul, bent on committing justice no matter how sunken he is by his (im)moral actions.
Frank Miller’s reinterpretation of Batman in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One came out at just the right time. In the late 1980s, people were no longer interested in the campy (which is a word that I am going to be using a lot so get used to it) and angelically loopy superheroes that they were forced to witness previously.
Of course, where would our favorite antihero be without his very own pro-villain? Finally, what we’ve all been waiting for since we started reading this article: The Joker. Just like Batman, has his very own status plastered on the highest pedestal of pop culture. However, unlike Batman, who has changed drastically since 1939 from a hero with no rules and no empathy to a hero with one rule and a whole bunch of empathy to boot, the Joker has not. He was a sociopathic villain from day one and has remained so ever since. For what it is worth, we gotta admire someone who has determined themselves to almost 80 years to a plan of just wanting to see “the world burn.”
Out of Batman’s whole Rogue Gallery of villains, which features a guest list of names such as Bane, the Riddler, Catwoman, etc., the Joker has always remained at the top of the list. He was created by Kane and Finger and designed by Jerry Robinson after Conrad Veidt’s haunting performance as Gwynplaine from Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs. Premiering in 1940, making him only a year younger than Batman, it would have to make this long journey a two-man one, as both characters have prospered together.
You would need to a make it a three-credit college course if you wanted to fully dissect the philosophy behind this iconic rivalry, with references to Greek mythology and sociological justice systems. Many have tried time and again to diagnose the Joker, but the truth of the matter is that his ambiguity is what drives our interest in the character. It is what makes him the finest foe to our hero. They bring out the absolute worst (or best depending on your stance) in one another, mentally and physically torturing themselves in the hopes that they are not the ones to crack under the pressure. That makes this rivalry one of legendary stature in the comic book universe.
Of course, Batman was no better at first. While the Joker had his infamous “Double Guns” comic cover, which depicted the villain in his equally infamous purple suit wielding a gun in each hand at a miniature Batman and Robin, the Caped Crusader had his own violent crimes, which included — but were by no means limited to — snapping the necks of his prey.
While the Batman series was conceived in the Golden Age of comics, the character and his foes helped usher in the Silver Age of comic books with the Comics Code Authority of 1954 (a list of ridiculous reasons to censor drawings).
“Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no care shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.”
It is no surprise that Batman always prevails over evil, but now there could be no doubt in any readers’ mind that he was the favorite to win with the Comics Code. Most of the atrocities committed by the the Joker were drawn from behind since he couldn’t commit any crime and look like he was having fun doing it either.
“All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust sadism, machoism shall not be permitted.”
And they wonder how the Adam West Batman series came to fruition.
“Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”
You mean Batman can’t hang mental patients from the Batplane anymore?
After an absence, the Bronze Age of comic books emerged and Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams re-introduced the Joker to their DC series, but it was kind of too late. The comic book series did not fair too well since we had Adam West’s absurd batsuit (does anyone else think the cape looked like a hefty bag?). What’s worse? If Adam West took Batman’s campiness to volume 10, then Cesar Romero took his Joker’s campiness all the way to 1,001.
Coming full circle, we come back to the late 1980s, which is, arguably, the second Golden Age of comic books. Just like how they were almost created together, both Batman and the Joker got their rebirth together again. Frank Miller kept the campy “no killing” theme of the Silver Age of Batman and turned the character into a dark and complex antihero with identity and psychological issues. Alan Moore did the same with the Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke. These were no longer campy characters whose decisions were based solely on comedic effect but were actual abstract characters with backgrounds and self-destructive tendencies.
A story arc that was certainly not birthed during the Comics Code was “A Death in the Family” which featured a continued Batman character being viciously killed by the Joker. It was a ballsy approach to a comic series of characters that was beginning to grow with new interest.
Where Does That Leave Us Today?
1989 brought the movie version of this rivalry to life with Tim Burton’s Batman. While Burton’s illustration of a bleakly brutal Gotham City and Michael Keaton’s rendition of the perplexed Dark Knight were all new and fresh, Jack Nicholson kept the campiness of the Joker alive. Not that that was a bad thing, I thought his performance was awards-worthy, and it certainly worked in Burton’s universe, but it did leave a bitter taste of missed opportunity.
Enter Christopher Nolan’s Batman series (since we’ve all been waiting for it). Christian Bale delved even deeper into the tortured antihero, but Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Clown Prince had never been done before. Instead of having some scenery-chewing fun with the character’s historic campiness, The Dark Knight featured a much more realistically gritty and emotionless madman that we all immediately loved because he just did whatever the f*ck he wanted to. Not only did he utterly psychologically torment Batman, but he did it to Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent and the residents of Gotham City.
Check out all of the Joker laughs through the years and then keep watching over at Movie Pilot Video for more:
Best Joker Quote
“Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos."