With a history almost as long as that of his arch enemy and a similar cultural reach to the Caped Crusader himself, it seems odd that so little is known about The Joker. He made his first appearance in the comic books some seventy years ago and has since been all over the subsequent Batman TV shows, cartoons, films and video games. Everybody knows certain things about him – the psychotic clown get up, the weird love/hate relationship with the Dark Knight – but that’s about it.
The character’s past has been purposefully kept vague, with the multiple different origin stories he gives in The Dark Knight film characteristic as the various different explanations for his madness and scarred appearance that have cropped up in the funnybooks. His motivations are similarly vague, with the occasional reference to his belief in chaos or anarchy.
In those seventy years, though, a bunch of weird stuff has happened to the character. It’s just that you don’t hear a whole lot about it. The character is best remembered as Ledger’s nutty villain, but he’s also been an actual clown, a murder victim, and a Judge Dredd antagonist. Here are ten things you didn’t know about The Joker.
10. He’s Teamed Up With Carnage.
Spider-Man/Batman is about as good as most inter-company superhero crossovers get (as in, it’s perfectly fine, but only just a step above fan fiction, despite the dream team of JM DeMatteis and Mark Bagley), and doesn’t even bother to explain how the two fictional universes have gotten mixed up. It’s just all of a sudden, Marvel’s New York and DC’s Gotham City exist in the same world, and both The Joker and psychotic symbiote Carnage are both guinea pigs in an experimental treatment where they have chips stuck in their heads to stop them being so crazy.
Which obviously doesn’t work, because then there wouldn’t be any reason for the two superheroes to team up and defeat their mortal enemies. Carnage deals with his chip pretty easily and then springs The Joker from his prison as well, with the two of them heading on a psychotic crime spree with their shared understanding that the world is chaotic and life is pointless. Then they start arguing, giving Spidey and Bats a chance to stop them.
9. And Fought Judge Dredd.
The team-up made a lot less sense, but at least they bothered to explain it this time. Batman/Judge Dredd: Die Laughing centred on an accidental dimension jump which sees The Joker’s disembodied spirit transported from Gotham to the far-flung future dystopia of Mega City One, where he hangs out with similarly spooky Judge Dredd villains the Dark Judges. In fact they get on so much, that Dredd’s most iconic villain – Judge Death – decides to appoint him the fifth Dark Judge. It’s quite sweet really. Thankfully his body resides in Gotham still, so he can’t cause too much trouble.
At least until he figures out how to possess the bodies of the other Dark Judges, which results in a terrifying hybrid of those already pretty freaky villains and The Joker himself – so the big rictus smile spread over their face, the haunting laugh, all that business. Plus his laugh ends up being superpowered that he can make people’s heads explode, which is pretty badass. Again though, it all falls apart when Batman falls through the fame rip in space-time, teams up with Judge Dredd, and sorts everything out.
8. His Girlfriend Was Originally A Cartoon Character.
Harley Quinn has done the unthinkable: she’s become almost as recognisable and beloved a member of Batman’s rogues gallery as her beau, probably thanks to her appearances in the Arkham series of video games. She’s since been spun off into her own series, is constantly rumoured to be appearing in the various live action films that have been made over the years, and has been paired up with Poison Ivy as much as she does The Joker. Despite being such an iconic character in the comic books, it’s not actually where she originated.
Dr Harleen Quinzel first made her debut as The Joker’s therapist-turned-girlfriend in the nineties Batman animated series (one of the best superhero cartoons of all time), with her ensuing popularity leading to an introduction in the comic book universe during the No Man’s Land crossover. Which involved Gotham being rocked by earthquakes, getting cut off from the rest of the country, and The Joker running an entire corner of the city. Worked out pretty well for him, since he got a sweetheart out of the deal. And killed Jim Gordon’s wife. Woops.
7. He Was Almost Killed Off.
Despite being Batman’s all-time greatest nemesis (and possibly also one of the greatest supervillains in the history of comic books full stop), The Joker very nearly didn’t make it past his first issue. The early Dark Knight appearances – inspired by their more vicious pulp magazine roots – were characterised by a lot more death, murder and Batman wielding a handgun than the later iterations of the hero, and the Ace Of Knaves very nearly fell prey to it. He made his first appearance in 1940’s Batman #1, and was slated to be killed off in the very next issue.
The final page saw the defeated villain accidentally stabbed himself, and the Dynamic Duo legging it. Presumably so that they don’t get the rap for it. Most of the bad guys in those early comics were only supposed to make one-off appearances, but then-editor Whitney Ellsworth passed down a mandate deciding the character was too good to be bumped off. So the last panel was hastily redrawn, and then in every other appearance it looked like he died off-screen, only to return the following month.
6. Originally Not So Murderous.
The very first appearances by The Joker saw him being just as trigger happy as the early Dark Knight was, being a straightforward spree killer that Batman was probably right to take lethal action against. With the softening of the character in general so too did the Joker get a lot less murderous, partly thanks to the newly-introduced Comics Code which dictated what you could get away with in mainstream books sold on newsstands. So no sex, no bad language, and a heck of a lot less violence than before.
Which is very different to modern depictions of The Joker. Rather than insane plots that involved him murdering a whole lot of people, the Clown Prince Of Crime instead spend the better part of twenty years doing goofy burglaries that involved silly circus-based gimmicks, like taking a clown car full of made-up henchman into banks and generally just made a nuisance of himself. Besides the censorship, there was also the worry that having a serial murderer constantly getting away with it undermined Batman a little. Not a problem now, obvs…
5. Disappeared For A Decade.
All of which sort of spoilt the character. What’s intimidating about a clown running around doing pranks? That’s basically what all clowns do. It didn’t make The Joker particularly interesting as a foil to the Dark Knight when he wasn’t doing anything all that law-breaking. Throughout the fifties he was used less and less, in favour of other rogues gallery members like The Penguin and the like, and by 1964 he was removed from the roster entirely by editor Julius Schwartz. And it would stay that way for almost ten years.
Sort of hard to believe now that The Joker, the greatest villain in Batman history, just plain wasn’t appearing in print between 1964 and 1973. Even Caesar Romero’s peerless, moustachioed performance in the sixties Adam West show didn’t convince the comic creators to bring the villain back. At least until Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams proposed a radical reinvention of the character for the story “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge”, where he reverted to being a homicidal maniac who casually murders people on a whim. Pretty much how he is today.
4. The Long Lost Live Action Joker.
Besides Romero, The Joker has been lucky enough to be blessed with some of the greatest actors of their generation in his live action incarnations. The peerless Jack Nicholson portrayed him as a devil in the pale moonlight for the first Tim Burton movie, Heath Ledger gave the performance of a career (and, sadly, his last) in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, and Mark Hamill surprised everybody by putting in the definitive version of the character in the animated series and video games. Who knew that guy could act? Certainly not anybody who’s seen basically anything else he’s appeared in.
One of the lesser known live action versions of The Joker appeared in one of the lesser known Batman spin-offs. The Birds Of Prey comic book saw a trio of female Batman supporting characters – Huntress, Black Canary, and former Batgirl Barbara Gordon – teaming up to start their own crime-fighting group. It inspired a short-lived TV series of the same name in the early noughties, with the Dark Knight himself making only a fleeting appearance in an early episode. Alongside him was The Joker himself, doing battle with Batman, and played by Roger Stoneburner. Whoever that is.
3. It’s Always “The” Joker (Except Once).
Regardless of the various changes The Joker has gone through over the years – the various redesigns in the comics, his different appearances in other media and the like – there are certain things that always remain the same. He always has green hair, clown make up, a frightening smile, some sort of purple get up, and he’s almost always a psychopath to some degree. One of the other weird things that’s a hardy perennial in every Joker appearance is that he’s always The Joker. Definite article included.
In fact the only time that’s not been the case was in the underrated early noughties animated series The Batman, which boasted a bunch of interesting character redesigns, including a Marilyn Manson-inspired Riddler. The Clown Prince Of Crime too got a pretty neat makeover, with green dreads and the lolling gait of a chimp making it one of the more radical versions of the character. It’s also the only time where he is consistently just “Joker”, which the suggestion that it makes for the opposite number to the Dark Knight being The Batman.
2. His Absence From The Dark Knight Rises Was Explained.
The tragic death of Heath Ledger pretty much precluded his appearance in the third of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which from the sounds of it through a spanner in the director’s plans for the final entry in the trilogy. Ledger’s insane, genuinely frightening depiction of The Joker was supposed to be the central antagonist of The Dark Knight Rises as well, but for obvious reasons he ended up being replaced with the much different Bane (played by Tom Hardy).
The audience knew why The Joker wasn’t appearing – and re-casting was obviously out of the question – but his disappearance is never addressed in the film itself. What gives? Well, the official novelisation of The Dark Knight Rises gives a brief, fleeting mention of the Clown Prince Of Crime: apparently, after the Dent Act, all supervillains were moved from Arkham Asylum to Blackgate. Except The Joker, who remained there and never got broken out by Bane. So he was in jail.
1. Batman’s Considered Killing Him Loads Of Times.
One of the most confusing aspects of Batman and The Joker’s ongoing rivalry is that the Dark Knight keeps letting him get away with it. All well in good during the early days, when he did his level best to knock him off; and a lot more excusable when he wasn’t actually killing people in the fifties. Nowadays, though, when he’s been consistently breaking out of Arkham and going on endless killing sprees, it seems like Batman would be doing the world a favour by getting rid of him more permanently.
The most common explanation is that the Caped Crusader doesn’t want to break his precious no-killing rule, which seems like kind of a poor excuse considering the amount of people’s deaths he’s then sort of complicit in. Still, it’s a superhero comic about a crazy rich person fighting crime, so you give it a little leeway. More interesting is that the Dark Knight genuinely has considered killing The Joker on numerous occasions.
The Clown Prince himself has attempted to finally bump off his nemesis, too, including a story where he lures him into a trap and genuinely thought that Batman had died. He snapped back to sanity, got plastic surgery, and lived like a normal person for a bit. Batman turns out to be a alive, and everything returns to “normal”.