Today I dare to try and answer one of the most popular questions from comic book history: Who is the Joker? Or more accurately, who was the Joker? I'll be looking at comic books, TV and movies to get as close as I can to an answer. Let's begin.
In the Tim Burton movie the Joker's previous identity is actually revealed to be Jack Napier. This name has no significance in the comic books whatsoever, but in the movie Jack Napier was the person who murdered young Bruce Wayne's parents. As Jack Napier aged, he worked his way up in the mafia ranks, eventually becoming the right-hand man of a crime boss. When the crime boss found out that his girlfriend was cheating on him with Napier, he ordered Napier to go to Axis Chemicals where he was supposed to be shot by a corrupt cop. All would have gone according to plan if it wasn't for our Caped Crusader and Commissioner James Gorden. Napier got shot in the cheek and when confronted by Batman, Napier panicked and fell into a vat of chemicals that turned his hair follicles from grey to emerald green, his skin pigmentation was blanched chalk white, his soft flesh, such as his mouth and lips, were flushed ruby red. His permanent grin was a result of a surgeon attempting to repair his face where the ricocheted bullet injured him, with rusty, inadequate surgical tools in a poorly lit room. He accepted his changed appearance in a twisted way; probably losing whatever mental stability he had left. Thus, the Joker was born.
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
In the highly hit movie, The Dark Knight the Joker's portrayal was so well done, that Heath Ledger got an Oscar for it (even though he wasn't alive to receive it). But in the movie the Joker's history is never revealed. There is a scene when he is captured and no traces could be found of his fingerprints, dental records, or DNA on the GCPD's databases. Also, in the movie he keeps on telling different tales of "how he got his scars", suggesting that he himself doesn't remember his own origins. This is very true to the comic book, The Killing Joke. But let's assume he was telling the truth. He had an abusive and alcoholic father, who attacked him and his mother with a knife. Then he says he once had a wife who had her face cut because she was meddling in things she really shouldn't have been involved in. In a desperate effort to show his wife that he didn't care about her appearance, he took a razor to his cheeks to produce his smile. That extremely disturbed his wife and she left him, damaging his psyche. But instead of looking at who he is, let's look at who he isn't. He clearly has make-up on his face instead of his skin pigments being blanched chalk white. His hair is also obviously dyed. So he is just another person who believes if he can become more than just a man, that if he devotes himself to an ideal, he will become something more. A legend. The Joker in The Dark Knight isn't really insane, there is a part in the movie, where he states that he is not crazy and throughout the movie you can see he is tactical and organised. He is basically Batman but bad. Very bad.
SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)
Many fans believe that Jared Leto's performance will either break or make the film. Many fans also believe that he is the craziest Joker yet, which is a very good thing. But what do we know about him? We know that he isn't as...what's the word...'reckless' as Jack Nicholson's Joker. I mean look at this picture:
This looks like someone is breaking the Joker out of Arkham Asylum, but that's not the point. The point is Jack Nicholson's Joker probably would have killed the guy by giving him an electric hand shake the second the guy broke him out and said a stupid pun. But stupidity and craziness are two different things. Jared Leto's Joker could be absolutely crazy but still be clever enough to keep allies. But let's explore why that might be. Maybe it might be because there are still remnants of the person he used to be.... You see, there is a popular fan theory going around that the relationship between the Joker and Robin is...quite strong. How strong? Strong as in they are one and the same. Crazy, right? Let me try explain how I understand it.
SPOILERS FOR THE ARKHAM KNIGHT GAME!
In the Arkham game universe it turns out that the Joker sent a video to Batman of him torturing Jason Todd and faking his death so that Batman wouldn't go around looking for Jason. But it turns out the Joker just kept him and God know what he did to him. So let's apply that to the theory, Batman thinks Jason is dead, but really he is being tortured by the Joker, being transformed by the Joker...into the Joker.
A very similar idea is explored in the animated movie, Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker. Another analogy you could use is how the Mandarin was portrayed in Iron Man 3, Trevor Slattery was a fake, but in the Marvel one-shot, All Hail the King, we find out there is a real Mandarin out there. Now I know there are many of you who are thinking this:
And you guys are probably right. But just think about it is all I'm asking.
To sum up:
If you were trying to determine the Joker's former name from purely DC movies, then you would say it was Jack Napier.
DC ANIMATED UNIVERSE
In the highly famous DCAU, the Joker is portrayed on several shows. But it is in Batman: The Animated Series that we find out the Joker's origins. The origin story is virtually the same as the one shown in Tim Burton's Batman movie with some insignificant differences. Heck, they both even look and act the same:
But his name is never revealed, but since he is virtually the same as Jack Nicholson's Joker, we can perhaps assume that maybe his previous name was Jack Napier as well.
In the hit animated series, The Batman, we get the origins of the Joker in the episode: Strange Minds.
So the Joker was a documenter but secretly wanted to be a comedian. The reason why he fell into the chemical vat is not explained, but we can assume that it was probably an accident, since this previous Joker doesn't seem to be involved in crime whatsoever. Whatever the reason, we know that eventually he does lose his marbles after his transformation and turns into the Joker.
In the episode The Blind Fortune Teller we meet Jerome Valeska, who near the end of the episode is heavily implied to be the future Joker. Just watch this:
Jerome Valeska is the son of Lila Valeska, who was the snake dancer at Haly's circus, and Paul Cicero, who is a blind fortune teller at Haly's circus. In the episode Jerome is responsible for killing his own mother showing that he was evil before he become the Joker. He is already mentally unstable before his transformation. In a way, he is already the Joker.
The Joker on TV share very similar origins (with the exception of Gotham) but their outcomes are different. If you were trying to determine the Joker's former name from purely DCTV, then you would say it was Jerome Valeska.
Now there are so, so SO many Joker comic books, so don't get annoyed if I missed an interpretation of the Joker's origin or signs of his previous life.
THE KILLING JOKE
Probably the most famous origin story of the Joker is depicted in The Killing Joke. Watch and learn:
So the Joker's former name was 'Jack', that is why many comic book fans accept the Joker's previous name being Jack Napier. But this comic book is canon, so we know for certain half of the Joker's previous name. But his origin story is not certain. Just read this panel below that is ripped from the pages of the Killing Joke:
So that means the story of him falling into a chemical vat is just one way the Joker remembers it. In a way, all the movies so far have followed the source material. But I have always felt like this was a message to the fans and future fans. The message being: "Don't argue about who the Joker is! Even the Joker himself doesn't know who he is! Anyway, in a few years someone else will come up with another interpretation of the Joker's origins. So don't try to know everything, where's the fun in that? So just sit back and enjoy the show." Amen to that. But for the sake of this article, let's look at one last interpretation of the Joker's origins.
The Joker's origin has been sort of changed in the New 52. Since I am tired today, I'll just let someone else explain it:
But even now, we still kind of don't know the former name of the Joker. But there may be someone who does.
SPOILERS FOR THE DARKSEID WAR STORYLINE!
At the end of the latest issue of the Darkseid War ends with the fans feeling extremely excited.
There is a lot of debate on if Batman actually knows the Joker's previous identity. He could have said "that's not possible" because he didn't phrase the question correctly so he got a false response, or maybe it was someone he knew. Or an even more interesting idea, maybe even the omniscient mobius chair doesn't know who the Joker was or the most likely answer, maybe the Joker was always the Joker. That answer would fit with the New 52 origin story.
If you were trying to determine the Joker's former name from purely DC comic books, then you would have two answers,
Pre-New 52: The Joker's previous name was Jack.
New 52: The Joker has always been the Joker, but over the centuries has been called different names (e.g. The Pale Man).
So there you have it! You have two main different origin stories and several minor different origin stories. One is a desperate guy called 'Jack', who fell into a chemical vat. The other is that he was always the Joker. You choose which sounds better to you. But like I said before, don't bother too much with who he was before. That's why people love the Joker so much! That's what separates him from the rest. Even if we did have a definite answer, would we be happy? If we were honest with ourselves, we know we don't want to know who he was before, mainly because it is completely irrelevant. In a simple way, the Joker is Batman without Bruce Wayne. To quote Christian Bale, "Its not who you are underneath, its what you do that defines you."