Ever since his first appearance on the pages of Batman #1 in the spring of 1940, the Joker has been the ultimate and persistant nemesis for the Caped Crusader, his own brand of merry mischief and oddball comedy offsetting the more modern grim and brooding interpretations of the Batman figure. In the earlier comics of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Joker and Batman would trade quips and puns, but gradually Batman lost his sense of humor, while the Joker became even more sadistically comical, his gags almost always ending in lethal punchlines and smiling corpses.
And yet the relationship between the two antagonists has always been a source of fascination for writers and audience alike. The two great personalities, so dependent on each other and yet so monumentally different, almost polar opposites, has been a source of entertainment for 75 years now, and will undoubtedly continue to be for at least 75 more, in diverse mediums such as comics, films, and video games alike.
The seemingly immortal Clown Prince of Crime once uttered the words “Without Batman, crime has no punchline,” in the episode “The Man Who Killed Batman” from Batman: The Animated Series (1992). Voiced by Mark Hamill and written by Paul Dini, the line succintly sums up the relationship between the two nemeses of Joker and Batman. Although locked in seemingly endless combat, the Dark Knight Detective and the Harlequin of Hate need each other to exist. They cannot be who they are without the other. Without Batman, there is no Joker.
That is the case literally as well as figuratively – Batman is responsible for the creation of the Joker. Joker’s origins are deliberately mysterious (in Batman: The Killing Joke , the Joker proclaims: “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”) but the broad consensus in the Joker mythos is that he fell into a vat of chemicals which drove him crazy. And whether he was a family man, a gangster called Jack Napier, or the leader of the Red Hood gang, Batman is always there at Ace Chemicals, the birthplace of the Joker. Whether Batman accidentally knocks him in, or whether he falls in trying to escape from Batman, the Dark Knight always shares some blame for the Joker’s creation.
And the same can be said for the Joker creating Batman. Although the canon in the comics does not subscribe to the Tim Burton version of the Joker being the one who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, as in the 1989 blockbuster film Batman, the Joker is still responsible for creating Batman, in that Batman is only Batman if he has criminals to fight. The Joker is constantly drawing Batman out with new schemes and plans to harm innocent people, which is bait he knows the Dark Knight cannot resist. The Joker is Batman’s most persistent nemesis, who claims in Batman Confidential #12 (2008) that “you’ll always have me to dance with.” Batman will never defeat crime until he permanently defeats the Joker, and his no-killing rule makes that impossible. The moment Batman kills Joker, he would become the Joker, and everything he’s fought against. And the moment Joker kills Batman, he would lose the only reason for his existence. And so the two live to be locked in an endless struggle with each other.
And if that relationship is ever disturbed in any medium, if there is ever a loss of Joker or Batman from each other’s lives, the other becomes lost too. In “The Man Who Killed Batman,” the Joker becomes incurably depressed when he believes Batman to have died. And the Batman: Arkham City video game of 2011 sees the Joker die from an illness that Batman is unable to save him from, and ends with Batman carrying out Joker’s body in a mirror image of the first image of the game, which is a portrait in Two-Face’s lair of Cain carrying Abel’s body, titled The Duality of Man. Joker and Batman are the duality of man – good and evil.
But the unique aspect of Joker and Batman is that they are not by any means stereotypical good guys and bad guys. Traditionally a bad guy is solitary and brooding, stalking the night, miserable and lonely. The Joker is none of these things – he’s happy and jolly, evil, yes, but happy to be so. The hero is the lonely, brooding one, doomed to wander the night and live in the shadows. The traditional stereotypes of heroes and villains are turned on their head with Joker and Batman. The bat, the scary creature commonly associated with vampirism, is the good guy, and the clown, the harmless childhood character trying to make people laugh, is evil. Laughter and happiness are evil – solitude and loneliness are good. Color and light are evil – darkness and night are good.
The Cain and Abel image in the video game portrays Batman as the murderer for not being able to save Joker from his illness, and Joker as the innocent victim. A bizarre idea for a man who’s been responsible for countless deaths in his 75 year history, but not a completely illogical one. The Joker is continuously ruled insane, after all, and an insane person cannot be held accountable for their actions by the law, hence why Joker keeps avoiding the death penalty only to be constantly returned to Arkham Asylum. The justice system, the very system Batman is fighting to uphold, absolves Joker of any responsibility for his actions
And if Joker is the innocent, Batman is the father of evil, responsible for all that’s wrong in Gotham City. He has the Mark of Cain on him, and has to forever wander the night, alone and cursed. The tragic thing about Batman is that he will never have any relationships with anyone other than the people he fights and the people he puts in danger, like Robin and Batgirl. He is forever alone, because he has to sacrifice everyone and everything in pursuit of justice. He also has to carry the responsibility for the Joker’s life, and the Joker’s death.
Batman and death have a complicated relationship – Batman will never kill anyone. But the idea of being powerless to prevent the death of others is something that haunts him in terms of his parents’ murder. This powerlessness in the face of death is what drove him to become Batman, to reassert his power over the criminals of the city who took his parents’ lives. He also finds himself powerless to prevent the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, when the Joker beats him to death with a crowbar while Batman is elsewhere. Batman’s feeling of responsibility for Jason’s death is featured prominently in the Hush series of comics by Jeph Loeb (2002-2003), where Clayface impersonates Jason, making Batman come face to face with his guilt over his demise before discovering the imposter. And at the end of the Batman: Arkham City video game, Batman is once again powerless to prevent another death, a death of someone very close to him, his greatest nemesis, someone who was always there, dependable in the idea that Batman would always have to stop him. It’s basically the closest relationship Batman has formed with anyone.
Batman and the Joker are like yin and yang – dark and serious vs. light and happy. They are the duality of man, good and evil, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One cannot exist without the other. Joker keeps saying how much he needs Batman throughout Batman: Arkham City, and how he just can’t let him die because he’d have no one who understood him. It can be argued that Batman does not understand Joker, because nobody truly does, but it is reasonable to assume that Joker does understand that he and Batman are two sides of the same coin. Batman would never admit that to himself, even if he did understand that. Joker enjoys a good joke – Batman does not. And to say that a hero and villain are basically the same is a good joke. Maybe that’s why the Joker is always laughing.