by Jeremy DeFatta
Happy new book day, everyone! Today, I want to take a little break from Batman himself and begin discussing some of his supporting cast and rogues gallery. I believe the appropriate first choice for this will be the Joker.
The Joker first appeared in Batman #1 back in 1940. Appropriately enough, given that so little is known about the character, his exact creator is disputed to this day—creator credit is generally spread out across Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson. Originally meant to be a one-off character, the Joker seemingly returned from the dead due to an unexpected upsurge in his popularity among fans after (what was intended to be) his single appearance. Indeed, the Joker has never not been popular, and is likely as well known as his heroic nemesis. Why is this? What makes this character as immortal and (arguably) as beloved as Batman?
The Joker is sometimes painfully campy and goofy, while at other times he is a chillingly deranged mass murderer. What is the appeal of this character? Deep down, as can be argued with Batman, do we as readers/viewers sense a sort of kinship with the character? Do we understand him? Does he force us to recognize something we are afraid to see within ourselves? Let’s try to address these questions.
Though it makes the old academic part of my brain a bit twitchy to say this, I believe that any attempt to fully explain the Joker, to attempt to affix labels to him, is simplistic pretension. That aside, I do believe there are some disturbing abstractions that can be made if we look closely enough at the Joker. I will do my best to explain.
Many fans have said that the Joker is simply chaos and/or the embodiment of nihilism—the opposite face of a coin upon which Batman’s sense of order and justice rests, a surface that can all too easily be flipped over. In that way, the Joker is Batman’s antithesis, an appropriate arch-enemy. Let’s dig a bit deeper into this idea.
In The Killing Joke, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland provide readers with a straightforward enough idea (and one that has been revisited, albeit too little in my opinion, in the years since) that anyone can become the Joker provided they are confronted with one day that is just bad enough to utterly break them and strip them of their humanity. The story provides us with an untrustworthy romp through the Joker’s memories in which he recalls being a failed standup comedian who was showered in debt, forced into a life of crime, and was ultimately powerless to prevent the death of the one person left in the world he cared about. All of this happening at once is surely enough to break even the most strong-willed person, skin-bleaching chemical baths aside.
Here, we see a thread of commonality between the Joker and Batman—that of character-defining personal tragedy. Any apparent difference lies in their opposing reactions, however. The Joker is broken and becomes an apparent agent of chaos, while Batman seeks to personally restore the balance and sanity he sees the world as lacking. The Joker is defeated and joins forces with what has destroyed him, while Batman—or young Bruce Wayne at this point—has the luxury of privilege. He has choices in the matter, and nearly bottomless resources to reconstruct his world.
All of this is rendered moot, though, in realizing that the Joker’s own memories are untrustworthy, likely false, and we may never know the truth of his experiences. In this way, an entire human being’s existence is given a pauper’s funeral in Batman’s vengeful shadow. After all, the Joker had to come from somewhere—he did not simply materialize out of thin air one day. He was, at some point, a person much like us—wasn’t he? And this is where things get a bit more complicated.
Several incarnations of the Joker’s origin myth (of which there is no one definitive version) have placed him in the place of Joe Chill, the man who murdered Thomas and Martha Wayne before young Bruce’s eyes. (1) Though the Joker will never be the desperate man behind the gun, he may yet be connected to these events. Indeed, I see him as the alleyway itself.
Lacking the privileges and stability granted Bruce Wayne despite being orphaned, the Joker is the city itself; he is the avatar of the faceless urban poor of Gotham City who are not given the luxury of choice in their lives. Many stories have shown the Joker happily living in filthy urban squalor; indeed, perhaps one of the most telling visual elements of Heath Ledger’s performance of the character is his dirty appearance. Additionally, in the New 52 incarnation of the Batman title, the Joker’s first act is to cut off his own face and leave it behind as he seemingly disappears from existence, effectively severing ties with what little there was of his identity.
Though all of these events in the comics are established decades apart, I see and feel connections among them. Let me know your thoughts (on this or your own interpretations of the Joker) below. I’ll have more to say about the Joker next week.
My comics picks for this week:
Black Science #4
Sandman: Overture #2 (if it actually comes out)
Serenity: Leaves on the Wind #2
Rat Queens #5
Uncanny Avengers #17
Tweet me @quaintjeremy.
(1) See Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film and Batman: The Animated Series, both of which cast the Joker as a mobster named Jack Napier.