A Beautiful Gory Display

A Beautiful Gory Display: The Joker’s Greatest Hits and Giggles! (Jul 15)

Is the Joker scary because people are afraid of clowns, or are people afraid of clowns because of the Joker? One of America’s most iconic, instantly recognizable fictional characters, the Joker’s been causing mayhem since 1940. He’s been Batman’s most popular antagonist in all of Batman’s incarnations throughout various media. He’s been portrayed by Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Cesar Romero, Frank Welker, Michael McKean, Larry Storch, and Kevin Michael Richardson. Next week, the late Heath Ledger’s performance will hit screens and become part of the Joker’s impressive canon. Early reports are that Ledger’s performance is stunning, and based on previews, his Joker is definitely scary. He doesn’t move or talk like a regular person – it’s disconcerting just to see him walk across the screen.

In his earliest days, the Joker was terrifying. The villains of the 1940’s tended to be generic mobsters or Nazi sympathizers, and were either bland or cartoonish. The Joker burst on to the scene and started racking up the body count. In those days, villains made one appearance and disappeared. The Joker caught on immediately, and started making return appearances. In fact, in his second appearance, he died. Before the story went to the printers, the editors changed some dialogue to indicate that the Joker had, in fact, survived, thinking they just might have something with this crazy clown.

In the 50’s, the Joker was pretty well neutered, appearing most often as a harmlessly wacky villain. His popularity waned, to the point where he all but disappeared from the Batman books for nearly a decade. He returned in 1973, back in full-on crazy mode. The Joker was homicidal and spooky, and once again, the perfect villain.

In honor of the upcoming Dark Knight, it’s time to look at the greatest Joker stories ever. That’s right, it’s the Joker’s Greatest Hits and Giggles! Appearances from all media were considered, and be warned, Jack Nicholson doesn’t turn up anywhere near the list. Also, I very nearly had to include “The Joker’s Comedy of Errors”, from 1951’s Batman #66. It’s not a great story, by any means, but it’s about a foiled Joker plot that the newspapers refer to as “Joker’s Boner”. And then the story uses the word “boner” about a hundred times, including the headline “Joker Pulls Boner of the Year”. Basically, I am nine years old, and this is endlessly hilarious to me. But we’re going to try and be classy here. Because that’s what we do.
10.  “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” (Batman 251, 1973) – This was the story where the Joker made his big comeback. After serving a stint in a mental institution, Joker assumes that a member of his gang must have turned him in. Being the Joker, he decides to murder all of them, just to cover the bases. For the first time in decades, the Joker had returned to his original portrayal as a dangerous psychopath with a weird sense of humor. Every one of his appearances for the last 35 years owes something to this single issue.
Defining moment:
Joker gives one of his old buddies a cigar. They have a good laugh about the “exploding cigar” gag, and then the guy’s head explodes! Read that as a kid, and that image will stay with you, oh, forever.

9.  The Joker: Devil’s Advocate (1996) – In this graphic novel, the Joker ends up on Death Row. See, our favorite clown is criminally insane, and thus always sentenced to treatment. But his latest series of murders is so calculating, so premeditated, that he can’t plead insanity. The only problem is, this is the one time that the Joker didn’t do it. He’s been framed, and Batman, obsessed with justice as he is, has to track down the real killer. The Joker’s never creepier than when he’s blissfully unconcerned with his own death.
Defining moment:
At the last rites, Joker drives the priest to madness with his confession. “He didn’t all at once. It was hours before the screaming stopped. That was the last time I used crushed glass.”

8. “Emperor Joker” (2000) – In a rare example of Joker branching out, this storyline ran through the various Superman series for several months. Joker having cheated his way into incredible power, remakes reality in his own image. It’s not often you get to see Joker fight Superman, and this one is kind of great. Poor Superman doesn’t deal with mental illness nearly as well as Batman does, and he’s really off his game here. By the way, the Joker’s version of reality? Seriously upsetting.

Defining moment: With power over life and death, he kills Batman every single day. Each morning, he resurrects him and kills him all over again, each time bringing him back with the full memory of the tortures that have been inflicted upon him. Anybody can kill their archenemy – the Joker does it with style.

7. “The Laughing Fish” (Batman: The Animated Series 1993) – The animated version of Joker is possibly my favorite version. Voiced by Mark Hamill, he combines comedy and psychosis very effectively. In this episode, Joker dumps enough toxin into the river to give all the fish creepy, Joker-like smiles. He then attempts to copyright fish. Yes, that’s right. When that doesn’t go as planned, he’s off on one of his famous kill-sprees. Plus, Batman fights a shark!

Defining moment: Dangling a police detective over a shark tank, Joker offers him freedom if Batman will take his place. Batman agrees, and then Joker drops both of them in the tank.

6. Arkham Asylum (1989) – In this graphic novel, the Joker leads a jailbreak at Arkham Asylum. They have hostages, and they demand Batman. The dangerous lunatics set up an obstacle course for him, pitting him against the darkest their psyches have to offer. In a story where even B-listers like the Mad Hatter and Maxie Zeus are incredibly upsetting, the Joker is nightmarishly creepy. He’s more of a ringmaster than an active participant, but that doesn’t stop him from getting in Batman’s head.

Defining moment: Joker tortures a policeman to death while telling a joke. The punchline of the joke? “April Fool! Your wife’s dead!”

5. The Dark Knight Returns (1986) – An elderly Batman comes out of retirement to save the world one last time. True, the Joker’s part in the story is minor, but the Joker’s like Bruce Campbell. Put him in a story, and it automatically becomes a Joker story. While much of the series has aged poorly, and should have served as a warning about writer/artist Frank (Sin City / 300) Miller’s regrettable tendencies toward misogyny, brutality, homophobia, and occasionally bizarre political stances, the Joker’s role is still chilling. Publicly proclaimed cured, the Joker makes an appearance on a late night talk show, where he proceeds to kill the entire audience. His final battle with Batman ends in the sewers, where Batman paralyzes him.

Defining moment: The Joker’s last act is to commit suicide right in front of Batman, twisting his spine enough to snap his neck. Thus, Batman is framed as a murderer, and everything else in the story is anticlimactic. But man, that’s a creepy Joker.

4. “The Clown at Midnight” (Batman 663, 2007) – Despite being an issue of the monthly Batman series, this story is told entirely in prose, with only spot illustrations. In writer Grant Morrison’s world, the Joker remembers and experiences, every single Joker story, even the ones that contradict one another. The idea here is that the Joker actively chooses a new persona every few years, undergoing an actual physical transformation. It’s a very disturbing story, and plays off the idea that the Joker actually possesses a form of “super-sanity”, and there’s nothing scarier than the idea that the Joker is actually right.

Defining moment: The Joker’s metamorphosis from giggling psychopath to silent killer. It’s not necessarily my favorite incarnation of his, but the description of the process is haunting.

3. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) – The animated Joker returns, this time in the original DVD movie, based on the Batman spinoff, Batman Beyond. Set in a future where Bruce Wayne has had to retire, teenage Terry McGuinness has taken over the role with Wayne as his mentor. But if it’s more than 40 years in the future, why is the Joker still young and spry? A lengthy flashback scene details Batman’s last battle with the Joker, right up to the Joker’s death. And yet, he’s still there! Originally a much lighter series, the Joker’s return brings a real air of menace to the proceedings. Future Joker? Just as scary as regular Joker. Plus, now he has an orbital death ray.

Defining moment: In the flashback, Joker kidnaps Robin and after a lengthy bout of psychological torture, breaks him. It’s horrifying to see Robin as Joker Jr., and you can feel Batman’s anguish. Here was where the Joker finally went too far.

2. The Killing Joke (1988) – The defining Joker story of modern times. In this legendary story by writer (and practicing warlock) Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland, the Joker does the unthinkable. He walks up to Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon’s door, knocks on the door, and then shoots her in the stomach. At the time, it was unheard of. People still thought of Batgirl as Yvonne Craig, from the TV series. It’s still incredibly jarring, mostly for how casually he does it. I mean, he’s actually wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. We also get some insight into Joker’s origin, although he admits that he remembers things differently all the time.

Defining moment: In the climactic fight, Joker lays out his essentially philosophy. Everything is a joke, and everybody in the world is only one bad day away from becoming just like him. And even after all he’s done, Batman offers to help him, to break the cycle that can only end in one of them killing the other. And the Joker’s regret is visible when he answers. “No. I’m sorry, but it’s too late for that.”

1. “Mad Love” (Batman: The Animated Series) – This episode of the animated series, the greatest Joker story ever told, actually focuses on his henchwoman and girlfriend, Harley Quinn. A devoted lunatic, even though her true love treats her with casual cruelty, Harley was one of the most sympathetic characters in the series, despite her penchant for violence. In a series of flashbacks, we find out that she used to be the Joker’s psychiatrist, and he gradually turned her, for no other reason than that it would be fun. Finally, Harley decides to cheer Joker up by killing Batman. She snares him in a flawless deathtrap, but when she brings her boyfriend to watch the event he’s lived for, Joker loses it. If he can’t kill Batman, nobody can.

Defining moment: Joker snaps at Harley and knocks her out. Then, he lets Batman go, because that’s not how the game works. It’s this mix of brutality and sportsmanship that’s grimly funny, and more than a little shocking.

Will The Dark Knight live up to the standards the Joker has set? I have high hopes. The Joker doesn’t rest on his laurels, people. As far as lunatics go, he’s got a certain standard of professionalism. If we’ve learned nothing else from his teachings, it’s that there’s nothing scarier than a clown with a knife.

Share Button

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *