Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Joker has been featured throughout the Batman comic book saga and has been an enemy of the Caped Crusader in most adaptations in other media. Interpretations of the Joker that have made him well-known to the general public include Cesar Romero's in the 1960s Batman television series and Jack Nicholson's in the 1989 feature film.
The Joker is also referred to as the Clown Prince of Crime and the Harlequin of Hate. Throughout the evolution of the Batman universe, interpretations and incarnations of the Joker have taken two forms. The original and currently dominant image is of a sadistic psychopath with a warped sense of humor, deriving pleasure from inflicting grotesque, morbid death and terror upon innocent people. In this interpretation, he is a textbook example of antisocial personality disorder. In a sense he is Charles Manson cursed with a clown's grinning face and a grotesque sense of showmanship. The other interpretation of the Joker, popular in the late 1940s through 1960s comic books as well as the 1960s television series, portrays the Joker as an eccentric but harmless prankster and thief. The 1990s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series is notable for blending these two aspects, but most interpretations tend to embrace one characterization or the other.
There is even an indication that the Joker's insanity may be a super power in and of itself. In Elseworlds: Distant Fires, an alternate future where a nuclear war deprives all super beings of their powers, the Joker is rendered sane. In its short run Amalgam Comics had super beings from Marvel Comics and DC Comics appearing in each other's universes, much confused and not recognized, but the Joker recognized Spider-Man and even commented on his costume change and wondered what Spider-Man was doing in Gotham City.
In the comics
The definitive origin and actual name for the character was never established in the comics (although some people now assume his real name is Jack Napier as in the 1989 Batman movie). In a 1951 story an origin was told in which he was originally a criminal who called himself the "Red Hood". In an encounter with Batman, he jumped into a pool of chemicals to escape pursuit, and this permanently dyed his skin white and his hair green, giving him the appearance of a ghastly clown. (In the light of later developments, it's worth noting that even in this story, the only source of information about who the Joker was before his fateful run-in with Batman is the Joker's own recollection.)
This "origin" was greatly expanded upon in the 1988 graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke written by Alan Moore. In that story, the Joker was an unnamed engineer who quit his job at a chemical company to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, he agreed to guide two criminals into the plant for a robbery. During the planning, the police came and informed him that his wife had just died in a household accident. Grief-stricken, the engineer wished to withdraw from the plan, but the criminals strong-armed him into keeping his commitment to them. At the plant, the criminals made him don a special mask to become the infamous Red Hood. Unknown to the engineer, this was simply a way to implicate any accomplice as the mastermind of a crime to divert attention from themselves. Once inside, they almost immediately blundered into security personnel and a violent shootout and chase ensued. The criminals were gunned down and the engineer found himself confronted by Batman, who was investigating the disturbance. In panicked desperation, the engineer escaped by diving into a toxic waste vat and swam through a pipe leading to the outside. Once there, he discovered, to his horror, that the chemicals permanently stained his appearance into that of a clown-like being with chalk white skin, ruby red lips and bright green hair. This turn of events, compounded by the man's misfortunes on that one day, caused his mental transformation and resulted in the birth of the Joker.
In a recent comic book (Batman: Gotham Knights #54 - 2004), it was heavily implied that much of the above origin was in fact true, with details of it being backed up by a witness to the death of the Joker's wife. In this version, however, his wife was kidnapped and murdered by those same gangsters, in order to force Jack's cooperation in the Red Hood robbery. The witness was none other than Edward Nigma, who would eventually become the Riddler. Whether this revised origin is an improvement is a subject of debate.
In the short story "On a Beautiful Summer's Day, He Was" by Robert McCammon, featured in the anthology The Further Adventures of the Joker, the Joker is suggested to have been born a monster, not made one by bad luck. The story concerns him as a young boy who gets pleasure from killing small animals, considered the hallmark sign of a budding sociopath, and collecting their bones. The story notes that his father is also insane and, in a chilling paragraph, beats his mother while the boy listens through the wall, grinning. The end of the story has him graduating to murder, killing a neighborhood boy who discovers his makeshift graveyard. The story identifies the Joker's last name as Napier.
Any recountings of the Joker's origin are largely unreliable, however, as they are taken directly from his own memories, and as he himself puts it in The Killing Joke, "I'm not exactly sure what happened. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I'm going to have a past, it might as well be multiple choice!"
In the 1989 movie
The 1989 Batman movie offered a somewhat different origin for the Joker, and at the same time made him part of Batman's origin. The Joker's real name in the movie was Jack Napier, a play on the word "jackanapes" and possibly also adapted from the surname of actor Alan Napier, who had played Alfred in the 1966 series. Napier, a career criminal, went by the nickname "Ace" and dressed in black, a tie-in with and contrast to his later playing card incarnation. Following a similar Batman encounter to the comic book version but not while in a costumed persona, Napier became a victim of a freak chemical accident (the reaction to the chemicals, the combination of a gunshot wound to his face which severed nerves and a botched attempt at reconstructive surgery becoming the reason for the Joker's eternal "smile"). But when Bruce Wayne learned about the Joker he remembered his own past (how his parents were murdered at the hands of Jack Napier) and only then did Wayne realize the Joker was partly responsible for him becoming Batman in the first place.
In the animated series
Batman: The Animated Series - mainly in the episode "Beware the Creeper" and the spin-off movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm - offers another version of the Joker's history: he is portrayed as a former anonymous hitman for a mob with ties to the Beaumont family, and was responsible for the death of Carl Beaumont. As in the 1989 movie, he was not wearing any disguise when he made his fateful attempt to rob the chemical factory; unlike the movie, no attempt has been made to connect him with the death of Bruce Wayne's parents (although "Jack Napier" has been mentioned as one of the hitman's aliases).
The Joker's trademarks are his countless "comedic" weapons (like razor sharp playing cards, acid-spewing flowers, and lethally electric joy buzzers) and Joker venom, a deadly poison that infects his victims with a ghoulish rictus grin as they die while uncontrollably laughing hysterically (although some versions cause immediate death, without the painful laugh spasms beforehand). This venom comes in many forms, from gas to darts to liquid poison, and has been his primary calling card from 1940 till the present. In the 1989 movie, it was dubbed "Smilex", but its symptoms are the same.
In his initial dozen or so appearances, starting with Batman #1 (1940), the Joker was a straightforward mass murderer, much like a typical Dick Tracy villain with a bizarre appearance modeled after the playing card, but with only comparatively mildly eccentric behavior. He was a master thief who liked to leave smiling corpses in his wake. It is of note that in his second appearance ("The Joker Returns", also in Batman #1), the Joker was actually slated to be killed off, with the final page detailing the villain accidentally stabbing himself and lying dead as Batman and Robin run off into the night. Fortunately, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson quickly changed their minds and added a panel implying that the Joker was still alive.
For the next several appearances, the Joker would often escape capture but suffer an apparent death (falling off a cliff, being caught in a burning building, etc.), from which there would be no body and thus he would quickly recover. In these first dozen adventures, the Joker killed close to three dozen people, which was impressive for a villain who didn't use giant robots, mutant monsters, space lasers, or the like. This was the status quo from 1940 till around 1942. Ironically, the turning point came in "Joker Walks the Last Mile" (Detective Comics #64), where the Joker was actually sentenced and executed via the electric chair, only to immediately come back to life. Alas, while the Joker was back, he was decidedly less deadly than ever. At that point, the editors decided that only one-shot villains should commit murder, so as to not make Batman look impotent in his inability to punish such recurring foes as the Joker or the Penguin. As the Batman comics as a whole softened their tone, the character's emphasis was soon turned to jokes and comedy-themed crimes and the Joker became a cackling maniac. He quickly became the most popular villain and was used almost constantly during the Golden Age of Comic Books. The use of the character lessened somewhat by the late 1950s and disappeared almost entirely when Julius Schwartz took over editorship of the Batman comics in 1964.
This changed with the success of the 1960s television series which brought the character to the forefront along with the rest of the classic rogues gallery. During that period, the Joker (portrayed with zest by actor Cesar Romero, who refused to shave his rather sizable mustache for the role, resulting in the bizarre sight of makeup smeared over his mustache) was a persistent but essentially silly and harmless character in his 18 appearances (out of 120 episodes) spanning from 1966 until 1968.
In 1973, the character was profoundly revised in the Batman comic stories by Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams. Beginning in Batman #251 with the story "The Joker's Five Way Revenge", the Joker became a homicidal maniac who casually murdered people, even his own henchmen, on a whim but enjoyed the battle of wits with Batman. This take on the character has been the predominant one since. The character even had his own nine-issue series during the 1970s where he faced off against a variety of foes, both superheroes and supervillains. Although he was the hero of the series, certain issues had as high a body count as stories where he was the antagonist. Of the nine issues, he committed murder in seven of them.
The most recent major addition to the character was the introduction of Harley Quinn, an insane psychiatrist who fell hopelessly in love with the Joker in Arkham Asylum and now serves as his loyal, if daffy, sidekick costumed in a skintight harlequin suit. Their relationship often resembles that of an abusive domestic relationship, with Joker insulting, hurting, or even attempting to kill Quinn, who always comes back for more. That this sort of material actually made its debut in a cartoon intended for children (the often masterful Batman: The Animated Series, which aired from September 1992 till October 1999) is particularly of note. She was popular enough to be integrated into the comics in 1999 and even had her own sporadically successful comic series which only recently ended its run with 38 issues. A modified version of the character, less goofy but still criminally insane and utterly devoted to the Joker, was featured on the live-action TV series Birds of Prey which lasted only 13 episodes.
Most recently, a very different version of the character appeared in the new animated series The Batman. No explanation for this Joker's origin has yet been given, but his costume - a purple and yellow straight-jacket, fingerless gloves and bare feet (which are white with green toenails) - green dreadlocks, red eyes and athletic prowess clearly mark him as different to his predecessors (though he will apparently appear in the more usual purple suit when he returns later in the series). Apparently he knows martial arts and is able to spar competently with the Batman. He is still recognizably the Joker, though he seems to have no motive for his crimes other than enjoying them, and employs his signature lethal laughing gas.
While Romero was the first to play the Joker on television screens in the 1960s, Jack Nicholson was chosen to play the role in the feature film Batman directed by Tim Burton. In animation, Mark Hamill is the most famous actor to play the character's voice, in Batman: The Animated Series and its various spin-offs, including Justice League. He also provided the voice for the character in an episode of Birds of Prey. Kevin Michael Richardson provides the voice of the Clown Prince of Crime in The Batman.
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