Thursday, October 01, 2015

Essays on Comics Characters: The Joker!


The Joker, as portrayed by Cesar Romero.
This edition of "Essays on Comics Characters" focuses on Batman's arch-foe, the Clown Prince of Crime... the Joker!

Like a lot of people my age, I'm pretty sure my first introduction to the Joker would've been on the 1966 Batman TV series, as portrayed by Cesar Romero, white greasepaint over his mustache and all. Of course, this Joker wasn't all that menacing at all, being mostly a clown. Things were slightly closer to the comics when Filmation's Batman animated series began immediately after the Adam West series ended; at least the Joker looked more like he did in the comic books (which I'd probably started reading by this point), although he was still played mostly as a trickster and funny man, as he was when he made appearances on The New Scooby-Doo Movies in the 1970s.

The Joker on Saturday morning cartoons
Imagine how big a jolt it was for me when I bought a copy of The Great Comic-Book Heroes, and read the Joker story reprinted there! It was his first appearance, and there was nothing funny about him! In this story, he would break into a radio broadcast and announce that a specific person would die at midnight... and that person did, with their face forming a Joker smile, one of the effects of the poison used. As the story went on, the Joker killed victim after victim, outsmarting the police (in one case, he disguised himself as one of the cops; in another, he'd already injected his victim the night before with a version of the poison that didn't take effect for exactly 24 hours). Of course, Batman and Robin soon caught up with him and captured him, but he'd be back!

From the Joker's first appearance.
As I would come to learn, the early Joker was quite murderous, although his killings were always with a twist. He could've easily gone all mass-murderer, killing hundreds, if not thousands, but he seemed mostly interested in trying to outsmart Batman.

His character started changing in the 1950s. Gone were his murderous tendencies, and instead, his crimes became more run-of-the-mill, although often with a theme of playing cards, comedy, puns, and so forth. It was probably this interpretation of the Joker that informed the creators of the 1966 Batman the most, with some of those stories being reprinted in 80-Page Giants at the time. Even in the 1960s books, the Joker's crazy crimes weren't psychotic so much as just bizarre.

Above, one of the Joker's 1960s
appearances. Below, part of the
Joker's return to basics in the 1970s.
The Joker would go back to his roots in the 1970s, as did the Batman (who was becoming less of a detective and dark knight and more of a daytime hero). Two stories in particular showed this "new" Joker -- "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge" and "The Laughing Fish" -- and the Joker would be back to killing, but always when appropriate for him. He was crazy, yes, but not like he's been presented these days. 

While the Joker did have his own short-lived series, I don't think he was presented in the best way possible there. Honestly, he did sort of go back to being more of a buffoon than a threat as that decade progressed (although not as bad as it had gotten in the 50s and 60s). The change to the Joker really didn't start to stick until the late 70s and early 80s, but then the pendulum started swinging way too far. 

The stories that I think started ruining the Joker (for me, anyway) were:

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - As acclaimed as this mini-series was, let's face it... it presented the Joker as at least having cross-dresser tendencies (showing his red lips to be as a result of lipstick and not from the chemicals that bleached his skin and turned his hair green), if not outright gay (nothing wrong with being gay, it just didn't seem to fit with his character as presented in the past). Plus, he basically forces Batman to kill him, and I prefer a Batman who finds another way.

Batman: A Death in the Family - In this miniseries within a series, the Joker basically beats new Robin Jason Todd nearly to death, and then leaves him to be blown up. This goes quite a bit beyond what we'd seen the Joker do in the past, and I don't find it to be appropriate for the Joker.

Batman: The Killing Joke - The Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and humiliates him after shooting Barbara Gordon and crippling her.

A classic Joker cover!
Now, in the original Joker stories, he had something to gain in his crimes... in most cases, it was a financial gain. In the very first one, he didn't seem to have a reason for his murders, although it could be presumed that his goal there was to establish himself as a menace so that he could demand what he wanted. In those three stories above, it was all basically a revenge thing... revenge on Batman.

This never really made sense to me in the context of the Joker. Yes, he will seek revenge on those who've wronged him, but I never really figured that he thought of Batman as someone who had wronged him at all (the "five-way revenge" was on persons who betrayed him)... Batman's role in the Batman-Joker relationship is to be a challenge to the Joker. If the Joker was able to successfully commit his crimes and Batman wasn't able to stop him, it wouldn't be a challenge any more, and he'd probably quit, because it wouldn't be fun for him. 

In fact, I think that the Joker goes into his crimes fully expecting to be defeated by Batman, and he'd be disappointed if Batman didn't show up. He doesn't want Batman to die, not really, because he sees Batman as the only true rival for his "genius" (even if it is a warped, psychotic genius). His plots would be wasted on anyone else, even if it was another costumed crimefighter. 

A telling panel, I believe that Mike W. Barr wrote this story.
Of course, this does not mean that the Joker wouldn't kill... I just don't see him seriously trying to kill Batman (or Robin, or Batgirl, or any of the other "Batman Family" members). It's all part of the game to keep him on his toes. For the most part, I think the Joker kills those people who have failed him in some way... a henchman who doesn't follow directions, or gives evidence or testimony against the Joker... or someone who just wouldn't go along with his plans (such as the patent official who refused to patent the "laughing fish"). 

I really can't see the Joker wanting everyone to be just like him, or to see things the way he sees them. Let's face it, Harley Quinn often sees the world like he does, and he treats her like crap! I think he likes to feel as though his perspective on things is unique.

The Red Hood!
It's entirely possible that the Joker is really not insane at all. How's that for a thought? Let's consider what we know of his origin: He had been masquerading as the Red Hood, using what appeared to be a solid metal helmet to protect his identity (although this has been retconned as him being the latest Red Hood, with the identity changing every crime) when the Batman foiled a robbery attempt at the Monarch Playing Card Company, and in the resulting clash, he fell into a vat of chemicals that turned his skin pasty white, his lips blood-red, and his hair a vivid green. Looking at his transformed self, he decides that since he looks like the playing card joker brought to life, then he'll be The Joker.

Is this really a psychotic break, or is this his own justification for taking his prior criminal nature to greater heights? Perhaps he saw this as a sign that his motif will be that of a criminal clown, and then would proceed to act the part to the best of his ability. 

It's not really that far-fetched an idea, I think... no more than considering that Batman saw his parents murdered in front of him as a boy, then vowing to hunt down criminals, all leading up to the point where a bat flew in to his study from outside, sparking the idea that he would become a bat! 

An iconic Joker image from the late 1960s, used throughout the 1970s as well!
So, was it a psychotic break... or an omen?

Personally, I don't like the idea of Batman being thought of as being a psychopath... I think he took the cards he was dealt and parleyed them into a winning hand. So perhaps this is what the Joker did, as well. He plays the part of a criminal clown so well that he manages to convince the legal system that he's insane, so that he'll be confined to Arkham Asylum instead of a regular jail, which proves to be much easier to escape from time and time again. No matter what treatment they give him there, it doesn't work (because there's nothing to cure?).

Are these the actions of a psychopath... or a twisted genius? 

Of course, there's no way in hell that DC Comics would ever consider this revisionist approach to the Joker, as they've invested way too much time and money into portraying him as flat-out crazy, and apparently the people buying comics these days buy into that 100 percent.

So what do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Jon,
    I don't know that there's much of a difference between your two options. One's a genius and one's not, but they're both twisted. You're the first to propose that the Joker is an "act" AFAIK.


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