We Finally Know How The Joker Became So Sick And Twisted

Just like Batman himself, the Joker didn’t
arrive fully formed. Here’s how we got from a one-shot gimmick
villain to the embodiment of madness and mayhem and how he was almost completely forgotten
along the way. It might be hard to believe these days, but
when he first hit the pages in 1939, Batman wasn’t exactly an original concept. Bill Finger and Bob Kane were heavily influenced
by the Shadow, a pulp vigilante who eventually found himself replaced in the pop culture
pantheon by Batman. In fact, the story that introduced Batman,
“The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” was, to put it charitably, “inspired by” a Shadow
novel called Partners of Peril that had been released a few years earlier. If you don’t want to be charitable, you might
even say it was lifted wholesale. Before long, of course, Batman emerged as
his own character. Six months after his debut, he got the origin
story that remains unchanged to this day, and five months after that, Finger and Jerry
Robinson introduced Robin, who redefined the idea of a sidekick and inspired a thousand
knockoffs himself. Still, those stories were never exactly subtle
about where they were digging up their ideas. Enter German actor Conrad Veidt. In 1928, he’d starred in a silent film called
The Man Who Laughs, about a 17th-Century noble named Gwynplaine. His father had been killed in an iron maiden
by political rivals, and as for Gwynplaine himself, they disfigured him by cutting his
mouth into a smile, quote, “so that he might laugh forever at his fool of a father.” Gwynplaine grows up, gets revenge, and actually
gets a much happier ending than he gets in the Victor Hugo novel on which the film was
based. The important part for the then-new Batman
comics, however, was the striking image of a man whose face was permanently twisted into
a grin, forced to smile no matter what emotion he was actually feeling something that Veidt
did very well in the film. Finger was inspired by that incredible visual,
and brought the idea to Jerry Robinson, thinking up a new villain for their comic. “Let me tell you about this guy I know, Jack. Mean kid. Bad seed. Hurt people.” “I like him already.” Batman #1 hit the shelves in 1940, and kicked
off with one of the Golden Age’s most memorable images: the Joker, smiling at the reader while
plotting a string of murders. Right from that first panel, the Joker was
unsettling, for the same reason that Veidt’s performance was memorable in the film: a total
disconnect between emotion and expression. From page one, in a very literal sense, there’s
something off about him. And the story, of course, bears that out. The Joker racks up a dozen kills in his first
appearance, and when he comes back for his second story later in that same issue, there’s
a visceral quality to his particular brand of violence at odds with the stiff art that’s
so common in the Golden Age. Clearly, the creators were onto something,
even if they didn’t realize it. The Joker was originally intended to die at
the end of that first story, like most of Batman’s early foes did, but editor Whitney
Ellsworth decided to keep him around, and the last panel of the Joker’s body being hauled
away was changed to have the doctors surprised that he’d survived instead. It wasn’t long until the Joker, as a character,
ran up against a problem. With the arrival of Robin, the Batman titles
had started to skew towards a younger audience, following the example of extremely profitable
heroes like Superman. The Joker was already popular enough to stick
around, but he changed to keep up with the times, leaning hard into the goofy clown aesthetic
of his personality rather than the serial killer stuff that had been a huge part of
his debut. A crucial element that the Joker kept even
through the sillier years was that he was never given a real name or a definitive origin
story, which is pretty remarkable. Comics back then were dedicated to explaining
every single piece of their mythology, to the point where they’d eventually have Batman
encounter the guy who killed his parents, and then later encounter the guy who really
killed his parents by hiring the first guy. That story also explains where Batman really
got the idea for his costume his dad had a bat costume that he wore to a costume party
which had already been explained back in 1939. The closest anyone came to “explaining” the
Joker was in “The Man Behind the Red Hood” in 1951. The thing is, that story doesn’t actually
tell us anything new. “Do you want to know how I got these scars?” We never learn the Red Hood’s real name, we
never see his face. All we find out is that he’s had multiple
identities, and that there are things in his past that even Batman, the World’s Greatest
Detective, doesn’t know. Even better, we find out that he was willing
to leap into a vat of toxic chemicals rather than be apprehended by the police. Even before he’s the Joker, he’s got a disregard
for human life, even his own. As an origin story, “The Man Behind the Red
Hood” only served to make the Joker more mysterious. If he wasn’t always the Joker, was he even
really the Joker now? Were there more identities in his past? Those questions would remain a part of the
character for the next 70 years. Believe it or not, there was a time when the
Joker just wasn’t around in the pages of Batman or Detective Comics, but it wasn’t because
of a lack of popularity, at least not on a large scale. There was one audience for whom the Joker
was decidedly unpopular, and while it was an audience of exactly one person, it turned
out to be the one that mattered the most: Julius Schwartz, who took over editing Batman
and Detective in 1964, was said by coworkers to have absolutely hated the character. As a result, the Joker’s role in the core
Batman titles dropped off dramatically, and after the Batman TV show ended in 1969, Schwartz
apparently didn’t see any reason to keep him around at all. For the next four years June 1969 to September
1973, to be precise there weren’t any new Joker stories in those two comics, and just
two in books Schwartz wasn’t editing. In 1973, though, Schwartz apparently had a
change of heart, or was convinced that four years was long enough to go without a villain
that readers still liked. The result was one of the most memorable Batman
comics ever: “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” by Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams. “Wait’ll they get a load of me.” That team would wind up contributing some
pretty huge elements to the Batman mythos they co-created Ra’s al-Ghul, among others,
and O’Neil would himself spend about 15 years as the editor of the Batman comics, bringing
over writer/artist Frank Miller from Marvel for an ambitious project about Batman’s later
years. Even with all that, though, this might be
their most important work. It wasn’t just a reintroduction of the Joker,
both in-universe and for the readers, it was arguably the single story that “created” the
modern Joker. As the title suggests, he’s out for revenge
not against Batman, but against his own henchmen. The story established that Joker had been
imprisoned in and escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane rather than a prison,
which would eventually lead O’Neil and Irv Novick to create Arkham Asylum eight months
later. It also brought back the poison that had left
his victims as smiling corpses back in his first appearance, and, crucially, established
that his plans weren’t necessarily driven by logic. Only one of the five henchmen targeted in
the story had actually betrayed him to the police, but Joker didn’t know which one. The solution: kill them all, by poison, bombing,
and even feeding one to a shark. This was the story that truly ramped up the
Joker’s insanity, and was the foundation on which everything else was built. If the Joker wasn’t Batman’s true arch-nemesis
before then, he certainly was after. It’s worth noting that the revitalization
of the Joker and his increasingly unpredictable madness wasn’t just a product of O’Neil and
Adams. A few years later, in 1978, Steve Englehart
and Marshall Rogers, another creative team hired away from Marvel, knocked another definitive
Joker story out of the park: “The Laughing Fish.” For his part, Rogers’ work here is considered
some of the all-time best Batman art, with good reason. Unlike a few other artists, he plays the smile
as a permanent fixture on the Joker’s face rather than just an expression, hearkening
back to Veidt and The Man Who Laughs. At heart, it was an updated retelling of the
first Joker story from Batman #1 the Joker sets off on a string of murders, announcing
his targets well in advance to terrorize the city before leaving them with their poisoned
smiles but there was one big twist. Rather than being random death and destruction,
the Joker’s reason for the murders, or at least the excuse he was using, was that his
victims were keeping him from getting a patent on fish poisoned with his signature smile. It is a bizarre motive, but that’s exactly
why it works. The other villains might have fixations and
obsessions, but the Joker was completely beyond reason. Demanding something so ridiculous from bureaucrats
was a challenge to the very concept of an ordered world. He quite simply could not be reasoned with,
because in his view, reason didn’t even exist. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the Batman comics
were on a sort of pendulum, swinging to one extreme, gritty, violent street-level crime
dramas to the other: the pop-art camp of the ’60s. He was still a superhero, but stories like
“There is No Hope In Crime Alley” and “To Kill a Legend” had pulled the focus onto the
idea of how people deal with tragedies. That same lens was applied to the villains,
too. Batman’s gallery of foes went from a solid
roster of baddies with great gimmicks and interesting hooks to a group of villains who
were reworked into being specific psychological foils for the hero. Two-Face, for instance, became explicitly
cast as a tragic figure who was struggling with his own two extremes of good and evil,
and what it was like to look into the mirror and see something that was more like a mask
looking back at you. The Riddler had always had a superiority complex,
but now it was about proving that Batman, and everything he stood for, could fail. Bane explored the idea of someone with Bruce
Wayne’s keen mind and gifted athleticism being born into crime, corruption, and poverty instead
of a life of privilege. The Joker was ahead of the curve, but the
same change was happening with him. He stopped being merely unpredictable, becoming
an embodiment of madness and nihilism who represented a moral threat that went far beyond
just punching him out and dragging him back to Arkham Asylum. And the thing is, he kind of had to evolve
that way, because Batman was undergoing the same change himself. “As a man, l’m flesh and blood. l can be ignored, destroyed. But as a symbol… As a symbol, l can be incorruptible.” Say what you will about the “Shark-Repellent
Bat-Spray” scene in the ’66 movie, but if you get right down to it, it actually is a
pretty accurate portrayal of how Batman works as a character. He’s entirely built around the idea of determination,
this unbeatable will to win. He evolved from just having the tagline of
“The World’s Greatest Detective” into embodying the phrase, becoming the character who thought
of everything and was always one step ahead because he had to be. Because if he wasn’t, people died. And that became the consequence: death. It had always been there, going all the way
back to the origin story, but in the ’80s, it was codified into the core of the character,
and as Batman’s definitive arch-nemesis, the Joker evolved to embody it. He is the consequence. That’s why the Joker was the one who killed
Robin, which stood for years as Batman’s greatest failure. that’s why he was the central character
in The Killing Joke, where Alan Moore and Brian Bolland go back to that Red Hood story
from 1951 and rework it into its own kind of tragedy. And it’s why every time he showed up after,
those consequences had to keep getting more dire, more destructive, more of an assault
on the very concepts that Batman was built on. That’s how the Joker became the twisted, amoral
character that we have today. The only real question is how much more twisted
he can get. Check out one of our newest videos right here! Plus, even more Looper videos about your favorite
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