Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Clown Prince of Crime or Agent of Chaos: Meet the Joker

Introducing the Joker

Everybody knows the Joker. He first appeared in the Batman comics in 1940, as a mass murderer with a penchant for dressing up. Rendered inanely harmless by the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s and then, for a while, dropped altogether, he made a resurgence in the early 1970s. This was more than just a comeback. New generations of artists and writers made the Joker into one of the most compelling, and instantly recognisable, characters in the DC universe. Groundbreaking graphic novels such as The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth laid down entire theories about the Joker’s origins, his psychology and his motivations.

In the meantime, the man in the purple suit became a fixture in television and film. I grew up watching Cesar Romero camp it up opposite Adam West in reruns of the 1960s Batman series, performing comic heists involving brightly coloured gas and popguns. In the 1989 film Batman, directed by Tim Burton, Jack Nicholson played the Joker as a thuggish gangster, physically and psychologically mutilated by a confrontation with Michael Keaton’s Caped Crusader. The Joker also frequently cropped up in animated form, most notably in Batman: The Animated Series (voiced by Mark Hamill) and in The Batman (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson).

Origins and traditions

Despite the many stories about the Joker, certain things are universal. The purple suit, spats and gloves are the Joker’s trademark, along with his white skin, red lips and green hair. In the comics and graphic novels he is generally slim and even frail; certain works, such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, go so far as to render him androgynous. He is generally rather dandyish, and the nature of his crimes ranges from the brutally violent to the comically ineffective; but he always has a flair for dramatics.

The most widely accepted origin story for the Joker is laid out in the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke. Here, the Joker begins as a failed comedian who agrees to help a pair of criminals break into the chemical plant where he used to work. Before the heist takes place, his pregnant wife is killed in an accident at home. Grief-stricken, he attempts to pull out of the operation. However, it is too late, and he is forced to go ahead. The operation is interrupted by Batman, and the man falls into a vat of chemicals during his escape. This is the origin of his outlandish, clown-like appearance, and it is also the moment at which he loses his sanity.

There are a number of variants on this story, but in the vast majority of cases the Joker’s clown-like appearance is a result of disfigurement and chemical burn. In the case of Nicholson’s gangster Jack Napier, even his grin is a sign of mutilation.

The Dark Knight: Re-imagining the Joker

The 2008 film The Dark Knight could equally be called a re-envisioning of the Joker character and a return to his roots. Christopher Nolan’s Joker, played by Heath Ledger, is a murderous criminal who affects the appearance of a clown, just like in the Batman comics of 1940. He has no origin story beyond a brief exchange at the end of Batman Begins (the preceding Nolan film), in which Jim Gordon informs Batman that a new criminal has emerged, one with “a taste for the theatrical, like you”, and hands over the Joker’s calling card.

This Joker wears the purple suit, but it is dusty and battered; his white skin and red lips come from makeup which smears and spreads in the course of the film; his greasy, messy hair is a patchy and barely discernable shade of green, and his smile is carved on. The only references to his past are his own inconsistent stories, apparently invented to intimidate and scare the listener. His crimes are mass-participation events designed to induce terror. He does not use cyanide pies or laughing gas or Joker venom; he prefers to use knives, heavy firearms and, on one memorable occasion, a pencil. His famous lack of fear extends here to a positive longing for self-destruction; we see him provoking Batman and reacting blissfully to every violent retaliation, as if the whole point of his own destructive rampage is to bring about annihilation for himself.

When I first saw The Dark Knight, I knew the Joker from the Romero and Nicholson versions and a little from seeing the comics. I did not find the character, or the Batman story in general, particularly enthralling. The Dark Knight changed this for me. And yes, I realise that makes me a total noob.

What works so well (at least, for me) in this portrayal of an old established persona? I think that the horrific appeal of it lies partly in the fact that this Joker is an entirely self-invented man; there is no explanation, no pat story, no visible mechanism behind his actions. He is a psychopathic murderer confronting an obsessed vigilante (and Batman is, in this version, most definitely a vigilante), and this would be a gripping story whether it was set in Gotham or not.

Another major factor is the way in which Ledger inhabits the role. His Joker is a masterpiece of physical theatre. He cultivates a slightly odd gait and a collection of verbal and physical tics which render the Joker weird and unsettling; his reactions are constantly slightly “off”, making us feel instinctively that the Joker has no concept of normal social cues. Set in this context, the histrionics and the hysterics become genuinely frightening rather than clownish. We understand that we are confronted not with a comic supervillain, but with a dangerous individual with a deeply abnormal psychology. This is thrilling just as it is terrifying; it has the same kind of appeal as a good crime novel or horror film.

Perhaps it is because I am not, deep down, a Batman geek; but I cannot help but feel that other variants of the story simply are not as compelling. In some cases this may be because the mechanism is exposed (the origin stories providing an explanation, or at least a theory, as to the Joker’s behaviour); or because the story has a fantasy element which does not appeal to me. But I cannot help thinking that in some ways film is ideal for this kind of story; in comparison, the graphic novel form seems limited. Can a series of pictures really convey this character in the same way as a moving image?

The problem of medium

I am the first to admit that I am new to reading graphic novels, and it may well be that I need to learn to read them properly. I find it a difficult endeavour. The elaborate pictures and terse speech bubbles distance me from the story rather than drawing me in; while I often find myself admiring the artwork, I do not feel involved in the story. This disconnect becomes especially marked when it comes to the Joker , who is above all a very mobile creature, dancing and stalking and creeping his way through a series of stories by different writers and artists. No matter how good the artwork, no matter how expressive the lines, something always seems to be missing.

The outstanding example of this comes in The Killing Joke, which features a song and dance routine. Yes, a song and dance routine, with soundless text and a series of still pictures. The effect (on me, anyway) is jarring in the wrong way. As the Joker – surrounded by a collection of old-fashioned sideshow freaks, a jarring feature in itself – mugs his way silently and jerkily through a rather corny song, the mind struggles to assemble the whole into some kind of cinematic sequence. I got the song stuck in my head for days – an impressive feat since it had no music – and got thoroughly irritated by the whole thing. Moreover, the artwork is grotesque; the panels look almost like distorted, over-coloured photographs. It is difficult to enjoy something you find visually unappealing, and this style was very much not to my taste.

To take another example, Tim Sale’s artwork for The Long Halloween (which was one inspiration for the writing of The Dark Knight) is more stylised and to me far more appealing; the stark lines convey movement far better than the florid images of The Killing Joke. However, the panels are dark and cluttered and at times visually overwhelming. Add to this the massive and confusing cast and the constant textual reminders necessary to keep the story straight, and the disconnect sets in again; while I greatly enjoyed reading it, I could not be drawn into The Long Halloween as I was drawn into The Dark Knight or even Batman: The Animated Series.

(Sale’s Joker, incidentally, is an impressive creature: something like a cross between David Bowie and a praying mantis. You can see his portrait at the head of this article.)

Moreover, the limited textual space of a graphic novel feels insufficient to tell the story, much less to convey the tone of the dialogue. I am not convinced that putting certain words in bold is enough.

Conclusion

The beauty of the DC universe is the multiplicity of available stories, and the Joker is one of its most popular and complex characters. As such, everyone has their preferred story, and their preferred Joker. Mine is The Dark Knight, not only because you don’t have to be a Batman geek to enjoy it, but because the portrayal of the Joker is such an extraordinary piece of writing and acting. Compared to this, other stories about the Joker seem rather pale, and the graphic novels in particular feel somewhat two-dimensional (beyond the obvious sense of the term). I cannot help but think that the Joker needs to live and move in order to be truly frightening, and truly fascinating.

The top image in this article is Not Clown… Joker by yourFAVORITEmartian, licensed under the Creative Commons using the Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic license.

30 comments on “Clown Prince of Crime or Agent of Chaos: Meet the Joker

  1. Jenn
    September 30, 2008

    What an excellent review – this is something I know nothing about but you’ve explained it really clearly. I’d heard of Batman and the Joker before, of course, but I never realised there were so many versions or that the Joker might not always have been the Joker.

    I have tried one or two graphic novels, mainly because they are very, very popular in the prison library where I work. But like you, I didn’t get very much out of them because I was struggling to ‘read’ the pictures. Perhaps it’s a skill just like reading a novel or a poem is, and we just need some more practice. The interesting thing, at least for me, is that a few of the men I’ve spoken to claim that the graphic novels are much easier to read than traditional novels – they talk a lot about things coming to life better with lots of pictures, and they seem to find it a help rather than a distraction.

    Strokes for folks, maybe?

    J

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  3. Moira
    September 30, 2008

    As a total Batman and graphic novel know-nothing, I found that totally riveting Kirsty. Heath Ledger really DID win you over, didn’t he?

    I still have no intention of seeing The Dark Knight though. I don’t want to know what he does with the pencil.

    I can’t imagine what the song and dance routine in The Killing Joke must be like. It sounds thoroughly discombobulating.

  4. clom
    September 30, 2008

    I think anyone wanting to get to the heart of Ledger’s Joker need look no further than Grant Morrisson’s amazing “Arkham Asylum”.

    Ledger’s portrayal is to some extent a simplification of Morrisson’s Joker. This is not an altogether bad thing as it would be difficult to pitch some of the mindbending tableaux in Arkham Asylum as being possible to depict in a Hollywood marquee movie. If you think the Dark Knight was dark I’d advise you to take a deep breath and dive into Morrisson’s evil masterpiece. In the book the Joker represents the elemental chaotic forces which seek to subvert order. In this regard he’s the polar opposite of the authoritarian vigilante but, as the Dark Knight intimates, inextricably bound to Batman.

    Ledger’s portrayal is fantastic, and is justifiably going to become the classic visual representation of the Joker, largely for his stupendous improvisations while telling the “stories” of his scars, his gleefully subversive riff on his “philosophy” to Dent and the pure physical joy of his staggering outside in a nurses uniform as a hospital explodes behind him. These are three direct echoes of Morrisson’s lying, deranged and cruel Joker. Depictions of evil, but told in a way that makes the chaos compelling.

    I’m not really a Batman nerd, however I bloomin’ love Grant Morrisson.
    Arkham Asylum, along with his Invisibles series pretty much got me going on graphic novels after a couple of false starts. It’s not for the faint hearted though, it features some quite astoundingly violent and depraved scenes but all to a profoundly serious psychological purpose.

    That’s a whole lot of Ps and Ss there at the end!
    Anyway, great article!

  5. clom
    September 30, 2008

    WARNING!
    SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT IN POST ABOVE!
    SORRY!

  6. kirstyjane
    September 30, 2008

    I have to admit that I did not enjoy Arkham Asylum at all! Very possibly because the artwork put me off… I can see how there’s a harmony with the Nolan screenplay and very probably a direct influence, but I don’t think it’s as simple as a simplification. Especially as Ledger said himself that he was given Arkham Asylum to read, but put it aside in favour of working out his own relationship to the character. I think he brings something to the role that is not in the script or in any of the previous Joker stories.

    I do think that as Jenn said above, different strokes for different folks. And I entirely believe that reading graphic novels is like reading poetry or novels: some take to it and some don’t, but everybody can learn to do it properly. However, not everyone will enjoy it.

    I am really pleased people seem to be enjoying this, and thank you for the positive feedback. I was a bundle of nerves writing it!

  7. John
    September 30, 2008

    That came together nicely. And even though I am a complete graphic novel nerd, I would have to agree that The Dark Knight’s Joker is definitely one of the best.
    To Clom: I found arkham asylum to be entertaining, and certainly well illustrated, but morrison’s writing leaves me pretty cold.

  8. Lisa
    September 30, 2008

    Thank you so much for this, Kirsty. I am set to watch TDK tonight (at last!) and I shall come back to you with thoughts about Ledger’s Joker. You’ve made me even more desperate to see it now, if such a thing was possible!

  9. Moira
    September 30, 2008

    I don’t want to know about the pencil. Don’t tell me about the pencil … 😯

  10. Christine
    September 30, 2008

    I am not a fan of Batman in any form. Well, ok, the old Adam West tv version worked for me. But I don’t find the dark noir versions now in fashion to be particularly compelling. That said, I loved your thoughts about “reading” graphic novels. I too find them a challenge. If I read them like a Doonesbury compilation, I’m proably doing them a disservice. If read them like novel, I feel robbed of one of my greatest pleasures–imagining the visual world conjured up by the text. I think one almost has to approach a graphic novel like one might approach the allegorical paintings in a church. When they were painted, everyone knew the stories and the images were meant to stimulate faith and to bring to life the stories. Today, looking at many of the paintings, tourists don’t have a clue, but the images are powerful and tell story that with a few speach bubbles might be pretty compelling.

  11. Michael
    September 30, 2008

    Kirsty, as always, I find your writing compelling and this is delightful. I have been a great fan of Nicholson’s film portrayal of the Joker mostly because I think Jack Nicholson’s manic energy suited the Joker. Heath Ledger’s is unsettling but a masterpiece, I think and you remind us that all of these Jokers are, in some cases literally, ‘self-made men’. Right up to the horrible and perpetual grin of Ledger’s Joker which rather unsettled me (but to be fair, The Dark Knight was very grim and dark…perhaps too dark for me at times).

    I have only read a smattering of the Batman comics as I was never a fan of superheroes as a child, I preferred Superman and history in any event, but the Joker was more interesting to me on telly or on the cinema screen. When the Joker is given the chance to leap across the screen, so you can see the dynamic energy that the character has. To me, that is the Joker.

  12. clom
    September 30, 2008

    that’s a lot clearer for me, I didn’t know that Ledger had been that clear on his performance.

    I think i probably misstated things by saying the performance is a simplification of anything.

    Ledger’s performance is clearer, more defined, more real than any other Joker either in the GN’s, comics or any previous films/TV adaptations.

    I’m off to dig out the 1990 Batman soundtrack now and going to dance around my living room to Prince’s “Party Man”!

  13. Kari
    October 1, 2008

    It’s very interesting to see a “complete noob’s” take on this issue, Kirsty. Your history of the Joker is nicely done.

    Regarding graphic novels: I know I tend to push this guy ad nauseam, but honestly, Scott McCloud’s _Understanding Comics_ may help you here. McCloud discusses comics as a form and deals with the essential relationship between the images on the page and the reader’s imagination. I don’t agree with him on every point, but I think his observations about what you DON’T see in comics being as important as what you DO see are essential to, well, understanding comics. The idea that static pictures can’t convey an idea as well as moving ones is problematic because it judges comics by the standards of film. People who criticise comics for giving away too MUCH information are, in turn, judging comics by the standards of literature. People who complain about the speech bubbles polluting the purity of the images are judging comics by the standards of visual art. Comics need to be judged by the standards of comics (and literature by the standards of literature, and so on).

    No, the pictures in comics do not move…but motion does occur between the panels and therefore inside the reader’s mind. At the same time, the best comics are not simply illustrated stories in which the images echo the words but offer no new information; they provide a marriage of words and images in which the two elements work together to create meaning. Dismissing all comics because they are not novels or films seems to me to be a little bit unfair. Some comics could not appear as anything BUT comics (_Maus_ is a good example; it wouldn’t have anywhere near the same effect as a novel, and it would quite possibly be absurd as a film).

    As for Batman: I encountered him first through Burton’s films, but I like the portrayals in some of the graphic novels (specifically, _The Dark Knight Returns_, _The Killing Joke_, and _The Long Halloween_) best. Ledger does an excellent job, of course.

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  15. kirstyjane
    October 1, 2008

    Thanks for the comment Kari – your perspective on reading comics is very valuable and always welcome. I agree that Maus could be nothing but a comic (like Le Chat du Rabbin or Asterix, which is absolutely best in comic form). However, Batman works well in different media. I like the films best, but that’s me; the great thing is that there is something for everyone, both in terms of form and of story. Something that really impresses me as a noob is the diversity of the DC universe; even one character can live a number of lives.

  16. Lesley
    October 1, 2008

    hey kirsty. i like your piece. i’m impressed you made it through so many of the graphic novels. i get all migrainey even from the thought of reading the whole of the dark kinght returns.

    i wonder if the comics format and over-simplification in mccloud’s book might put you off somewhat. however, you might be interested in checking out thierry groensteen’s ‘the system of comics’ (read it in french because the translation is pretty horrible to outright wrong in places). it’s a much more academic discussion of how comics work.

  17. kirstyjane
    October 2, 2008

    The Dark Knight Returns did have to be my least favourite of all the things I read. There was very little I enjoyed about it.

  18. Lisa
    October 2, 2008

    Kirsty, at last I have seen TDK!

    Ledger’s Joker is utterly terrifying, and yet somehow also frail and vulnerable. He’s kind of skinny with these soft white hands and thin little legs. Then there’s that big moon face covered in scars, and at times it’s like he’s just begging for someone to finish him off. As a writer I find his character fascinating – he’s horrendous, yet intriguing, and not even totally unlikeable, which is not to say I’d want to share a pint with him, but more that the viewer (at least this one) feels a bit of sympathy for him, and curiosity/empathy as to what might have led him there. He also comes across as way more honest than Batman about his motivations.

    P.S I loved the way the Joker tells all these conflicting tales about how he came to be what he is, prodding the viewer about the nature of myth and storytelling. Also the way that human beings/audiences require explanations for oddity.

    Anyhow, great film!

  19. kirstyjane
    October 2, 2008

    Lisa, it is interesting that you have an impression of the Joker in TDK as being skinny and vulnerable, because Ledger is/was actually a pretty solidly built man: it just shows what method acting can do in terms of moulding the viewer’s perspective. Conversely, I quite liked that his Joker clearly had some physical strength and presence rather than being the ethereal creature you see in The Long Halloween and The Dark Knight Returns. Again, it roots him in reality rather than making him some kind of eldritch supervillain.

    I know what you mean about the sympathy aspect. The Joker is not so terrifying if he is completely repellent. Besides, he must have some kind of magnetism if he can awe/terrify/lure so many people to work for him. The curiosity is very important too, and it is piqued even further if there is no obvious explanation for why the Joker does what he does. I think this is one of the film’s great strengths.

    I am glad you enjoyed it – I thought you might!

  20. Lisa
    October 2, 2008

    I did indeed! It was very powerful.

    On the question of skinny (!) perhaps that image of Ledger’s little white legs peeking out of the nurse’s outfit has stuck with me 😉 Also, I guess the other Joker that springs to mind for me is Jack Nicholson’s – who was definitely meatier, so that’s probably skewed my view of the Joker’s physical dimensions.

    On the sympathy thing there was one scene where I felt very sorry for the Joker. (SPOILER ALERT) Batman was beating up the Joker in a police cell and the Joker is lifted off his feet and to me he looked quite helpless, tiny and frail. But then compared to Batman, who wouldn’t?!

    Thanks for recommending the film, Kirsty. One of my favourites of the year. And yes, the acting is superb.

  21. kirstyjane
    October 2, 2008

    I thought one of the most striking things about the Batman/Joker confrontations was the latter’s total lack of fear. Not only lack of fear, but positive enjoyment of danger. This has its precedents in previous Joker stories but I think it was extremely well brought out, and even furthered, in this film.

    Ah, yes, Nicholson was a brawnier Joker. But then Jack is just Jack.

  22. hussein
    October 2, 2008

    The Dark Knight terrified me, because now I wonder if the Joker was right; that when the chips are down, “civilised people” will eat each other.

  23. Lisa
    October 2, 2008

    Yes, the lack of fear. It was almost as if he was goading Batman into going for him, but I think that reminded me of an aggressive dog that suddenly crumples when its owner responds and lunges for it. Or like a naughty child goading its parents into shouting at it. At the moment of retaliation the frailty is visible. Just a dog, just a kid, just a man. With the Joker, it seemed to me like half self-destructiveness and half desperately needing attention, negative if no other kind is available.

    Listen to me rabbiting on. TDK obviously affected me!

  24. kirstyjane
    October 2, 2008

    Rabbit away, Lisa! I did wonder if the hysterical laughter was real enjoyment or rather a kind of nervous response. But he didn’t seem to have much sense of pain or self-preservation.

    Hussein, isn’t that just the big question? I like to think TDK made people wonder. How civilised are we really?

  25. Leena
    October 2, 2008

    Well, I never thought this would happen – I was turned off by the hype and not interested in comic-books-turned-to-film to begin with, but now I’m actually eager to see The Dark Knight. Thanks, Kirsty and Lisa!

    What was said above about reading comic books, it’s interesting… I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to graphic novels, but I read a lot – and I mean A LOT – of comics as a young girl. I haven’t read any for years now, though, and when I tried again recently I found it surprisingly difficult: it felt like I’d lost my sense of rhythm, as if I were trying to dance the salsa while the orchestra was playing a waltz. Instead of taking it all in at once, my eyes and brain seemed to be concentrating on the picture/text/picture/text in jerky, badly coordinated movements. A very tiring – and disorienting – experience, to be honest.

    I expect I can get my sense of rhythm back with a bit of effort, but it made me realise that comic-reading is actually a skill of its own…

  26. kirstyjane
    October 4, 2008

    It definitely is. Probably the only comic books I read and enjoy as much as any other good book are the Asterix series. But then the wordplay is such a joy… and the panels are not nearly as dense or as crowded as those in the DC graphic novels tend to be.

    Since posting this piece I have had various people recommend radically different graphic novels to me, and I am definitely going to try them all!

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  30. laughingpierre
    October 19, 2010

    I didn’t read through all the post but I feel it should be mentioned that the Red Hood is also heavily associated with the Joker as well but thank you for taking the time to write about the Joker, although some of his incarnations are comical many others delve into the psyche of the character and his relation as a counter point to the Batmans rigidness

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This entry was posted on September 30, 2008 by in Entries by Kirsty, Russian Series, Special Features and tagged , , , , .

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