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.
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 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.
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.