All the world loves a clown, so let’s all show Joker some affection. For eight decades, the Joker and his iconic grin has been an important part of the Batman mythos, serving as a chaotic balance to the Caped Crusader’s sense of justice and order. Batman wouldn’t enjoy the popularity he has today without his greatest nemesis, and like the Dark Knight, the Joker has grown and evolved since his debut into the villain we love today. So, to honor Gotham’s greatest villain, we’re taking a look back at twelve comic book moments that helped to shape the Clown Prince of Crime.
His First Kill
The Joker first appeared in 1940’s Batman #1 and he hit the ground running! While it takes some characters years to develop and evolve, the Joker that readers met in 1940 is mostly the same maniacal villain we know today. Don’t let the Golden Age time period fool you into expecting a more subdued criminal. If anything, this early Joker was even MORE sinister! Everything was here in his first story, from his iconic purple suit, to his poisonous Joker Venom, to his appetite for murder. It was a man named Henry Claridge who had the honor of being the Joker’s first kill, which the Clown Prince followed by murdering three more people all in the same story. He almost killed Robin, but it would take another few decades before he achieved that dark goal. Still, the Joker was already a terrifying match for Batman in 1940, and the Clown Prince was just getting started.
His Origin Revealed
In 1950, readers learned more about the Joker’s beginnings in an origin story that still persists to this day. Detective Comics #168 featured Batman investigating a cold case—the disappearance of a criminal called the Red Hood. After robbing a card company, Red Hood escaped through a chemical plant and dove into a vat of toxic waste to avoid Batman. The impromptu swim turned his hair green and skin bright white, into the familiar face of the Joker—this was a pretty big surprise to readers of the time who assumed it was makeup!
This early story may be one of the most important Joker tales ever published, considering the number of times it’s been referenced in later comics and popular media adaptations. Joker’s “chemical bath” has largely become the Joker’s agreed upon origin and was used in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film and on Fox’s Gotham. Plus, the name Red Hood has become iconic in its own right, thanks to a Joker murder victim named Jason Todd.
Joker Gets a Boner
You’ve seen the internet memes, and we’re here to tell you that it’s not a photoshop! The Joker’s rant about boners comes from a real comic. Don’t believe us? Check out Batman #66 (if you can find a copy, that is) to read the Joker’s curious dialogue yourself.
Are you all done giggling? Before the days of Fortnite, TikTok and AirPods, the word “boner” was another way of saying “epic fail.” But even more remarkable? If you can stop snickering and look beyond the dated dialogue, Batman #66 is a fun story where the Joker tries to redeem his dignity to the Gotham press, but Batman keeps on beating him. However, the internet never forgets, so we have a feeling the Joker will be trying to live this one down for a long time.
The Clown Prince Makes a Murderous Comeback
Imagine a version of the Batman mythos where the Joker isn’t around. It’s hard to fathom, isn’t it? Believe it or not, that’s just how the world of Gotham looked before the Joker returned in the classic Batman #251.
The Clown Prince of Crime had been absent for four years as the Batman titles were trying to find a more grounded approach and had refrained from using some of the hero’s more colorful villains. However, you can’t sideline the Joker for long and his return wound up being his deadliest story in years. Recently escaped from Arkham (which was unnamed at the time), the Joker began killing his old crew members, committing murder on panel for the first time in 31 years. This story, “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” is where many of the Clown Prince’s familiar tropes began, such as his Arkham incarcerations, his hesitancy to murder Batman and his more streamlined redesign. If you love Mark Hamill’s version of the Joker from Batman: The Animated Series, you have this story to thank.
Joker Gets His Own Title
In 1975, the Joker did something no other DC villain had done before—star in his own ongoing series! The Joker ran for nine issues and featured the Clown Prince going up against non-Gotham superheroes and rival super-villains. It was something of a curious title. Since the Joker was the protagonist, the restrictions from the Comics Code regarding the book were a bit tighter, forcing all the stories to end with the Joker receiving comeuppance for his crimes. The villain’s bloodlust also had to be toned down, but the series still effectively captured the Clown Prince of Crime’s essence. The schemes were nutty, the guest stars were inspired and the entire series made for a fun reading experience. Unfortunately, the comic was cancelled after the 9th issue, but the Joker wasn’t going anywhere. He still had big plans in Gotham.
In 1978, the Joker unveiled another twisted scheme in Detective Comics #475—Joker Fish! After fish from Gotham’s contaminated waters are found displaying an eerie Joker smile, we learn it’s all part of the Clown Prince of Crime’s latest plan. Step one: make Joker Fish, step two: copyright Joker Fish, step three: ?????, and step four: profit!
Admittedly, it’s a pretty strange plan, and it hits a snag because there’s no way to profit off of a fish’s physical appearance and you can’t copyright wildlife. Unsurprisingly, the Joker doesn’t take the news too well and begins lashing out. This classic two-parter by Steve Engelhart and Marshall Rogers featured the Bat-Villain at his deadliest and his most unpredictable. Haven’t read the comic and are wondering why the story sounds so familiar? It might be because it was later adapted into one of the most memorable episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.
All It Takes is One Bad Day
In 1988, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland came together to produce one of the most infamous Joker stories of all time—Batman: The Killing Joke. The brief, mature-readers graphic novel takes a look at what drives Batman and the Joker’s conflict, as the Dark Knight makes one last attempt to end the cycle of violence. Of course, Joker has no interest in ending any violence and makes his intentions known by breaking into Commissioner Gordon’s house, crippling his daughter Barbara and kidnapping Jim. As the Clown Prince tries to drive Gordon mad through psychological torture, he thinks back to his own origins.
The book contains flashbacks to the Joker’s life before he became a criminal, using elements from the original Red Hood story and new ideas conceived by Moore. Notably, for the first time, the Joker is presented as a tragic figure in The Killing Joke. Perhaps he was just a man who wanted to do the right thing, but one bad day drove him insane. Of course, the story leaves it ambiguous if what we witness is his real past, and that ambiguity is carried over to the story’s final pages as well, which have led fans to wonder why Batman is laughing with the Joker. The Killing Joke may be 32 years old, but it still inspires just as much discussion and debate today as it did when it was first published.
A Death in the Bat-Family
How do you follow the most notable Joker story of all time? That’s easy, you kill Robin!
“A Death in the Family,” which ran in Batman #426-429, hinges on a chilling scene where the Joker ambushes Robin (Jason Todd) and beats the Boy Wonder senseless with a crowbar, leaving him tied up in a warehouse with a bomb. Usually this would be the part of the story where Batman shows up in time to save his best pal, but sadly, the Dark Knight was too late. However, before you get too mad at the Joker, know that his success here had some unexpected help. A 1-900 number polled fans over whether Robin should live or die, and well…death won out. “Death in the Family” raised the stakes for Batman and the Joker’s rivalry, and although Jason Todd was later revived, the murder remains one of the most evil things the Clown Prince of Crime has ever done.
Joker Gets a Girlfriend
In 1950, the Joker was given an origin. In 1978, he was given a fish. And in 1999, he got a girlfriend! Harley Quinn, the Joker’s devoted and lovesick partner, is arguably the most enduring thing to come out of Batman: The Animated Series (and certainly one of the best). Viewers loved her chemistry with “Mistuh Jay” and enjoyed the way she brought out new sides to the Joker’s personality. As a result, it was a no-brainer to bring her to the comics.
Harley Quinn made her continuity debut in 1999’s Batman: Harley Quinn one-shot. Like her animated counterpart, Harley was the Joker’s psychiatrist at Arkham who decided that she’d rather be his girlfriend than his shrink. These days, Harley is almost more famous than her murderous ex, and she’s currently starring in her own hit animated series. Ms. Quinn may have left the Joker behind, but their days together changed the Clown Prince, whether he wants to admit it or not.
Another Gunshot, Another Gordon
In Detective Comics #741, the Joker gave readers yet another reminder of how cruel he can be when he murdered Sarah Essen-Gordon in cold blood. The shocking story was the concluding chapter in the year-long “No Man’s Land” saga, and Gotham City was starting to return back to normal. But the Joker couldn’t resist one last caper, so he kidnapped a group of babies. When Commissioner Gordon’s wife Sarah discovered the Joker in the Gotham City Police Department basement, she confronted the Clown Prince without backup. Sarah managed to save the babies, but in exchange, the Joker coldly shot her in the head. When Jim Gordon learned his wife had been murdered, he snapped and almost executed the Clown Prince. Batman managed to calm the Commissioner down, and Gordon only wound up shooting Joker in the knee. Chillingly, this amused the villain, who thought it was a reference to the fact that he crippled the Commissioner’s daughter Barbara.
The scene is heartbreaking, and it’s another example of Joker cruelly taking something away from Batman’s world.
The Joker Rules the World
If you’re still reading this, you’re probably thanking your lucky stars that the Joker is a mortal man. If someone as dangerous as him also happened to have superpowers…well, who knows what he could do?
That question was explored in a 2000 storyline called “Emperor Joker,” which is oddly enough, a Superman storyline. In “Emperor Joker,” the Clown Prince convinces the powerful prankster Mister Mxyzptlk to give him his powers, which the Joker uses to remake the world in his looney image before setting his sights on the Dark Knight. The Joker kills Batman, revives him, then finds another painful way to kill him, then revives him, and continues with this cycle for what seems like forever. Luckily, the DC heroes are able to trick the Bat-Villain into losing his powers, but they won’t be forgetting the reign of Emperor Joker anytime soon.
Breaking Up the Bat-Family
In 2011, DC Comics relaunched all their titles in what was called The New 52, and of course, the Joker played a memorable role. After escaping from Arkham Asylum in Detective Comics #1, he infamously sliced off his own face and disappeared for months. However, he wasn’t gone long. The Joker resurfaced in a 2012 Batman crossover event called “Death of the Family” where he psychologically tortured all of Gotham’s heroes. He kidnapped Barbara Gordon’s mother, targeted Dick Grayson’s circus friends and just generally found creative ways to attack Batman’s allies in personal ways. Ultimately, the Joker demanded that Batman choose between him and his family. Although the Dark Knight refused and was able to defeat the Joker, the Clown Prince’s psychological warfare had a major impact on Batman’s allies, who no longer trusted the Caped Crusader. Joker effectively put a rift in the Batman Family, making it appear that he was the victor after all.
Still smiling? Well, you should know this about our eccentric evildoer. The Clown Prince of Crime is far from done, and with a starring role in his own ongoing comic along with some high profile DC Black Label books now in stores like Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity and Suicide Squad: Get Joker!, it appears that the Joker, fittingly, may have the last laugh. Heh heh heh...ha ha...HAHAHAHAHA!!!
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Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.