The Joker: the history of Batman’s most famous foe

Jared Leto Suicide Squad Empire cover

by Owen Williams |
Published on

With Jared Leto taking on the mantle of The Clown Prince Of Crime for the imminent Suicide Squad, here's a memory-refresher on some Jokers past.

The Joker in the comics

Batman made his debut in Detective Comics in 1939. When he got his own title the following year, The Joker was his immediate adversary in issue #1. Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson were his creators, basing him in part on an image of the silent movie actor Conrad Veidt in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs.

Initially supposed to be killed off at the end of his first story – the creative team reasoning that recurring villains made Batman look weak – he got a reprieve thanks to editor Whitney Ellsworth recognising his potential. He went on to appear in 9 of the first 12 Batman issues, and semi-regularly ever after.

A prolific murderer to begin with, The Joker was softened into a whimsical prankster for a more child-friendly readership following the introduction of the Comics Code in the late 1950s. Writers began taking him back to his more violent roots in the ‘70s and ‘80s, during which period he killed Jason Todd (the second Robin) and paralysed Barbara Gordon. His bizarre romantic interest Harley Quinn arrived in the ‘90s. His apparent insanity puts him in and out of Arkham Asylum on a regular basis, but Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel suggests he’s a sort of super-sane, reinventing himself daily to deal with the madness of the world around him: hence sometimes he’s a mischievous clown and others a truly terrifying and dangerous psychopath.

He’s never been given a definitive origin story, so remains mysterious in that sense. The closest we’ve come to learning where he came from is the notion that he was a criminal called The Red Hood who, during a botched robbery, fell into a vat of chemicals that bleached his skin and turned his hair green. But even that’s been tweaked during his lifetime. In 1951 The Red Hood was a lab worker with an alter ego; in Alan Moore’s 1988 The Killing Joke he was a failed stand-up comedian coerced into crime. In Moore’s book The Joker says if he has to have a past, he prefers it to be multiple-choice.

Cesar Romero – 1966-1968

Best known for character, romantic and Western roles from the ‘30s to the ‘50s, Cesar Romero was The Joker to Adam West’s Batman in the colourful, much-loved ‘60s series. He appeared in 19 episodes, plus the 1966 film, in which he teamed up with Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, Lee Meriweather’s Catwoman and Burgess Meredith’s Penguin as The United Underworld. Matching the tone of the comics of the time, his Joker was daft and not especially threatening, at one point gaining his own utility belt and Jokermobile to parody Batman. Perhaps indicating that he thought he was slumming it with the role, he famously refused to shave off his moustache, so you can still see it under the white make-up.

Jack Nicholson – 1989

Tim Burton’s reinvention of the Dark Knight gave The Joker an origin story. In this iteration he was Jack Napier, an ambitious gangster who, as a small-time hood in his earlier life, had killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. So this Joker actually made Batman. And when Batman tips Napier into a vat at the Axis Chemical Plant, he creates The Joker. Which is neat if not canon. Physically, the short and tubby Nicholson isn’t really right for the role of the tall and willowy Joker (and the make-up giving him his fixed grin didn’t even look good in 1989). But performance-wise, bringing with him intertextual baggage from the likes of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining and The Witches Of Eastwick, his dangerous clown was right on the money.

Mark Hamill – 1992-2016

While it’s voice-only, we’d be remiss not to mention Mark Hamill’s reign as The Joker across animated series, films and videogames from 1992 right up to this year. His menacing, snide, slightly British-sounding Joker, complete with glass-shattering maniacal laugh, has earned him multiple award nominations (and actual awards). Repeatedly seeming to suggest he’s retiring from the role, Hamill keeps coming back for more. An adaptation of The Killing Joke is next.

Heath Ledger - 2008

One of those casting decisions excoriated when it was announced, only for the same people to pronounce it definitive once they’d actually seen the film. Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s modern classic is the grunge version: lank of hair, unimposing of posture, nihilist of philosophy and dry of wit. He’s also truly gruesomely scarred, and gives more than one explanation for how it happened (harking back to Moore’s multiple-choice origin idea). Some critics struggled with not understanding what his plan is; missing the point that he doesn’t have one. He doesn’t want anything other than to engineer chaos and discredit Batman. It's all there in Alfred’s little speech. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

Gotham – 2015-

Fox’s pre-Batman TV series hasn’t yet introduced The Joker, but keeps teasing possibilities. Before it began there was talk of him being a ropy stand-up comedian in the club belonging to Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith; we even speculated that this was a bluff and Mooney might be The Joker). Then there was an episode with the Red Hood gang – all of whom immediately got killed. Next came the over-the-top Jerome (Cameron Monaghan), a circus kid who gurned and cackled and rampaged through a few episodes until the ambiguous conclusion of his own story arc. And after that there was Jeri (Lori Petty), another nightclub owner who fronts a rock band in Joker make-up (and only seems to know New Rose by The Damned). There will, we’re sure, be others before the real deal finally arrives.

Jared Leto – 2016-

We know what he looks like: white skin, green hair, capped teeth, walking cane, rather on-the-nose tattoos that say things like “damaged” and “hahaha”. But Jared Leto’s Joker remains something of an unknown quantity, pending Suicide Squad’s release. We know about Leto’s crazy method acting (Will Smith has said he “never met Jared” during the whole shoot, meaning he only encountered The Joker). We know he’s genuinely “scary”, according to director Dayid Ayer. And we know he’s “radically different to what’s gone before”, in Leto’s own words. Some shot-up armour in the Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice batcave appears to suggest that he’s encountered Batman already and has possibly killed a Robin (fan scuttlebutt even suggests he might be a former Robin). But we’ll – presumably, hopefully - find out much more on August 5.

Read our exhaustive guide to Suicide Squad here.

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