The Joker returns to ‘Batman’ pages, building on 72-year history

Aug. 01, 2012 | 7:32 p.m.

The Joker debuted in "Batman" No. 1 in 1940, arriving on Page 3 with a radio-broadcast promise of murder and plunder. On the next page, Gotham millionaire Henry Claridge collapses from poison that leaves his corpse with a grotesque grin -- the Joker's first victim. ("Batman" No. 1. DC Comics)

When director Christopher Nolan looked for a primal version of the Joker for "The Dark Knight" (2008) he started with the 1940 vision -- a sociopath of unexplained background. "You don't care where the shark came from," Nolan said in 2008. "You don't care who the shark's parents were." (Warner Bros.)

Joker toys have been on shelves for years but recent seasons have been a boom time for Gotham. Warner Bros. Consumer Products chief Brad Globe says: “Characters, gadgets and vehicles created by Christopher Nolan have opened up a world of great product opportunities.” (Fisher-Price's Little People Joker, left; a 1979 Mego Joker, right. Fisher-Price; Mego)

Batman got his first Hollywood close-up in movie serials of the 1940s but his archenemy didn't follow until January 1966 and the fifth episode of ABC's campy "Batman." Cesar Romero, above, played the Joker in 22 episodes plus the tie-in feature film from 1966. (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Jack Nicholson and a rising young director named Tim Burton took the Joker to new global fame with the 1989 film "Batman." Nicholson got top billing and top dollar -- he made a record $60 million by reducing his guarantee and taking a percentage of merchandise sales. (Warner Bros.; Associated Press)

Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of a stripped-down version of the character in "The Dark Knight" (2008) who is uninterested in profit or power -- he's a scabby post-punk jackal, an agent of chaos who wants to watch the world burn. (Warner Bros.)

"The Dark Knight" was a $1-billion hit in 2008 and Heath Ledger's performance reinvented the Joker persona in the public mind -- and inspired satirists everywhere. (Unsigned political poster; New York Magazine)

It could have gone differently: The Joker, stabbed with his own knife, originally died near the end of "Batman" No. 1 -- then-editor Whitney Ellsworth decided the bad clown was too compelling to kill. (Original art for Jerry Robinson classic cover. Skirball Cultural Center)

With a movie-monster face, a gangster sneer and one-of-a-kind wardrobe, the Joker was an instant favorite for Batman readers and also the creative team: The villain appeared in nine of the first 12 issues of "Batman." (DC Comics)

For the 1989 film "Batman," director Tim Burton wanted a Joker that veered between rage and black humor. "I recall at the time, people worried about our version being too dark. It's like, well, it looks like a lighthearted romp in comparison [to 'The Dark Knight']. Ours is like 'Batman on Ice.'" (Tim Burton's drawings of the Joker. LACMA)

As a trickster spirit, Joker invites a constant reinvention even after seven decades. "That character can connect to the peyote stories of Native American mythology and Loki in Norse mythology," "Dark Knight" co-writer Jonathan Nolan said in 2009. "And there are so many examples of a Joker-like figure that you can endlessly reinvent." (Joker in "Arkham Asylum." DC Comics)

The Joker was modeled on Conrad Veidt's character in "The Man Who Laughs" (1928) who endures a horrific punishment -- a permanent "grin" is carved into his face. Veidt later costarred in "Casablanca." (Kino Video; Universal Pictures)

The Joker's creation is a contentious topic. Bob Kane was the publicly credited Batman creator, but historians agree that writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson played key roles. Robinson in 2009: “It was based on a playing card [I drew] and the character had a lot of mystery to him early on." (Robinson and his playing card from 1940. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In the 1950s and for much of the 1960s, Batman comics were quite different than the ominous early tales (or the modern films). The tone was lighter, the art brighter and the villains tamer. The Joker became more of an eccentric gangster, not unlike the rogues in "Dick Tracy." (DC Comics)

In 1951, for the first time, the origin of the Joker was revealed in a clever story written by Bill Finger. The Red Hood was a master criminal on the loose in Gotham and during a confrontation with Batman he dropped into a vat of toxic chemicals that invaded his helmet, changed his skin and hair and left him insane. (DC Comics)

"The Dark Knight Rises" has five Oscar winners in its cast but Gotham wasn't always viewed as an elevated opportunity and grim fare. Cesar Romero was willing to play the Joker on the ABC series but not if it meant shaving. Star Adam West recounted, "He said, 'I want to keep my mustache,' which we found odd...we said, 'OK, we will just plaster the white makeup over it.'" (ABC)

In 2007 Jack Nicholson wasn't happy when he heard Heath Ledger would play the Joker -- the 70-year-old Oscar winner wanted another shot at the gig. "Maybe it was the right thing, but to be candid, I'm furious...the Joker comes from my childhood. That's how I got involved with it in the first place. It's a part I always thought I should play." (Warner Bros.)

A defining moment in the character's evolution arrived in 1973's "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge," which abandoned the gangland version of the villain and returned him to his "roots" as a diabolical killer. Writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams also created the template for the Joker as voice of existential nihilism and Dada cruelty. (DC Comics)

In 1986, Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" represented a seismic moment in comic-book history with the most ambitious (and bleakest) Batman tale that had ever been published. Set in the future, the aging hero comes out of retirement -- and fights to the death with the Joker. (DC Comics)

With "The Killing Joke" (1986), Alan Moore and Brian Bolland elevate the Joker's Red Hood origin by embroidering it with the story of a sad sack stand-up comic who tumbles into a life of crime and madness. It's the rare story, too, that presents the clown in moments that invite some reader empathy. (DC Comics)

In 1988, DC Comics set up a poll to determine the fate of Jason Todd, the newest Robin in Gotham City. It was close (5,343 votes to 5,271) but the readers put a crowbar in the Joker's hand. Frank Miller later said he was repulsed. "To me the whole killing of Robin thing was probably the ugliest thing I've seen in comics and the most cynical." (DC Comics)

Director Tim Burton's 1989 film "Batman" presented an entirely new origin for the Joker and introduced the Jack Napier character (played by Jack Nicholson), who is not only destined to transform into the Joker (after a tumble into a vat of chemicals) but also turns out to be the gunman who killed Bruce Wayne's parents. (Warner Bros.)

The best Joker story ever published? Many fans say "The Killing Joke." Kyle Higgins, writer of DC's "Nightwing" series, calls it a rare work: "The synergy between Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is something that few collaborators even come close to -- two artists at the top of their game, in perfect sync." (DC Comics)

The madness of the Joker was portrayed very differently on the Saturday morning animated series "The Batman" (2004-2008) where he was a baboon-like wild man -- very different than the fearsome but dapper clown of the past. (The WB)

Mark Hamill of "Star Wars" fame voiced the Joker on the Emmy-winning "Batman: The Animated Series" (1992-1995), a stylish, noir-informed series influenced by the Fleischer Brothers cartoons of the 1940s. (Los Angeles Times)

The Joker made the leap to video games in 1988 with "Batman: The Caped Crusader" and has been in about two dozen in the years since, including the bestsellers 2009's "Arkham Asylum" and last year's "Arkham City," shown above. (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment)

The 2008 graphic novel "The Joker" by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo set aside years of continuity and approached the character as mystery man with a dark laugh -- just as he was in 1940 and in "The Dark Knight." (DC Comics)

On the silver screen, what actor would want to follow Heath Ledger if the Joker is in a reboot? Comic book writer Ed Brubaker say the biggest challenge is the role -- it's still bigger than the stars that visit it. "He's definitely the most iconic villain, probably because he doesn't want anything. He's just pure terror." (DC Comics)

In DC Comics the future is now for the Joker: After largely leaving the villain on the shelf recently, the clown returns in "Batman." Writer Scott Snyder: "It's the biggest, craziest, most twisted Joker story I could possibly tell ... this is going to be the opportunity to bring him back in the most vicious way possible." (DC Comics)

The most famous supervillain in comic book history — the Joker –  returns to the pages of “Batman” in a big way later this year, DC Comics has announced on its website.

The new story, “Death of the Family,” which begins in October with issue No. 13 of “Batman,” was planned long before the movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.

The timing of the Joker’s return to the pages of the bestselling DC comic may discomfit some in the wake of the shooting during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Suspect James E. Holmes reportedly referred to himself as the Joker during questioning by police. Representatives of DC Comics did not respond to questions about the timing of the Joker’s return to the Batman story line.

DC Comics has more or less kept the Joker on a shelf in recent seasons.  That changes with the five-issue “Death of the Family” tale from the tandem of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. That duo is coming off of the  acclaimed “Night of the Owls” arc, which was based in “Batman” but had threads stretching out into other titles. “Death of the Family” will do the same with  linkage to “Batman and Robin,” “Batgirl,” “Catwoman,” “Nightwing” and other titles.

“Death of the Family” will be the first major Joker story arc since “The New 52” began reshaping the DC Universe in August 2011, but that fresh start hasn’t made Snyder shy about courting the past; his title clearly nods to “A Death in the Family,” the notorious 1988-89 saga when readers voted to kill off the new Robin, Jason Todd, and the Joker beat the youngster to death with a crowbar.

The Aurora shooting has reawakened public debate about the way violent entertainment is taken in by young or fragile minds.  Yet the questions about whether Holmes strongly identified with the Joker also serve as a reminder that the identity of the character has hardly been static over his 72 years. In various incarnations, he has been been Capone-beefy and Jagger-taut, silly and sullen, brilliant and dense.

Four of a kind: The Joker as personified by Jack Nicholson; the art of Dave McKean; Cesar Romero; and Heath Ledger. Credits: Warner Bros., DC Entertainment, ABC, Warner Bros.)

 Across media, the Joker’s appearance and persona morph constantly according to authorship and audience. We’ve seen him campy, ferocious, droll, unstable and just plain blank — but almost always with a demented smile. It’s fascinating to track the supple nature of the character (and Batman) in the marketplace; many of the same stores that sell the Joker’s Fun House from Fisher-Price (for ages 3-8, it even makes laughing sounds) also stock Blu-ray copies of “The Dark Knight,” the 2008 movie in which Heath Ledger’s Joker memorably killed someone with a pencil.

One trait that stays? Those pistachio locks. To take a tour of the Joker’s history, click through the photo gallery at the top of the post. Be sure to select the “Captions On” option.

– Geoff Boucher


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6 Responses to The Joker returns to ‘Batman’ pages, building on 72-year history

  1. Batman says:

    I think the mainstream media might fit the title of Joker. It's shizoid and seems intent on destruction of society and the world for profit and if that is your only source of information, you are both blind and ignorant, which is, after all, good for bad elections and sales of poorly made Chinese toxic junk. But there is a prescription for that, a medicine cabinet that will allow you to pretend everything is ok.

  2. Batman says:

    This probably explains "the jokers" obsessive" desire to take over the internet and keep everyone ignorant and easily controlled. It's good for business, and they seem to think destroying lives for money is good.

  3. Batman says:

    The joker hates the internet, but likes Bain radio.

  4. Holmes while having a suitable background (mad scientist field of neuroscience, Joker was said to be a genius also) could have done better IF :

    i) Had done the face make up like the Joker, coloured hair green and dressed like the Joker (total spoiler here)

    ii) Actually managed to ‘escape’ and not be identified so there could be a REAL Joker running about (the REAL Joker would NEVER be caught EVER or even surrender) this is not better for society but whats so super villian if they get caught? Like the phantom of the opera, Joker would be seen but never caught. Super villains do not get caught!

    iii) left a Joker card in an obvious place

    vi) The Joker would use laughing gas at lethal levels not guns

    Just saying, this is not a recommendation so don’t try anything, would be psychos out there, unless organised enough to pull this off and without a conscience to bother about later, well maybe for the terminally ill or suicidal (think suicide belts and fundos), otherwise no point and spoils the comic book villian no end.

    The world’s thinnest/fattest/shortest/tallest man stands out better than Holmes as of now. Though the whole thing could have been some sort of government black-ops ‘test’ also.

  5. Kirk says:

    I didn’t know that The Joker had ever left.

    • Angela says:

      You should read his short debut in the new '52' series. It'll probably shock you- it's the last comic before his absence.

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