Over the past 80 years, Batman's archnemesis The Joker has become one of the most recognizable fictional villains worldwide. It's not totally obvious why our civilization is obsessed with, of all things, a gangster clown, so this week Cracked's exploring the character's enduring popularity and what The Joker's many iterations reveal about us, the audience ...
It's kind of funny that the most famous villain in a genre full of planet-eating space gods and genius billionaires in hi-tech armors is ... a skinny guy in clown makeup and pimp clothes. No comic book baddie has captured the public imagination like the Joker. Lex Luthor inspires nerdy arguments on Reddit; Joker inspires graffiti art in third world countries, Academy Award-winning performances, and an endless stream of WTF memes.
But why the Joker? What is it about this malnourished albino gangster that fascinates us so much? What cultural and historical forces have allowed the Clown Prince of Crime to persist across the decades, despite that dumbass moniker we just mentioned? ("Clown Prince" sounds like the worst cover band ever)
One thing that makes the character's continued popularity after 80 years even more surprising is that the dude wasn't even supposed to last one month. The Joker was created as a throwaway villain who was intended to die at the end of his first issue, under the logic that Batman would be really terrible at his job if the same criminals kept coming back over and over again. (We agree.) The Batman creative team put so little effort into this villain-of-the-month that they straight-up lifted his look from The Man Who Laughs, a 1928 romance film about a kind-hearted carnival freak with a nightmarish perma-smile.
At this point, Joker was pretty much a regular serial killer who loved playing card puns a little too much. He had no henchmen, no "you complete me" Batman fixation, and no gimmick weapons other than his personal brand of venom. Still, an editor at DC thought the character had potential and got around the issue of his death by hastily adding a panel in which a doctor goes, "Nope, never mind, he's alive."
This unnerving psycho quickly became Batman's most popular villain, but two things derailed the character: 1) "violent" comics came under fire from moral crusaders who accused them of perverting America's youth, and 2) DC realized they could make a lot of money by doing silly kid-friendly comics anyway. That's how the serial killer from the early Joker stories turned into a goofy clown who seemed more interested in playing practical jokes on Batman and Robin than on doing crimes.
He also stopped killing people, replacing his guns with joy buzzers, squirting flowers, and the sort of crap you'd find filling the discount bins at novelty stores. He barely qualified as a villain anymore. The writers started using Joker less and less, in favor of more menacing characters like the Penguin or Kite Man. It also didn't help that the Batman editor at the time, Julius Schwartz, hated the character. The Joker might have ended up disappearing altogether if it wasn't for the 1966 Batman TV show, where his zaniest incarnation was faithfully portrayed by Cesar "I Ain't Shaving For This Silly-Ass Show" Romero.
The show helped keep the Joker in the public consciousness until his revival in the '70s when DC realized that society wouldn't collapse if they showed the occasional murder in their comics. Joker was allowed to resume his killing hobby, but in a more dramatic and supervillain-y way than in his early stories. He started teaming up with other villains and even got his own solo comic, because if Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen could get a series, why not the Joker? The only hitch was that, due to Comics Code Authority rules, every issue had to end with Joker getting arrested or appearing to die -- something that would have made the Jimmy Olsen comics way more popular.
The return of the Joker's violent tendencies in the '70s set him up perfectly for the next decade. In the '80s, Batman became the poster boy for comics' dark and gritty age, and his nemesis tagged along for the ride. Fandom's favorite green-haired miscreant completed his journey back to his psychopathic roots thanks to comics like Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, where he pretends to be reformed, goes on a talk show, and murders the entire audience (not just Robert De Niro).
Even more significantly, his victims went from random people to characters that the readers actually gave a crap about ... and also Jason Todd, the second Robin. In 1988 -- the same year Joker murdered Todd with a crowbar and old-timey dynamite timebomb at the behest of DC fans -- he crippled Batgirl and tortured her dad, Commissioner Gordon, in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke. This was when Joker's sadism grew so much that it broke through the fourth wall; by hurting fan-favorite characters, he started making the readers suffer, too.
Throughout the Joker's various personas and different flavors of insanity, two things never changed: 1) he's freaking unkillable, despite the best efforts of characters and creators alike, and 2) no one knows for sure who he is, and it doesn't really matter. This last part might be the key to why he still endures as a pop culture icon. Think about it: Batman is supposed to be "the superhero who is also just some normal guy," but that's nonsense. Batman is "billionaire ninja Sherlock Holmes with abs" wish fulfillment. He might as well be named "Healthiest and Wealthiest Man." He is humanity's Best Boy.
Joker, on the other hand, is literally just some guy -- he's the most-feared crime boss, but he's also an ordinary human in a city filled with crocodile people, super-roided luchadores, and talking scarecrows. And despite being a clown gangster, his situation is frighteningly tangible to the reader. You can trust that there's a scene in which Joker gets his ass beaten, and the audience winces a little harder as the Joker possesses no superpowers ("untreated mental illness" is not a superpower, the Batman universe's entire carceral structure notwithstanding). The Joker probably works a weekend shift at Home Depot to unwind from crime.
That, or maybe people just like creepy clowns. Whatever the case, it's crazy to think that at this point in our timeline, the Joker had been around for almost 40 years, and yet his pop-culture domination was only starting. Wait 'til movie audiences get a load of him.
Top Image: DC Comics