That Time DC Comics Turned The Joker Into David Bowie
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. Catch up with: part one, part two, part three, and part four.
In the mid-'00s, the Joker character was in flux, which is to say: no one knew what the hell to do with him. The makers of 2004's The Batman cartoon apparently threw some darts at a wall and gave him dreadlocks, a straitjacket, and no shoes, making him look like the lead singer of an awful nu-metal band called Hotdog Enema or something like that.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008) went with a 1950s-inspired Joker in keeping with the show's retro tone, while Young Justice (2010) made him look like a 1960s Japanese gangster, with some Cowboy Bebop and Lupin the Third thrown in there. Appropriately, this Joker looks like he hasn't eaten anything other than instant ramen in five months because he spends all his money on anime cosplay stuff.
Even Heath Ledger's excellent and unusual performance in The Dark Knight (2008) could easily be the result of the filmmakers going, "Okay, now what can we possibly do with this guy that hasn't been done before? Space pirate? Horse-riding chef? Junkie Tom Waits? Yeah, let's go with that."
So, which is it? Is the Joker a ruthless crime boss? A whimsical prankster? A complete maniac? Worse yet, a Jared Leto? According to writer Grant Morrison, it's all of the above. He's the comic book equivalent of David Bowie, constantly shifting personas to adjust to his environment and, let's face it, the trends of the market. Also, it's a little known fact that Bowie's song "DJ" stands for "Da Joker" (it's little known because we just made it up). He even dressed like a clown on occasion:
While Morrison only became the regular Batman writer in 2006, his take on the Joker dates back to his 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum, which disappointingly features zero instances of Batman parkouring off of multiple henchmen's faces like in the game (at least there are no stupid Riddler trophies). In the book, a doctor at Arkham posits that Joker isn't crazy -- in fact, he's too sane. She claims that he might be the first man to develop super-sanity, a "new modification of human perception, more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century." Basically, he's a mutant with the world's suckiest X-Men power.
The gangster, the goofball, the psychopath, the douchebag with the forehead tattoo -- these are all personas the Joker invents to "cope" with the overflow of information he's receiving from the world, but they're not his real personality. Because there isn't one. He's a nobody in every sense. That's what the Joker himself tries to prove in stories like The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight: anyone could become him if they could simply experience the world like he does. It's the classic comic book "Anyone can be [hero's name]!" message, turned much more terrifying and literal.
Morrison expanded on this idea during his Batman run, which starts with Joker being shot in the face by a nutjob in a Batman suit. Well, another nutjob in a Batman suit. Some issues later, Joker emerges from his bandages with a new face, a new personality called "The Thin White Duke of Death," and mismatched eyes, just to make sure no one with a minimum amount of musical knowledge could miss the Bowie reference.
The first thing this new Joker does is try to kill all his old henchmen and henchwomen -- including the really popular one who calls him puddin' -- like Bowie periodically firing his old bands, but with more exploding eyeballs. He also starts wearing suspenders (and not much else), as Bowie did during some of his transformations in the '70s and '80s.
This Joker incarnation coincided with the "Batman R.I.P." storyline, which ends with Batman dying, but not really (it's complicated). Distraught over the apparent loss of the only one who "gets" him, Joker adjusts to a Batman-less world by becoming a Batman-like figure himself. He assumes the identity of Oberon Sexton, a detective who dresses entirely in black and even teams up with Robin. Joker had previously commented on the similarity between him and Batman, saying they're both "trying to find meaning in a meaningless world! Why be a disfigured outcast when I can be a notorious Crime God? Why be an orphaned boy when you can be a superhero?" The fact that he figured out Batman's identity makes him a better detective than the entire Gotham City Police Department.
Of course, "Oberon's" partnership with Robin ends with him poisoning the kid and tying him to a nuke because that's the one thing all of Joker's personas have in common: none of them can pass up a good opportunity to kill a child wearing circus clothes.
Some Batman writers have adopted Morrison's "super-sanity" idea while others ignore it, but the beauty of it is that it still works both ways. It's also a direct influence on the cinematic Jokers we've seen since 2007. Heath Ledger's "Joker Diary" included quotes from a Morrison story about the things the Thin White Duke Joker finds funny (deranged stuff like "blind babies," "beloved pets in bad road accidents," or "brunch"). Morrison's Arkham Asylum was the only comic Joaquin Phoenix read before making Joker, though there are shout-outs to other Morrison-created moments in the movie.
Meanwhile, Jared Leto straight-up called Morrison to ask for pointers, though Morrison wasn't sure "if anything other than slicked-back hair and the Marilyn Manson [a.k.a. edgy '90s David Bowie] vibe made it into his performance." More importantly, all three takes on the character line up with the idea of the Joker as someone defined by his environment. Hell, they could easily be the same guy: Phoenix is the Joker as he first emerges, Ledger is an older Joker who finally understands himself, and Leto is a regrettable fashion phase somewhere in the middle.
Morrison figured out that when your character's skin is a literal blank canvas, it's pretty much daring you to paint whatever you want on it.
Top Image: DC Comics