DARK KNIGHT FLASHBACK: The Joker, Pt. II

Wed, July 16th, 2008 at 5:11pm PDT | Updated: July 16th, 2008 at 5:40pm

Comic Books
Brian K. Eason, Guest Contributor

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The Joker returned from limbo in the early 1970s

In our previous installment of DARK KNIGHT FLASHBACK: The Joker, CBR’s cinematic and literary history of the legendary Batman villain, we covered his first appearance in 1940, the controversy surrounding his creation, the tumultuous period of the ‘50s that saw the comics industry come close to a fall, the Joker’s appearance on the campy 1960s Batman television show, and the character’s near death at the hands of an editorial decision. Now, we examine Joker’s rebirth in popular culture and the evolution that took us from the radical 1970s to “The Dark Knight.”

In 1973, the writer-artist team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were tasked with revamping the Batman for a more modern age. As part of the renewal, the Joker returned to the pages of DC Comics in “Batman” #251 (September 1973). With the story "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge," the Joker was restored to a murdering psychotic, committing random and brutal homicides and casually challenging the Batman and the Gotham City police to stop him. O'Neil and Adams took the character back to his roots and made him, once again, a worthy adversary for the world’s greatest detective. It was also during this period that Joker’s home away from home, Arkham Asylum, first appeared.

The Joker enjoyed a short-lived solo title in 1975

While O’Neil and Adams were critically acclaimed for their work on with the Batman, it was to be the team of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers that defined the character of the Joker for the decades to follow. Beginning with “Detective Comics” #471 (August 1977), Englehart and Rogers established many now-classic components of the Batman’s world, including specific landmarks in Gotham, and defined the deepening psychosis that afflicted the Joker. In “Detective Comics” #475 (March 1978), in the story "The Laughing Fish," the Joker used a chemical to cause fish to affect his rictus grin. Having achieved this impossibility and altered every fish in town, the Joker then attempted to register a trademark so that each fish sold would reward him in royalties. The pure insanity of this idea would be laughable except that the Joker began to threaten, assault, or murder anyone in the government who tried to point out how crazy the idea was. While the Joker killed a mere three victims in the two-part story, it was obvious to readers that his madness had risen to a new level. As the story concluded in “Detective Comics” #476 (April 1978), writer Steve Englehart, in a move that hearkened back to the villain’s earliest appearances, had the Joker appear to die but left no corpse.

The Joker also starred in his own comic book series. “The Joker” #1 hit store shelves on May 1, 1975 and lasted nine issues. In the title, the Joker fought both heroes and villains alike and, in keeping with the pathological violence established in the O’Neil/Adams stories, committed a series of seven murders over the nine-issue run. Even as the protagonist, the Joker was clearly a madman with a penchant for mayhem. Yet, if the 1970s reestablished the Joker as Batman’s preeminent adversary, then the 1980s would carry the villain to new heights as a character in his own right.

Frank Miller set a new standard for the Joker's madness in "The Dark Knight Returns"

In the late 1980s, writer-artist Frank Miller moved from Marvel Comics over to DC. Miller had established himself as a creator with a cinematic style and a love of film noir in his runs on “Daredevil” and “Wolverine.” In February 1986, Miller began a four-issue series for DC that would set a new standard for writers of the Batman, and certainly this was also true of the Joker. That series was “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.” Miller’s story was set in a dystopian Gotham City twenty years in the future. The Batman had retired and the Joker had spent a decade in a catatonic state. When the Batman came out of retirement, the Joker saw the Dark Knight on television and awakened from his dormancy. Having convinced his psychiatrist that he was sane and regretted his innumerable misdeeds, the Joker went on national television and, beginning with the studio audience, started a killing spree greater than anything he had ever undertaken before.

In a brutal showdown with the Batman, the Dark Knight broke the Joker’s neck but did not actually end the clown’s life. The Joker, disappointed that Batman did not kill him, proceeded to twist 'round his own broken neck, committing suicide and, with his dying act, frame the Batman for his murder. While the Joker was always a psychotic killer, his madness had never hit so close to home for the Batman. But this was only the beginning of a new age of madness.

Alan Moore & Brian Bolland's "The Killing Joke" presents a possible origin of the Joker

March of 1988 saw the arrival of “The Killing Joke,” a one-shot prestige format comic by writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland. Set in the present day, the story found the Joker escaped once again from Arkham Asylum. The Joker kidnapped Commissioner Jim Gordon, bound him, tortured him and endeavored to drive the man insane --- just to prove that anyone can go mad after having "one bad day." Along the way, the story flashbacks to a more detailed version of the Red Hood origin first introduced in 1951. In “The Killing Joke” version, the Joker began as a fairly average person who was driven mad after a string of bad luck. In the flashbacks, the Joker is revealed to have been a failed standup comedian who turned to crime to support his pregnant wife, who ends up dying in a freak electrical accident. While on a heist, a confrontation with the Batman results in the Joker jumping into a vat of chemicals that bleaches his skin white and colors his hair green. The Joker was born.

While “The Killing Joke” does present a specific origin of the Joker, the book concludes with the Joker’s confession that he’s an unreliable narrator, saying, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" As such, the Joker’s true origin remains uncertain.

“The Killing Joke” is also well remembered as the story in which the Joker crippled Barbara Gordon, daughter of the Commissioner and the true identity of Batgirl. As part of his plan to drive Jim Gordon over the edge, the Joker attacked Barbara in her own home, shooting her in the spine and paralyzing her. In this, the Joker had struck a blow to the Batman Family that left a lasting mark -- Barbara Gordon remains in a wheelchair even twenty years later. But that mark wasn’t to be the last.

The Joker savagely murders the second Robin in "A Death in the Family"

After Dick Grayson retired as Robin and became the hero known as Nightwing, a young street kid called Jason Todd was recruited to be the new Boy Wonder. Jason Todd became, arguably, one of the most unpopular characters in DC Comics history, so much so that the company gave fans the opportunity to decide whether Todd would live or die by way of a poll conducted through a 1-900-number phone call. The majority of 10,000 voters narrowly decided to kill the second Robin. The storyline that depicted Jason’s demise was called “A Death in the Family” and ran throughout “Batman” #426-429, (December 1988 -- January 1989). The instrument of Robin’s destruction was, of course, the Joker.

“A Death in the Family” depicted Jason Todd on a quest to find his long-lost mother. After several false leads, Robin’s journey led him to Ethiopia where he discovered his mother was an aid worker named Sheila Hywood. Because the Batman family can never have it easy, readers discovered that Sheila was being blackmailed by the Joker and was embezzling from her aid agency. Compounding things tragically, Sheila won the worst-parent-in-history award by handing Jason over to the Joker. In a brutal event later described by the Joker as "a bit messy," the villain savagely beat Robin within an inch of his life with a crowbar before leaving mother and son trapped in a warehouse with a bomb. Batman arrived too late to save the pair, and Robin and his mother died in the explosion.

The follow-up to this savage encounter goes down in the annals of bizarre story twists, even for superher comics. While Sheila and Jason were being buried back in Gotham City, the Joker met with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the real-life extremist leader of Iran in the 1980s. Khomeini offered Joker the position of Iran’s representative to the United Nations. Protected by diplomatic immunity, the Joker went on a killing spree in an attempt to get the Batman to attack him and kick off an international incident. As one of his first acts as a diplomat, the Joker gave a speech to the U.N. during which he released a poisonous gas. Fortunately for the world, Superman, disguised as a security guard, inhaled the toxin and saved the day. The Joker’s luck continued to go badly when his helicopter was hit by stray shots from one of his own men and went down in the sea. As usual, no body was found.

Following his appearance in 1966’s “Batman: The Movie,” the Joker’s second cinematic foray was in 1989, when Jack Nicholson appeared as the Clown Prince of Crime in “Batman,” which starred Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight. In the Tim Burton-directed film, the Joker was Jack Napier, a member of Gotham’s criminal underworld. While Jack and his crew made a run on the Axis Chemicals plant, the Batman intervened and, in an echo of the Red Hood and “Killing Joke” versions of the Joker’s origin, Napier fell into a vat of chemicals. When the criminal emerged, he was deeply scarred and transformed into the grotesque parody of a clown that we all know and loathe.

Jack Nicholson turned in a well-received performance as The Joker in "Batman" (1989)

The remainder of the 1989 “Batman” film depicts the escalating war between the Batman and the Joker, and we also discover that in this version of the mythos, Jack Napier was the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. This bit of parity is played up in the final battle when it is observed by Batman that while his actions created the Joker, the Joker created the Batman. At the end of the film, the Joker fell to his death from the top of a cathedral.

The success of the “Batman” film led to three sequels that never quite reached the potential of the first Tim Burton movie, but the net result was that Batman was once again a hugely marketable commodity. On September 5, 1992, “Batman: The Animated Series” premiered on the Fox television network. The clown prince was introduced in the series’ seventh episode, “Joker’s Favor” (September 11, 1992). Mark Hammil, most famous for his role of Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” films, provided the voice of the Joker to tremendous critical acclaim.

The Emmy-winning “Batman: The Animated” series ran for three years, spawned a theatrical release called “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” and was followed by “The New Batman Adventures,” “The New Batman/Superman Adventures,” “Batman Beyond” “Justice League,” and “Justice :League Unlimited.” All five series featured the voice talent of Hamill as the Joker.

Premiered in 1999, “Batman Beyond” was set 40 years in the future of the animated universe continuity. With the retirement of Bruce Wayne, Gotham City needed a new Dark Knight. A young man named Terry McGinnis was tapped as the replacement for Wayne and began his war on crime under the elder Wayne’s tutelage. In the series, one the primary enemies McGinnis faced was the Joker Gang. The thugs themed themselves and their appearances after the Joker and viewed the villain as a messianic figure, an ideal that was realized in “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker,” a decidedly adult direct-to-video feature.

Mark Hammil's vocal performance of The Joker in "Batman: The Animated Series" and its spin-offs is considered by many to be definitive

In the film, the Joker did indeed return to the world of 2050, as we discovered that Tim Drake, the second Robin of the animated Batman universe, had been brutally tortured by the Joker early in his career and brainwashed into becoming a perverse Joker, Jr. Years after it was believed the Joker had died, a young, vital Joker appeared to take control of the Joker Gangs of Gotham. Through the course of the story it was revealed that the Joker had taken over the now-grown-up Tim Drake’s body by copying his own consciousness and DNA onto a microchip and implanting it into Drake’s brain. The new Batman defeated the faux-Joker, and the microchip was destroyed and the Joker finally killed.

Meanwhile, back in the pages of DC Comics, the Batman family of titles was occupied with a massive present-day storyline called “No Man's Land” (March 1999 -- November 1999). In the tale, Gotham City was impacted by a magnitude 7.6 earthquake and two separate plagues. As a result, the U.S. government declared Gotham to be a No Man’s Land. What remained of the city fell into chaos, with gangs carving out tiny kingdoms from the desolate landscape. Amid this turmoil, the Joker created a small territory for himself. His appearances in the “No Man’s Land” saga were few until the end. As news arrived that the quarantine would be lifted on the city, the Joker decided to kill all the children born during the period of isolation. Sarah Essen, Commissioner Gordon's wife, confronted the Joker at police headquarters. Essen was shot and killed during the incident, and Joker claimed another life from the Batman and Gordon families.

While it is all but impossible to cover every event involving the Joker from the last decade, one story had a particularly profound impact on the DC Universe: 2001’s “The Joker: Last Laugh.” In the company-wide event, the Joker believed he was dying of a brain tumor and planned a colossal crime spree as his swan song. The Clown Prince infected with his famous toxin the inmates of the Slab, a prison for super-criminals. The set free the all of the joker-ized super-criminals to cause mayhem in his name. The United States, under orders from President Lex Luthor (long story), declared war on the Joker and in retaliation, the Joker sent his minions after Luthor. Eventually it was discovered that Joker’s CAT-scans were faked by a doctor who’d hoped to control the Joker’s psychosis through the fear of death. The heroes of the DC Universe, with the help of Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn, created an anti-toxin to return the transformed villains to normal. During the rampage, it was mistakenly believed that Robin (Tim Drake, Jason Todd’s replacement) was murdered by a Joker-ized Killer Croc. Enraged, Nightwing hunted down the Joker and beat him to death, although he was revived by the Batman.

Heath Ledger stars as The Joker in "The Dark Knight," opening July 18 in the U.S.

The balance of the decade has seen the Joker gain temporary control of Mister Mxyzptlk and remake the world in his twisted image, have his Red Hood identity stolen by Jason Todd (who returned from the grave -- another long story), and sent to an alien prison planet with most of Lex Luthor’s Society of Super-villains -- only to escape even that fate.

Most recently, the Joker has returned to Arkham Asylum after being shot in the face by a rogue cop dressed as the Batman. Reconstructive surgery has left the Joker with a permanent smile that makes it nearly impossible for him to speak. The attack further unhinged his fragile mind, and Joker believes he was shot by the Batman himself, who he now believes is capable of murder.

In the end, the Joker, like his nemesis the Batman, is too large a character to be contained by a single medium. From his foundation in silent film with 1928’s “The Man Who Laughs,” the Joker’s legacy has once again brought the popular villain to the big screen. In his third live-action feature film, the Joker is portrayed by the late Heath Ledger, a young actor from Australia with such laudable screen credits as “Brokeback Mountain,” for which Ledger was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. In a kind of full circle, the Joker’s depiction in the film is said to reflect his earliest, truly psychotic appearances in the Batman comics of the 1940s. In an early review of the film, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly described Ledger’s portrayal thusly:

In this, the last performance he completed before his death, Ledger had a maniacal gusto inspired enough to suggest that he might have lived to be as audacious an actor as Marlon Brando, and maybe as great.

“The Dark Knight” opens in U.S. cinemas and IMAX theatres on July 18.

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TAGS:  the joker, batman, the dark knight, heath ledger, dc comics

 
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