“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We are tonight’s entertainment!” – the Joker (‘The Dark Knight’, 2008)
What better way to celebrate Halloween than with the creepiest of clowns? I think it goes without saying that The Joker is one of the best and most iconic villains in all of comics.
From his first eerie introduction in Batman #1 to Heath Ledger’s terrifying portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy, this agent of anarchy is the essence of nightmares. Not only that, but as perhaps Batman’s ultimate arch-enemy, you’ve got a perfect foil for one dark and brooding, ever-stoic, crusader of justice, versus: an unstable, unpredictable, laughing terrorist, dressed in a purple suit with makeup and green hair, whose only out to prove that life is meaningless, and doesn’t even care if you get his inside jokes.
My favorite thing about the character is that almost everything he does has an ulterior motive, or worse: no motive at all. For instance, when the Joker brutally murders your best friend (hypothetically) in a most horrific, albeit humorous, manner there’s a 50/50 chance that it was either a spur of the moment idea that conveniently presented itself, or was simply an elaborate plan to drive you over the edge of sanity itself.
The following list includes some of the most notorious appearances of the Clown Prince of Crime over the past 75 years in all his various incarnations. So here we go!
BATMAN #1 (1940)
The Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, was first introduced in Detective Comics #27 way back in 1939. One year later: Batman’s arch nemesis made his debut (along with Catwoman) in the premiere issue of the Caped Crusader’s very own title. The early Batman comics were fairly dark compared to what followed in the 50’s and 60’s, even with the inclusion of Robin. From the get go, the Joker was terrifying. The very concept of a homicidal clown is, well… disturbing. In this initial story, the Joker appears out of nowhere and makes a radio announcement that a prominent Gotham citizen will die at midnight, ending his ominous monologue with “the Joker has spoken!” Despite a full entourage of police, the man dies anyway, poisoned hours earlier. Funny bit of trivia: the creators initially intended to kill him off.
I guess he had the last laugh after all…
BATMAN ’66 – CESAR ROMERO
Although the Adam West ‘Batman’ series of the 60’s was a cheesy camp-fest, Cesar Romero’s over the top performance alongside the Penguin, Catwoman, and Riddler, was iconic and helped define the role in the Joker’s first live action interpretation.
THE JOKER’S FIVE WAY REVENGE (1973)
Batman issue #251 – “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge” (1973) by Denny O’ Neal and Neal Adams brought Joker back to his dark and menacing roots. Prior to this the Joker had become a non-threatening joke of a character (pun intended?). Robin once defeated him by out laughing him! This is where everything changed, forever.
Frank Miller’s “THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS” (1986)
If you thought the previous Jokers were scary, this one will seriously give you nightmares! In this alternate future of Gotham, Frank Miller’s thought-provoking reinvention of the Batman mythos takes the material to a whole new level. In the story, Joker is in a catatonic state, that is until his old enemy resurfaces, giving him new meaning to his existence. For his final plot, Joker goes out in one disturbing blaze of glory. This graphic novel is often ranked, along with Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’, among the best metaphorical and political comics for adults. Speaking of Alan Moore…
Alan Moore’s “THE KILLING JOKE” (1988)
This isn’t just a great graphic novel, it’s literature. Alan Moore proved his genius once again when he created one of the best Joker tales ever told. It’s a defining moment in more ways than one. The story delves into the Joker’s origin, his symbiotic relationship with the Dark Knight, and the depths of his insanity. The effects of what happens in this story were felt for decades after!
Tim Burton’s “BATMAN” (1989) – JACK NICHOLSON
Arguably one of the best portrayals of a comic book character came about in 1989 with Jack Nicholson’s show-stealing performance as The Joker in Tim Burton’s “BATMAN”. At the time this was by far the darkest (live action) portrayal of Batman, and one of the first super hero films to take itself seriously. Nicholson’s Joker was both funny and terrifying, goofy and menacing. The movie portrayed him as a mobster who fell into a vat of acid, snapped and became a homicidal artist. There’s a couple original twists unique to this version: it’s revealed that the Joker was the man who murdered Bruce’s parents and Batman kills him at the end, causing him to plummet to his death from atop a sky-scraping cathedral.
Grant Morrison’s “ARKHAM ASYLUM” (1989)
Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s masterpiece is a psychological thriller about what happens when Batman is locked in Arkham Asylum with all his greatest villains running the show. The art style is very original and truly mesmerizing. Suffice it to say, Joker’s got some chilling moments that will stay with you long after you put this book down.
BATMAN: The Animated Series (1992-1995) – MARK HAMILL
For my money, Mark Hamill IS The Joker. Yes that’s right, Luke Skywalker himself. You see, since Star Wars, Mark has gone onto become one of the best voice actors in Hollywood. Much like Kevin Conroy’s Batman, Hamill’s impressively versatile voice embodies all the best qualities of the character and as far as I’m concerned no one comes close. He’s played the character far longer than anyone else and turns out a top notch performance every single time.
The great thing about the 90’s Animated Batman Series was that it was geared towards adults and made appropriate for kids as an after thought. Seroiusly, go back and watch that first season. It’s basically a Noir Crime Drama that just so happens to have a dude dressed as a bat fighting a crazy guy in a purple suit. The animated series also introduced the Joker’s mistress, Harley Quinn, who instantly became a fan-favorite and was co-opted by the comics.
Mark Hamill portrayed the Joker throughout the series as well as a number of episodes of the Justice League and even a few animated movies, “Mask of the Phantasm”, “Batman / Superman: World’s Finest”, and “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker”! (all of which are as good if not better than many of their live action counterparts)
Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s “MAD LOVE” (1994)
This one’s been covered a number of times on the site already, so to sum it up: it’s the ultimate Harley Quinn story. Nuff said.
Ed Brubaker’s “THE MAN WHO LAUGHS” (2005)
This is a fantastic retelling of the Joker’s first encounter with Batman, following Frank Miller’s “Year One”. The title is borrowed from the creepy black and white silent film that initially influenced the creation of the character. This is a quintessential Joker entry for any Bat-connoisseur. It’s disturbingly awesome.
Christopher Nolan’s “THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008) – HEATH LEDGER
In this sequel to Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’, The Joker makes his debut as an anarchistic agent of chaos. Heath Ledger went down in movie history as one of the most quotable characters of all time. ‘The Dark Knight’ is often listed as one of the best comic book based movies ever made and with good reason. One of those reasons is Heath Ledger’s captivating performance. It’s a very different take on the character from previous incarnations, but it’s still very much the Joker.
Brian Azzarello’s “JOKER” (2008)
Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s chilling graphic novel simply entitled, ‘JOKER’ is a realistic take on – you guessed it – The Joker. More than that, it’s a Joker story WITHOUT Batman. Highly influenced by Heath Ledger’s portrayal, this is one grizzly look at a day in the life of one of the Joker’s henchmen. (Man it sucks to be that guy.) Seriously, book a therapist before reading this one…
ARKHAM ASYLUM / ARKHAM CITY (2009/2011) – MARK HAMILL RETURNS!
Mark Hamill reprised his role as the Joker for the acclaimed ‘Arkham’ game series (along with Kevin Conroy as Batman!) If you haven’t played these games, what are you waiting for?!
UNDER THE RED HOOD (2010) – JOHN DIMAGGIO
“Batman: Under the Red Hood” is one of several PG-13 animated features. John DiMaggio had some huge shoes to fill as The Joker, following Mark Hamill’s iconic footsteps and pulled it off with style. I love how different his take on the Joker is. It’s disturbing tale, based off multiple stories from the comic: the Death of Robin (Jason Todd), who the Joker beats to death with a crowbar (and blows him up for good measure), and the rise of the Red Hood, a mysterious new vigilante in Gotham whose ruthless tactics against the mob, catches the attention of the Joker… can’t say more without spoiling it, just watch it.
Scott Snyder’s “DEATH OF THE FAMILY” (2012)
“Let’s try some new material…” – The Joker
Scott Snyder is now considered one of the best writers in comics, thanks in part to his currently ongoing run on the main “Batman” title following DC Comics’ New 52 reboot. He began by writing one of the most original Batman stories yet with ‘The Court of Owls’ story arc. He then followed it up with one of the best / creepiest Joker tales to ever hit shelves – EVER.
In ‘Death of the Family’, the Joker seemingly returns from the dead (with a recently reattached face?!) to exact revenge on every one of Batman’s allies. There’s this great scene right after the Joker attacks the GCPD headquarters and murders several cops during a blackout, where one of the witnesses is shaking and saying, “He told a joke…” Greg Capullo’s art is perfectly unnerving, and the dialogue is practically Shakespearian. The story culminates with what seems to be the final confrontation between Batman and the Joker, in the Bat-cave. It’s truly epic.
Now after completely reworking Bruce Wayne’s origin story in the 3-part saga, “Zero Year”, Snyder is tackling a brand new Joker story in the pages of “BATMAN: ENDGAME” – Starting in Issue #35 (out now!)