Satisfying villains are hard to come by these days. Their motivations are often shallow (fame, fortune, power, influence, etc.) and how they carry out their plans for world domination lack genuine creativity. A villain becomes noteworthy when they can effectively torment the hero of their story, making them question their own morals and values by pushing them to their physical limits. When combined with a desire to turn the populous against their guiding light, this outlaw can tear down the pillars of their environment without lifting a finger. 

The Joker represents all sides of the quintessential antagonist with as much style and grace as you can expect from a unhinged clown with a knack for dark comedy. Throughout his expansive comic book, television, and cinematic history he has evolved from a trickster knocking off rich businessmen to a relentless terrorist focused on gutting Gotham from the inside out.

A crazy comic book compendium

The golden age of comics introduced plenty of legendary heroes like Superman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. DC Comics, known as Detective Comics, Inc. at the time, conceptualized one of the most timeless crime-fighters and his equally compelling arch nemesis: Batman and the Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime first leaped onto the page in Batman issue No. 1 in April of 1940 as a clown-faced killer threatening to murder wealthy businessman and steal their precious gems. Armed with sinister Joker venom, he is eventually captured by the Batman and sent to prison where he plotted his eventual escape. This original incarnation was full of hilarious criminal activity—including hiding in a suit of armor and announcing his crimes over the radio.

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The principle team behind the creation of the Ace of Knaves was writer and artist Bob Kane, co-creator Bill Finger, and background inker Jerry Robinson; however, there is heated debate over who came up with the original design for the infamous trickster. He was modeled after German actor Conrad Veidt’s character in  The Man Who Laughs and Robinson’s original Joker playing card. Though according to Kane, he drew the original design and Finger acted as the writer, with Robinson having nothing to do with it at all. Robinson’s interpretation of the events credits each member of the trio, stating that he provided the first concept sketch and Finger brought in some shots of the movie. After Finger finished the script of the first issue, he and Kane worked on the visuals. Finger’s testimony concludes that after cutting a picture of Veidt from a book on foreign films, Kane drew the profile and added the famous facial features.

Though the exact details behind the Joker’s creation remain a mystery, he has had fruitful success throughout the subsequent ages of comic history, even though he was almost killed off in the same volume. It was not until 1951 that a proper origin story was crafted in Detective Comics No. 168, where he is depicted as the former criminal Red Hood who falls into a chemical vat causing his disfigurement. 

The Bronze Age saw him return to the series thanks to writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, and in 1975 he netted his own series based on his interactions with other supervillains without the influence of the Batman. Multiple modern storylines have added depth to the character, including his murder of Robin and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which depicts his tragic backstory of turning to crime to support his then-pregnant wife.

Cinematic stardom

Though a drawn version of the Joker had existed for more than two decades, it was not until the late 1960s that the Jester of Genocide would jump from the page to the small screen. Cesar Romero made 22 appearances over the three seasons of the original Batman T.V. series between 1966 and 1968. He took on a more wacky persona, which included capturing Batman with sneezing powder in his debut and invading earth on a flying saucer in the debut and conclusion to the show respectively. The de facto voice behind the Joker was introduced in Batman: The Animated Series with Mark Hamill taking the role and expanding on the character’s sinister laugh. The only other depiction set for television was in Fox’s Gotham, where actor Cameron Monaghan played Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska. Although both brothers are hellbent on bringing the city to its knees through multiple waves of terror, Jerome happens to be more lethal in his campaign whereas Jeremiah is a more subdued lunatic obsessed with Bruce Wayne.

The silver screen has also been graced with multiple versions of the Harlequin of Hate starting in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman starring Jack Nicholson. After the mobster Jack Napier is driven mad by his grotesque grin following a run-in with the Batman and some chemical waste, he sets out to gain control of Gotham. The first major appearance of the villain on the big screen combined the silly elements of the original T.V. series (electrocuting hand buzzers and Joker gas) with a darker past (he killed Bruce’s parents and died falling off a Gothic cathedral). 

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The Dark Knight and Australian actor Heath Ledger would make him even more menacing. After workshopping voices, reading comics, and producing a character diary all within solitary confinement, Ledger created the most terrifying take on the Joker yet, which focused on plunging Gotham into chaos through multiple acts of terrorism. The vast critical acclaim netted him a posthumous Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.

The latest iterations have seen uneven success though. Suicide Squad, which focused on multiple baddies from across the Batman mythos teaming up to defeat a supernatural threat, featured the arch nemesis of the caped crusader in a more passive capacity. While Jared Leto was the one decked out in purple and green back in 2016, Suicide Squad was the first live action portrayal of Mr. J’s love interest Harley Quinn. After she is completely enveloped by the Florence Nightingale effect, Leto’s character must free her from the task force in the most frivolous way possible. With a head of slicked back green hair and a menacing smile tattoo he jumps into battle with gold-plated guns, plenty of knives, and a metal grill that was met with mixed reviews

The newest addition to the Joker mantel focuses on a much deeper explanation to the Joker’s origin fit with revelations into his most intrapersonal feelings surrounding mental illness and social anxiety. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Joker (2019) spins an expansive tale of anarchy and class warfare that tears Gotham to the ground. Though slightly hinted at in previous incarnations such as The Dark Knight, Joker focuses on how the evolution of this maniacal trickster would play out if he was thrown into society rather than a vat of chemicals. This highly expressive take on the character has garnered enough support to even break numerous box office records, including highest grossing opening weekend in October and highest grossing R rated film of all time.

A successful foray into interactive storytelling

The world of video games has also been graced by the glory of DC’s most famous villain, the most prominent example being the Arkham series of games. The familiar voice of Mark Hamill returned to the role in 2009 for Arkham Asylum, where the Joker takes over Gotham’s hospital for the criminally insane with genetically-mutated supersoldiers using the “Titan Formula.” The next iteration, Arkham City, centers around a gang war in the now city-sized prison while Batman is forced to find a cure for the Joker’s infectious and poisoned blood. The prequel, Arkham Origins, focuses on the first conflict between the dark knight and his ruthless enemy, including a new performance of the role from Troy Baker. The trilogy concludes in 2015’s Arkham Knight as Batman starts to see hallucinations of this demented clown, thanks to Scarecrow’s fear toxin.

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He has also had smaller influences in the fighting game community with appearances in Injustice: Gods Among Us as well as Injustice 2. After tricking Superman into killing Louis Lane in an alternate universe and destroying Metropolis in the first game, he sits back and watches Earth be destroyed by multiple alien civilizations in the sequel’s custom ending. The Joker has also had a major impact on the now-defunct Batman Telltale series. In season one he appears as the patient “John Doe” at Arkham before escaping in a prison riot, and in the second season after joining a criminal organization dubbed “The Pact” he betrays the group to help Bruce Wayne. At the final section of the game the player confronts John and can choose to retain their friendship or shatter it. The former leads to capturing Harley Quinn, but the latter means Doe will vow to become a psychopathic enemy of Batman intent on torturing him.

No matter the medium, the Joker has stood against the test of time to become one of the most recognizable villains and characters in comic book history. The impact his sinister grin has made on the world of entertainment is incredible in size and scope. From the visual manifestations throughout the silver and bronze ages of comic lore to his physical, dominating presence on screen, his dark sense of humor has contrasted against an incomparable amount of wit. Just as Batman is a symbol of hope, equality, and justice, the Joker will stand as a testament of insanity, dysphoria, and wickedness, just the way he likes it. 


Sources: Fandom, NPR, Den of Geek, CBR, Wired, Gizmodo, TV Guide, The Numbers

Images: Costume Bot, Comic Book, Game Media, Tt Shinkan

Featured Image: Baylie Clevenger and Sam Smith