Who is Joker? (DC Characters)

Who is Joker?

who is joker origin story

Joker is a supervillain appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics. H e was originally a criminal mastermind.

  • First Appearance: Batman #1 (cover date: Spring 1940) 
  • Creators: Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and Bob Kane 
  • Publisher: DC Comics 
  • Powers: N/A 
  • Weapons: N/A 
  • Base of Operations: Gotham City 
  • Key Allies: Harley Quinn 
  • Key Enemies: Batman, Robin, Batgirl, Red Robin, Red Hood, Commissioner Gordon 
  • Team Affiliations: N/A 
  • Secret Identity: UNKNOWN 
  • Nicknames: The Clown Prince of Crime, The Harlequin of Hate 

Joker Profile

The Joker is the most iconic villain in the history of the comic book superhero genre and is considered the first “supervillain.” The character appeared for a dec ade without any clear “origin” story, first as a murderous sociopath and later— during the more conservative, conformist 1950s—as a villainous trickster, before returning to his psychopathic roots in the darker, “relevant” age of the 1970s and continuing that role into the present day. The closest that has been presented as a detailed “origin” was in the pages of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (July 1988). 

In that story, it was revealed through flashbacks that the Joker had begun as a failed stand-up comedian with a pregnant wife at home, struggling to make ends meet. He agrees to don the identity of the “Red Hood” (based on the earliest origin story from 1951), an identity borne by many individuals over the years, leading a group of criminals into a chemical factory for the purpose of robbing it. Just prior to the heist, he learns that his wife and unborn child have been killed in a fire in their shoddy apartment building. 

When Batman appears and foils the caper, the Red Hood falls into a vat of chemicals, washing ashore with bleached skin and green hair. This “one bad day” leads him to become “the Joker.” It is important to note, however, that, though this sequence is presented as a set of the Joker’s memories, he admits that he prefers to keep his past “multiple choice.” As such, the veracity of his memories must be taken with a degree of skepticism (Bill Finger, Lew Sayre Schwartz, and Win Mortimer, Detective Comics #168, February 1951; Moore and Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke, 1988).

The mystery surrounding the character is doubtless a key factor to his enduring popularity. A second reason is his pure, unadulterated evil. Most other villains in popular culture—such as Doctor Doom, Darth Vader, or even Hannibal Lecter— have been given some degree of pathos explaining their devotion to the dark side. 

The Joker—like the Red Skull in Marvel Comics—does evil for its own sake. A third factor for his popularity is the odd juxtaposition of the terrifying image of a bat being used to symbolize good and the joyous image of a clown representing the ultimate evil. The Joker has been a frequently recurring character in the Bat man titles since his inception in 1940, and the number of Joker stories to date could fill a book all their own.

Of the many Joker stories that have been told over the decades, two—outside of the aforementioned The Killing Joke—rise to iconic status, both produced, like Moore’s, in the 1980s. In 1986, writer/artist Frank Miller published his master work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. In that story, the reader finds Bruce Wayne, roughly in his mid-to-late fifties, in semiretirement, having given up the mantle of Batman 10 years prior. 

What is the Joker's origin story?

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For that period, the Joker has been in an asylum in a catatonic state. When events inspire Wayne to once more don the cape and cowl, television reports of the Dark Knight’s return reawaken the Clown Prince of Crime. After committing mass slaughter at a taping of his televised interview, the Joker lures Batman to a fairground, where the two have their final fight, culminat ing in Batman breaking the neck of the Joker after considering “how many have I killed by letting you live” (Miller, The Dark Knight Returns, Part 3, 1988). 

See also: Who is Aquaman?

This final act gives the Joker his ultimate victory over his longtime nemesis. Batman has crossed the one line he swore never to cross (though, to be fair, the Joker might not have died at Batman’s hand, appearing to move his own neck to break it—in essence, killing himself).

The next most famous Joker story is “A Death in the Family,” published in 1988–1989. From the creative team of writer Jim Starlin and artist Jim Aparo (with cover art by Mike Mignola), the story focuses on the second “Robin,” Jason Todd. Todd’s Robin was an orphan living on the streets when Batman found him trying to steal the wheels from the Batmobile (Max Allan Collins and Chris Warner, Batman #408, June 1987). 

When Todd discovers that his birth mother is still alive, he goes on a solo quest to find her, only to fall into a carefully laid trap and into the hands of the Joker. After beating the boy nearly to death, the Joker leaves him locked in a warehouse with a bomb set to explode (Starlin and Aparo, Batman #427, January 1989). 

His fate was left to the hands of readers. If readers called 1-900-720-2660, they were voting for Robin to survive; if they called 1-900-720- 2666, they were voting for his demise. After more than 10,000 votes were cast, the decision to kill off the Boy Wonder won by a mere 72 votes (K. Sanborn, “Who Killed Jason Todd,” The Graphic Novel). This event shocked the comics world and nearly drove Batman to cross the line and kill the Joker but for the interven tion of Superman.

Outside of comics, the Joker has had a long and varied history. The Joker first appeared on screens in the classic 1960s Batman television series (and 1966 theat rical release with the same cast), played with comical glee by veteran actor Cesar Romero. 

The next on-screen version of the character came in the 1989 film Batman, directed by Tim Burton and portrayed by Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson. This film version showed the Joker’s origin as being that of mob enforcer Jack Napier—who, decades earlier, had killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, thereby “creating” the later Batman. Napier takes the iconic stumble into the chemical vat during a tussle with the Dark Knight, having been set up by his own mob boss. The massive success of the two Burton Batman films led to the produc tion of Batman: The Animated Series.

Though the Joker has appeared in all animated adventures of Batman (both on television and home video release), his portrayal in the 1990s animated series has become the most iconic. The voice actor given the job of bringing the Joker to life was Mark Hamill, most famous for his live-action turn as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars film series. 

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Hamill’s voice-overs provided a maniacal malevolence to the character that could only be imagined by readers in previous decades. Hamill continued to portray the Joker in all of the Paul Dini/Bruce Timm animated series (including the 1993 animated theatrical release Batman: Mask of the Phantasm), as well as the Arkham Asylum video games and the Warner Bros. home video ani mated releases Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) and Batman: The Kill ing Joke (2016). 

The Complete History of the Joker

The character also appeared in the 2010 home video animated release Batman: Under the Red Hood, bringing the “Death in the Family” story to film, with Joker voiced by John DiMaggio. The Animated Series also saw the cre ation of the Joker’s “girlfriend,” Harley Quinn, in 1992. In the decades since, Quinn has gone on to be one of the most popular characters in DC Comics, even tually brought to life on the big screen by actress Margot Robbie in the 2016 film Suicide Squad alongside Jared Leto’s controversial portrayal of the Joker. 

In 2018, Warner Bros. announced plans for three future Joker projects: a Suicide Squad sequel and stand-alone film (both starring Leto) and an origin story film starring Joaquin Phoenix.

In 2008, the Joker was played by actor Heath Ledger in the film The Dark Knight. This reality-based portrayal would win Ledger (who died just prior to the film’s release) a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 2009. Ledger’s Joker was an anarchist whose only goal was to bring the system—and Batman— to a breaking point. 

In the television series Gotham (FOX-TV, 2014–2019), exam ining the teenage years of Bruce Wayne and the rise of Police Commissioner James Gordon, a character named “Jerome” was introduced near the end of the first season. While producers insisted that “Jerome” was not the Joker, fans—and the brilliant portrayal by actor Cameron Monaghan—strongly suggested other wise. The final demise of Jerome, however, at the end of season 4 (2018) shifted the focus of potential Joker to Jerome’s equally deranged twin brother, Jeremiah.

Throughout his long and storied history, the Joker has continuously provided fodder for one of the most important moral questions ever discussed in comics: that of capital punishment. If the Joker is clinically insane and therefore not responsible for his murderous actions, and if it is also a given that he will continue to escape incarceration and murder again and again, at what point is Batman— and society itself—responsible for the murders he will continue to commit? While an answer may continue to be elusive, the enduring popularity of the Joker all but guarantees that his reign of evil will continue.

See also: Batgirl/Oracle, Batman: Comics, Batman: Other Media, Batman: Rogues’ Gal lery, Nightwing/Robin I, Harley Quinn, Red Hood/Robin II, Red Robin/Robin III, Robin/ Robin IV, Suicide Squad; Thematic Essays: ALL ESSAYS.

The Complete History of the Joker

The Batman franchise is, perhaps, second only to Superman in regard to its impact on popular culture. Created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane, Batman is billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, who, after witnessing a mugger murder his parents when he was a young boy, vowed to dedicate his life battling crime in his hometown of Gotham City. In order to strike fear in criminals, Wayne chose to disguise himself as a bat, and “the Batman” (originally “Bat-Man”) was born (Bill Finger and Bob Kane, Detective Comics #33, November 1939). 

Unlike his counterpart, Superman, Batman is a mere mortal, with no “super” powers of any kind. Instead, Batman is armed only with his keen intellect and a myriad of gadgets and vehicles that he uses in his fight against crime. Over the decades, in comics as well as on television and film, Batman has gained arguably the most impressive rogues’ gallery of villains in all of popular culture. His most iconic villain, and the world’s first supervillain, is the Joker. 

In more than eight decades, throughout all popular media, the Joker is one of the most famous villains in the Western world.

When the Joker was introduced in 1940, he was simply a maniacal serial killer dressed as a circus clown. When DC Comics began to make the Batman books more kid friendly, Joker took on the mantle of the Clown Prince of Crime, with various outlandish schemes to become Gotham City’s chief crime boss. 

This incarnation continued in the popular 1960s television series Batman (ABC, 1966–1969), where Cesar Romero gave the first live-action performance of the character. The Romero version of Joker was listed in 2013 by TV Guide as the number thirty-three “nastiest” villain in television history (“TV Guide Picks TV’s 60 Nastiest Villains,” TV Guide). 

In the 1970s, under the pen name of Dennis O’Neil, Joker returned to his darker roots, often with outlandish puzzle-ridden plans to outsmart the Dark Knight Detective, usually with high body counts. His most frequent weapon of choice is his ominous Joker gas, a concoction that causes its victims to literally laugh themselves to death with frozen Joker smiles on their corpses.

See also: Who is Lobo?

The first origin story for the Joker appeared in 1951. This story presented Joker as originally a simple criminal working under the name “the Red Hood,” for the red-domed helmet and cape that he wore. During what was meant to be his final caper at a chemical plant, the Red Hood leaped into a vat of chemicals in an attempt to escape from Batman. 

Exposure to the chemicals left the unidentified white man with bleached-white skin, green hair, and a permanent “smile.” It also left him deeply and permanently insane (Bill Finger, “The Man behind the Red Hood,” Detective Comics #168, February 1951). In 1988, this origin story would be given more depth in the one-shot graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, where the unidentified “criminal” was shown to actually be a failed stand-up comic who was drafted by a criminal gang to portray the Red Hood for this one caper. 

The Complete History of the Joker

The young man agrees in order to provide for his pregnant wife and move her out of their cheap, rat-infested apartment. After experiencing the aforementioned fall into the vat and physical disfigurement, he discovers that his apartment building has burned down, his wife and unborn child inside. The ensuing trauma leads him to become the Joker (Alan Moore, Batman: The Killing Joke, 1988).

Of the many popular Joker stories over the decades, perhaps the one that best encapsulates the totality of the character’s mania is also the last Joker story as presented by writer and artist Frank Miller in his landmark 1986 work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. In this story, set in the not-too-distant future, it has been ten years since the last appearance of Batman in Gotham City. 

Since that time, Joker has been in a vegetative state in Arkham Asylum. When a television in the hospital’s common area reports that Batman has returned, Joker smiles and awakens from his catatonia, stuttering to say, “Batman!” Joker soon manipulates his psychiatrist, Dr. Wolper, to convince the authorities to release him; the psychiatrist is convinced that Joker and other Gotham supervillains were victims of Batman’s own psychosis.

Wolper views Joker as his ticket to fame, getting the killer an interview on a late-night talk show. During the taping, however, Joker kills the show’s host, the audience, and Wolper before escaping into the night. Joker next plans a massive assault at a carnival, where he confronts Batman for the last time. 

During their fight, Batman hits Joker in the eye with one of his batarangs (small, bladed projectiles), before paralyzing the Clown Prince in the carnival’s Tunnel of Love. As the police close in, Joker uses what mobility he has to break his own neck, setting Batman up for murder. 

When a flamethrower catches the tunnel interior on fire, Batman watches from the sidelines as the corpse of his longtime nemesis burns (Alan Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1–4, February–June 1986).

Perhaps the most iconic version of the Joker in the overall American zeitgeist is the animated version from the legendary television series Batman: The Animated Series (FOX-Kids, 1992–1995). 

The visual image of Joker in this series was highly adopted from the 1950s comic book version. However, the performance of voice actor Mark Hamill added an air of evil rarely touched upon in previous television and film incarnations. This series was also distinctive for introducing the Joker’s love interest, Harley Quinn. 

Hamill’s haunting maniacal laugh added further menace to the murderous clown, and the series overall further underscored the depths of Joker’s insanity and obsession with Batman.

A more recent incarnation of the Joker appeared in the live-action film The Dark Knight (Warner Brothers, director Chris Nolan, 2008,). 

See also: Superman Rogues Gallery

In this story, the Joker (played by Heath Ledger, who would win a posthumous Academy Award for his performance) is an anonymous anarchist who wears clown makeup. He is hired by Gotham City mobsters to rid them of the new vigilante, Batman. Instead, Joker leaves a trail of bodies in an alleged attempt to force Batman to reveal his true identity.

In actuality, however, his overall scheme is to show Batman that no one is a good person worthy of the Dark Knight’s protection. He manipulates a situation in which a boatload of innocent civilians must choose between murdering a boatload of convicted felons before those felons have the opportunity to murder them, with the added caveat that if neither boat chooses to kill the other, both boats will explode. In his mania, Joker admits that he has no overall plan; rather, he just likes to “do things.”

What can be considered a de facto prequel to Ledger’s Joker came in the 2019 film Joker (Warner Brothers, director Todd Phillips). In this film, Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a down-on-his-luck clown for hire who aspires to be a stand-up comedian. He lives with his ailing mother (played by Frances Conroy), who suffers from the delusion that her son is the product of an imaginary romance between her and billionaire Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen). 

Arthur suffers a neurological condition that causes him to spontaneously laugh, even when he is sad or angry. A series of bad luck pushes Arthur to the brink of insanity, culminating with learning that he is adopted and that his mother exposed him to continuous physical abuse from her various boyfriends in his youth. 

After killing three bullies on a train, Arthur’s seemingly endless travails lead him down a path of violence and a dedication to chaos. By the end of the film, neither Arthur nor the audience knows who he truly is, and shades of The Dark Knight Joker are evident (Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, Joker, Warner Brothers, 2019).

In the character’s long and storied history, Joker has remained Batman’s most noteworthy opponent. He is the Professor Moriarty to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes, the two characters destined to perform their respective roles against each other over and over again for all of eternity. 

In the realm of American villainy, Joker is the threat to stability that most terrorizes American society. He is an unstable element in a world that demands stability. He does not kill for thrill, money, or vengeance. He kills for only one purpose: to challenge and provide purpose for his only true “love,” Batman. As an element of social commentary, Joker represents the broken nature of both the criminal justice and psychiatric care systems. He is what all Americans fear they could become with just one bad day.

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