The Man Who Laughs

So lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this guy:



That probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anybody, given the amount of time I spend thinking about Batman in general, but since seeing The Dark Knight, I’ve been trying to figure out why the Joker has become the kind of character that he is.

Looking at the character today, it’s obvious that he’s not only Batman’s arch-nemesis, but that more than any other villain, he’s evolved alongside his opposite number to become something more. In a review of Dark Knight, Ken pointed out that comics–especially DC–are built around archetypes. Superman, for instance, isn’t just a good man with super-powers, he’s a symbol of everything that’s good and selfless with a face and a logo on his chest, and as much as Batman’s come to symbolize the relentless, single-minded pursuit of justice, the Joker’s done the same, becoming chaos itself. As Ken says, he doesn’t believe in chaos, he is chaos. He’s less a criminal and more a force of nature.

The question I’ve been mulling over, then, is why it’s the Joker and not someone else.

I don’t think I’m really advancing an unpopular opinion when I say that Batman has the best villains in comics, but even among a crowd that strong, the Joker stands out. The best villains, after all, are the ones that bring out the contrasts within the hero himself, and that’s something Batman has to spare. The Scarecrow, for instance, does to civilians what Batman does to the superstitious, cowardly lot of criminals. Two-Face has the same split-personality as Batman and Bruce Wayne, but with a mask that he can’t take off. Even Ra’s al-Ghul, who was introduced to give Batman a classic pulp-style villain that would allow for world travel and set pieces, is a powerful, obsessive intellectual prone to uncontrollable rages who has set himself outside the law and devoted his life to wiping out what he sees as evil at any cost, to the point where he seeks out a man with the same sort of drive to carry on his life’s work. But even those characters fall short of the gold standard: Scarecrow’s archenemy may be Batman, but Batman’s archenemy is the Joker.

At its heart, you can trace it to the fact that the Joker takes what is literally the opposite route: From his first appearance in 1940, he’s everything Batman’s not in every way but one. Whereas that Batman of the 1940s is a dour, grim avenger in black and grey who works in secret and things like “a fitting end for his kind” when he “accidentally” kicks a dude into a vat of chemicals, the Joker’s loud and garish enough to broadcast his intentions over the airwaves, and while Golden Age Batman was a lot more prone to witty fight banter, the Joker’s alarmingly direct:



From the start, he’s an amazing visual, and it’s a complete inversion of the classic hero and villain formula. Batman was inspired as much by Count Dracula and the Shadow as he was heroes like Zorro, with a costume designed to frighten, but he’s still the good guy. The one in the bright colors with the big smile who does magic tricks… that’s the one you need to watch out for.

By the Silver Age, though, things have changed, largely due to the tonal shift that resulted from the Comics Code, and without the edge of madness and outright shrieks of “I’m going to kill you,” the Joker loses a lot of his villainous mojo and fades back to be just another visually interesting face in the crowd.

For evidence, you don’t need to look any further than the 1966 TV show. For all the fan grousing about how its campiness detracted from the legitimate storytelling of the comics–and the eye-rolling that goes with the fact that it’s been forty-two years and we still can’t get a headline about comics without “Biff! Pow!” or “Holy Lazy Copywriters, Batman!”–anyone who’s actually ever read Silver Age Batman stories can tell you that the show reflected the goofiness of the comics, not the other way around.

In any case, as entertaining as Cesar Romero’s Joker is–and brother, he is entertaining–he’s just another thematic villain for Batman to deal with that week. Swap out the playing cards and clown puns for birds, Egyptian artifacts, dinosaur eggs or cat statues, and the stories could’ve been about anybody in the cast. There’s not a whole lot that’s distinctive about him–when you stack him up against the rest of the arch-criminals, anyway–and aside from the visual aspects, there’s almost nothing in the character that we’d recognize as the Joker of today.

There is, however, a lot that we’d recognize as today’s Joker on the show itself, it just doesn’t come from the Joker; it comes from the Riddler.



It all comes down to Frank Gorshin, who just played the hell out of the role, snapping back and forth from manic glee to genuinely chilling obsession several times in every scene at a pace that would mirror the Joker’s portrayal in Batman: The Animated Series–which also reinvented the Riddler as a far more smug, intellectual villain–twenty-five years later.

But as for the Joker, well… Cesar Romero’s great and I wouldn’t trade his Joker for the world, but there’s a reason the series led with the guy in green.

By the mid-80s, though, everything had changed again. Instead of the guy who carried out clown-themed robberies and pulled boners, there was a character that was firmly entrenched as Batman’s arch-enemy. This was the Joker in full end-boss mode, the Final Form of the Clown Prince of Crime that shot and paralyzed Barbara Gordon and gleefully beat Robin to death with a crowbar. This is the guy who pushes Batman to his limit in Dark Knight Returns and snaps his own neck after a triple-digit murder spree, just to make everyone think Batman’s finally lost it. This, my friends… this is an arch-nemesis.

But those aren’t what make him the go-to bad guy; the Joker’s a part of all those stories because he’s already Batman’s arch-enemy. Even in the finale of Batman Year One–the Alpha to DKR‘s Omega–the Joker’s used as shorthand for the new type of criminal that’s going to be rising to challenge Batman. He’s the escalation, the one that can’t be intimidated by Batman’s physicality or figured out by his deductions or scared by his demonic costume. The scene works not just because we know what the Joker card means when Gordon hands it to Batman, but because we know that the Joker is the one you have to worry about.

Clearly, this is the “real” Joker and not the watered down version, which leads to the question of what changed? Was it just a slow build that returned the Joker to his roots, a combination of his lasting visual appeal and the further refining of Batman as the ultra-competent super-detective adventurer that he evolved into? Maybe, but I’m of the opinion that there has to be a turning point somewhere.

After all, most of the great villains of comics have the moment where you know that Everything Changes. Dr. Doom, for instance, starts out as a visually interesting character with an awesome name, but until he steals the Power Cosmic and becomes DOCTOR DOOM, he’s just a cool-looking guy that once sent the Fantastic Four back in time to look for pirate treasure. The Green Goblin was a legitimate threat with an interesting hook and some good stories under his belt, but he wasn’t the Spider-Man villain until he chucked Peter Parker’s girlfriend off a bridge. Even Lex Luthor, who was an ever-present arch-nemesis for Superman, didn’t really reach his full potential until we saw how far he was willing to damn himself for revenge in–of all things–an imaginary story.

With the Joker, it’s a little harder to pin down. Like Luthor, he’s almost omnipresent, the strength of the earlier stories, the visual contrast and the prominence of his character on the TV show pushing him to the forefront for most of the character’s life. But given the timeframe we’re working with, I’d have to say that it really comes down to two stories from the ’70s that put him over the top.

The first, of course, is the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams classic The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge, from 1973’s Batman #251.



To be honest, this one almost gets a pass solely based on it being one of the most beautiful things Neal Adams ever drew, but at its heart, it’s more of an archetypal story of Batman than the Joker.

It does, after all, have pretty much everything you want to see from Batman: The casual way he takes a thug’s veiled punches and then lays him out in one shot (a trademark of O’Neil’s ’70s Batman), the deduction of where the Joker’s hiding based off the dirt on his shoes, he fights a shark, and of course… well, just look at this thing:



Absolutely gorgeous.

Of course, it is a Joker story, and O’Neil did a lot to bring back what was so compelling about the character: He’s on a murder spree that’s ostensibly based on getting revenge against the henchman who sold him out, but beneath the surface, there’s the idea that for the Joker, it’s far easier to just kill five people than find out which one ratted him out. Add to that the fact that he’s around thirty real-time years into his criminal career at this point and would therefore probably be heading off to jail anyway with or without the evidence of his ex-flunkie, and you’ve got someone who breezes into town like a thunderstorm and just starts killing because it’s second nature to him.

Also, O’Neil brings in one of the most important and lasting aspects of the character–His “game” against Batman:



There are a few more villains who’d rather beat Batman than kill him–the Riddler springs to mind–but by refusing to kill him when the opportunity presents itself, as it does more than a couple of times, the Joker sets himself up as Batman’s equal and adds an even more sinister aspect to his crimes. The people he murders are less than nothing to him; it’s not about them. It’s not even about himself, it’s just about baiting Batman into another confrontation.

The one that really defines the Joker, though, is the Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ The Laughing Fish/Sign of the Joker from 1978’s Detective #475-476, which gives us the amazing, iconic image at the top of this post.

Englehart’s entire run on Batman is a nod to the Golden Age, bringing back what were then all-but-forgotten characters like Hugo Strange and Deadshot and reinventing them to fight a more streamlined Batman. For the Joker, though–the story that finished out his run on the title–Englehart went back to the character’s origin story and retold it with the addition of the “Jokerized” fish–infected with the “Joker Venom” that had been his weapon of choice in 1940 and returned in “Five Way Revenge,” brought directly into focus by Rogers:



It’s a strange addition, but it’s one that changes the tone of the story completely. In 1940’s “The Joker,” the murders are all organized around robberies, but for “The Laughing Fish,” the Joker’s motivation–killing government employees because he can’t copyright the fish he’s infected–is completely insane. It’s a premise so silly that it could be a Daffy Duck plot if it didn’t end with the Joker murdering at will while Batman and the entire Gotham City police force watched helplessly.

It’s also worth noting that Marshall Rogers didn’t just draw the Joker as a man who smiled all the time, but as a man who couldn’t do anything but smile, an influence that he traced back to the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, which lent its title to another retelling of the first Joker story by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke. This, according to Rogers, was the central tragedy of the Joker: Even if he wanted to cry at all the horror he had caused, he was physically incapable of doing anything but laughing at it, a theme that continued into The Killing Joke.

More importantly, though, this is the story that brings the one great similarity between Batman and the Joker to the forefront: They’re both amazing planners. I mentioned before that the Joker’s the embodiment of chaos, but in this story–and others, including The Dark Knight–the way he spreads anarchy is through meticulous plans and an ability to second-guess and out-think everyone at any turn. When Batman disguises himself as the second victim, the Joker poisons the man’s cat, knowing that it’ll find its master by scent. He already knows the best-laid plans, and like entropy itself, he’s always one step ahead of them.

Incidentally, on the animated series, they added aspects of “Five Way Revenge” to the episode based on “The Laughing Fish” to meet the standard of shark-fighting.

For my money, though, it all comes down to the Laughing Fish. The way it draws on the Golden Age story to bridge the gap to the Modern Age, the element of mad randomness and anarchy that’s built on meticulous planning, the fixed grin. It’s as close to a turning point for the character as you’re likely to find.

Of course, three years prior to the story, the Joker was already popular and prominent enough to carry his own solo series, even if it did last a short nine issues, so who knows?

75 thoughts on “The Man Who Laughs

  1. Holy crap, Chris! That’s a hell of a detailed analysis. And a blast to read. Thanks.

    I agree with everything you’ve said about the Joker, but I disagree that he’s the only villain to have evolved into something more. I think Luthor has too.

    The moment Luthor started calling Supes “the alien” was the moment he started to be something else entirely. While Supes may be “a symbol of everything that’s good and selfless with a face and a logo on his chest,” alien-hating Luthor represents Man against Myth, Man against Superstition, and Reason against Religion.

    I’m exaggerating a bit, but think about it. The people turn to the godlike figure in times of crisis, trusting their lives to his strength and guidance. Luthor stands up and says, “No! We’re humans and have to grow up, throw off the shackles, and take care of ourselves. Let me show you how.” Pitting only his mind and scientific knowledge against the might of Supes, Luthor tries to shine a light on the ignorant masses.

    Hell, his name is Luthor. Lucerna is Latin for lamp and has a ton of echoes left in English. On top of that, Luther sought to cast off the power and mysticism of the Church (admittedly, not in favor of cold rationalism, but still.) I’m sure Siegel wasn’t going for those connotations, but the obnoxious post-structuralist in me says authorial intent is irrelevant, anyway.

  2. Chris, I have to say, you truly raised the bar. This was without a doubt one of the most concise dissertations on the Joker ever. Seriously great work, buddy. Oh yeah, and happy birthday!

  3. More importantly, though, this [the Killing Joke] is the story that brings the one great similarity between Batman and the Joker to the forefront: They’re both amazing planners

    So you disagree with the Joker’s characterization of himself in TDK as “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just, do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how, pathetic, their attempts to control things really are.”

    Of course, as you’ve written, “The Joker” isn’t one character but several depending on who’s writing the story, and besides, the character isn’t always honest…

  4. The thing about TDK Joker is that he lies constantly. He claims to want to destroy “the schemers” or “people with plans”. yet all of his attacks in the movie must have required precise planning and thought. Really, he’s just as much of a guy with an agenda as batman or dent or the mobsters are, he’s just a hypocrite.

    Great article, Chris. I think ultimately what makes The Joker the best villian Batman has is that the character has so few restrictions. Yeah, he has the costume and the basic element of characterization, but he isn’t bogged down with thematic crimes or a master plan to kill humanity. He’s just pure chaos like you said and it means a good writer has almost limitless storytelling potential with him.

  5. This article truly lives up to the stellar face-kicking standards of this blog. Definitely made my day, and would definitely love to see more things like this in the spirit of comics appreciation.

    And that observation on Frank Gorshin’s portrayal was spot on.

  6. Your post kicked me in the brain, not the face! I DEMAND MY MONEY BACK.

    (Why so) seriously excellent post, Chris. You should take more vacations if this is the kind of stuff your brain gets up to when not at work!

  7. I’m glad you mentioned Gorshin’s performance in the ’60s show in there, because I found myself thinking the exact same thing when I watched the first couple of episodes recently.

    Out of all the villains in that show, Gorshin’s performance has the most in common with Ledger’s. And even though he’s playing one of the most ridiculous characters, he’s the only one who could slot right into Nolan’s Bat-verse and work his magic.

  8. I just got Batman Illustrated volume 3 last week and you’re right on all counts: if I had to pick one Neil Adams Batman story to call “definitive” it would be The Joker’s Five Way Revenge. As great as the Ra’s Al Ghul story is Adams pulls out all the stops with Joker. And Englehart and Rogers took that foundation and made something magnificent with The Joker Fish.

    The Batman Illustrated series is great but I found myself wishing for trades more structured around O’Neil’s run. Adams That might have to be more a “Showcase” volume, though. There were so many issues where Adams only did a great cover…

  9. “It’s also worth noting that Marshall Rogers didn’t just draw the Joker as a man who smiled all the time, but as a man who couldn’t do anything but smile, an influence that he traced back to the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs”

    That connection didn’t orginate with Rogers–that film was the inspiration for the Joker in the first place! The splash panel of the very first Golden Age Joker story is swiped from a publicity still of Conrad Veidt in the film version of The Man Who Laughs.

    (Scroll down.)

  10. “Your post kicked me in the brain, not the face! I DEMAND MY MONEY BACK.”

    Sometimes it’s not enough to bash in heads; you’ve got to bash in minds.

  11. The Laughing Fish is probably my fave too. The story is so good and the art, the art just blows my mind every time I read it.

    And the way it seems to break the fourth wall sometimes… Joker Burgers!!!

    Great writing, Sims.

    PS: Broken link at “witty fight banter”.

  12. Great analysis. My beef with “The Dark Knight” is that the Joker you describe doesn’t appear in it. Incapable of not smiling? Poisons people by giving them “a ghastly grin?” Crazy enough to copyright fish?* I wanted to see that guy, the villain who kills not because he’s trying to prove a philosophical point, but because he thinks it’s FUNNY.

    *I’ve always maintained that the Joker’s problem in that story is that he doesn’t understand the difference between copyright and trademark. If he’d tried to trademark the fish, he probably would’ve succeeded.

  13. Great article, especially with pinpointing where the Joker became the villain that he is instead of just doing the fanboy thing and going, “The Joker is fucking awesome!!!”

    Personally, I think that’s why the other villains have never hit the same level of prominence as the Joker. People want entertaining Batman/Joker stories, not Dr. Hugo Strange / Batman stories, and so when a new writer steps in they want to continue that.

    My opinion anyway. I thought there was a real oppertunity with Hush to make The Riddler a true nemesis before it was pushed aside for more Joker stuff.

  14. *SIGH* You had to go and make me READ this morning. Sure, it was a great post – but it needs more Destro.

  15. As someone reading Batman when the issues you mention came out: spot on analysis, Chris. I think you’re absolutely right.

    I remember reading Five-Way Revenge over and over and over — it was so good. And the wait between the Englehart/Rogers Detective issues was a bloody long one.

  16. I can really only recall four things about the Batman TV show: Bat Bullet Proof Shoe Soles, plotting crime scenes on a map to reveal the shape of a top hat, Bruce Wayne falling out the back of a moving ambulance and Batman giving a lecture on how many different ways the Joker could kill you on sight, culminating in the Joker showing up and killing everyone on sight. “Now that,” thought seven year old Juicy, “is hardcore”. From there on out, it just got scarier.

  17. Great post. Freakin’ awesome post, actually.

    I think “The Laughing Fish” may have been the first non-Disney comic I ever read. Maybe “The House that Haunted Batman”…

    Also, O’Neill’s Joker looks incredibly like Dick Van Dyke…

  18. Thanks for the great post, Chris. Batman definitely has some of the best villains (especially for the DC universe), and “The Laughing Fish” story is one of the best.

    Glad you brought up the Joker as a great planner, because it was one of the the things that really frustrated me about the Dark Knight: the Joker could just do too much. Except for the first bank robbery, the movie skips straight ahead to the point after Joker has already conceived and executed all his plans.

    For example, Joker finds Dent at the hospital and apparently all on his own had filled the place with explosives? All of Joker’s plans had this deus ex machina feel to them. The comics have generally done a much better job of establishing the detailed plans, as well as the executions, than the movies.

  19. Chris,

    Write more like this. Perhaps I’m wrong–and Laurell J. Framington aside–but this may be your largest and most in-depth piece of criticism, and frankly it’s as masterful as Serpentor (I loved him once I realized he invented pizza).

    Essential reading for the hardcore and casual Batman fan.

  20. Your observations are excellent, but I disagree with your assessment of DOOM. To me, Dr. Doom became the character who consumes the most love I have for comics in Annual #2, where as a child he reacts to his father’s death by yelling “They shall pay! ALL OF MANKIND SHALL PAY FOR THIS!” That’s thinking big. And Doom is nothing if not a megalomaniac.

  21. It’s quite simple.

    The Joker pushes Batman sanity.

    The Riddler pushes Batman in an Intellectual level.

    The two have one thing in common which is to challenge Batman.

    For The Riddler his greatest Riddle is trying to solve why Batman IS Batman. What makes him? What moves him? What…Oh, you get the idea.

    The Joker on the other hand sees no reason to crack open the mystery of Batman. He only wants him to go on so that he can continue to play.

    If there is no Batman….there is no Joker.

    Two forces that will go on forever in a constant struggle that can only be limited by their mortal souls.

  22. I agree with everything you’ve said about the Joker, but I disagree that he’s the only villain to have evolved into something more. I think Luthor has too.

    Oh, I agree; it’s not that the Joker’s the only villain to evolve alongside the hero, but he’s the one that seems to have done so more than anyone else. Most good villains do change over time, after all–aside from the ones mentioned in the post, the Kingpin springs to mind–and the ones that don’t are usually created out of whole cloth to fit one story, like the Wrath, the proto-Prometheus from Mike W. Barr’s Batman Special #1. Or, to use an example of something that sucks, Hush.

    So you disagree with the Joker’s characterization of himself in TDK as “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it!”

    It’s not that I disagree with it so much that it’s obviously a lie that the Joker tells to Harvey Dent to get him to turn against his former allies. One of the key elements of the Joker in TDK is that he’s always lying about something, whether it’s giving conflicting origins for his scars or manipulating others.

    The other element that defines him is that in The Dark Knight, he’s more of a planner than anyone, and even more than he’s ever been depicted as before. Even the robbery at the beginning is meticulously plotted out down to the order in which his henchmen kill each other, and it just gets bigger from there: He gets himself caught because he has a plan, and he even goes so far as to tell Batman the wrong addresses for Dent and Rachel to ensure that Rachel’s the one who gets killed, the result that causes the most pain for Batman and Dent. No matter what he says, he’s a consummate planner with a goal–anarchy–that’s every bit as clear as Batman’s.

    He’s just also a liar. Because, you know, he’s the bad guy.

    PS: Broken link at “witty fight banter”.

    Yeah, I forgot to upload the picture last night. I’ll fix it when I get home. For now, all you need to know is that it’s Batman hitting someone with a chair while asking them to take a seat.

    It’s worth nothing that this is loaded with typos.

    So’s yer ma.

  23. Hey, Phineas, you did notice the Joker had an entire gang working for him in TDK, right?

  24. Whoa – is that, gasp, actual analysis on the ISB? Is this what we can expect from the suddenly more mature Chris?

    Part of what bothered me about the TDK is the notion that the Joker was the planner. Compare him to Batman. Sure he comes up with a (completely giant waste of time) plan to get the Chinese moneyman back from Hong Kong and has rigged the whole city to spy on itself with the sonar, but it all seems SO reactive. He isn’t even in on Gordon’s plan to catch the Joker!

    Of course, the other part of what bothered me about TDK was Batman’s growly voice. It sounds like he should be hiding under a bridge like a troll…

  25. I’ll be amazed if they don’t go with a darker version of the Riddler in the next Dark Knight film.

  26. Great stuff, Chris. This should be required reading for anyone who’s a fan of Batman. Scratch that: For anyone who’s a fan of comics.

  27. anthony W:

    1) Gotham may not HAVE the death penalty.

    2) He gets sent to Arkham, which means “insane,” not “criminal.” Most places do not execute the insane.

  28. “They’re both amazing planners. I mentioned before that the Joker’s the embodiment of chaos, but in this story–and others, including The Dark Knight–the way he spreads anarchy is through meticulous plans and an ability to second-guess and out-think everyone at any turn.”

    Precisely! That’s what made the end of TDK so frustrating for me. The Joker’s final plans were so lacking in the “wow” factor and near clairvoyance his plans had in the rest of the movie.

    Great piece–can’t wait for more!

  29. @ candlejack, #26:

    You mean the gang that was present during the robbery and completely absent when Joker somehow managed to stuff a major metropolitan hospital full of explosives without any of the thousands of employees or patients noticing anything, or indeed without any establishing shots at all?

    No, somehow I missed the gang in that scene, filled as it was of action-packed shots of them not being in it.

  30. Who knows HOW far in advance they stuffed it with explosives?

    ATTENTION HOLLYWOOD DIRECTORS: What we want more of is shots of extras hiding things.

  31. You know what’s one thing I never got about the Joker? Why does anybody work for him? “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” is not the first time he’s killed someone henching for him, and he’s done it over as little as not laughing when he thinks you should or laughing when he thinks you shouldn’t. And by now, you’d have to know that he’s totally bugfuck crazy, so he might just kill you because he thinks it’ll be funny. He must give one hell of a benefits package.

    Then again, maybe I have this backwards. If the Joker walks up to you and says, “Come work for me,” he might kill you if you say “no.” He’s totally bugfuck crazy.

    Anyway, I’m just going to repeat what everyone else has said. I think there’s a lot of disparate theories out there about why the Joker is Batman’s opposite number, and you’ve managed to tie all of them together into something coherent.

  32. Well, if the shots are clever and interesting and relatively brief, then yeah, shots of extras hiding things are not necessarily bad. Explosives remaining hidden in a hospital is somehow more plausible?

    As it is, Joker in Dark Knight has been compared often to a force of nature and that’s true and ultimately boring, for the same reason Superman is boring. He can do anything, so why bother? Joker just goes places and there’s a devious plan, already in place and in motion. At least they show Batman constructing his sonar cell phone web thing earlier in the movie. Dark Knight just gives the audience a Joker plan and moves on.

  33. Have you read Superman: Secret Identity?
    Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?
    The utter craziness of Silver Age Superman?

    Superman is a good deal of fun.

  34. Few thoughts:
    1. I picked up some black & white Adams/O’Neil Batman trades last week. Should i still buy the color ones?
    2. Why do people work for the Joker? Its talked about in the movie – he attracts the mentally unstable. I came out of that movie wanting to follow the Joker because he turned the craziness into some coherant plan… and i’m only mildly nuts. Gotham has a whole Narrows full of madmen…
    3. 9/11 was a few guys with knives, basically. Not to make a huge political point but you can plan stuff like that… and the ‘crazy’ often have a big organizing plan. They just start from strange premises…

  35. I remember when I was very small, reading a little book version of the Laughing Fish, which probably explains so much about what I have become. Thanks so much for the stunning post, and the nostalgia boost.

  36. Wow, great post Chris. I have to point out that there is a great trade from a number of years ago called “The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told” which has the Joker’s first appearance as well as “Five Way Revenge” and “Laughing Fish”. It was released back in 1997 so it is a bit hard to find now.

  37. There’s a new printing of it that came out in conjunction with the new movie, so it’s currently available. Unfortunately, they’ve swapped out the original Kyle Baker cover for an Alex Ross one, but c’est la vie.

    Also a good catch-all Batman trade: Batman in the Eighties, which has the aforementioned Wrath story (“The Player on the Other Side”), the best Scarecrow story ever (“Fear For Sale”), the classic “To Kill A Legend” and the story about the Joker’s birthday.

    That doesn’t have much to do with this post, but man, those are some good stories.

  38. @Phineas:
    I don’t think the Joker in Dark Knight is necessarily a “force of nature,” especially in the same respect as Superman. Yes, he’s unpredictable, but the nature of his schemes are very well calculated.

    It’s not that he can do anything, it’s that he does things unpredictably but (aside from the explosion of the hospital, though WHEN this has been planned can be argued) realistically and, most importantly, deliberately. And, in the end, you realize that all of that unpredictability, that chaos, had an actual goal.

    Sims does a fantastic job emphasizing this duplicity of order and chaos. Most importantly, he emphasizes that the Joker’s order causes the chaos.

    A force of nature is unpredictable, unplanned, has no goal, and unbiased. The Joker has a goal (in one form or another, chaos), is biased (towards his own satisfaction), and is extremely well planned.

    It’s also important to note that the Joker’s goals, in the end, make sense. They may be utterly ridiculous (it’s from an insane man), but in regards to a goal, they make sense. How he gets there is the creativity and genius. And it becomes a goal for Batman to figure out a way to stop the Joker. Does he figure out his goal, or does attempt to stop the Joker in one of the key points?

  39. I think it’s a key point of their relationship that Batman tries to apply order to the world–preventing the tragedy that happened to him from happening to anyone else–by working outside the law, while the Joker applies chaos–trying to force what happened to him onto everyone else (per Moore’s version in TKJ) by working within meticulous, if bat-shit crazy plans.

  40. I would argue that the Joker (at least Ledger’s version) is trying to remind people of the real truth of the world. There’s a pyschological theory – best articulated in Earnest Becker’s ‘The Denial of Death’ – that most of society is an attempt to pretend that we’re not going to die. Break that down and you go through a bit of a breakdown…
    Most logical thing in the world, i reckon.

  41. Gorgeous post, Chris. It made me think of the Batman Beyond movie “Return of the Joker,” which has some amazing stuff in it.


    I just watched it again (the relevant flashback is on Youtube at, and it’s certainly the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen from the animated series folks; it’s something about the way Tim still moves like an acrobat even when he’s been essentially destroyed as a person.

    Anyway, it brings up the question that Terry McGinnis, the new Batman, asks at the end of the movie; is the Joker just trying to get Batman to laugh? That is, if the Joker ever manages to convince Batman that the world is truly insane and the only response is insane laughter, does the Joker win? Maybe that’s why I’ve always found the end of The Killing Joke so disturbing.

  42. So, Chris, this has been posted on Metafilter. Curious what your opinion is of the commentary there.
    To be clear, I am squarely on your side.

  43. Phineas, I assumed the explosives-setting all took place far in advance–thus the lack of henchmen running around the hospital–since nobody less crazy than the Joker would want to be right there when the building blew. Not to mention, it would be easier to inconspicuously plant explosives in a hospital before announcing you intend to blow up a hospital.

    As you pointed out, you have to accept the Joker’s plan is perfect, since all the evidence you’re given of the plan is the fact that everything works exactly as the Joker wants it to. So, if the plan is perfect, it stands to reason the hospital was wired in advance. (And, yes, I’ll give it to you–the perfection of the unspecified plan does stink of deus ex machina, or of a writer not quite clever enough to actually think of a really brilliant plan.)

    In that scenario, what’s missing is the explanation for how the hospital staff missed the explosives. We don’t have enough information to do more than guess. But if you’ve ever worked in a hospital, you know that there are quite a few non-public storage and equipment rooms in hospitals where even the most suspicious of packages could go unnoticed for days. Drop ceilings and low-traffic maintenence areas also present possibilities.

    As for how the delivery went unnoticed? A busy hospital might have enough staff for people not to notice a bunch of new faces briefly passing in the corridor. Or the henchmen might have come in pretending to be maintenence workers or janitors, people that mostly go unnoticed anyway.

  44. Chris:
    I think you can look at it that way, but it may be a stronger correlation that both work outside of society’s boundaries in order to accomplish their goals.

    In other words, the only thing really different about Batman and Joker are their ultimate goals (order versus entropy). Yet, their means are completely similar (using meticulous planning, ingenious ideas, fear, their solitary reputation). Both are working outside of the law, and both are attempting to, in one way or another, create their own utopia of sorts.

    The thing to also remember about The Dark Knight is that it’s the first time Batman has to deal with the Joker. It’s the first occasion (and perhaps only time) where he meets an intellectual equal of the opposite side. Batman would later have a better understanding of how to deal with this problem in future conflicts, but for the first time it’s obviously very difficult.

  45. English major, huh? I will refrain from making the requisite jokes because, well, I’m a history major with a minor in religious studies and a graduate degree in educational psychology, which is why I’m now working in hospital administration supporting surgery and dental departments.

    (Also? YAY ARTICLE)

  46. To be perfectly accurate, I’m a dropout. But before that, I was an English Major/Psychology Minor, which is why I currently have a job at a comic book store and spent 28% of my time thinking about Batman.

  47. Not that I really think the point is worth arguing, but hospitals do have networks of tubes full of pure oxygen running through the walls/ceilings/etc pretty pervasively. It’s not inconceivable that you could get to one or two distribution points and set off a pretty tremendous chain reaction.

    Maybe. I’m not a SEAL and I really don’t care, but I’m just saying, maybe. Great article, Chris. I’ve passed this along to a number of people; a really enjoyable and illuminating read.

  48. The thing you need to remember is that the Joker is a clown. Clowns are a stand-in for Satan. I read somewhere that the origins of the clown’s make up go back to Medieval plays where such makeup was used to portray the devil. Don’t know if it’s actually true, but it is true many people instinctively fear clowns.

    Satan is the adversary – he tests men before God to show they are weak and evil. Therefore, he is the tester of Batman. He does not want Batman to fail by stopping him, he wants Batman (and everyone in general) to fail by abandoning his moral code. This is definitely on display in The Dark Knight.

    The best appearances of the Joker fit into that archetype.

  49. I think Batman also sees part of himself in the Joker. They are both men consumed by their goal of revenge: the Joker on society, Batman on bad guys. I think Batman realizes he could have easily gone the way of the Joker and understands what drives him, even if he loathes it. That is why they can never destroy each other, each completes the other.

  50. That is an awesome article indeed, but I disagree that the motive of the murders in the first Joker appearance was theft. Yes, theft is happening, but in none of those cases was murder required to steal. In fact, in several cases it involved seriously going out of his way. Killing the owners of the gems was for the same reason as announcing his crimes ahead of time–because he could. It’s not like the owners stumbled onto him mid-theft or had to be interrogated to find the location of their wealth. No, he just killed them because they were convenient targets. Much like in your analysis of the Joker’s Five Way Revenge, he’s clearly committing murder at least as much for its own sake as anything else.
    So glad I own the Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told.

  51. “It’s not that he can do anything, it’s that he does things unpredictably but realistically and, most importantly, deliberately. And, in the end, you realize that all of that unpredictability, that chaos, had an actual goal.”

    So then it’s not unpredictable, and it’s not chaos, and all the preaching of “chaos” and “no plans” is just hypocrisy.

    “Oh, it’s just him lying,” you could say, but then what’s left? What’s underneath all of that? It’s not a force of nature, and it’s not chaos, and it’s not madness.

  52. Ah, just because someone had a goal doesn’t make them predictable. For that matter it certainly doesn’t make them anything other than mad. Mad people have goals. Strange, crazy goals, that they create plans to reach. Sometimes the plans are crazy and sometimes they’re brilliant, but making plans for a goal doesn’t make one any less mad.
    You’re right that the ‘no plans’ bit was hypocrisy, though. Or at least misdirection.

  53. But misdirection for what? After you pull away the “chaos” and the “lies,” what’s left for the character? Just pure nonsense. And that’s not really that compelling.

  54. The Joker says, “And me employing the divine gift men call madness!” Plato in Phaedrus says, “… but there is also a madness which is a divine gift, and the source of the chiefest blessings granted to men.” Who says comics aren’t highbrow?

  55. …So, you doing anything later? I’d like to buy that a drink.

    Simply amazing! I found myself wanting to pick your brain on several point and this will provide incredible banter material in the future.

  56. What a wonderful and thoughtful analysis of the Joker. Truly academic, thorough, and insightful. Bravo! Well done!

  57. Actually, while the description of the Joker is seemingly detailed, I found your post lacking in analysis. In particular, I don’t see a real fleshing out of what makes the Joker such an interesting and effective villain. Special emphasis should probably be given to Ledger’s portrayal of the character, as I generally see the comic book portrayals far too cardboard archetypal and “comical”, although in all honesty, I am not well versed in the comic book versions. There is much to be said about Ledger’s Joker, about his true motivations, the source of those motivations, the brilliance of his insights into human nature. These three topics are essential in discussions about any truly interesting villain.

  58. I think they need to re-evaluate the whole joker fish thing. I mean, why couldn’t he trademark/patent it as a form of genetic engineering. And if not the fish, then why not the formula for the Joker Venom. People bio-engineer things all the time… specialzed crops, gene therapy… I think someone should go to Arkham as the Joker’s self-appointed lawyer and help him get the millions he could have coming to him.

    Sure… he’d end up getting himself killed or something, but he should help a brother out!

  59. For Rick: The Joker’s Toxin did not genetically mutate the fish. It’s just a poison that caused their muscles to force a smile. So he could not copyright the fish as genetically modified, they’re just dead with a very specific muscle contraction.

    I suppose he could copyright the poison, but he would never want or allow anyone to use the Toxin but himself, so I don’t see any profit in it for him. It would be like the Scarecrow copyrighting Fear Toxin. Even if there might be buyers, he wants to be the only one who uses it.

    For Bob: There’s no point in referencing a case so contemporary as Heath Ledger’s Joker. This article was about how the Joker became so iconic, not what is done with him now that he is already the icon. And really, this site is entirely based around comics. Movies are mentioned, mostly with scorn, but the original source material is always the focus.

    This may be the longest and least funny article I’ve ever read by you, Sims, but I’m very pleased with it. Had you continued your schooling rather than choose to school us all, this could easily have become your senior thesis or even dissertation. Good stuff.

  60. First, Chris this is a great article. Those two stories did show you just HOW mad and scary the Joker was – and why Batman probably sweats when he faces him.

    Do you know how HARD it is to predict the actions of an insane man? And how much energy must be expended each time to NOT break your moral code [so the law doesn’t come after you full force for being a vigilante who KILLS]?

    In TDK, we are given plenty of clues as to the motivation of the Joker: revenge against society.

    I wrote an article on the possible ‘true identity’ of Heath Ledger’s TDK Joker.

    Short answer: a black-ops agent, Jason Bourne style, who got burned – bad.

    Pay attention to his face-to-face comments in the Interrogation scene in TDK to Batman. His understanding of military and police procedure. His lack of identity, with no record on any database anywhere. His ability to take down a 20-year vet police officer OR a 250 lb mob enforcer with a PENCIL.

    His use of misinformation, his complete disregard of his ‘criminal allies’ but his DESIRE to NOT kill Batman.

    “I’m not a monster… I’m just ahead of the curve!”

    He once was a man doing what Batman is doing for the government – operating under the cover of night, working where the law was powerless and highly, highly trained. Then something went wrong, and he was ‘cut loose’ – his face is a disfigurement form a particular form of torture – sometimes used by the IRA.

    It all fits. Even his disdain for money. He can get anything he wants – but what he wants is to justify himself by causing others to fall.

    As for the hired help? He has ZERO respect or camaradie with them – to him they are scum.

    He treats them as he WAS treated – as disposable assets.

    Anyhow, that was my take on the reason you could not trust a word of Heath’s/Nolan’s Joker – he was constantly using misinformation to destroy his victims.

    And drive them mad.

    Again, thanks for letting me post here. Nice to see someone else has thought about what makes this character so great.


  61. It is too bad Heath Ledger died. I never really heard of him until the batman movie. Then when he died, I was like hey I seen that movie.

    He was an awesome actor, rip

  62. This reminds me of the olden days when we watched real people as batman and robin and they beating the joker’s ass out. The evolution of the character of Joker is one of the things that I looked forward to as it involves not only his sad plight (turning into joker) and the way he keeps on making strategical plans to bait Batman out in the open. Even though he never wins, my heart goes out to this one. Great article Cris, hoping you come out with more features on the bad people. They deserve the spotlight too =)