An archenemy of the superhero Batman, the Joker is portrayed as a master criminal whose characterization has varied from a violent sociopath, who kills people and commits crimes for his own amusement, to a goofy and virtually harmless trickster-thief. He has also been directly responsible for numerous tragedies in Batman's life; including, but not limited to, the paralysis of Barbara Gordon and the death of Jason Todd.
The Joker's real identity is unknown. Throughout the character's long history, there have been several different origin tales; the most common theme depicts him as falling into a vat of chemical waste, which bleaches his skin and turns his hair green and his lips bright red, giving him the appearance of a macabre clown.
The Joker has appeared in numerous Batman-related media including portrayals by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger, and animated versions with voice actors Mark Hamill and Kevin Michael Richardson.
Wizard Magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Villains of All Time ranked the Joker as #1.
Bill Finger, the co-creator of Batman, brought credited Batman creator Bob Kane a photograph of actor Conrad Veidt wearing make-up for the silent film The Man Who Laughs (1928), and the Joker was modeled on this photograph. Reference was made to this influence in the graphic novel Batman: The Man Who Laughs, a retelling of the first Joker story from 1940.
The credit for creation of the Joker is disputed. Kane responded in a 1994 interview to claims that Jerry Robinson created the concept of the character:
Bill Finger and I created the Joker. Bill was the writer. Jerry Robinson came to me with a playing card of the Joker. That's the way I sum it up. [The Joker] looks like Conrad Veidt — you know, the actor in The Man Who Laughs, [the 1928 movie based on the novel] by Victor Hugo. [...] Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, 'Here's the Joker'. Jerry Robinson had absolutely nothing to do with it, but he'll always say he created it till he dies. He brought in a playing card, which we used for a couple of issues for him [the Joker] to use as his playing card".
Robinson, whose original Joker playing card was on public display in the exhibition "Masters of American Comics" at the Jewish Museum in New York City, New York, from September 16, 2006 to January 28, 2007, and the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, Georgia from October 24, 2004 to August 28, 2005, has countered that:
Bill Finger knew of Conrad Veidt because Bill had been to a lot of the foreign films. Veidt ... had this clown makeup with the frozen smile on his face. When Bill saw the first drawing of the Joker, he said, 'That reminds me of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs.' He said he would bring in some shots of that movie to show me. That's how that came about. I think in Bill's mind, he fleshed out the concept of the character.
In his initial dozen or so appearances, starting with Batman #1 (1940), the Joker was a straightforward mass murderer, with a bizarre appearance modeled after the symbol of the Joker known from playing cards. He was slated to be killed in his second appearance, but editor Whitney Ellsworth suggested that the character be spared. A hastily drawn panel, demonstrating that the Joker was still alive, was subsequently added to the comic. For the next several appearances, the Joker often escaped capture but suffered an apparent death (falling off a cliff, being caught in a burning building, etc.), from which his body was not recovered.
In the 1950s and 1960s, following the imposition of the Comics Code Authority censorship board, the Joker shifted toward becoming a harmless, cackling nuisance. He disappeared from Batman stories almost entirely when Julius Schwartz took over editorship of the Batman comics in 1964.
In 1973, the character was revived and profoundly revised in Batman stories by writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams. Beginning in Batman #251, with "The Joker's Five Way Revenge", the Joker returns to his roots as a homicidal maniac who murders people on a whim, while enjoying battles of wits with Batman. O'Neil said his idea was "simply to take it back to where it started. I went to the DC library and read some of the early stories. I tried to get a sense of what Kane and Finger were after. Writer Steve Englehart and penciler Marshall Rogers, in an acclaimed run in Detective Comics #471-476 (Aug. 1977 - April 1978), which went on to influence the 1989 movie Batman and be adapted for the 1990s animated series, added elements deepening the severity of the Joker's insanity. In the story "The Laughing Fish", the Joker is brazen enough to disfigure fish with a rictus grin, then expect to be granted a federal trademark on them, only to start killing bureaucrats who try to explain that obtaining such a claim on a natural resource is a legal impossibility.
The Joker had his own nine-issue series during the 1970s in which he faces off against a variety of both superheroes and supervillains. Although he was the protagonist of the series, certain issues feature just as much murder as those in which he was the antagonist; of the nine issues, he commits murder in seven. The development of the Joker as a sociopath continues with the issues A Death in the Family and The Killing Joke in 1988, redefining the character for DC's Modern Age after the company wide reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths.
The first origin account, Detective Comics #168 (February 1951), revealed that the Joker had once been a criminal known as the Red Hood. In the story, he was a scientist looking to steal from the company that employs him and adopts the persona of Red Hood. After committing the theft, which Batman thwarts, Red Hood falls into a vat of chemical waste. He emerges with bleached white skin, red lips, green hair, and a permanent grin.
The most widely cited backstory, which the official DC Comics publication, Who's Who in the DC Universe, credits as the most widely believed account, can be seen in The Killing Joke. It depicts him as originally being an engineer at a chemical plant who quits his job to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, Jeannie, the man agrees to help two criminals break into the plant where he was formerly employed. In this version of the story, the Red Hood persona is given to the inside man of every job (thus it is never the same man twice); this makes the man appear to be the ringleader, allowing the two criminals to escape. During the planning, police contact him and inform him that his wife and unborn child have died in a household accident.
Stricken with grief, he attempts to back out of the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his promise. As soon as they enter the plant, however, they are immediately caught by security and a shoot-out ensues, in which the two criminals are killed. As the engineer tries to escape, he is confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance. Terrified, the engineer leaps over a rail and plummets into a vat of chemicals. When he surfaces in the nearby reservoir, he removes the hood and sees his reflection: bleached chalk-white skin, ruby-red lips, and bright green hair. These events, coupled with his other misfortunes that day, drive the engineer completely insane, resulting in the birth of the Joker.
The story "Pushback" (Batman: Gotham Knights # 50-55) supports part of this version of the Joker's origin story. In it, a witness (who coincidentally turns out to be Edward Nigma) recounts that the Joker's wife was kidnapped and murdered by the criminals in order to force the engineer into performing the crime. In this version, the pre-accident Joker is called Jack.
The Paul Dini-Alex Ross story "Case Study" proposes a far different theory. This story suggests that the Joker was a sadistic gangster who worked his way up Gotham's criminal food chain until he was the leader of a powerful mob. Still seeking the thrills that dirty work allowed, he created the Red Hood identity for himself so that he could commit small-time crimes. Eventually, he had his fateful first meeting with Batman, resulting in his disfigurement. However, the story suggests that the Joker retained his sanity, and researched his crimes to look like the work of a sick mind in order to pursue his vendetta against Batman.
The latter origin is featured in the second arc of Batman Confidential (#7-12). This origin once more states his name as Jack, and eliminates the Red Hood identity. Bored with his work, Jack becomes obsessed with Batman, and crashes a museum ball to attract his attention. In doing so, he badly injures Lorna Shore (whom Bruce Wayne is dating). An enraged Batman disfigures his face with a batarang as he escapes. In retaliation, a furious Batman sells Jack out to mobsters whom he had crossed, who torture Jack in a disused chemical plant. Turning the tables, Jack kills several of his assailants, but falls into an empty vat. Wild gunfire punctures the chemical tanks above him, and the resultant flood of toxins alters his appearance to that of the Joker or a clown.
In Batman: The Killing Joke, the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon (then known as Batgirl and in later comics as Oracle), rendering her a paraplegic. He then kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and taunts him with enlarged photographs of his wounded daughter being undressed, in an attempt to prove that any normal man can go insane after having "one really bad day." The Joker ridicules him as an example of "the average man," a naïve weakling doomed to insanity. The Joker fails in his attempts to drive Gordon insane, because Batman saves the commissioner. Although traumatized, Gordon retains his sanity and moral code, urging Batman to apprehend the Joker "by the book" in order to "show him that our way works." After a brief struggle, Batman tries one final time to reach the Joker, offering to rehabilitate him. The Joker refuses, but shows his appreciation by sharing a joke with Batman and allowing himself to be taken back to Arkham.
The Joker murders Jason Todd, the second Robin, in the story A Death in the Family. Jason discovers that a woman who may be his birth mother is being blackmailed by the Joker. She betrays her son to keep from having her medical supply thefts exposed, leading to Jason's brutal beating by the Joker with a crowbar. The Joker locks Jason and his mother in the warehouse where the assault took place and blows it up just as Batman arrives. Readers could vote on whether they wanted Jason Todd to survive the blast. They voted for him to die, hence Batman finds Jason's lifeless body. Jason's death has haunted Batman ever since and has intensified his obsession with his archenemy.
In the one-shot comic Mad Love, Arkham psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel ponders whether the Joker may in fact be faking insanity so as to avoid the death penalty. As she tries to treat the Joker, he recounts a tale of an abusive father and runaway mother to gain her sympathy. She falls hopelessly in love with him and allows him to escape Arkham several times before she is eventually exposed. Driven over the edge with obsession, she becomes Harley Quinn, Joker's accomplice and on-and-off girlfriend.
During the events of the No Man's Land storyline, the Joker murders Sarah Essen Gordon, Commissioner Gordon's second wife, by shooting her in the head as she tries to protect the infants that he has kidnapped. He surrenders to Batman, but continues to taunt Gordon, provoking the Commissioner to shoot him in the kneecap. The Joker laments that he may never walk again, and then collapses with laughter as he "gets the joke" that Gordon has just avenged his daughter's paralysis. While in transit back to Arkham, however, he takes control of the helicopter transporting him, and flies off to Qurac, where he becomes part of the government and helps to speed the country's decline into war with its neighbours. He is subsequently sent to New York as the country's ambassador, in a position of which he then threathens to use a neutron bomb to kill everyone in Manhattan if the United Nations doesn't withdraw its forces. Power Girl and Huntress of the Birds of Prey capture him, however, and Barbara Gordon tricks him into telling them how to stop the attack, after which the Joker is sent to 'the Slab' "with the rest of the supercreeps."
In a company-wide crossover, Last Laugh, the Joker believes himself to be dying and plans one last historic crime spree, infecting the inmates of The Slab, a prison for super criminals, with Joker venom to escape. With plans to infect the entire world, he sets the super-powered inmates loose to cause mass chaos in their 'Jokerized' forms. Meanwhile, he tries to ensure his "legacy" by defacing statues in his image. The entire United States declares war on the Joker under the orders of President Lex Luthor; in response, Joker sends his minions to kill the President. Black Canary discovers that Joker's doctor modified his CAT scan to make it appear that he had a fatal tumor in an attempt to subdue him with the threat of death. Harley Quinn, angry at the Joker's attempt to make her pregnant without marrying her, helps the heroes create an antidote to the Joker poison and return the super villains to their normal state. Believing Robin had been eaten by Killer Croc in the ensuing madness, Nightwing eventually catches up with the Joker and beats him to death. To keep Nightwing from having blood on his hands, Batman resuscitates the Joker.
In Emperor Joker, a multipart story throughout the Superman titles, the Joker steals Mister Mxyzptlk's reality-altering power, remaking the entire world into a twisted caricature, with everyone in it stuck in a loop. The conflict focuses on the fate of Batman in this world, with the Joker torturing and killing his adversary every day, only to bring him back to life and do it over and over again. Superman's powerful will allows him to fight off the Joker's influence enough to make contact with the weakened Mxyzptlk, who along with a less-powerful Spectre, encourages Superman to work out the Joker's weakness before reality is destroyed by the Joker's misuse of Mxyzptlk's power. As time runs out, Superman realizes that the Joker still cannot erase Batman from existence, as the Joker totally defines himself by his opposition to the Dark Knight; if the Joker can't even erase one man, how can he destroy the universe? The Joker's control shattered, Mxyzptlk and the Spectre manage to reconstruct reality from the moment the Joker disrupted everything, but Batman is left broken from experiencing multiple deaths. Superman has to steal Batman's memories so that he can go on, transferring them to the Joker and leaving him catatonic.
In the Under The Hood arc (Batman #635-650), Jason Todd returns to life. Angry at Batman for failing to avenge his death, he takes over his killer's old Red Hood identity, abducts the Joker and attempts to force Batman to shoot him.
The Joker is a main character in the Salvation Run miniseries, leading one of two factions of supervillains who have been exiled from Earth to a distant prison planet. In issue six of the series, Joker engages Lex Luthor in an all-out brawl. Just as he gains the upper hand, however, the planet is invaded by Parademons, he helps fight off the invasion and later escapes along with the rest of the surviving villains in a teleportation machine.
After returning to Earth, Joker is yet again a patient in Arkham Asylum. Batman visits him to ask him if he knows anything about the Black Glove, but Joker only responds by dealing a Dead man's hand . During routine therapy, Joker is met by a spy for the Club of Villains who offers him a chance to join them in their crusade against Batman.
Joker later appears as a member of Libra's Secret Society of Super Villains.
Joker's skills in unarmed combat vary considerably depending on the writer. Some writers have shown Joker to be quite the skilled fighter, capable of holding his own against Batman in a fight. Other writers prefer portraying Joker as being physically frail to the point that he can be defeated with a single punch. He is, however, consistently described as agile.
The Joker has cheated death numerous times, even in seemingly inescapable and lethal situations. He has been seen caught in explosions, been shot repeatedly, dropped from lethal heights, electrocuted, and so on, but he always returns to once again wreak havoc.
Over several decades there have been a variety of depictions and possibilities regarding the Joker's apparent insanity. Grant Morrison's graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth suggests that the Joker's mental state is in fact a previously unprecedented form of "super-sanity," a form of ultra-sensory perception. It also suggests that he has no true personality of his own, that on any given day he can be a harmless clown or a vicious killer, depending on which would benefit him the most. Later, during the Knightfall saga, after Scarecrow and the Joker team up and kidnap the mayor of Gotham City, Scarecrow turns on the Joker and uses his fear gas to see what Joker is afraid of. To Scarecrow's surprise, the gas has no effect on Joker, who in turn beats him with a chair. In Morrison's JLA title, the Martian Manhunter, trapped in a surreal maze created by the Joker, used his shape-shifting abilities to reconfigure his own brain to emulate the Joker's chaotic thought patterns. Later in the same storyline, Martian Manhunter uses his telepathic powers to reorganize the Joker's mind and create momentary sanity, though with great effort and only temporarily. In those few moments, the Joker expresses regret for his many crimes and pleads for a chance at redemption.
In an alternate depiction of the Joker called Elseworlds: Distant Fires, the Joker is rendered sane by a nuclear war that deprives all super beings of their powers. In Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #145, the Joker became sane when Batman put him in one of Ra's al Ghul's Lazarus Pits after being shot, a reversal of the insanity which may come after experiencing such rejuvenation. However, the sanity, like the more commonplace insanity, was only temporary, and soon the Joker was back to his "normal" self.
The character is sometimes portrayed as having a fourth wall awareness which also seems to carry over to Batman: The Animated Series. The Joker is the only character to talk directly into the "camera", and can be heard whistling his own theme music in the episode adaptation of the comic Mad Love. Also, in the episode "Joker's Wild", he says into the camera,"Don't try this at home kids! In the Marvel vs DC crossover, he also demonstrates knowledge of the first Batman/Spider-Man crossover even though that story's events did not occur in the canonical history of either the Marvel or DC universe. On page five of "Sign of The Joker", the second half of the "Laughing Fish" storyline, the Joker turns the page for the reader, bowing and tipping his hat to mock politeness.
The Joker's victims have included men, women, children, and even his own henchmen. In the graphic novel The Joker: Devil's Advocate, the Joker is reported to have killed well over 2,000 people. Despite having murdered enough people to get the death penalty thousands of times over, he is always found not guilty by reason of insanity. In the Batman story line "War Crimes", this continued ruling of insanity is in fact made possible by the Joker's own dream team of lawyers. He is then placed in Arkham Asylum, from which he appears able to escape at will, going so far as to claim that it's just a resting ground in between his "performances".
There have been times when Batman has been tempted to put the Joker down once and for all, but has relented at the last minute. After capturing the Joker in one story, he threatens to kill his old foe, but then says, "But that would give you the final victory, making me into a killer like yourself!" Conversely, the Joker has given up many chances to kill Batman. The Joker's obsession with Batman is unique compared to other villains, in that he is portrayed as enjoying their battles and constantly mocking him, hinting he may want to make Batman as insane as he is.
The Joker is renowned as Batman's greatest enemy. While other villains rely on tried-and-true methods to commit crimes (such as Mr. Freeze's freeze gun or Poison Ivy's toxic plants), Joker has a variety of weapons at his disposal. For example, the flower he wears in his lapel sprays (at any given time) acid, poisonous laughing gas, or nothing at all. In Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker and much earlier in "Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker!" (Batman #321), the Joker has a gun which at first shoots a flag saying "BANG!", but then, with another pull of the trigger, the flag fires and impales its target. His most recurring gadget is a high-voltage hand-buzzer, which he uses to electrocute his victims with a handshake. Sometimes he commits crimes just for the fun of it, while on other occasions, it is part of a grand scheme; Batman has been noted to say that the Joker's plans make sense to him alone. His capricious nature, coupled with his violent streak, makes him the one villain that the DC Universe's other super-villains fear; in the Villains United and Infinite Crisis mini-series, the members of the villains' Secret Society refuse to induct the Joker for this reason. In the mini-series Underworld Unleashed, the Trickster remarks, "When super-villains want to scare each other, they tell Joker stories".
Cesar Romero portrays the character in 18 episodes of the 1960s Batman television series. The Joker of this series is characterized by a cackling laugh and comedy-themed crimes that were silly in nature, such as turning the city's water supply into jelly, beating Batman in a surfing competition, and pulling off a bank heist based on a stand-up comedy routine. Romero refused to shave his distinctive mustache for the role, and it was partially visible beneath his white face makeup. Romero reprised his role in the 1966 film Batman.
The Joker is the antagonist of 1989 film Batman, where he is portrayed by Jack Nicholson. In the film, the character is a gangster named Jack Napier who is disfigured by a bullet ricochet to the mouth and has his skin discolored when he falls into a vat of chemicals during a confrontation with Batman. His trademark grin is the result of a botched plastic surgery attempt to repair the damage to his face. When Wayne learns about the Joker, he recalls that his parents were murdered by two thugs, one of whom was a young Jack Napier, realizing that the Joker is indirectly responsible for the origin of Batman. In the flashback scene showing Napier's murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Napier is played by Hugo E. Blick. Newsweek's review of the film stated that the best scenes in the movie are due to the surreal black comedy portrayed in this character. Nicholson's Joker ranks #45 in the American Film Institute's list of the top 50 film villains of all time.
During the OnStar "Batman" ad campaign, the Joker appears in one commercial, played by Curtis Armstrong. Roger Stoneburner makes a cameo appearance as the character in an episode of Birds of Prey. Mark Hamill, who voiced the Joker in various animated shows throughout the 1990s, provides the Joker's voice in the scene, and he is the only one of the two actors to be credited.
In The Dark Knight (2008) the character is portrayed by Heath Ledger, who told Sarah Lyall of New York Times that he viewed that film's version of the Joker as a "psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy." Costume designer Lindy Hemming described the Joker's look as being based around his personality, in which "he doesn't care about himself at all." She avoided his design being vagrant, but nonetheless it is "scruffier, grungier and therefore when you see him move, he's slightly twitchier or edgy." Unlike most incarnations, where his appearance is a result of chemical bleaching, this Joker has a Glasgow smile carved on his face, and accentuates it through unevenly applied white, black, and red make-up. During the course of the film, he tells conflicting stories about how he acquired the scars, which involved child abuse and self-mutilation. He also tortures his victims by asking "Why so serious? Let's put a smile on that face." before cutting similiar scars into them.
In Batman: The Animated Series, which debuted in 1992, the Joker was voiced by Mark Hamill. In the feature film spin-off Batman: Mask of the Phantasm it is revealed that he was once a hitman for Sal Valestra. The episode "Joker's Wild" revealed that his real name is Jack Napier. Hamill reprises his role in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, where the Joker returns in the future after being believed dead for decades.
A very different interpretation of the Joker appears in the animated series The Batman, voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson. In his first few episodes, he sports a purple and yellow straitjacket, fingerless gloves, bare feet, wild green hair, red eyes, and what appears to be martial arts skills that makes him much different from his predecessors. Later in the series, he adopts the more traditional garb of a purple suit and spats, but still has wild hair and wears no shoes, save one episode. The Joker also moves and fights with a monkey-like style, using his feet as dexterously as his hands, and often hangs from the walls and ceilings (as the series progresses, these abilities do not appear as much). He employs the signature Joker venom in the form of a laughing gas.