From the Beginning
As the Joker movie (that no one in any way asked for or wanted) comes out, I think it is important to take a look at comic book Joker’s origins and story lines. The Joker first appeared in the debut issue of Batman in April of 1940. He was originally supposed to be a single-issue villain but was editorially spared by Whitney Ellsworth. In his original comic book appearances, the Joker is introduced as a psychopath with a sadistic sense of humor. It was not until the 1950s that he became more of a prankster.
In the Golden Age (1940s) Batman comics, Joker was a remorseless serial killer; he committed his murders using “Joker venom,” a poison that left his victims faces twisted into a grotesque smile. By issue #13, Bob Kane had to step down from the comic so he could focus on the Batman newspaper strip, and with the comic left to Bill Finger and Jack Schiff, the character began to undergo changes prompted by DC’s marketing strategy. The writers found portraying Joker as more of a prankster than a threat was an easier story to sell to children.
In 1951 we were given an origin story for the Joker. In Detective Comics issue #168, we are introduced to the fact the he was formerly known as the Red Hood. He is a criminal that was pursued by Batman, but escaped by jumping into a chemical vat, a move that left him permanently disfigured with a white face, red lips, and green hair. In 1954, comics were undergoing a harsh shift brought on by the Comics Code Authority; blaming comic books for a rise in juvenile delinquency and violence, writers were forced to strip Batman of his menace and make Joker a trickster and a thief, ignoring his previous homicidal tendencies.
Nearly fading from the face of comic book memory by the 1960s, the Joker’s character was revived in the 1966 Batman television series. This adaptation allowed light to be shed on the character but didn't do much to help the decline in comic book sales. The Silver age of the 60s did introduce many of Joker’s trademark traits such as his acid-squirting flowers, lethal joy-buzzers and his tendency towards goofy and elaborate crimes.
The Bronze Age marked a new era for the Joker; he reappeared after four years in Batman issue #251 in 1973, in which he returns to his homicidal roots. It is in his 1973 run that we are introduced to the idea of the Joker being legally insane, and as such sent to Arkham Asylum instead of to prison. In 1975, he becomes the first DC villain to receive his own comic book series; The Joker pitted Gotham’s most well-known villain against other villains, instead of against Batman. This marked a turning point for comic books in general as it depicted the character’s villainy triumphing over other villains and no longer showed a struggle of good vs evil. Though the comic was a turning point for not only the character but for the art form as a whole, The Joker was cancelled after just nine issues. However, the Joker’s insanity was further explored in the Detective Comics issues #471-#476 in the summer of 1977 through the spring of ‘78.
Although the 1970s restored the Joker’s presence in the world of comic books, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the Batman series started to turn around and the Joker was reintroduced once again, this time in the “dark age” of comics. One of the Joker’s most impactful storylines took place in 1988-1989 in the “A Death in the Family” Batman story arc in which the Joker kills Batman’s sidekick and the second “Robin,” Jason Todd. The story marked another shift for the Batman universe as this was the first time we saw the Joker kill not an anonymous bystander, but a core character. The 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke gives us more insight into the Joker’s origins. We come to find that he only adopted the criminal character of the Red Hood, because he was a failing comedian who needed to find a way to support his pregnant wife.
Though I am not personally a Joker fan, it is evident to me that he was a pivotal character not just for the Bat-verse but for the art of comic book writing in general. His character drove writers to explore new themes and challenges, and the face of comics certainly would not be the same without him. I want to make it clear before I see the movie that Joker was in no way turned criminally insane because of romantic nor professional rejection; this is not a Hitler story, and his weapons of choice have never been guns. The writers considered him to be too resourceful for such a simple weapon. The movie appears as if it will follow the homicidal murder roots, which is perfectly acceptable, HOWEVER if the narrative switches in an attempt to justify the heinous crimes that the Joker commits (Hitler’s justification for killing Jews), then the movie will be considered a failure in my opinion, and as you know, I will not be quiet about letting everyone know it.
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