The Evolution of the Joker

by Blaise Tassone

124789_28becdb51289f364a94df00fcc9d3449dff9880c-201x300 The Evolution of the Joker

Did you see Joaquin Phoenix terrorize a New York Subway platform in his Joker make-up? Well, if you didn’t, check it out. After it went viral a lot of people started paying attention to this latest ‘Joker project’ – it will be a stand-alone Joker film and without Batman.

Before this footage was released, a lot of people thought it would be terrible, but then again the same thing was said about the ‘Venom’ movie, and it’s now managed to generate excitement.

But this is a website about comic books, not movies. The Joker footage made me think of how the Joaquin Phoenix ‘clown face’ version of the character stacks up to other popular interpretations from the comics

We know DC films often stick closely to the visual presentations of the characters as found on the printed page (for better or worse). In the case of the Joker, the character has managed to retain his carnivalesque appearance fairly consistently over the years.

The Joker was created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson in 1940. His first appearance was in the iconic Batman #1 (April 1940) (which is also the first appearance of Catwoman, and a comic I will probably never own). Originally, the story goes, the Joker was going to be killed off in the same story that introduced him. This fate was changed due to intervention from an editor who decided to let the character live and the rest, as they say….is Bat-history.

The Golden Age Joker was fairly consistent with his more modern portrayal, i.e. as a twisted anarchist with, quite frankly, strong psychopathic and murderous tendencies.

Visually, the character was inspired by Robinson’s admiration for German actor Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of Gwynplaine in the 1928 classic film treatment of Victor Hugo’s L’Homme qui rit (‘The Man Who Laughs’).

In Detective Comics# 168 (February 1951), we get the origin of the original Joker character who appears in the guise of the ‘Red Hood’, a character who would get resurrected years later in the Batman universe.

Here we learn how Batman originally was chasing after a criminal mastermind called the Red Hood whom he almost caught, but the villain avoided capture by throwing himself into a vat of chemicals. This, of course, had a disturbing effect on the man: turning his face chalk white, his hair green and his lips rouge-red. He had become an evil clown. In the story, a new Red Hood is apprehended but Batman realizes him to be an impostor and this leads him to discover the identity of the original Red hood (the Joker).

And evil the Joker would remain. Until the Silver Age, that is. The comics-code authority and censorship had several dramatic effects on the Batman comics, one of the most prominent being the toning down of the Joker’s murderous mayhem. He was now portrayed as a wily prankster. Cesar Romero captured the spirit of this Silver Age Joker quite well in the campy Batman TV series, but tracking down the first Silver Age appearance of the Joker in comics is not easy.

Some people think that it’s World’s Finest # 88 (May 1957), which is also the first team up of Lex Luthor and the Clown Prince of crime, and this is as good a candidate as any, but the Joker’s next appearance in a Batman comic is Batman #136 (December 1960) and it features the prankster Joker with gadgets and displaying fairly predictable behavior.

At some point during the Silver Age run, the Joker even adopted an evil Robin doppelganger called, I kid you not, ‘Gaggy the Clown’. Whatever happened to Gaggy? Maybe he’ll show up in a DC movie.

This silliness all changes with the modern iteration of the character: the modern Joker being anything but safe or predictable. The classic Bronze Age reintroduction of the Joker can be found in Batman #251 (September 1973). With its classic Neal Adams cover (see above), this is a key appearance and features a return to the murderous Joker of old. I’m pretty sure this is the Joker that Joaquin Phoenix is channeling in the new film, and when I see the Adams cover it always reminds me, for some reason, of Mark Hamill’s ‘Joker voice’ from ‘Batman: the Animated Series’.

Final notable mentions in key modern Joker comics include:

Joker #1 (May 1975) , which is the Joker’s first solo title appearance, and Frank Miller’s chilling portrayal of the old Joker in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1 (1986), both of which are also great Joker keys to pick up in anticipation of the upcoming film by the way.

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