Ugh. The Joker.
I’m sure many people may not understand my antipathy toward this character, especially those who don’t read comics. If you only know the Joker from his media appearances, you may like the character. Heck, if my only exposure to him was Mark Hamill’s brilliant performance from the animated Batman shows, I’d think he was Batman’s best villain as well. I will also admit to being incredibly excited to see him in the upcoming movie, as I think that we’re all going to be blown away by Heath Ledger’s performance. But, to see the Joker in the comics…..ugh.
There are two huge problems with the Joker. The first is that he’s overexposed. Because the Joker has claimed the mantle of Batman’s greatest foe, it seems that every writer who tackles the Dark Knight wants to write a Joker story. Not every comic writer has a Ventriloquist story, or a Poison Ivy story, or a Calendar Man story, but they all have a Joker story, so we keep seeing him. Not only that, but the Joker’s profile has become so large that people who aren’t even writing Batman want to tell their Joker stories, so he guest stars all over the place. He’s appeared in just about every series you can imagine, from Wonder Woman to the Justice League. Things went completely out of control in 2001 when DC published a crossover event called Joker: Last Laugh, a Joker-themed event that had its own miniseries and spun out into dozens of DC books. This miniseries was supposed to be the last we saw of the Joker, but sadly, it just set the stage for more Joker stories.
The second problem with the Joker is that he no longer makes sense as a character. Writers, in an attempt to outdo everyone that came before them, have amped up the Joker’s insanity and murderous impulses to an unbelievable degree. First of all, how does this guy get henchmen anymore? Who would work for him? He kills his own people left and right, and does he actually ever score any money or do anything that would make him an attractive employer? Worse is the fact that he’s invited to join villain teams, which makes even less sense. Why would a genius like Lex Luthor, someone who thrives on control, invite the most uncontrollable villain in the DCU into his team? Surely he knows the Joker will eventually cause all of his plans to come tumbling down?
Joker also doesn’t work because, again, his crimes have become too heinous. The Joker has killed the second boy to bear the mantle of Robin, Commissioner Gordon’s wife, and he’s crippled Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. Now, the first crime is horrible enough, but the second two? If some criminal killed a police commissioner’s wife and crippled his daughter, you know that criminal would soon find himself “accidentally killed” while attempting escape. C’mon, even if Gordon wouldn’t do it himself, surely one of his cops (since Gordon is beloved by most of the police) would have done it for him. This is a police force that includes Harvey Bullock, who breaks rules constantly and was willing to reveal information to the mob to avenge Gordon when Gordon got shot (not killed, not paralyzed, but simply shot) by somebody the law couldn’t touch. The fact that the Joker is alive makes no sense (and don’t even get me started on the idea that Batman himself would be well within his rights as an upstanding hero and protector of mankind to kill the Joker himself; it’s not like the Joker can be rehabilitated and reformed).
So, with all of that being said, what can be done with the Joker. Is there any hope for this Clown Prince of Crime? Is he worth saving? Can Batman survive without him?
Wait…tell us how you really feel. I’m not sure where you stand on this one. And I’m disappointed that you couldn’t come up with one goofy headline, even to make fun of the fact that you despise The Joker. Something like…”Joker: The Clown Prince of Just Shoot Me Now” or “Joker: Wow, The Insane Clown Posse Sucks” or even “Joker: Meh.”
All joking aside (no pun intended), I’m with you one hundred percent on this one. When I think back to my earliest exposure to the character…the live-action TV show with Cesar Romero’s mustache, the cackling goofball from the Filmation cartoons…I’m reminded of the best and worst of comic book villain stereotypes. Those campy 60’s and 70’s representations encapsulated what comics were all about as a kid: bright colors, over-the-top scenarios and the valiant struggle of clean-cut goodness versus wishy-washy “evil.”
Then, as I get older and more into the history of comics, I discover that the Joker is a real creep. His original look was based on this:
The Man Who Laughs
It’s a still from a 1928 movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s little-known novel The Man Who Laughsstarring Conrad Veidt, a German actor remembered best for his role as a Nazi officer in Casablanca. In the story, the character Gwynplaine is a disfigured actor who learns he is actually the son of a baron. His father, an enemy of the king, was killed and the then-toddler Gwynplaine was given to a group of gypsies who purposefully mutilated his face in order to use him to beg for money. Obviously, the character of The Joker has no connection to this role outside of his grotesque look. Man, that is one creepy black and white photo.
In his earliest appearances he was portrayed as a maniacal mass murderer, reinforcing the widely held belief that clowns are evil freaks. It wasn’t until the Comics Code Authority (and the invention of television) cracked down on his heinous crimes that The Joker became the buffoon-based annoyance we all remember so dearly. Seriously. How intimidated would you be if your main villain dressed in purple, pranced around like a court jester on speed with a giant mallet in his hands and left you gift-wrapped packages that ticked ominously? Boooo-ring!
And of course, nowadays with the voluntary removal of the CCA’s oversight, Joker has returned to his ham-fisted murdering and cackling ways…bludgeoning Robin, paralyzing Batgirl and pretty much running free through the streets of Gotham City without a care or fear in the world. I had retreated from comics in the late 90’s (it’s a long story, but had much to do with Spider-Man’s Clone Saga) and returned to the fold just as Joker: The Last Laugh was hitting the shelves. Like John said, it was meant to be “the last Joker story” as the character was dying from cancer or something like that, but the whole thing turned out to be a ruse set up for Joker to escape from prison (if I remember correctly). I was not impressed.
The best thing his legacy has given us is Harley Quinn, a character that fit well with Joker’s depiction in the animated series, but defies logic in the comics version of the character. Like John has effectively pointed out, who in their right mind would work with this psycho? Granted, Quinn is a bit loopy herself. However, I find it difficult to fathom that anyone in even the harshest of domestic situations would stick by someone who has repeatedly tried to kill them (even admitting as much), especially if that person were also a well-known criminal and crazy person. Henchmen be damned!
What this all boils down to, yet again, are inconsistencies in the character. Random revamps, multiple origin stories, overhauls in attitude and goals and a lack of emotional attachment to The Joker are what have led me to be so underwhelmed with his potential. Wizard magazine voted him as “The Best Comic Book Villain” in 2006, but I just don’t see the allure. Jack Nicholson didn’t help matters with his role in Tim Burton’s Batman franchise relaunch either. There’s just no menace left in The Joker and I have to agree that his continued existence baffles me too. Someone at some point would have offed the guy by now. People like him cannot exist outside the law for so long and at such a high profile that they would avoid retribution by either a police officer, a costumed vigilante or just some misguided, obsessed stalker who thinks that killing The Joker will bring him instant fame and glory.
And I don’t care how righteous and honorable Batman wants to sell himself as, no one would hold it against him if he snapped this loser’s neck, tossed him in a pile of garbage and walked away whistling a happy tune. It just makes no sense. There’s not a legal system in the world that would continue to treat this monster with the kid gloves demonstrated in the DC Universe. He’s unrepentant, uncaring and unable to be rehabilitated.
So I guess the big question is, how do we fix him?
Wait, how do we fix him? Isn’t that what I asked you? Yeesh.
The big problem is that I’m not honestly sure he needs to be fixed as much as he needs to simply go away. Does Batman need this guy in his Rogues Gallery? I don’t think so. We’ve detailed some great villains over the past week, and there are other really good Batman villains that we didn’t even touch. Two Face. Poison Ivy. Harley Quinn (who I think works perfectly on her own). The Ventriloquist. The Riddler. Catwoman. Penguin. Ra’s Al Ghul. Black Mask. These are villains that stand as strong antagonists for Batman, in addition to the ones we detailed, and all of them have potential. Heck, I’d rather read a story where Bane is the villain than read another Joker story right now. Yes, I said that. I find Bane more interesting than the Joker. Obviously, this is not good for the Joker, since I would rather read the box which contains my morning cereal than read a story featuring Bane (although, I admit, some of my antipathy toward that character stems from him being used in Knightfall, and he’s received better treatment since then. But, that’s another post…). The point here is that I don’t see the Joker bringing anything to the table that another Bat-Villain can’t bring, and they can probably bring it in a more interesting way, and one that doesn’t make my head hurt.
When we fix characters around here, as is our mission, we’re usually giving them a direction or trying to reimagine them for a new audience. We’re trying to fix their continuity problems and straighten out the mess that’s been made of them over the preceding years. However, since one of the Joker’s biggest problems is that he’s completely overexposed, it’s hard to fix him and use him, since he’d still be overexposed. It’s kind of like fixing Wolverine, the most overused and annoying character in the Marvel Universe, and he’s not half as bad as the Joker (although he is used waaaaay too much and is annoying…let the flaming of John begin!).
So, rule number one for a revamp of the Joker…limit his appearances! He gets used, at most, for one story a year for the next five years. No crossovers. I don’t care that he’d be great to stick into DC’s Absolutely Final We Mean It This Time Crisis…he doesn’t get used. I don’t care if Grant Morrison has the perfect story for the Joker in All-Star Superman. He gets told no. One story a year. He fights Batman. That’s it. I’d actually prefer to limit his appearances even more, but I realize what I’m suggesting is already unrealistic, so I’ll keep it at one story a year.
The second rule requires us to make a decision…do we deal with the fact that the Joker should be dead right now? I see two options…the first is to ignore the fact that his ass should have been capped already and simply use him in a reduced capacity (see rule number one) for a few years, until enough time has passed that he again becomes a credible character. It’s kind of a cop-out, but it could work. The second would be my preference, which would be to charge head first into the idea of why no one has killed the Joker yet. Perhaps a member of the GCPD could decide to take the Joker out, then find himself stopped by Batman, and could confront Batman with the question of why he has allowed so many people to die by turning a blind eye to the Joker’s crimes. Perhaps Batman himself could decide the Joker needs to die, and have a story where he questions whether this is a step he should take. Perhaps something else brings the issue up, but whatever the case, we need to end the story with some sort of reason why killing the Joker is bad. Sadly, I don’t have that reason. That lack of a reason would be the only way I’d support the first option. However, whichever option we take, that actually leads us into rule #2…tone down the Joker’s homicides. No more killing and maiming important members of the DC Universe, and less slaughter in general. He can be very dangerous without cutting a deadly swath through Who’s Who of the DC Universe.
So, that’s my start. Thoughts?
The reality of the situation is that The Joker is so ingrained in our society, not just for comic book fans but for general pop culture reference, that you can’t really ever get rid of him. Remember all the fake hoopla that accompanied the “death” of Superman? Did anyone honestly think that Warner Bros. would permanently remove one of their biggest icons (and greatest marketing tools)? Hell no! There’s a certain comfort level associated with the Average Joe being able to name-check villains with heroes. When I say “Spider-Man” you reply “Green Goblin.” When I say “Fantastic Four” you say “Doctor Doom.” Captain America leads to Red Skull, Magneto fights the X-Men, Daredevil has Bullseye (or Kingpin), Superman has Lex Luthor, even Groo faces off against Taranto…though he can never remember if they’re friends or enemies. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s an unwritten rule: a popular hero’s most recognizable arch-enemy will never, ever, ever truly go away.
Where does that leave us and our nefarious plans for his imminent demise? I don’t really think it changes anything. Like you’ve said, we can merely take him out of the picture without taking him out of existence. There are a plethora of opportunities to tell better Joker stories just by merely limiting his influence over the day-to-day goings-on in Gotham City.
Perhaps Batman has other things to worry about as all of our revamped villains (and even the cool ones we haven’t touched upon yet) begin to institute their insidious plans. Joker’s follies are pushed to the wayside as Batman deals with these newly inspired threats. The Caped Crusader spends the better part of two years trying to rein in these other dangers, while we catch glimpses of Joker’s disappointment and neglect in small backstories and flashback scenes. This could all lead up to one big blowout crossover story where the Joker tries to regain some respect. And, his ultimate plan foiled, he slinks back into the shadows for a few more years. Since he’s such a “big picture” threat and works best as a solo foe, I think this scenario would fit his needs perfectly and still allow writers to delve into the big, powerful Joker tales they all want to tell.
Another option would be to change his position in the Bat-verse. Instead of being the main villain, we can relegate him to a smaller snitch-type role or even a kind of, heavens forbid, adviser to Batman. For instance, he performs one last caper, gets captured by the Dark Knight, and finally gets imprisoned in a place that he can’t possibly ever escape from under any circumstances. Batman could visit him, a la Hannibal Lecter, and pick his twisted brain for information concerning other villains and criminal activities. It would be a way of subtly rehabbing him for readers and slowly integrating him into a different role. However, it also leaves open the possibility for him to have a complete 180-degree flip back into psycho bad guy mode and go absolutely crazy again. I see visions of Norman Osborn in this restructuring (which would be another avenue if The Joker actually had an alter ego we could exploit).
I like your idea of exploring a “Why Don’t We Just Freaking Shoot Him in the Face?” arc that involves members of the GCPD, Batman and a bunch of flashbacks (like a sitcom clip show) that show instances of his ultimate survival. However, once that storyline has reached its logical conclusion…whatever that may end up being…I think another revamp option would be to go completely over the top with his homicidal tendencies. If you think about Batman’s rogues gallery, there isn’t a real killer threat in the bunch of them (though Killer Croc definitely would cross that line if allowed). Sure, they’re all dangerous in their own ways, but there’s no overwhelming danger in dealing with any of them mostly because they all have their own personal goals. On the flip side, The Joker’s only obvious goal is to rid the world of Batman. But there’s no rule that says he has to pursue a straight line to get there. He’s a freakishly sociopathic clown for goodness’ sake! Let him run roughshod over everyone, taking out any loose ends, any horribly misused characters and any continuity problems left over from the Never-Ending Crises. Basically we turn The Joker into DC’s Scourge, except minus the altruistic goal of “removing bad villains from the world” and adding in the bottom line of ticking Batman off to the nth degree and drinking his milkshake.
Regardless of the “Choose Your Own adventure” options I’ve supplied to you, I agree that the final outcome of limiting Joker’s appearances (and his influence) is what needs to be reached. Put a moratorium on his nuisance factor and turn him into more of a whispered legend that may eventually rear its ugly head again some day. So which option works best for you?
I love your idea of using him as a Hannibal Lector type for awhile, and think that can work in with the idea of confronting why Batman has never killed him, and why the Joker’s survival has value. So, we start out by running our story on why the Joker has not been capped yet. We go a few issues, and we explore various characters and their thoughts on this subject (I know that Gordon, at one time, thought that killing the Joker would be doing exactly what the Joker wanted, and that Gordon wanted him kept alive and processed through the legal system to show the Joker that he couldn’t break Gordon) and in the end, Batman has the opportunity to either capture or kill the Joker. I think he chooses the first option, and I think he does it for much of the reason that Gordon outlined. If Batman kills the Joker, then the Joker wins, by pushing Batman past the law and forcing Batman to take matters into his own hands. Honestly, Gordon’s rationale may be the only one that makes any sort of sense when considering the Joker’s continued survival, and if we assume that Gordon made this philosophy known to the GCPD, it may explain why none of them have blown out the Joker’s brains in some dark alley; they refrain out of respect for Gordon’s wishes.
However, after Batman captures the Joker, and the Joker heads to court, a very aggressive District Attorney manages to convince the judge (which shouldn’t be too freaking hard) that putting the Joker back in Arkham Asylum is too dangerous. For all the security at Arkham Asylum, they might as well just let him go. The judge agrees, and with the help of the Justice League, this new, escape proof cell is devised. The Joker is placed there, just like a Hannibal Lector, and the only one that he’ll speak with is his very own Clarice, Batman. Now, not only do we get to see Batman and the Joker interact, but if the Joker can help Batman with some information that saves lives, it begins to validate the Joker’s survival and Batman doesn’t look so bad for letting the schmuck live. I wouldn’t have Batman going to the Joker often (in fact, I’d have it be very rare; again, not more than once or twice a year), and only on really big cases, where Batman is trying to figure something out that’s outside of his own area of expertise. Perhaps he needs information on criminal hideouts, or the working of the psychopathic mind, and Joker may be useful.
By keeping the Joker like this for a year or two, we limit his exposure and are still building a bigger reputation for him. Then, after a few years, he escapes. He would probably need outside help, and I’m not sure who would help him, but maybe someone springs the Joker just so the Joker could wreak havoc. Perhaps Batman, with the Joker out of the way, is really able to stay on top of Gotham’s other villains, and so some of them join forces. The Penguin, Riddler and Poison Ivy decide that, if the Joker were on the loose again, he’d distract Batman from their nefarious doings, so they team up, concoct a plan, and the Joker is freed. However, the Joker promptly disappears, giving Batman the chance to school the three masterminds on the error of their ways. Batman then waits for the Joker to make his move. And he waits. And waits.
For at least a year the Joker is silent. Then he returns, as you described him above, working alone, and doing one or two (absolutely no more than two) crimes a year, crimes whose main goal is eliminating his hated foe, although as you pointed out, that road may not be a straight one. No more gangs. No more Harley Quinn (she’s been on her own since Joker got busted a few years ago, and can stay on her own). Just the Joker, striking alone and without warning, at anyone whose death could help further his twisted plans.
Does that tie it together?
I think it works well and it nearly makes me not hate The Joker. In fact, it could almost be seen as a blessing, turning the “oh great…Joker’s back” reaction into more of a “cool, the Joker’s back!” Of course, I’d like to see other things done with him as well…like dialing back the ridiculous outfit he wears. If they can makeover the Riddler to look less obnoxious, then it shouldn’t be too hard to do the same for Mr. Clown-Face. At the very least, give him a tailored suit in a rational color that doesn’t make it seem like he raped an Old West mortician and stole his ribbon tie. Is that too much to ask?
I’m apprehensive to say that we’ve wrapped this up nicely because I believe that Heath Ledger’s prematurely-legendary performance may reopen this can of worms for the general public. However, strictly comics-speaking, we’ve managed to handle a difficult character with genuine aplomb and for that I say we pat ourselves on our respective backs and move on to the next challenge.