The Enigma of the Joker

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In all of comic book history, there is one character that has stood the test of time and interest unlike any other, one figure that has defied explanation and remained a mystery to readers the world over. Truly, there is no character in literature as unpredictable and inscrutable as the Joker.

Despite being born over 70 years ago in the pages of Batman #1, published in 1940 by DC Comics, the Joker is shrouded in mystery. Accountable to no one, bound only by his imagination and spurred on by his bravado, the Joker is possibly the most sinister literary villain in the history of fiction.

When it comes to the Joker, the biggest mystery of all is that he has no back-story, no concrete origin tale. He simply came to be that day back in 1940, simply arrived and started leaving bodies in his wake.

If you're not an avid comic reader, chances are you know the Joker from one (or both) of the feature—length Batman movies in which he appeared. You may also have noticed that each treats the character in very different ways, but that's a story as old as the Joker himself.

Though rated by Wizard Magazine as the greatest villain of all time, the Joker was portrayed as a mere nuisance during the "camp" Batman years—the period that spawned the television series starring Adam West as the caped crusader and Cesar Romero as the Joker.

In the 1970s, the Joker was reinvented and returned to his roots as a straightforward mass murderer — the evil archetype that fans of this generation are far more accustomed to —and it was a 1986 book called The Killing Joke by acclaimed writer Alan Moore that provided the most widely accepted possibility of the origin of the Joker.

In it, a nameless engineer at a chemical plant gives up his job to pursue stand—up comedy, but when he can't support his pregnant wife, he agrees to aid some criminals in breaking into his old workplace. Batman arrives to stop the crime, and in the scuffle the troubled comedian falls into a vat of chemicals with terrible consequences to his appearance and sanity.

In Tim Burton's Batman (1989), Jack Nicholson portrays the character as Jack Napier, a mobster who becomes the Joker after a similar accident in a chemical factory. Prior to that, however, it shows a young Jack ambush and murder young Bruce Wayne's parents in an alley. In the end, Batman is unable to save the Joker from a fall off of Gotham Cathedral, and he plummets to the street below to his death. Interestingly enough, the Joker of the comics universe was nearly killed off after his appearance in Batman #2 in 1940, and narrowly avoided death several times thereafter.

If you're familiar with Christopher Nolan's resurrection of the Batman franchise, you're undoubtedly aware that Bruce Wayne became the Batman without the assistance of mobsters or the Joker, in any shape or form. This holds much truer to the accepted continuity of the series, something Nolan worked very hard to do. But even in Batman Begins (2005), hints of the Joker exist.

Of course, it was The Dark Knight (2008) that introduced Nolan's Joker to the world, brilliantly brought to life by the late Heath Ledger. Simply the new guy in town, the Joker arrives on the scene — as he did so many times in the comics —showing up out of the blue to claim by any means necessary what he felt was his: total control of the criminal underworld of Gotham City.

And perhaps that's where this character is the most terrifying; despite actions that seem to embrace the insane, the truth is more that the Joker operates with a frightening clarity. Though they seem to contradict his true nature of chaos and chance, his every action and every victim seems almost meticulously calculated — that is, until Batman comes around to reel him in.

The Joker's fear of the Batman is very real, and it is in fact the only emotion he seems to register. He acts aloof, driven by plans he never completely reveals to anyone and for reasons he never explains. Yet when the Batman arrives, the Joker is often swept by sheer panic ... and puzzling joy. Theirs is a unique symbiotic relationship —the Joker often acts as though he is trying to win Batman's approval, constructing each crime or murder "masterpiece" like a macaroni portrait presented to a father figure.

Ledger's Joker captured that passion like no other; he appears without warning or explanation, bearing the Glasgow smile — the scars that seem to extend his smile ear to ear, received in the comics when a cop dressed as the Caped Crusader shot him in the face in Batman #655 —and seems to have a master plan that for every eventuality.

Ledger prepared for his Academy Award-winning role in an isolated month-long hotel residence, exploring and constructing the essence of the character and recording his thoughts into journals. The result was cinematic genius. Sadly, Ledger captured that disposition so well that it drove him to insomnia and a dependence on sleeping pills and other prescription drugs, which led to his eventual death.

The Joker, then, has become the first comic book villain responsible for claiming the life of a real person, further testimony to the sheer diabolic madness of the character set into motion all those decades ago. Ironically, Ledger has dealt a blow to the Joker in return, as the mantle may simply be too much for another actor to assume for years to come.

Nolan's vision of the Batman will return next summer with The Dark Knight Rises, but glimpses of the movie so far seem to indicate that the Joker will not be a part of the film. The future of Gotham's Clown Prince of Crime is as uncertain as his past, but like so many times before, you can be sure we haven't seen the last of him.