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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Heroes, Villains and Rogues - The Joker

Batman, DC Comics, The Joker, The Red Hood, Bill Finger, Bob Kane
Imaging seeing this face when you look in the mirror to shave. Why hello Mister Joker!

“Remembering’s dangerous. I find the past such a worrying, anxious place. “The Past Tense,” I suppose you’d call it. Memory’s so treacherous. One moment you’re lost in a carnival of delights, with poignant childhood aromas, the flashing neon of puberty, all that sentimental candy-floss… the next, it leads you somewhere you don’t want to go. Somewhere dark and cold, filled with the damp ambiguous shapes of things you’d hoped were forgotten. Memories can be vile, repulsive little brutes. Like children I suppose. But can we live without them? Memories are what our reason is based upon. If we can’t face them, we deny reason itself! Although, why not? We aren’t contractually tied down to rationality! There is no sanity clause! So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness. Madness is the emergency exit… you can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away… forever.” - Batman: The Killing Joke


Batman's greatest nemesis. Created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, the Joker appeared in the April 25 1940 issue of the Batman comic. A criminal mastermind and psychopath with a twisted
sense of humor and one of the most iconic villains in pop culture history. The Joker isn't a super human, he doesn't have powers or abilities that allow him to fly, or shoot lasers from his eyes, he relies on his expertise in chemical engineering to develop poisonous and lethal concoctions. He has also developed several thematic weapons such as razor edged playing cards that he throws, acid shooting lapel flower and his buzzer ring, which can electrocute people until they are nothing but a burnt out skeleton.  . He is merely... crazy and obsessed with Batman. But why?

The Red Hood

A little more than a decade after Joker was introduced into Batman's lore, he was given a sort of back story. Joker was a master criminal known as the Red Hood. A lab worker that was going to steal $1,000,000 and retire from life. Dressing up in a tuxedo, a long flowing cape, and a domed head covering with no eye holes, the Red Hood was born. While attempting to rob a playing card company,
the Red Hood became cornered, by Batman, and instead of giving up, he dove into a pool of chemicals, swimming to freedom through one of the drain pipes that emptied into a basin outside of the factory. The chemicals changed the man's complexion, his hair was turned green, his skin was bleached white and his lips had turned bloody red. Upon seeing his reflection in a mirror, the man had gone insane, creating a whole new personality and naming himself the Joker.

When the Killing Joke graphic novel came out, written by Alan Moore (and the basis for the 1989 Batman movie), Joker's past was altered a bit. Being a lab assistant and failed comic, with a pregnant wife. Struggling pay check to pay check, he is hired by a gang to sneak into the chemical plant that he worked at to rob the playing card factory next door. During the day of the robbery, his wife dies in an freak accident and tries to back out of the robbery. The gang strong arms him and forces the man who would be Joker to keep to the plan. The rest of the story is pretty much the same, where he is changed by chemicals and it drives him insane. "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another...if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"

But... Who is the Joker?
Is he Joe Chill? A sort of famous underground gangster the guy "responsible" for killing Thomas and Martha? Is he Jack Napier, from the movie?

What we do know is this. He IS the Red Hood. A lab assistant (or technician or worker) that robbed a card factory. Whether he was hired to rob the factory or had already planned it, is all up to the tale you want to believe. I think that Alan Moore's tale of a failed comedian, who's robbing the factory to make it easier on his wife, who ultimately dies in a freak accident, which puts a character that's close to the razor's edge, perilously close to falling off. It's not until he falls into the chemicals, that he's forever changed into the Joker. It's a good story and takes the premise that was already set into canon and flesh's out the story. Also, it's way to convenient to have the guy who killed Bruce's parents also become the Joker. That's lazy and bad story telling.

During the Golden Age Of Comics - The Joker was introduced into Batman's lore as a sadistic, green haired, crazy murderer. Only slated to last for two issues, the Joker was killed at the end of the second issue, but the editor of the comic at the time, didn't want that to happen, so a quick pencil sketch was made, showing the Joker escaping, to live another day. He appeared in nine of the first 12 issues of Batman. Joker was portrayed as a homicidal maniac with no remorse, but DC Comics was beginning to change the way they do things, finding it easier to market the comics to children instead of adults and this is when they started to change the Joker from killer to merry prankster.

When the Golden Age of Comics came to an end, the "Silver Age" began, which started about the mid 1950's. It was during these years, that the Joker got his origin story of being the Red Hood, the rise of the CCA (Comics Code Authority) and new genres becoming more popular than every, such as mystery and romance comics. By 1954 the Joker was transformed from the Clown Prince of Crime to the Merry Mirth maker. DC Comics had all but handicapped the Joker, because of a media onslaught that put comics on the map, being responsible for the rise in juvenile delinquency, homosexuality,  and violence in young males. The Joker began to appear less and less in the comic, until the mid Sixty's, when the Batman TV series exploded onto the scene.

The popularity of the character, along with Batman, saw a rise in sales, but by the end of the TV series, the Joker was put on the bench, for other characters, as the character was considered to violent and weird. he Silver Age introduced several of the Joker's defining character traits: lethal joy buzzers, acid-squirting flowers, trick guns, and goofy, elaborate crimes. It wasn't until the mid 70's that the Joker would find his stride and become one of the most popular characters in comics.

From Wikipedia
"When Jenette Kahn became DC editor in 1976, she redeveloped the company's struggling titles; during her tenure, the Joker would become one of DC's most popular characters. While O'Neil and Adams' work was critically acclaimed, writer Steve Englehart and penciller Marshall Rogers's eight-issue run in Detective Comics #471–476 (August 1977-April 1978) defined the Joker for decades to come with stories emphasizing the character's insanity. In "The Laughing Fish", the Joker disfigures fish with a rictus grin resembling his own (expecting copyright protection), and is unable to understand that copyrighting a natural resource is legally impossible. Englehart and Rogers' work on the series influenced the 1989 film Batman, and was adapted for 1992's Batman: The Animated Series. Rogers expanded on Adams' character design, drawing the Joker with a fedora and trench coat. Englehart outlined how he understood the character by saying that the Joker "was this very crazy, scary character. I really wanted to get back to the idea of Batman fighting insane murderers at 3 a.m. under the full moon, as the clouds scuttled by."

It was these first steps that would prove to be the biggest influence on the Joker's character and how he would be defined. It was this version of the Joker that would utlimately be used in Tim Burton's Batman and the template that would also be used by Bruce Timm while developing the character for Batman The Animated Series. It wasn't until Frank Miller upended the Batman mythos and Alan Moore took the story to new and deeper depths.

Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, shows the Joker at his most disturbing and destructive capacity. Living his life in a catatonic state at Arkham Asylum. The Joker shows just how brilliant a character he is, by playing up his "sickness". Using people to get what he wants. By getting Dr. Wolper, an anti-Batman crusader, to prove that the Joker is a product of the Batman, he is able to convince people that Joker is not who he seems. When it all goes bad, Wolper is the first victim of Joker's plan to bring Batman out of the shadows, for one final confrontation.

It was Miller's series that really set the tone for Joker in the Batman universe. Shortly after publication, there was "A Death In The Family" where the Joker killed Jason Todd while at the same time, Alan Moore created "The Killing Joke", a graphic novel that goes back to Joker's origin story. Hinted at in a couple of previous issues, nothing solid had been written about the Joker's past. Alan Moore was able to take the man who would become the Joker and really turn him into a person that you cared about. The origin is only a minor part of the story, where the Joker has planned to drive Jim Gordon insane and what lengths the Joker will go to make that happen. The Killing Joke is a great story and one that has set the bar extremely high for any comic that has since come out.

But WHO is the Joker?

Who cares. Do we really need to know exactly who he is or is it better to keep it a mystery? We all have our opinions on the character and where he came from. One thing for certain. He worked in a chemical company, fell into a vat of chemicals, while trying to rob a company next to the chemical company and was driven insane when he managed to escape. The truth is mixed in there somewhere.

But what about the movies and the animated series? Well, for the 1989 movie, giving the Joker a past and having him connected to the murder of Bruce's parents was weak. It was better to have someone not related to the crime do it. But Hollywood tend to like to connect things so that the viewer doesn't have to really do a lot of thinking. As far as the animated series goes, the stories they told focused primarily on Batman and Joker's relationships, there was the Red Hood story and it's connection to the Killing Joke, but that was it. It was left vague on purpose.

Christopher Nolan's take on the Joker was one of the better looks at the character on screen. We didn't know much about him, he was crazy and he was obsessed with Batman. That's all we needed. For this character, it's fun to mess around with alternate realities, but keeping his background and origins hidden, it makes the character that much more interesting.

And no, he's not Joe Chill or Jack Napier or any of those. I guess we'll find out in DC Comics Rebirth issue #50.

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