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In my relatively short lifetime of consuming pop culture, there’s always been one comic book villain above all others: The Joker. Not the Green Goblin, not Lex Luthor, not Magneto, The Joker.
And as today marks the 75th anniversary of his debut in DC Comic’s Batman #1, I thought I’d take a look back at not only the Clown Prince of Crime’s first appearance, but my personal history with the character.
As a toddler, there were two shows that filled the home-recorded VHS tapes that I viewed almost on loop: Scooby Doo and Hanna Barbara’s Justice League cartoon Super Friends that ran from 1973 to 1986. These two shows were my first introductions to the DC universe. In particular, the episodes of The New Scooby Doo Movies featuring Batman and Robin teaming up with the Mystery Inc. gang to take on Joker and Penguin were favorites of mine, and even with their elementary one-liners, I still have fond memories of them.
However, this Joker only scratches the surface of the character’s personality. He’s a silly, devious criminal who is just a glorified birthday clown. I wasn’t hooked on this version of character as a kid, but little did I know of the intriguing enigma that lay underneath the Saturday-morning cartoon antics.
My naivety didn’t last forever, as over the years I was introduced to depictions in Tim Burton’s Batman, the dreadlocked adaptation in WB’s The Batman and, of course, Heath Ledger’s defining portrayal in The Dark Knight. However, the true turning point came in my teens when I played through the acclaimed Batman: Arkham video games. After completing Arkham Asylum and its sequel, Arkham City, I became entranced more than ever to dive into the rich Batman universe. Aside from the ever-present rogues gallery of villains, I was compelled them most by the series’ main protagonist, The Joker. The video game medium gave you a true sense of what it was like to tangle with the madman that you couldn’t capture on film. I had seen this guy mercilessly and theatrically cause chaos on screen my whole life, and I needed to see the source material.
And that takes us to present day, where my hobby over the last few years has been to immerse myself into the comics world—specifically the world of Batman. Pouring over some of the villain’s finest tales, such as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Jim Starlin’s A Death in the Family, I’ve grown to love the bleached-skinned, green-haired psychopath in a purple suit. However, its only as I’m writing this piece that I’ve looked back where it all began, Bob Kane’s 1940 story “Batman Versus The Joker” that appears in Batman #1.
The story, which I’m reading from the compilation The Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, is simple in it’s telling, but it’s darker than you’d expect from the campy days of early comics.
The Joker poisons several notable Gotham residents, robbing them of their prized jewels and incapacitating police officers in the process. This continues until—you guessed it—he faces off with the Caped Crusader in a brawl on a bridge. The Joker prevails, goes on to kill a judge who previously sent him to prison and captures Robin before Batman returns to save the day with a flurry of fists and repertoire of card puns suited for the occasion. He’s soon sent off to prison, but not before Batman saves him from falling to his death during their fight, foreshadowing the hero’s ongoing struggle to keep the madman alive despite his ever-growing body count.
Compared to the exuberant psychopath we’ve all loved to loathe over the years, the debut iteration of the character is very grounded; delivering plan-unveiling soliloquies and using only standard poisons, a gun and his fists to cause chaos. It truly feels like its his first run-in with the Dynamic Duo.
However, there’s so much intrigue with the character that leaves you wanting more. Where did this freak come from? How is he already so evenly matched with the Dark Knight? How many more card-related puns can Batman dish out?
Luckily, we’ve had 75 years to see The Joker develop on page and screen, with his every appearance just as unpredictable as his last. Whether it’s the campy, straightforward criminal created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1940, the psychopath present in the pages of The Killing Joke, an animated madman voiced by Mark Hamill or a mix of all three on the silver screen, he’ll be sure to stay fixated on getting the last laugh.