THE JOKERMedium: Comic books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1940
Creator(s): Bill Finger (writer), Bob Kane (penciler) and/or Jerry Robinson (inker)
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Two-Face, The Catwoman, Professor Hugo Strange, The Penguin, etc., who provided the greatest expression of that trend. And without a doubt, The Joker was the apotheosis of bizarre, larger-than-life Batman villains.
Credit for The Joker's creation is claimed by each of the three men involved in creating Batman himself — writer Bill Finger (The All Winners Squad), penciler Bob Kane (Cool McCool) and inker Jerry Robinson (Kerry Drake). Finger said the character was based on actor Conrad Veidt's performance in the 1928 film version of Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs. Robinson said he got the idea from a deck of cards. Kane said both of those sources provided partial inspiration, but the creation was also influenced by his own youth as a practical joker, with the jokes ratcheted up to a deadly level. We may never know which version is closest to the truth. But we do know The Joker's grin, permanently fixed to a clown face that doesn't wash off, is every bit as chilling as Veidt in the role of Hugo's character Gwynplaine; he functions as a wild card wherever he goes; and his "jokes" aren't very funny.
The Joker first appeared in Batman #1 (Spring, 1940), one year after the hero's introduction in Detective Comics. The debut story featured one of his most horrifying schticks, the Grinning Death. Several times in that story, he proclaimed someone would die at midnight; and when The Joker says you'll die at midnight, you can be in a secure house packed solid with policemen, including Commissioner Gordon himself, with Batman patrolling the perimeter, but you will by gosh die at midnight — usually with a hideous grin on your face, rictus induced by his unique poison.
The second Joker story came later in the same issue, and showed him practicing other forms of murderous insanity as well. His repertoire was endless, and he became not only the most frequently-seen Batman villain of the 1940s — he was also the only one from the early bunch to continue appearing regularly all through the 1950s and into the '60s.
But as time passed, he was toned down. As early as his third story (in Batman #2), he got by without a single successful murder. He was made less frightening and mysterious when DC Comics' management decided to give him an origin story. Detective Comics #168 (February, 1951) told how he'd originally been a relatively ordinary criminal called The Red Hood, when a chemical accident turned his skin chalk-white, his lips bright red and his hair green; and that's what drove him crazy. By the time The Comics Code Authority came in (1955), he'd been reduced to a mere costumed crook who used jokes as a theme for his crimes.
The softening of The Joker reached its climax during the "camp" era, when, in Batman's popular 1966 TV show, actor Cesar Romero played the villain strictly for laughs. In comic books, even Batman himself, that grim avenger, was treated as a clown, so one can imagine how they treated a supporting character who was already a clown. When the show ended and things settled back down, it was decided to retire The Joker for a few years, to let the memory of his recent lack of dignity fade. He was, however, still occasionally used in animation, where his voice was done by Larry Storch (Cool Cat, Tom Dracula).
He returned to comic books in Batman #251 (September, 1973), in which writer Denny O'Neil (Thunderbolt) and artist Neal Adams (Deadman) — the pair that also collaborated on the critically-acclaimed team-up of Green Lantern and Green Arrow — rehabilitated him into the homicidal maniac that had always been his best characterization. He had his own title for nine issues during he mid-'70s, in which he was toned back down a little; but when that embarrassment ended, he returned to what passes as "normal" for him. In more recent years, he's revived the Grinning Death, murdered the second Robin, crippled Batgirl for life, and committed all sorts of other atrocities.
The Joker now resides in Gotham City's Arkham Asylum, from which he escapes at will, always to be captured and brought back. He's no longer seen as often as he was during his first quarter-century. But when he is, he's once again the cackling lunatic readers love to hate.