The Man Who Laughs: The Evolution of The Joker

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

As a fan of Batman since a small kid, I’ve also, inevitably, came to have a love-hate relationship with his arch-nemesis, ‘The Joker’. I’ve watched him and The Dark Knight scuffle and fight for years, and have decided to take a closer look at the iconic Film, TV and comic criminal. Here’s what I found:

From The Penguin and Two-Face, to Cat-Woman and Poison Ivy… Even DeadShot, and The Riddler have taken a swipe or two at our favorite caped crusader, but none have come as close, nor have reached the level of notoriety as the Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker.

Marred with facial scars and a bright-green hair-do that screams “I didn’t get enough attention”, this maniacal ex-comedian has haunted the streets of Gotham for about as long as Batman himself has protected those same dark and shadowy roads.

But, just who is The Joker?

The Man Who Laughs

In 1928, Film Director Paul Leni, known most for his silent-films (then the status quo), directed a horror-drama entitled ‘The Man Who Laughs’ – starring Mary Philbin and fellow Jewish refugee, Conrad Veidt.

Adapted from writer, Victor Hugo’s novel of the same title, the film’s intent was to be a silent-film originally but had few, non-distinct sounds added into the final cut before its official release. Similar to Hugo’s more renowned novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, The Man Who Laughs is a story of acceptance of self and love in the face of adversity for a grotesque, yet loving man, Gwynplaine. A noblemen’s orphan son who was abducted by outlaws and essentially tortured. His face was brutally carved by the outlaws with a blade, leaving a gruesome and wide-gaping smile across the then child’s young face.

Now abandoned and disfigured, Gwynplaine comes across a baby in the streets and saves her life. The baby and Gwynplaine are both eventually taken in by a Vaudeville Producer and are raised in what would today be deemed as a circus, or ‘freak show’. Gwynplaine, still disfigured, has since grown up and fallen in love with the baby that he saved from sure death many years ago, named Dea. Dea is blind, thus one would assume, has no idea about Gwynplaine’s disfigured face and shares the same love for him that he has for her.

Unlike most characters with a grotesque and at times, frightening appearance such as Gwynplaine’s… Who’s smiles are a source of warfare, almost a weapon in itself to their victim. Gwynplaine’s, however, is a great source of pain upon himself. Ashamed of his hideous smile, he hides it obsessively anytime he is not on stage; using masks, scarfs and more to hide his face.

So, does Gwynplaine sound familiar, yet

Good. You ARE paying attention!

The Bat’s Arch-Nemesis

After Batman’s comic debut in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, ‘The Dark Knight’ quickly receives his own line of comics and The Joker is present from the very start.

In Batman #1, we see The Joker as a ruthless serial killer, killing all of his victims with what was called ‘Joker Venom’. A poison given to all of The Joker’s foes, leaving them near death, and smiling uncontrollably.

The Joker was set to only appear in the ‘Batman’ comics for 1 to 2 issues due to the feeling from writers that having villains linger around for too long would effectively mean that Batman was unable to do his job. Then editor, Whitney Ellsworth, declined this sentiment and kept The Joker on for nine of the comic’s first twelve issues, cementing him as the archenemy of the Dynamic Duo (Batman & Robin).

Around issue #13, with original writer Bob Kane unable to commit the time needed to the DC comics due to his Batman newspaper strip becoming ever more popular, artist Dick Sprang assumed the position. With changes happening to the creative staff, DC also realized that it was becoming much easier to sell the comics to young children instead of an older audience, thus issuing a new era of villain; specifically for The Joker. Becoming more of a prankster than an actual threat to the Dynamic Duo, most of The Joker’s crimes were now much less-harmful and ended in some sort of gag, used mostly for comic relief; a large contrast from the previously gruesome and violent Batman comics.

‘The Joker Walks the Last Mile’, which was released in 1942, is said to be The Joker’s first step into his more silly and playful incarnation that would last for the next 30 years.

The Birth of Jack

In 1951, an entire decade after his creation, we learn of The Joker’s origin story in the 168th issue of the Detective Comics.

The Joker’s story starts with him as a young, down-and-out comedian named Jack, who is struggling to pay the medical bills for his wife’s pregnancy. He is approached by the Red Hood Gang and coerced into leading them into his old job at a chemical plant so that they can steal valuables from the property. Desperately needing quick cash, he accepts the job and is given a red mask to wear during the break-in, to hide his face. Unaware that the red mask is actually a decoy for the Red Hood Gang to get away safely from the scene of the crime, while cops aim for ‘the guy in bright red’.

Batman stops the burglary before it is complete and in a tussle, The Joker falls into a large vat of chemicals. Shortly after, the chemicals drive the ex-comedian crazy and turn him into the psychopathic ‘Joker’.

In 1954, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) had begun cracking down on the content of comic books, claiming that they were the cause of delinquent behavior in young people (including violence and homosexuality). The Comics Code banned gore and excessive violence from the comic books, making Batman much less menacing to his victims and at the same time changing The Joker from a sadistic murderer, into more of a fun-loving trickster.

1966 was the year of the first live-action version of The Joker, played by Cesar Romero in the short-lived television series ‘Batman’. This version of The Joker was the same type of fun-loving jokester that the Comics Code Authority had in mind but once the show’s popularity began to wane (as well as comic book sales), then-editorial director, Carmine Infantino decided it was time to go back to the Joker’s maddening ways.

Bat-Shit Crazy

After at least four years of Joker-less comics, now head writer, Dennis O’Neal, and artist, Neal Adams brought a revised version of The Joker back to DC. A capable and more-than-willing adversary to ‘The Bat’, the Joker was used sparingly as a main character in most of his appearances.

In 1973, the writers introduced another layer to this legendary mythos and deemed The Joker ‘clinically insane’… thus allowing him to be entered into the psych-ward ‘Arkham Asylum’ instead of being sent to Gotham prison. Around this time the physical appearance of the Joker began to change as well, from having a very basic figure to elongating the character’s chin and face, also making him taller and much leaner.

The Joker would soon after be the first villain to headline his own comic book and in 1975, ‘The Joker’ was released. He would, however, never fight Batman in this series as writers did not want to put viewers in a constant struggle between good and evil, and ultimately wanted audience’s to enjoy The Joker’s antics without moral regret.

He would encounter several criminals and even more legitimate villains in his first self-titled series but never Batman. No, Batman would come later.

Due to the Comics Code Authority’s ruling stating that comic book villains could not go without punishment, each issue of short-lived ‘The Joker’ series ended in its lead character being arrested and thrown into jail, ultimately limiting the possibilities of the overall story arch.

‘The Joker’ was discontinued after only nine issues. 00

The Killing Joke

In the 1970’s, sales of the Batman name and trademark had been doing poorly and was very close to being canceled altogether. In the 80’s, The Joker came into his own as a full-fledged character and villain and was able to help turn the struggling series around. The newest issues of the comic books began to make viewers and critics alike uncomfortable as the characters began to explore more mature tales of death and violence, now veering away from their usual children-oriented content.

In 1986, Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight’ is released. Showing an older, retired Batman and a now celebrity, Joker unable to live his life fully without the constant battle between him and the Caped Crusader.

In 1988-89’s ‘A Death in the Family’, we see The Joker deal his first real impact on the Batman’s personal life, killing his long-time partner Robin. The Joker beats The Boy Wonder to death with a crowbar as writers allow its audience to choose the fate of the not-so-popular Jason Todd a.k.a. Robin.

At a time when America and Iran had political tension, ‘A Death in the Family’ was released. The comic ends with then Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini appointing The Joker as his country’s ambassador, allowing him to escape the hands of the American justice system.

‘The Killing Joke’ was released in 1988 and finally tells the origin story of the Joker. Considered one of the best Joker stories ever told, it influenced several more of its kind including the 1998 film ‘Batman’ starring Jack Nicholson as The Clown Prince of Crime and the 2008 Oscar winner The Dark Knight, starring Heath Ledger in the same role.

Most recently, rock-star musician and actor, Jared Leto has dawned the pasty white skin and almost glowing bright green hair in the latest DC film ‘Suicide Squad’. The film was released to mixed reviews but loyal DC fans seemed to enjoy the upbeat action film.

Crazy In Love

The 1992 animated series ‘Batman’ introduced us to The Joker’s very first love interest: Harley Quinn, a psychiatrist at the Arkham Asylum, she was assigned to the Joker during his stint in the psyche-ward. She eventually falls in love with the ex-comedian turned psychopath and becomes his partner-in-crime.

The character was met with great fan-fair as she quickly became a favorite to audiences of all ages and genders.

In that same year, the comic book entitled ‘Anarky’ (created by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle) was released and in its final issue, claimed that its lead character ‘Anarky’ was indeed The Joker’s son. Now editor of the Batman books, Ed O’Neil, didn’t agree with this story-line and demanded it only be written under protest and would soon be addressed as incorrect in a future issue of the comic ‘Anarky’.

However, the comic didn’t last very long and was cancelled before a proper rebuttal could be published.

In 2012, ‘Death of the Family’ (Written by Scott Snyder) was the Joker’s first major story line in the DC Comics new ‘The 52’ series and showed the almost symbiotic relationship between The Joker and Batman. The final chapter to the ‘Death of the Family’ series was titled ‘Endgame’ and in it we see deaths of both The Joker and Batman.

Since then we have seen Hollywood heavy-hitters take up the mantle as the Clown Prince, from Jack Nicholson, to Jared Leto and most recently, Joaquin Phoenix. All of these eclectic, and powerful performances strive from one place. Conrad Veight, Paul Leni, and The Man Who Laughs.

The Clown Prince of Crime

The infamous and ever-charismatic ‘Joker’ has been making comicbook and movie fans question their allegiance to ‘the good guys’ for almost 75 years, and if we are including his original muse in Conrad Veidt’s ‘The Man Who Laughs’, it has been almost a full century of ‘The Joker’ in our lives; and we are better for it!

So, which version of The Joker is your favorite?

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