The Joker, one of the most recognizable and notorious villains in popular culture, has captured the imagination of audiences for over 80 years. From his early appearances in comic books to his recent portrayal in films, the Joker has undergone various iterations of his origin story, reflecting the changing cultural and societal contexts in which he exists.
Batman #1 (1940)
The Joker’s original origin story, as presented in 1940’s Batman #1, depicts him as a criminal known as the Red Hood, who fell into a vat of chemicals during a heist and emerged as the Joker. This origin story remained largely unchanged for decades and was even adapted into various forms of media, including the 1989 Batman film directed by Tim Burton and starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker.
Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)
However, in 1988, writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland presented a new take on the Joker’s origin story in the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke. In this version, the Joker is a failed comedian who turns to crime to support his pregnant wife but ultimately falls into a vat of chemicals, which drive him insane and transform him into the Joker. Batman: The Killing Joke has since become a seminal work in the Batman canon, inspiring various adaptations and influencing subsequent portrayals of the character.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
Batman: The Animated Series, which aired in the 1990s, introduced yet another origin story for the Joker. Mark Hamill does an absolute amazing job providing the voice of the Joker. In this version, he is a low-level thug named Jack who falls into a vat of chemicals during a heist at the Ace Chemicals plant, emerging as the Joker.
This iteration of the Joker’s origin story portrays him as a victim of circumstance, rather than a malicious force of evil. Additionally, this version introduced the concept of the Joker’s relationship with Harley Quinn, a character who has become a staple in the Batman mythos.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) is often cited as one of the best, with his chaotic energy and nihilistic worldview captivating audiences worldwide. More recently, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the 2019 Joker movie has been praised for its depth and exploration of mental illness.
The New 52 (2011-2016)
In 2011, DC Comics launched The New 52 continuity, which saw the Joker’s origin story undergo another revision. In Detective Comics #1, the Joker is once again a criminal named Jack who is hired by the Red Hood Gang to rob a chemical plant. After betraying the gang and killing them all, Jack falls into a vat of chemicals during a confrontation with the plant’s security guards and emerges as the Joker. This version of the Joker’s origin story presents him as a more ruthless and calculated character, who deliberately sets out to become the Joker.
Suicide Squad (2016)
In the 2016 film Suicide Squad, the Jokers’ (Jared Leto) origin story is left largely ambiguous, with only a few brief hints and flashbacks providing some insight into his past. However, it is suggested that the character may have begun as a small-time criminal who worked his way up the ranks of Gotham City’s underworld.
His appearance is characterized by his eclectic style, which draws heavily from classic gangster and punk rock aesthetics. He is depicted with vibrant green hair, a set of silver-capped teeth, and a multitude of tattoos, including the word “damaged” prominently emblazoned across his forehead. The character’s clothing choices are similarly distinct, with Joker favoring flamboyant, often brightly colored suits, and heavily embellished leather jackets.
The TV show Gotham (2014-2019) presents a unique and controversial take on the origin story of the Joker. Rather than depicting the character as a fully formed villain, the show instead presents a gradual transformation, with various characters taking on the mantle of the Joker throughout its five-season run. However, the most widely recognized version of the Joker in “Gotham” is portrayed by Cameron Monaghan, who plays the character as a young, disaffected loner named Jerome Valeska.
Over the course of several episodes, Jerome descends further and further into madness, culminating in a violent and chaotic spree that marks the beginning of his transformation into the Joker. While some fans and critics have criticized “Gotham” for its unconventional approach to the character, others have praised it for its willingness to explore new territory and push the boundaries of the Joker’s mythology.
Most recently, in 2019, the film Joker (directed by Todd Phillips) presented yet another version of the character’s origin story. In this iteration, the Joker played by (Joaquin Phoenix) is portrayed as a failed stand-up comedian named Arthur Fleck, who turns to violence and chaos after being repeatedly marginalized and mistreated by society. This version of the Joker’s origin story is darker and more disturbing than previous versions, and has sparked controversy and debate among audiences and critics alike.
The origin stories for the Joker have evolved significantly over the character’s long history. From Bob Kane first creating the character in 1940, the Clown Prince of Crime has been reimagined by countless writers and artists, each adding their own unique interpretation to the character’s backstory. While some versions of the Joker’s origin depict him as a failed comedian or a victim of tragic circumstances, others emphasize his status as a pure villain, born of nothing more than a desire for chaos and destruction. Regardless of the details, however, the Joker remains one of the most iconic and enduring figures in the world of comics, a testament to the appeal of complex, multifaceted villains.