(Photo by Niko Tavernise, © Warner Bros.)
Moviegoers are about to go Joker crazy when the film, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, arrives in theaters this October. The character is one of the masterworks that comics gave to the literary canon, and his on-screen development into a lead divorced from Batman was inevitable. He has fascinated readers for decades, and as Phillips and Phoenix prepare to finally unleash their character study on audiences, we thought we’d take a look at some the best comic-book stories featuring the Clown Prince of Crime – a kind of homework guide for Joker enthusiasts leading up to release.
And to make things interesting, we’re taking Batman: The Killing Joke out of the running. (Because, well, you already know that one back to front.) Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 masterpiece is the definitive Joker story. It purports to tell you the 100 percent true origin of the Joker – a failed comedian who turned to crime – only for the Joker to reveal he’s forgotten who he used to be beyond knowing one bad day made him Batman’s greatest enemy. And he plans to give Jim Gordon that one bad day, but utterly fails to break anyone in the process. Bolland’s art, with colors by John Higgins, is absolutely exquisite with its dual sense of realism and cartooning. The whole package is the inspiration for The Dark Knight and Joker, even if Phillips set out to create a new origin for the character. It is always the top of any list of Joker stories.
But what else stands out when we enshrine The Killing Joke as the unimpeachable best Joker story? Take a look below and find out.
(Photo by DC Comics)
For roughly 11 years, the origin of the Grim Jester was not really an issue in the pages of DC Comics. Co-creator Bill Finger and other writers were pretty happy with him the way he was. Flash forward to 1951, when the decision was made to introduce a slice of the Joker’s history.
In the story, Batman agrees to teach a criminology class at “State University.” As his students become better detectives, he challenges them to determine the identity of the Red Hood, a criminal he faced 10 years prior but never defeated. News of the homework assignment brings the Red Hood out of retirement to steal the university’s payroll fund. The robber is stymied by Batman and eventually apprehended after some more high jinks, revealing the Joker under the Red Hood.
Despite some silly 1950s comic book conventions – and the problematic rendering of Hawaiian criminology student Paul Wong by artists Lew Sayre Schwartz, Win Mortimer, and George Roussos – the story is gripping, with the narrator challenging readers to find the clues to the Red Hood’s identity. In hindsight, references to the hood obscuring “the shape of the chin” and Robin’s use of a “botched” chemical process to uncover a green hair from the Red Hood’s discarded hat are really clever tells. You could imagine a reader either missing these details (despite Batman’s insistence to look closer) or getting excited as the story begins to confirm their hypothesis. Even if you know the answer already, the tension ramps up in an unexpected and pleasing way.
The story also has a legacy in introducing the Joker’s early, less inspired, criminal persona. By doing so, it acknowledged that his true identity was a mystery Batman never cracked.
Sixty five issues into Batman’s run, the Joker’s early days as a laughing killer were behind him. Instead, he was Gotham City’s most flamboyant bank robber. But we’ll be honest, this story is famous – or infamous – thanks to the way language changes, making a single word used throughout the story seem like the title character is playing a long-game practical joke on readers across the decades. That word? “Boner.” At the time, it was synonymous with “a screw-up,” not “an erection.” We’re not sure when the meaning completely changed (although we suspect it was sometime in the 1980s), but it seems writer Bill Finger was unaware of its randy connotation back in the 1950s.
Then again, maybe he was having a laugh alongside the Joker.
In the story, the Joker commits a silly blunder during a robbery, which makes him the butt of a running joke around town, with even newspaper headlines referencing his boner. Aggravated, he sets out to make Gotham “rue the day they mentioned the word ‘boner’” by committing crimes based on famous blunders in history. His primary target is, of course, Batman, who “falls” for the trap in order to find Joker’s hideout and take him into custody.
Published the same year as “The Man Behind the Red Hood,” there’s something archly mid-century about the whole thing, particularly in the innocence surrounding the now-ribald term. But it is also a window into what the Comics Code Authority-sanctioned version of Joker looked like. Without his original murderous drives, these were the sorts of shenanigans he concerned himself with for almost 25 years before homicide returned to his tight five-minute act.
But for all the latter-day guffawing over the Joker’s boner, the story is also a prime example of the character’s incredible ego and how it often gets the better of him.
The Joker’s egotistical imperative would be the cause of his downfall in this story from writer David V. Reed (as David Vern) and artists Dick Sprang and Charles Paris. The plot sees Joker inheriting a vast fortune from a rival mob boss only to discover most of it was counterfeit. At the same time, an IRS agent arrives at his new home to tell him he owes $2 million in inheritance tax. Unfortunately, the Joker’s ego prevents him from telling the agent that the fortune is a sham. If word got out that he had been hoodwinked, he’d be the laughingstock of the criminal underworld!
To pay the taxman and avoid suspicion, he sets out to commit “ordinary” crimes, but fate keeps making the crimes seem more fabulously theatrical and Joker-esque. It proves to be the key in aiding Batman to foil his foe. Joker’s tax problems, though, are never resolved.
The Joker’s increasing need to save face propels this story past a lot of other tales from the era because of the way it plays Joker’s fears straight. The last thing he wants to reveal to his contemporaries is flopsweat. While far from the murderous Grim Jester of the Golden Age, it is one of the best character studies of the “Crime Clown” ever published in 20th Century Detective. In fact, the story would later be adapted into an episode of 1998’S The New Batman Adventures.
(Photo by DC Comics)
How can a list of great Joker stories not feature at least one with Harley Quinn? Adapted from an episode of The New Batman Adventures by the show’s executive producers, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Mad Love reveals the twisted adoration Dr. Harleen Quinzel felt for Joker when he became one of her patients at Arkham Asylum. But beyond serving as Harley’s origin tale, Mad Love introduces a new, sinister side to the Joker – he’s an abuser. While Timm’s wonderful illustrations give the story more of a cartoon air, Joker’s treatment of Harley features all the classic signs of abuse. And because Timm portrays the violence more directly than in the animated episode, it is hard to look at panels in which “Mistah J” browbeats her with verbal slings or straight-up hits her without wincing.
As with many of the great Joker stories, he is undone by his ego. But here, the lovely twist involves Harley and the Joker’s fears that he would become a punchline if she killed Batman. It not only saves Batman from a death by piranha, but it allows him to defeat the Joker with one word: puddin’.
Mad Love really set the tone for Joker and Harley’s twisted affair, and while it has been over for a long time in the comics – and little more than backstory for the cinematic Harley – this foundational moment forever altered the character into something both more brutal and charismatic.
In his first appearance from Batman #1’s untitled feature story, the Joker arrives fully formed with design and gimmick already firmly established. Even his penchant for using the media to announce his crimes debuts in this story. Curiously, though, this version of the murderous clown is light on humor – the puns in the story are delivered by Batman and Robin – while high on an unsettling grin he both wears himself and leaves on the faces of his victims. Nonetheless, he proves to be an adversary even Batman has to admit is worthy.
While very much a Golden Age story in terms of plot and character, its enduring legacy is the look of Joker himself. Unlike the initial Bob Kane/Bill Finger design of the Bat-Man, which evolved quite a bit across his first few years, Kane and ghost artist Jerry Robinson (credited as inker here) had a clear picture in terms of color, clothes, and Joker’s rictus face, which overwhelms any panel he appears in. The character would immediately reappear in the issue’s second story and become the Dark Knight’s true arch foe.
(Photo by DC Comics)
After a long absence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Joker returned to comics under the direction of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams. The pair had been revamping Batman for some time, removing the campier elements accrued from the 1950s. Batman became his own narrator and a truly dynamic adventurer on the page, thanks to Adams’s style and O’Neil’s plots.
They gave Joker the same treatment in a fairly simple tale of revenge. Knowing one member of his gang turned state’s evidence on him, he resolves to kill them all. Batman has mere hours to stop him and pretty much fails. But so does Joker in a scene that recalls some of his Silver Age screw-ups but also plays on the slicker, darker tone O’Neil and Adams were bringing to Batman.
The story also presents a lasting legacy for the character: the affirmation that he is a killer. The Joker may have spent decades attempting zany clown-themed robberies, but at his heart, he is something far more grotesque. From this point on, he would always be a murderer.
Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke’s 2005 retelling of the Batman #1 story benefits from all the advancements in comics over the course of 66 years. Mahnke’s art underscores the unsettling nature of the Joker’s laughing gas while giving the villain a wide range of expressions. Brubaker’s script, meanwhile, highlights how far both Batman and Commissioner Gordon have come in terms of characters since 1939. In this telling, Gordon is still a Gotham City Police Captain while the Batman is a year-and-change into his career when the murderous clown destroys their footing. Both narrate their own parts of the story – as opposed to the omniscient narrator, Bill Finger, in the original tale – and Joker uses television instead of radio to announce his arrival.
Consequently, the story gets reframed as the week both Batman and Gordon realize Gotham will never be the home of simple, predictable crime ever again. Batman may stop Joker from poisoning the city aqueduct, but the floodgates are opened to costumed crazies. In this, Joker is very much an “unknowable force of nature” and a thrill to see on the page.
(Photo by DC Comics)
Running from Batman #426-429, A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin, Jim Aparo, and Mike DeCarlo was a major turning point in DC Comics history. Jason Todd, the second Robin, finally tracks down his long-lost birth mother, but their happy reunion turns sour when he learns she’s in league with the Joker. She quickly hands him over to the clown, who savagely beats Jason within an inch of his life, ties up his mother, and blows them both up. To read those scenes again in Batman #428 is to see the Joker fully unleashed. It is surprisingly brutal for a mainline DC Comic of the late 1980s.
But as great Joker stories often see him murder or brutalize members of the Batman cast, it takes a little more to make this the representative of that type of tale. And that something more is what Joker does after Batman finds Jason’s corpse: He returns to the U.S. as a United Nations dignitary from Iran (!), and because he has diplomatic immunity, Superman warns Batman not to interfere with his UN duties. His ambassadorship turns out to be another murderous plot – the Iranian government hired him to kill the UN General Assembly – which Superman foils even as Batman prepares to pursue the Joker across New York. It ends with a helicopter crash and the apparent death of the Joker. But he eventually returns to hassle Jason’s replacement, Tim Drake.
Besides the wild ending reflecting American attitudes toward the Middle East at the time, we also see Joker’s callousness and theatricality on display. He works with people as long as they amuse him, but as soon as he learns one of his accomplices is Robin’s mother, she becomes an added bonus in his suddenly murderous scheme. Jason would eventually return from the dead, but Joker will always count killing a Robin as one of his greatest hits.
This 1998 story is an absolutely brilliant tale by Chuck Dixon and Brian Stelfreeze in which Joker does his best Hannibal Lecter impression. Batman is forced into the Will Graham role as he turns to his greatest nemesis for clues about a child abduction case on the anniversary of Jason Todd’s death. The kidnapper served next to Joker at Arkham Asylum and it is clear the whole caper was devised by the clown to get at the Bat.
For most of the issue, the two spar in Joker’s cell – although their discussion is counterpointed with scenes of Batman tearing through a mob-controlled ferry to get to the victim. Finally, the Joker claims boredom and just straight up tells Batman where the missing girl is. The Dark Knight returns to Arkham shortly thereafter to learn the why the Joker was willing to offer a life-saving tip. His answer is one of the cruelest and most ingenious punchlines the failed comedian ever devised… so much so, we don’t want to spoil it other than to say it may actually be the archfiend’s masterpiece.
The story may not have a lasting legacy, but it is a prime example of the character’s intelligence and tenacity. He crafts a long game (in which no one gets killed) to deliver a punishing blow upon his nemesis.
There have been a handful of “Joker goes straight” stories over the years, but none are as sprawling, effective, or as richly detailed as Sean Murphy’s 2017-2018 miniseries, Batman: White Knight. In it, an increasingly unhinged Batman forces the Joker to ingest a mysterious antipsychotic drug at a disused lab. Video of the incident goes viral, causing Gotham to lose faith in its Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the drug suppresses Joker and allows his original persona – Jack Napier – to take control. Their methods may be quite different, for the most part, but Jack and Joker want the exact same thing: command of Gotham. And so Jack sets out to amass legal and political power to become its white knight. The premise leads to sublime character studies of the Joker, Batman, and a few other members of the Batman cast. The story is also filled with great action sequences and big emotions. It may also be the best Harley Quinn story to date.
Murphy’s art sets his Gotham apart from any other you’ve seen. But as he also draws inspiration from the Batman feature films, Batman: The Animated Series, and 80 years of Batman comics, the world feels immediately familiar. His decision to make Jack Napier the person under the Joker’s greasepaint – and his decision to make Jack one of the story’s two surprising heroes – makes absolute sense by page 20. In some ways, it serves as the reverse of The Killing Joke. Where that story sets out to make Joker an unknowable force – his real memories are a mystery to him – White Knight offers an intimate look at the man inside and reveals a possibility for redemption. Besides being a cracking great Joker story, it may be the best Batman story told since the turn of the century.
Joker is in theaters October 4.