The Joker's Onto Us

A look at the many faces of Batman's nemesis, on film, on television and in the comics.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

"I 've been thinking lately. About you and me. About what's going to happen to us, in the end. We're going to kill each other, aren't we?"

That's the Batman talking, a couple of decades ago, to his archnemesis, the Joker, in the opening pages of a graphic novel that changed both of them and made their relationship more wonderfully sick.

Usually the Joker is the one who articulates the nutty codependence here. Almost every time they meet, Joker has the gall to remind Batman that they are each nothing without the other, and he usually brings this up as Batman is kicking the holy-moley-frijoles out of him, in an almost erotic moment of sadomasochism. Joker loves it, laughing his head off with each punch. (And Batman loves it, yes?) The world doesn't quite understand, even though these two have been going at it for 68 years.

"To them, you're a freak," Heath Ledger's Joker tells Christian Bale's Batman in "The Dark Knight," the new sequel opening Thursday. "Like me."

As if Batman didn't have enough problems, around which entire dissertations have been written, around which our cultural admiration for him is built: Batman has unresolved orphan grief; Batman has difficulties with authority, drifting literally above the law; Batman is rife with hints of inappropriateness (how many teenage boys have been his Robin by now?); Batman stands for fascism; Batman has bad manners (who told him it was okay to crash through the skylight? Why does he disappear when you're asking him a question?); Batman has terrible girlfriends (Catwoman, for one), whom he treats badly anyhow; Batman has issues, which are most evident in his vigilante scare tactics. It's all right there!

But the problem of Joker, the cruel terrorist with the permanent rictus and appalling clown face, has nagged Batman in one way or another since 1940. Writers and artists (and filmmakers, and actors) adore the Joker because the narrative dynamic is so arresting, as a pure visual: The guy in the black pleather get-up who lurks around parapets at night is the good one? And the clown is the bad one?

Sometimes, especially in the 1950s and '60s, their tangles were built for laughs. (Oh, that Joker -- spray-painting priceless works at the Gotham Museum of Art!) "Hoo-hoo-hoo, Batman! Hee-hee-hee!" -- and that was about as interesting as going to a cheap circus.

Later, in the '80s, the Joker story lines and depictions got scary enough that you didn't want to sleep in the same room with your comic books, even if you were 23. All of Joker's antics -- where does he get purple-and-green-striped helicopters? -- never trumped his infamous calling card, a joker from the deck, left on corpses. Corpses with frozen stares and frozen smiles.

Batman's villains all work from a starting point of derangement or misplaced rage, but they're also Type A enough to have plans and goals, for robberies, heists, control. From the first, the makers of the early Batman comic books felt Joker should be a mass killer, and that there shouldn't be any reason why he kills, other than it introduces anarchy into Batman's world. This was awful to think about back in '40s drugstore America, when there wasn't a serial killer with a new fetish greeting you in every airport bookstore and on the screen -- a killer clown, imagine!

"Batman" creator Bob Kane and others (parts of the Joker story-line inspiration and concept are alternately, and disputedly, credited to a ghostwriter, Bill Finger, and an illustrator, Jerry Robinson) took their cues from the 1928 silent movie adaptation of Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs," starring Conrad Veidt as the tormented soul with a garishly immobile smile that had been carved onto his face as a child. The plan was to kill Joker off in an issue or two, maybe because he was too scary. But, as comic book legend has it, the last panel of Joker's debut story was redrawn on deadline. That way, Joker could escape death and return sometime later. Hahahaha, Hoo-hooo-hoo, To Be Continued? . . .

* * *

Joker came back again, and keeps coming: as an elaborately prankish bank robber in the 1950s, when the comics had been chastened by censors; as Cesar Romero's buffoonish baddie on the "Batman" TV series in the '60s; as a deranged post-Carnaby Street dandy with Charlie Manson undertones in the '70s.

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