The Legacy of The Joker
Though many have been related, a definitive back-story has never been established for the Joker in the comics, and his real name has never been confirmed. He himself is confused as to what actually happened; as he says in The Killing Joke, "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha!" In Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, written by Grant Morrison, it is said that the Joker may not be insane, but has some sort of "super-sanity" in which he re-creates himself each day to cope with the chaotic flow of modern urban life.
The first origin account, Detective Comics #168 (February 1951), revealed that the Joker had once been a criminal known as the Red Hood. In the story, he is a scientist (a chemical engineer) looking to steal from the company that employs him and adopts the persona of Red Hood. After committing the theft, which Batman thwarts, he falls into a vat of chemical waste. He emerges with bleached white skin, red lips, green hair and a permanent grin.
The most widely cited backstory, which the official DC Comics publication, Who's Who in the DC Universe credits as the most widely believed account, is featured in The Killing Joke. It depicts him as originally being an engineer at a chemical plant who quits his job to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, Jeannie, he agrees to help two criminals break into the plant where he was formerly employed to get to the card company next door. In this version of the story, the Red Hood persona is given to the inside man of every job (thus it is never the same man twice); this makes the man appear to be the ringleader, allowing the two criminals to escape. During the planning, police contact him and inform him that his wife and unborn child have died in a household accident.
Stricken with grief, he attempts to back out of the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his promise. As soon as they enter the plant, however, they are immediately caught by security and a shoot-out ensues, in which the two criminals are killed. As the engineer tries to escape, he is confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance. Terrified, the engineer leaps over a rail and plummets into a vat of chemicals. When he surfaces in the nearby reservoir, he removes the hood and sees his reflection: bleached chalk-white skin, ruby-red lips, and bright green hair. These events, coupled with his other misfortunes that day, drive the engineer completely insane, resulting in the birth of the Joker.
The story "Pushback" (Batman: Gotham Knights #50-55) supports part of this version of the Joker's origin story. In it, a witness (who coincidentally turns out to be Edward Nigma) recounts that the Joker's wife was kidnapped and murdered by a corrupt cop working for the criminals in order to force the engineer into performing the crime. The Joker attempts to find the corrupt cop who committed the murder, but is beaten badly by Hush and expelled from Gotham before this takes place. "Pushback" also shows pictures of the pre-disfigurement Joker — identified as "Jack" — with his wife, giving further support to this version.
The Paul Dini-Alex Ross story "Case Study" proposes a far different theory. This story suggests that the Joker was a sadistic gangster who worked his way up Gotham's criminal food chain until he was the leader of a powerful mob. Still seeking the thrills that dirty work allowed, he created the Red Hood identity for himself so that he could commit small-time crimes. Eventually, he had his fateful first meeting with Batman, resulting in his disfigurement. However, the story suggests that the Joker remained sane, and researched his crimes to look like the work of a sick mind in order to pursue his vendetta against Batman. Unfortunately, the written report found explaining this theory is discovered to have been written by Dr. Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn, the Joker's insane sidekick/lover, which invalidates any credibility it could have in court.
The most recent origin retelling is featured in the second arc of Batman Confidential (#7-12), which re-imagines him as a gifted hitman. This origin once more states his name as Jack, and eliminates the Red Hood identity. Bored with his work, Jack becomes obsessed with Batman, and crashes a museum ball to attract his attention. In doing so, he badly injures Lorna Shore (whom Bruce Wayne is dating). An enraged Batman disfigures his face with a batarang as he escapes. In retaliation, a furious Batman sells Jack out to mobsters whom he had crossed, who torture Jack in a disused chemical plant. Turning the tables, Jack kills several of his assailants, but falls into an empty vat. Wild gunfire punctures the chemical tanks above him, and the resultant flood of toxins alters his appearance to that of a clown.
The Joker commits crimes with comedic weapons such as a deck of razor-sharp playing cards, an acid-spewing flower, cyanide pies, exploding cigars filled with nitroglycerin, harpoon guns that utilize razor-sharp BANG!-flags, and a lethally electric joy buzzer. His most prominent weapon is his Joker venom, a deadly poison that infects his victims with a ghoulish rictus grin as they die while laughing uncontrollably. The venom comes in many forms, from gas to darts to liquid poison, and has been his primary calling card from his first appearance. The Joker is immune to his venom; in Batman #663, Morrison writes that "being an avid consumer of his products, Joker's immunity to poisons has been built up over years of dedicated abuse".
The Joker is portrayed as highly intelligent and skilled in the fields of chemistry and engineering, as well an expert with explosives. In a miniseries featuring Tim Drake, the third Robin, the Joker is shown kidnapping a computer genius, and admitting that he doesn't know much about computers, although later writers have portrayed him as very computer literate.
Joker's skills in unarmed combat vary considerably depending on the writer. Some writers have shown Joker to be a skilled fighter, capable of holding his own against Batman in hand-to-hand combat. Other writers prefer portraying Joker as physically frail to the point that he can be defeated with a single punch. He is, however, consistently described as agile. Joker's skills in combat also differ in the film and television adaptations.
The Joker has cheated death numerous times, even in seemingly inescapable and lethal situations. He has been seen caught in explosions, been shot repeatedly, dropped from lethal heights, electrocuted, and so on, but he always returns once again to wreak havoc.
Over several decades there have been a variety of depictions and possibilities regarding the Joker's apparent insanity. Grant Morrison's graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth suggests that the Joker's mental state is in fact a previously unprecedented form of "super-sanity," a form of ultra-sensory perception. It also suggests that he has no true personality of his own, that on any given day he can be a harmless clown or a vicious killer, depending on which would benefit him the most. Later, during the Knightfall saga, after Scarecrow and the Joker team up and kidnap the mayor of Gotham City, Scarecrow turns on the Joker and uses his fear gas to see what Joker is afraid of. To Scarecrow's surprise, the gas has no effect on Joker, who in turn beats him with a chair. In Morrison's JLA, the Martian Manhunter, trapped in a surreal maze created by the Joker, used his shape-shifting abilities to reconfigure his own brain to emulate the Joker's chaotic thought patterns. Later in the same storyline, Martian Manhunter uses his telepathic powers to reorganize the Joker's mind and create momentary sanity, albeit with great effort and only temporarily. In those few moments, the Joker expresses regret for his many crimes and pleads for a chance at redemption.
In Elseworlds: Distant Fires, the Joker is rendered sane by a nuclear war that deprives all super beings of their powers. In Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #145, the Joker became sane when Batman put him in one of Ra's al Ghul's Lazarus Pits after being shot, a reversal of the insanity which may come after experiencing such rejuvenation. However, the sanity is only temporary, and soon the Joker is back to his "normal" self.
The character is sometimes portrayed as having a fourth wall awareness. In Batman: The Animated Series, the Joker is the only character to talk directly into the "camera" and can be heard whistling his own theme music in the episode adaptation of the comic Mad Love. Also, in the episode "Joker's Wild", he says into the camera, "Don't try this at home, kids!" In the Marvel vs DC crossover, he also demonstrates knowledge of the first Batman/Spider-Man crossover even though that story's events did not occur in the canonical history of either the Marvel or DC universe. On page five of "Sign of The Joker", the second half of the "Laughing Fish" storyline, the Joker turns the page for the reader, bowing and tipping his hat in mock politeness. On the official websites and associated promotional material for The Dark Knight, graffiti characteristic of the Joker can be found. On the website IBelieveinHarveyDentToo.com, hidden among laughter is the message "See you in December", referring to the release of the film's trailer.
The Joker has been referred to as the Clown Prince of Crime, the Harlequin of Hate, and the Ace of Knaves. One of his most famous traits is his evil laugh, which can be used in many different forms e.g being ominous, intimidating and frightening or gleeful and wild. Throughout the evolution of the DC Universe, interpretations and incarnations of the Joker have taken two forms. The original and currently dominant image is of a fiendishly intelligent psychopath with a warped, sadistic sense of humor. The other interpretation of the character, popular in the late 1940s through 1960s comic books as well as the 1960s television series, is that of an eccentric but harmless prankster and thief. Batman: The Animated Series blended these two aspects, although most interpretations tend to embrace one characterization or the other
The Joker's victims have included men, women, children, and even his own henchmen and other villains. In the graphic novel The Joker: Devil's Advocate, the Joker is reported to have killed well over 2,000 people. Despite having murdered enough people to get the death penalty thousands of times over, he is always found not guilty by reason of insanity. In the Batman story line "War Crimes", this continued ruling of insanity is in fact made possible by the Joker's own dream team of lawyers. He is then placed in Arkham Asylum, from which he appears able to escape at will, going so far as to claim that it's just a resting ground in between his "performances".
Batman has been given numerous opportunities and some temptation to put the Joker down once and for all, but has relented at the last minute. As an example, in one story line, Batman threatens to kill the Joker, but stops himself upon realizing that such an act would make him "a killer like yourself!" Conversely, the Joker has given up many chances to kill the Batman because the Joker defines himself by his struggle with him.
The Joker is renowned as Batman's greatest enemy. While other villains rely on tried-and-true methods to commit crimes (such as Mr. Freeze's freeze gun or Poison Ivy's toxic plants), Joker has a variety of weapons at his disposal. For example, the flower he wears in his lapel sprays (at any given time) acid, poisonous laughing gas, or nothing at all. In Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker and much earlier in "Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker!" (Batman #321), the Joker has a gun which at first shoots a flag saying "BANG!", but then, with another pull of the trigger, the flag fires and impales its target (in the edited version of Return of the Joker, the gun shoots Joker gas). His most recurring gadget is a high-voltage hand-buzzer, which he uses to electrocute his victims with a handshake. His capricious nature, coupled with his violent streak and general unpredictability, makes him feared by the public at large, other DC superheroes, and DC supervillains as well; in the Villains United and Infinite Crisis mini-series, the members of the villains' Secret Society refuse to induct the Joker for this reason, which backfires as the Joker, infuriated at being left out, attacks members of the Society; and ultimately kills the leader, Alexander Luthor. In the mini-series Underworld Unleashed, the Trickster remarks, "When super-villains want to scare each other, they tell Joker stories."
One person who still sees some humanity in the Joker is the Martian Manhunter. When the Joker gained the Philosopher's Stone and tried to create chaos on Earth, J'onn was able to order the Joker's mind and cause temporary sanity, where the Joker expressed regret and remorse for his actions, and became desperate for a means to make up for them. Later, the Martian Manhunter takes the Spectre, into the Joker's mind, bringing Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Flash, Plastic Man, and Zauriel with them. J'onn is trying to show the Spirit of Vengeance that even in the most corrupt mind, there is a small spark of decency. Using the Joker as an example, Martian Manhunter shows the Spectre a vision of the Joker pre-transformation, with his wife, Jeannie.