On July 18, the latest in a long line of Batman films will hit theaters in the United States: "The Dark Knight." Once again, the Batman's arch-enemy, the Joker, the Clown Prince of Crime, will share the screen with the Dark Knight detective. This should come as no surprise; the Joker is as much a part of the Batman as any component of the hero's rich tapestry of history. In fact, the Joker's history in comics is as tightly tied to his history in cinema, and the new film is just the latest chapter. In this first of a two-part series, we will look at the entire history of the DC Comics villain on the page, on television,and on film from his earliest inspirations to the present day.
The Joker first appeared in "Batman" #1 (1940), but his specific origins are under dispute. According to Bill Finger, writer and co-creator of Batman, he showed co-creator and artist Bob Kane a photograph of actor Conrad Veidt wearing make-up for the 1928 silent film "The Man Who Laughs." It was from this photograph that the Joker was reportedly modeled. "The Man Who Laughs" was based upon a Victor Hugo novel of the same name and told the story of Gwynplaine, an English nobleman who was mutilated by King James II after his father offended the monarch. Gwynplaine's mouth was cut into a horrible rictus grin and was condemned "to laugh forever at his fool of a father."
That's the official story. However, there are some who disagree.
The controversy surrounding the Joker's creation comes from a conflicting story by artist Jerry Robinson, who drew many appearances of the Batman under Bob Kane's name. In a May 17, 1994 Entertainment Weekly interview with Frank Lovece, Bob Kane stated:
Bill Finger and I created the Joker. Bill was the writer. Jerry Robinson came to me with a playing card of the Joker. [...] But he looks like Conrad Veidt ï¿½" you know, the actor in "The Man Who Laughs", by Victor Hugo. There's a photo of Conrad Veidt in my biography, "Batman & Me." So Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, "Here's the Joker." Jerry Robinson had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Robinson tells a different story, as we can see from an October 18, 2006 interview with Newsarama in which the artist asserted:
What happened was Bill Finger knew of Conrad Veidt because Bill had been to a lot of the foreign films. Veidt was a great star of European films and in the film Veidt had this clown makeup with the frozen smile on his face. When Bill saw the first drawing of the Joker, he said, "That reminds me of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs."[...] I think in Bill's mind, he fleshed out the concept of the character."
In any event, the Joker bears a striking resemblance to the character of Gwynplaine as portrayed by Veidt, and "The Man Who Laughs" is considered by many to be the cinematic forebear of the comic character; so much so, that in February 2005, DC Comics published a retelling of the first Joker story entitled "Batman: The Man Who Laughs," authored by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke.
In his initial comic appearance, the Joker was, very plainly, a mass-murdering psychopath. He announced the name and time of death of his victims over the radio, defying Batman and the Gotham Police to stop him. The Joker killed his victims with a time-release poison known as Joker Toxin, which left the victim with a twisted grin that mirrored the Joker's own distorted visage.
Despite his unique and disturbing appearance, the Joker was not originally intended to be Batman's opposite number. According to "Batman From the '30s to the '70s" (1970), the character was initially going to be killed by a knife wound in his second appearance (also in "Batman" #1). Whitney Ellsworth, the series editor, decided the character had potential and should survive. As a result, an additional panel was drawn depicting Joker's survival. Indeed, throughout the 1940s, a pattern emerged by which the Joker appeared to die, only to be revealed as alive and well later.
The actual origin of the Joker has been retold many times; each story carries variations, both large and small. The character's real name has never been revealed, as he has been seen to lie pathologically about his life. At times, the Joker himself seems unsure as to his true origins. This tendency was demonstrated in the very popular "The Killing Joke" (March 1988), in which the Joker states, "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"
The first origin story presented for the Joker appeared in "Detective Comics" #168 (February 1951). In that, story we learned that prior to becoming the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker was a villain known as the Red Hood. The origin paints the Joker as a scientist attempting to rob his employer. The Red Hood and his gang were thwarted by the Batman, with the Red Hood himself falling into a vat of chemical waste. When he emerged, his skin was bleached white, his lips were blood red, and his hair was a shocking green. This violent and horrific origin was in keeping with the style of comics of the period and was only one small pebble in the avalanche that followed.
The 1950s was a strange a turbulent time for the comic book industry. Throughout the '40s and '50s, horror and crime comics were very popular. Some of the imagery and subjects were shocking even by the standards of modern comics. Enter Dr. Frederic Wertham, a German-American psychiatrist and author who put forth the hypothesis that mass media --and comic books in particular-- were contributors to what he saw as a dramatic post-war rise in juvenile delinquency. In 1954, Wertham published his theories in a book called "Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth." The book contained violent, gory, and sexually charged pages from the most popular comics of the time. His hypothesis was that comic books encouraged juvenile delinquency and homosexuality in the children who read them, particularly young males.
The public backlash against the comic industry was palpable. Parents banned their children from reading comics, and many neighborhoods built bonfires to burn every comic book they could find, regardless of content. The comic book publishers were forced to make a Darwinian choice: change or die. As a result, the Comics Code Authority was created by the major publishers in an attempt of policing the content of their comics before the government stepped in and regulated them. The industry was forced to abandon the horror and crime titles that had been the most popular. In their place, the industry turned to less popular humor comics. Many companies were forced out of business and, had it not been for the resurrection of superhero comics by DC and Marvel in the '60s, Wertham's purge might have been the death knell for the American comic book industry.
As a result of the institution of the Comics Code Authority, the Joker became a comedic character. Gone was the murder and mayhem; instead he became a kooky and mischievous thief, coming up with crazy crimes that used an array of puzzles and jokes as the theme. Yet, even though the Joker had become much less of a threat to Batman and the people of Gotham, he was still the Dark Knight's craftiest opponent. The Clown Prince added a utility belt and even a Joker-Mobile to his repertoire. The Joker continued in this vein until the '60s, when editor Julius Schwartz, who despised the character, took over the Batman line of comics and relegated the Joker to comic book limbo.
The Joker might have remained an obscure character of a by-gone era had it not been for television producer William Dozier. On January 12, 1966, the ABC television network debuted a new half-hour series running two nights a week called "Batman." The series was silly, campy and formulaic, but it was a winning formula, as the show was a hit. Adam West and Burt Ward were cast as Batman and Robin, respectively, and on January 26, 1966, Cesar Romero appeared as the Joker in "The Joker Is Wild," the series' fifth episode.
Romero was a Cuban-American actor from New York who had made a career in the '30s through the '50s playing "Latin lovers," usually in supporting roles. While most of Batman's signature villains appeared in the series, only a few grew to the status of icons, and the Joker was chief among them. Romero refused to shave his mustache, something he was well known for at a time when most actors had no facial hair, and like the rest of his face, it was covered over with white makeup And while many think of Jack Nicholson as the first man to play the Joker in a feature film, Romero was truly the first, as he played the role in "Batman: The Movie" (1966). This portrayal, with his animated physicality and insane laugh, was cited as a huge influence by Mark Hamill when he took on the job of voicing the Joker in "Batman: The Animated Series" almost 30 years later.
Despite the popularity of the TV series and of the character of the Joker, the show ended in 1969, and it would be another four years before we would see the Joker again.
Check back with CBR for part two in our series as we explore Joker's bold revival in the 1970s and his latest cinematic appearance in "The Dark Knight."
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