He Who Laughs, Lasts: Why The Joker Endures

Besides introducing a more sadistic version of the Riddler, Season 2 of Telltale Games' Batman: The Enemy Within will feature an arguably more eccentric take on the king of all Bat-villains. As "John Doe" follows the player-controlled Batman and Bruce Wayne throughout the game, he will be "watching [their] every move and learning from [their] choices." Ultimately, this will affect each player's version of the Joker, and may even carry over into future seasons.

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This fits well with the villain's multiple-choice background. However, it's also in keeping with the Joker's scattered history. Today we'll examine why the Joker endures, what makes him so popular, and why we're so fascinated with what brought him into being.

The Sign of the Joker

The Joker kills Jay Wilde, from "Batman" #1 by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson

Created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, the Joker first appeared in Spring 1940's Batman issue 1, where he was the villain in two stories. Although he was supposed to die at the end of the second one, editor Whitney Ellsworth saw his potential and had the death "undone" with a brief epilogue. In fact, from Spring 1940 through November 1942, the Joker appeared in Batman issues 1 (twice), 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 13, alongside stories in Detective Comics issues 45, 60, 62, 64 and 69. That's sixteen stories in about two-and-a-half years, or one story about every other month. By comparison, Catwoman (also introduced in Batman #1) only appeared in four stories during this period, and one of them was the Joker story in Batman issue 2.

Even with such concentrated exposure, the Joker didn't get an origin story for some 11 years, until February 1951's "The Man Behind The Red Hood" in Detective issue 168. Written by Bill Finger, pencilled by Lew Sayre Schwartz and inked by Win Mortimer, it was a far cry from the character's moody, malevolent introduction. Planted firmly in the "Model Citizen Batman" sub-genre, it made the Caped Crusader a visiting professor at good old State University, and presented the titular mystery as a 10-year-old unsolved crime. The Joker's origin took up most of the last page, where the Harlequin of Hate revealed his background as a "lab worker" who wanted to steal a million dollars and retire. To that end, he had invented a red featureless helmet with a concealed breathing apparatus (helpful in underwater work and gas attacks), reached his goal by robbing the Monarch Playing Card Company, and made his pyrrhic escape through its chemical-waste pipes. That toxic exposure turned his hair green, his skin white and his lips red; and the rest is history.

Over time the Joker's treatment mellowed, until Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams returned the character to his murderous roots in September 1973's "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge" (Batman issue 251). Ever since, the Joker has been a mix of mirth and menace, symbolized by his signature laugh-til-you-die Joker venom and guided by an insatiable appetite for destruction. As Batman (via Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin) explained in Detective issue 475 (February 1978)'s seminal "The Laughing Fish," "With ordinary men, you might figure some motive – but the Joker's mind is clouded in madness! His motives make sense to him alone!"

Certainly his presence in some of Batman's best-known adventures helped cement the Joker's A-list status. Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley's The Dark Knight Returns (1985-86) imagined that the Joker had a much more intimate connection to Batman. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke (1988) emphasized the doomed relationship between villain and hero, while Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie threatened to push its title character aside in favor of Jack Nicholson's Joker. Of course, starting with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, Mark Hamill's Joker performance became an instant classic.

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