The Joker will turn 80 next year. He's one of comics' greatest creations, a perfect antagonist for The Batman. All serial characters change as they're handed to new creators and retooled to fit different eras. However, The Joker has proven to be especially inconsistent. Sometimes he's a murderer, sometimes a prankster. Sometimes he has incredibly convoluted plans, sometimes he's surfing chaos.
Even his motives are inconsistent, from simple profit to mindless murder to his obsession with Batman. His multiple origin stories and mysteries surrounding the character have actually given him a lot of emotional heft, but trying to trace a path through these various personas is like navigating a maze. One with humorous death drafts set up in every dead end.
10 Pulp Joker
The Joker first appeared in Batman #1 (1940). Created by artists Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson-- yeah, the signature reads "Bob Kane," that's a different story-- he was visually based on both playing cards and the film The Man Who Laughs. This Joker was a flamboyant and gleeful pulp villain, promising to steal and kill well in advance and following through. His Joker Venom was there from the start, killing his victims with a smile.
He wasn't a mad dog yet, though, often letting large groups survive. He focused on his rich targets. And Batman. A survivor, he was one of the early murder-happy Batman's first recurring villains. That's the shape he held until near the Golden Age's end.
9 The Clown Prince of Crime
Even during the Golden Age, Joker progressed from killer to clown. By 1942 he had developed a penchant for joke-inspired death traps. By 1945 he'd stopped killing, and was obsessed with humiliating Batman. Batman and DC Comics were changing as well, getting campier and leaning into Robin's presence.
There are some dark stories in this era. 1951 introduced the Red Hood, and told the first version of the Joker's chemical-bath origin. Even so, the Silver Age introduced a wackier Joker, typified by giant typewriters and other over-the-top gimmicks. This reached its peak in 1966, with Jokes portrayed by Cesar Romero in the Batman TV series. This practical jokester was fun, but didn't seem particularly super. In 1972 he even fought Scooby Doo.
8 Homicidally Happy
As superhero comics drifted into darker waters, this silly Joker waned. In 1973, well into the Bronze Age, Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams remade the character in the new era's image. "The Joker's 5-Way Revenge" introduced a Joker who murdered with practical jokes and otherwise returned to his sadistic roots.
During this period he even had a solo comic series, battling rival crooks and non-Batman heroes. This also marked the beginning of a Joker who seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself. It's a depiction of the character that extends through defining stories like The Killing Joke (1988) and Burton's 1989 film Batman. This Joker gets darker and less fun over time, reading more as a child-murdering terrorist than a supervillain in A Death in the Family.
7 The Fun in Funeral
1992 spawned Batman: The Animated Series and a new Joker. In many ways this version, voiced by Mark Hamill, presents the best elements of the Silver and Bronze Ages with some new twists thrown in. In spite of a weak start, including an episode where Joker's a disguised birthday clown, this gaunt and yellow-toothed version of the character is iconic. Like his Bronze Age counterpart, this animated Joker is joyously murderous, sporting acid-squirting flowers and elaborate, sometimes nonsensical plans.
This is also the Joker that discovered Harley Quinn. Most importantly, this Joker managed to bring Hamill's incredible voice through the first TAS, into Batman Beyond and Justice League Unlimited as well as films like The Mask of the Phantasm and video games like Arkham Asylum. Simultaneously frightening and funny, for many this is the definitive Joker.
RELATED: 10 Times Joker Was A Good Guy
6 The Chaos Clown
In 2008 Heath Ledger became Hamill's chief rival when he portrayed the character in The Dark Knight. Ledger dominated the film with just 25 minutes of screen time, portraying a charismatic terroristic monster. The character's ultimate plan is hard to identify, but he mainly seemed to want to destroy Gotham's (and Batman's) faith in order.
Just as the Joker has worn many faces, this Joker doesn't seem to know where he came from. He invents a new and plausible version of himself the same way he kills: on a whim. He doesn't even want Gothamites to know the security that organized crime brings. He's the first Nihilistic Joker, managing even to simultaneously win and lose his struggle with Batman.
5 Murder Machine
2012 brought Scott Snyder's The Death of the Family, and with it another Joker who wants to burn the world. The character marks his territory by first faking his death in the most gruesome way possible: he surgically removes his face and leaves it behind. The strange message he's sending is "no more masks," letting the Dark Knight know he's coming for him and the Batman Family when he's ready.
This promise is kept when the Joker breaks into a police station where his face was kept as evidence, murders everyone, and walks out wearing his rotting skin as his mask. This is a twisted Joker, capable of almost anything. He's memorable but not fun, more Eli Roth than Wes Craven in his hijinks.
4 Gangsta Clown
In 2016 Suicide Squad brought a visually memorable Joker to the screen. Jared Leto's white skin, chrome teeth, and infinite tattoos are striking. Unfortunately, the movie was hard to watch and the character harder. Beyond his clownish looks and affinity for Harley Quinn this Joker didn't resemble his predecessors.
Instead of a clever, narcissistic madman we got a violent albino thug. Whether he was shooting other criminals with a sidearm or firing a minigun out of a helicopter, he was roughly as scary and powerful as any loud guy with a gun.
3 The Joker Who Frowns
The 2017 War of Jokes and Riddles gives us a unique Joker. It describes a Clown Prince who can't laugh. Joker and Riddler each gather an army of lesser rogues around them, each determined to be the one who kills the Bat. Or so it seems. As inventive as the Joker can be, the Riddler is the convoluted long-term planner. He saw that Joker was off his game, and wanted to show him up. This entailed killing a kid to inspire his father to become "Kite Man," and putting the new vigilante in a critical position to win the war. As Joker scowls at him, Nygma screams "This is funny! You should be laughing!"
Dark twist. But as The Joker has said before, if you have to explain it it isn't funny.
2 Solo Joker
The Joker's relationship with Batman is one of his defining traits. He's gone solo on occasion, Suicide Squad being the prior example, but even if Batman can keep company with other nemeses it's unclear if The Joker can too.
The most recent Joker iteration is Joachin Phoenix's. It's divisive and getting a lot of heat. Some viewers are comparing it to Taxi Driver (in good and bad ways) while others are derisively dubbing this version "Edgelord Joker." It's too soon to know how influential it will be, culturally or within the House of DC. The most interesting question here is whether a villain can stand on his own without a hero.
1 Alternate Jokers
Most of the Elseworlds Jokers aren't interesting. Joker in robot, vampire, and pirate drag is cool, but it doesn't do anything new with the character. That's not true of the Jekyll/Joker of Batman: Two Faces, which understands that the Joker is in many ways Batman's darker half. A more direct version of this same theme is the Batman Who Laughs, a villainous threat to Batman's world from another reality.
The Martha Wayne Joker, driven mad by her son Bruce's death, was a part of the disturbing Flashpoint storyline, aka DC's darkest timeline. Perhaps the finest of the lot, though, is the Red Hood of Earth 3. This dapper, spade-throwing hero retained most of his sanity even after Owlman cruelly hurled him into a skin-bleaching vat of acid, a champion of good in a world where right can never win.