It’s impossible to think of Batman without also thinking about his arch-nemesis, the Joker. Created in 1939, it would take until 1940 for the caped crusader to meet his match. A mysterious figure with green hair and a laugh that sends shivers down your spine, the Joker has gone through many evolutions in his history. From a campy 1960s version, to a 1980s gothic clown prince of crime, to what he is today, the changes the character has seen over the years have been drastic. One thing has always remained, though — his laugh. Read on for the evolution of the Joker.
The Joker Was Inspired By Another Clown
In 1928 the film The Man Who Laughs was released. It was based on a famous Victor Hugo novel about a “laughing man” at a freak show circus who falls in love. The character had a long face, sharp slicked-back hair, and a wide grin that would serve as inspiration for one of the greatest comic villains of all time.
Twelve years after the movie came out, the laughing man was turned into the Joker by Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and Bob Kane. He was given green hair, a pale white face, slicked back green hair, and an unmistakable ear-to-ear grin.
The First Iteration
Interestingly enough, when the Joker was created, he wasn’t supposed to be a continuous character. Bob Kane feared that keeping the Joker alive would make Batman look inept as a hero and had the caped crusader dispose of him.
Before the first official Batman was published, editor Whitney Ellsworth overruled Kane and forced him to add a panel showing that the character survived. The villain would go on to appear in nine of Batman’s first twelve issues.
A Kid-Friendly Version
Introduced as a villain for mature readers, it didn’t take long for the Joker to be turned more kid-friendly. In the early ’40s, Detective Comics decided they could sell more copies if they marketed them to kids. As a result, the joker was changed from a ruthless evil-doer to a prankster.
In one issue, the Joker kidnaps Robin and demands a ransom from Batman. The clever detective pays the sum in a check, forcing the crook to cash it at a bank, where he’s arrested.
The Red Hood
After over a decade fighting Batman, the Joker was finally given a proper origin story in 1951. Bill Finger wrote the story, which appeared in Detective Comics #168 and revealed that before becoming the Joker, he was another criminal named Red Hood.
When the man under the hood fell into a chemical vat, he was disfigured and turned into the Joker. This dark origin story, however, would not last. In a matter of years, the world of comic books would be flipped on their heads with heavy publishing regulations.
The Comics Code Authority
The Comics Code Authority was created in 1954 to combat violent content in comic books. The theory was that this adult content was influencing the decisions and actions of its young male readers. Parents began burning comics and forbidding their sons from reading them.
The industry quickly conformed to the new code to save itself. This meant that innuendo, violence, and gore were all “no-nos.” This move also stripped the Joker of his menace, and nearly ended the character for good.
A Campy Revival
As comic books became sillier, Batman found his way to television in 1966. The hero was given a show on ABC and Cesar Romero was cast as the Joker. Going from the page to the screen, unfortunately, did not allow the character to return to his roots.
Romero played an incredibly campy and comical version of the villain. The portrayal proved so popular that this version of the “clown prince of crime” was translated to the comics. Still, there were fans who wanted a darker version to return. Would they get their wish?
The Joker Reborn
Batman was canceled by ABC in 1968, and with it, the comic series and the Joker mostly disappeared from the public eye. In 1973, the character returned and was just as dark as ever. Detective Comics hoped to turn around sagging sales by producing more mature content again.
Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams saw this as an opportunity to give new life to the Joker and returned him to his maniacal roots. The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge was released, with O’Neil saying he wanted to, “simply to take it back to where it started. I went to the DC library and read some of the early stories. I tried to get a sense of what Kane and Finger were after.”
The Dark Knight Returns
In 1986, The Dark Knight Returns was published, and it, once again, re-imagined the Joker. The story, written by Frank Miller, takes place in the future where Bruce Wayne is retired and the Joker is a celebrity who misses his old foe.
This version of the Joker would go on to heavily influence future on-screen iterations of the villain. Usually lacking motive, the new Joker found himself on a mission to go on a rampage after waking up from a coma.
Cementing His Place In History
In one of the darkest turns in Batman’s history, the Joker did the unthinkable in Death in the Family. Jason Todd was Robin during this run of the comics, and fans did not like the character. DC let them vote on his fate, and this is what they chose.
While we can’t give the details here, the Joker was responsible for the act alluded to in the title. The drastic turn led to darker stories and helped prepare audiences for the Joker’s next leap off of the pages in one of Jack Nicholson’s most legendary performances.
The Perfect Casting
Batman, starring Michael Keaton in the title role and directed by Tim Burton, came out in 1989. The Joker was featured as the villain, and he was played brilliantly by Jack Nicholson. The movie created a familial bond between the hero and villain and proved that superhero movies could be huge hits at the box office.
At the time, the film made $251 million. Adjusted for inflation, that equals $569 million in 2019. After blowing up the big screen, the Joker would show up again next on the small one.
Batman: The Animated Series
Influenced by the Tim Burton movie, Batman: The Animated Series debuted in 1992. Aimed at kids, it was more light-hearted than the Gothic world Burton created but didn’t didn’t shy away from darker elements, such as the Joker character.
This time Mark Hamill became the villain. Known best as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Hamill took his talents to animation for this devilish role in the cartoon. The laugh he created for his portrayal set a bar that has forced every actor since to find their own fiendish heckle.
An Animated Redesign
There was a hole left in the Joker universe when Batman: The Animated Series ended its run in 1995. The villain took a break from tormenting the Dark Knight until 1997 when Hamill returned to voice him for The New Batman Adventures.
The show brought a redesign for the character. His lips disappeared, his grin grew wider, his eyes became black orbs, and his chin became a sharp point. Just about the only thing that stayed the same (besides his voice, of course), was his hair.
One Last Go For Hammill
After a decade supplying the voice of the Joker, Mark Hamill was given the role one more time — this time in live-action form. The twist, however, was that Hammill would not be the live-action version of the character.
In the short-lived show Birds of Prey, the Joker was featured briefly in a flashback and was played by Roger Stoneburner. Stoneburner’s performance was then dubbed over with Hamill’s voice. This would not be the last time Hamill voiced the Joker, but it was easily the strangest.
Bring On The Dreadlocks
Given a massive redesign in 2004, the Joker looked wildly different than he ever had in The Batman. The animated series took a fresh approach to the comic book mythos and made the Joker as maniacal as he’s ever been.
This new version starts out the series in an Arkham straightjacket before upgrading to his iconic suit. Facially he looks like nothing ever seen before, with big red eyes, gnarled teeth, and green dreadlocks helmeting his neck and cheeks.
Creating A Little Chaos
Nearly 20 years after Jack Nicholson stole the show as the Joker in Batman, Heath Ledger turned in what might be the most iconic take ever on the character in The Dark Knight. Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for the role that was tragically his last.
Imagined as an agent of chaos with a strange sense of humor, Ledger’s Joker was a true foil to Christian Bale’s Batman. It was also after this version that the world wondered if it would ever see the Joker show up in a live-action movie again.
The “Not Really Joker,” Joker
The show Gotham premiered in 2014 as one of the first live-action Batman television show since the ’60s. The trick here was the show wasn’t about Batman at all, it was about Jim Gordon working his way up to police Commissioner.
Because of this, the show gave the world another origin story for the Joker, played by Cameron Monaghan. For five seasons Gotham teased the reveal of the character, finally showing him in all his glory in its last batch of episodes.
The Return Of Hamill
In 2016, Mark Hamill stepped back into the role for a feature-length Batman animated film. Batman: The Killing Joke was the first Batman film to earn an R-rating, and was released in theaters for one night.
While Hamill was praised for his return to the role, the movie itself was given the cold shoulder by critics. They found the overly-dark story to be disjointed, featuring additions not in the source material that only made things more confusing.
All The Tattoos
Mark Hamill wasn’t the only actor to portray the Joker in 2016. Jared Leto made his debut in The Suicide Squad, and fans were not happy with the results. Covered in tattoos, including one that said “damaged” on his forehead, Leto’s Joker became something to laugh at, not with.
Thankfully, this version of the clown prince of crime would not show up again. Even though the movie was a massive hit, the failure of DC movies that followed put an end to the DC Extended Universe line of shared films.
Before getting to the 2019’s Joker, we must first take a look at another odd reinvention of the character. Batman Ninja came out in 2018 and gave the world an anime version of Batman and his arch-nemesis.
In Japan, the character was voiced by anime legend Wataru Takagi. In the United States, Tony Hale was given the role. You might know him best as Buster Bluth on Arrested Development. He also won two Primetime Emmys for his role on Veep.
Turning The Joker Into Art
By 2019, comic book films had become predictable spectacles filled with special effects. Director Todd Phillips must not have liked this world, because when he got the chance to make Joker, he stripped down the genre, and the character of the Joker, to their bare essentials.
Joaquin Phoenix takes on the role of Arthur Fleck, a clown struggling to get by in Gotham while taking caring of his sick mother. By the end of the movie, he is the Joker, with green hair, a red grin, blue spiked eyes, and a red suit ready to shock the world.