It is Common Geek knowledge that The Joker’s visual appearance was strongly influenced by the look of Conrad Veidt in the film The Man Who Laughs. So much so that if the character had been created today Conrad would have a lawsuit for likeness use.
Over the decades that the character has been around more comic book creators have put their creative spin on him than Time and Space allows to list. From the goofy, to the psychotic that “spin” has just added to the overall Bat-Mythology. The Joker has many facets of his character that in some ways makes him a more interesting character than the Camp Crusader. My case will be stated using cinematic examples but also with references to the comic book influences.
NOTE: Jerome from the TV show Gotham isn’t on this list as he isn’t quite The Joker yet. I think he will will be that “young Joker,” the next step after Leto’s, an out of control youth who grows up to be the psychopath. A “no holds barred” Joker that has been seen in the Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo version. The TV series creators have already borrowed heavily from the current comics version of the Joker.
EXHIBIT A: The Anarchist
The late great and totally freaking awesome Jerry Robinson created our vivacious villain (and our Boy Wonder) and from day one he was creepy with a capital Creep as seen in Batman #1. Before The Joker appears in the story there is a sense of Impending Doom for his first victim:
Of course this poor schmuck isn’t going to make it and The Joker is established as something Very Different for The Batman. He is clever, intelligent, vicious and always a step ahead of the police, Batman and of course his victims. In The Dark Knight film we are dumped in media res into it with a portrayal by Heath ledger that won a posthumous Oscar. In both stories the police are stumped, the underworld wants the guy dead and the corpses are piling up. We even have a masquerade as a cop and a climactic capture at a construction site in both stories.
This Joker just wanted to “watch the world burn.”
EXHIBIT B: The Clown Prince of Crime
Into the 1950s The Joker changed into less of the psycho killer and more of the criminal for crime’s sake. Goofy gadgets and mirthful mayhem were his modus operandi and one of the best stories of the era was “The Great Clayface-Joker Feud” as published in Batman #159. (Which I used to own a copy of!)
Cesar Romero portrayed our criminal clown in the wonderful Batman (1966) television series and famously he refused to shave off his iconic mustache for the part. Romero was best known for playing “latin lover” types in films and that mustache was essential, so it was obviously white grease painted over. It worked to the comedic nature of the role, especially when the whiskers would poke out after a day of shooting and they just wanted the shot so they ignored it and kept filming.
This aspect of the Joker never went away as much as the gags got deadlier if no less silly:
This Joker was the more “kid friendly” Joker, the kind that showed up in the Super Friends cartoons and Super Powers toys. For years it was My Joker, as I grew up watching Batman ‘66, kids took it as Deadly Serious and adults loved the camp humor. Now I love it for both.
EXHIBIT C: The Grinning Gangster
I skipped school the opening day for Batman (1989) starring Michael Keaton as our hero and JACK NICHOLSON as The Joker. The interwebs list opening day as June 23rd but I remember skipping with my buddy Jason Cox so I’m going with that. This ushered in a new era of “Batmania” that hasn’t died out since.
This Joker was unhinged in a way that movie and television audiences had never seen, the dark humor brought a manic depth to the character. This cinematic renaissance owes more to the return to roots of The Joker as seen by comic creators Neal Adam, Dennis O’Neill, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers and Frank Miller.
This Joker was, dare I say, fun. My favorite line is delivered to Vicki Vale (Kim Bassinger) in the art museum after his “Party Man” by Prince montage: “The skulls, the bodies, you give it all such a glow. I don’t know if it’s art but I like it!”
EXHIBIT D: The Cartoon Clown
Due to the popularity of the Tim Burton Batman films and the success of The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns in the comics Warner Brothers went All In with Batman: The Animated Series. It was so well done that the only other cartoon that came that close to being That Good were the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s.
This Joker was a reduction of all of the different versions, the Once and Future Joker. To this day many, many fans consider this as The Best Joker Ever as voiced by Mark Hamill. It turns out that Mark, when not whining about going to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters is a Voice Chameleon. He does a spot on Frank Gorshin as The Riddler in Batman ‘66.
As an animated villain Mark’s Joker has become a Gold Standard where many portrayals are judged including live action portrayals. This take is so good that his girlfriend, Harley Quinn, has become ubiquitous in DC everything and was one of the better bits of the side scrolling video game plot movie Suicide Squad.
Exhibit E: 21st Century Thug
Speaking of Suicide Squad, there has never been a more divisive take on the Clown Prince as this take. Be it the tattoos, the dental work or the portrayal; there is something about a thug version of the Joker that rubbed some people the wrong way. However, this Joker might be the most realistic take as of yet.
This isn’t your father’s Joker, it isn’t yours but he is one for that kid down the street who has seen real thugs with real tattoos doing real scary shit. That is what makes this Joker work, he is a little bit of all of the Jokers that have come before; a clown, a gangster, a crook, an anarchist. He is the Cult of Personality Joker who Tweets his taunts, snaps selfies on Instagram and has YouTube videos. That makes the Jared Leto portrayal maybe the scariest of all.
In Conclusion: Every version of The Joker is a valid interpretation of the character, even the ones that you don’t like because you are wrong. The “mystique” of The Joker stems from all of these different versions of the character. Batman has a couple of takes, the original vigilante created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger to the Dick Sprang drawn Silver Age superhero and now Modern Dark Knight given to us by Frank Miller.
If one were to embrace the mythology analog of the Joker he is kind of a Trickster like a Coyote or Loki and kind of monster like a Grendel. He is what happens when society let’s something slip through the cracks and it comes back to haunt them, a boogeyman under the bed of our own creation. That might be the scariest take of all.