For a look at the real, authentic Joker, there’s really only one place you can find him: the original Batman comics. The following is a list of ten books that define the Clown Prince of Crime. Almost all the single and multi-issue stories are available in collections and the one-shots are pretty much universally available. Just a little summer reading to keep you from getting too overheated before Friday.
10) Joker’s Last Laugh #1-6 (Dec ’01-Jan ’02)
Not many super villains are popular enough to have company-wide crossovers built around them, but not many villains are in the same league as the Joker. Believing that he’s dying, the Joker decides to go out in a blaze of glory on one, last, fabulous crime spree, infecting several DC bad guys with his patented Joker venom.
President Lex Luthor (don’t ask) declares war on the Clown Prince of Crime as the Justice League works to undo the chaos. In the end, it’s revealed that the Joker’s tumour was an attempt by a doctor to scare the criminal straight with the threat of death, but as we’ll see in a minute, scaring the Joker is easier said than done.
9) Batman: Harley Quinn (1999)
Jumping from the screen of Batman: The Animated Series, the Joker’s moll (or girlfriend depending on your level of romance), Harley Quinn, makes her comic book debut in Batman’s regular continuity here. During the No Man’s Land crossover, a quake-ruined Gotham is split up into fiefdoms ruled over by Batman, the Gotham Police and various villains. Quinn, a former psychologist in Arkham, searches the ruins for her “puddin’” and ends up finding him.
Happiness doesn’t last long though, as the Joker, disgusted by the human emotions he’s feeling thanks to Harley, unceremoniously dumps her via death trap in the worst case of “it’s not you, it’s me” ever. Harley offers to lead Batman to the Joker for revenge, but a quick apology and all is forgiven as Harley helps the Joker escape from the rubble of the city.
8) “Going Sane” – Legends of the Dark Knight #65-68 (Nov ’94-Feb ’95)
Believing that he’s finally killed Batman, the Joker, apparently having lost the anchor of his existence, goes through plastic surgery to return him to “normal” and wakes up one day as “Joseph Kerr,” a normal guy with a normal life. In a way, this four-issue storyline is the perfect companion book-end to The Killing Joke (see below) and serves as an insightful and intelligent deconstruction of the Joker mythos. Unfortunately, this arc remains uncollected, but it should be available easily enough in back issues.
7) “Knightfall” – Batman #495-496 (Jun – Jul ’93)
The super-criminal Bane destroyed Arkham Asylum and freed all its inmates in an attempt to overwhelm Batman and weaken him to the point of defeat. What better time for a super villain team-up as the Joker and Scarecrow kidnap Gotham’s Mayor in order to lure Batman into a trap. Of course, strange bedfellows don’t last long, and when their partnership breaks down, Scarecrow gives the Joker a dose of his fear gas. What we learn is something surprising: the Joker is immune. He’s not afraid of anything.
6) “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge” – Batman #251 – (Dec ’73)
After years of suffering under the Comics Code Authority, which severely limited the storytelling ability of writers with stringent limits on depictions of violence, the Joker returned to form under the guidance of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. From the opening, full page frame of the Joker laughing behind the wheel of a car while driving through the rain, you know that this is going to be dark. In one story, O’Neil and Adams set the Joker back right by showing him as an indiscriminate killer that lives for his teasing confrontations with Batman and, after 32 pages, it ends with a shark-infused cliffhanger.
5) “Batman Vs The Joker” – Batman #1 (Spring 1940)
The first Joker story ever by creator Bob Kane and ghostwriter Bill Finger instantly set the tone for all Joker stories to follow in the next 68 years. He appeared as a straightforward mass murderer and the story itself was a straightforward tale of matching wits as Batman and Robin thwart the Joker’s seemingly random series of murders. It was the start of a beautiful hatred, but one that was scheduled to end quickly with the death of the Joker in his second appearance.
Finger, ever the visionary, reconsidered while putting the issue together. The story was retold brilliantly with lavish foreshadowing in Ed Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs.
4) Arkham Asylum (1989)
Grant Morrison tackles Batman and his Rogue’s Gallery by taking the reader deep inside the madness of Arkham’s famous inmates as the lunatics take over the Asylum in a deadly April Fool’s prank. Morrison followed up on a thread developed by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, which implied that the Joker is gay, or at the very least bi-curious.
A few writers like Morrison and Miller have made this a recurring theme in writing the Joker, and the character’s sexuality is a subject of a lot of discussion amongst online fans. Morrison also suggested that, rather than insanity, the Joker suffers from a sort of “super-sanity” where he creates a new reality, every day in order to cope. Hmm.
3) “A Death in the Family” – Batman #426-429 (Dec ’88-Jan ’89)
Long before American Idol, DC editors decided to give Batman fans a vote to decide the fate of a beloved character: Robin, the Boy Wonder. Using the new novelty of the 1-900-number, the publisher asked fans to decide whether the second Robin Jason Todd would die in a fiery cliffhanger or survive. By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, fans indicated their thumbs down. And naturally, no one of Batman’s foes was better suited eliminating the other half of the Dynamic Duo than the Joker.
But the potential death of Robin was only the beginning. Leading up to it is the Joker’s brutal attack on Robin, beating him near to death with a crowbar before leaving him on top of a ticking bomb. After Robin’s death, the Joker escapes to the Middle Eastern country, Qurac, and is made their ambassador, giving him diplomatic immunity. Of course, it’s a ploy to get inside the United Nations to poison world leaders with his Joker venom, but an assist from Superman allows Batman to save the day, though it appears the Joker escaped justice once again.
2) “The Laughing Fish” – Detective Comics #475 (Feb ’78)
“The Laughing Fish” is a Joker story so classical it was adapted into an episode of The Animated Series. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers followed in the bold direction of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams by keeping up with the darker Joker, who, in this issue, decides to copyright fish by giving them his distinctive look and grin. The reason why, however, isn’t revealed. But what is revealed is the Joker’s apparent admiration for Batman, threatening Rupert Thorne to release Batman’s identity if he’s able to get it out of Dr. Hugo Strange (from a previous issue). The Joker goes on to boast that a master criminal like him deserves a nemesis of Batman’s quality than a “mere policemen.”
1) Batman: The Killing Joke (March 1988)
This is the seminal Joker tale that has served as an influence on writing the character for the last 20 years. From the head of Alan Moore to the pencil of Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke contains the “definitive” origin of the Joker, although he himself admits in the story that he’s reinvented his story so many times even he’s not sure what the truth is anymore.
The story’s told on two levels. The current story is the Joker’s brutal attack on Commissioner Gordon, where he shoots Gordon’s daughter Barbara—paralyzing her for life—before kidnapping Gordon himself and trying to drive him insane with photos of Barbara’s wounded, naked body. In flashbacks, we see a struggling comedian take work as a petty criminal to support his pregnant wife. When his wife is killed in an accident, he tries to back out of the break-in at the chemical plant he used to work in, but the criminals won’t hear it. You can guess where the story goes from here.
The Joker tries to prove the point that all it takes is “one bad day” to turn an ordinarily decent man, like Gordon or himself, into a hollow shell; a creature without conscious or pity. But Gordon proves the Joker wrong and perhaps even reveals a little too much about himself in the process.