Monday, August 15, 2011

Joker's Origins - Multiple Choice?

Joker was introduced in 1940 in the very first issue of Batman comic, but contradictory to the popular myth, his origins were never meant to be ambiguous or left for interpretation. Batman's earliest stories were based on Pulp stories with similar main characters, such as The Shadow. Pulps are short, one issue murder mystery stories. They are not character driven, nor do they have any continuing storylines and continuous plots. They're simple detective stories with the mystery, detective and perpetrator. Again, such stories are not based on characters and dont focus on them, their personal stories, backstories or character development. Even when Batman got his origins, they weren't even included within any actual stories. They were just presented in two separate pages which were an extra in the issue.
'It may be significant that so many villains first arrived on the scene the way Joker had, without origin stories. They were granted the courtesy of being accepted as what they had chosen to become' (Batman: The Complete History).

In short, no villain had origins at first, nor there was even any kind of hint of any intended ambiguity. About 2 years into the series, it started changing more and more into the adventure series and shed more light on characters, their intentions, motives, stories and character traits and developing relationships. Once that was established and the Batman series fully changed into a conventional adventure series, characters were being more crafted and backstories were given to them.They started to appear in late 40's and Joker's turn came in 1951's Detective Comics #168, written by the co-creator of the character Bill Finger and with artwork credited to Bob Kane, also a co-founder.

In this issue, Batman and Robin are asked to be guest instructors at the University's criminology course. After lying out some background for good detective work and getting to know the students, he gives assigns them a 10 year old case even he couldn't figure out. An identity of a masked villain called Red Hood who disappeared without any trace

When Batman finally encounters the Red Hood during a robbery, the villain appears to be quite cocky and makes it clear that thanks to his disguise his identity will remain a complete mystery.

Red Hood makes an escape and the reports about new robberies committed by him reach Batman. A month later, Red Hood gets cornered by Batman and escapes seemingly sacrificing his life. He was presumed dead but the body was never recovered

One of the boys named Paul helped them solve the mystery and revealed that the Red Hood was a lab worker trying to steal $1 Million in a card factory to retire forever. After his dive into chemicals, he became disfigured and his skin and hair were permanently dyed -  introducing The Joker! It's important to note that it was his physical appearance that pushed him into madness and made him decide upon his new image/identity

While his craziness, name and colors were explained, the frozen grin on his face wasn't addressed. To read more about Joker's frozen face and the origins behind the idea read The Complete Joker History article. Hi real name and pre-Joker identity remained unknown for the readers, aside from the fact that  he was a lab worker

The origins were now set for Joker like for other villains and remained untouched for decades. In 1980's The Untold Legends of Batman, they were once again revisited by the 80's audience. In this issue, written by Len Wein and illustrated by Jim Aparo,  the story remained consistent and unchanged

From mid to late 80's DC released an Official character guide called " Who's Who in DC Universe" which collected all the info and character traits in a encyclopedia-like style for every major character in DC. Joker's entry recalled the old known canonical origins

In 1988 Alan Moore decided to retell the origins but at the same time expand in the areas that weren't touched upon previously. Moore was sure not to contradict the established canon since he himself doesn't like inconsistencies in established canon

And the Joker's origin? Had he had one before that?
Alan Moore:
 He'd got a kind of muddy kind of origin. They'd said that he'd been the leader of a criminal gang called the Red Hood Mob and that while trying to escape from Batman he'd swum across this river of chemicals. And that was about it?
AM: That was about it and this was from a story from, like, the late '50s or something and so I thought "Okay, I won't contradict that," because I kind of believe in working by the rules of the material as it already exists but I can put a lot of spin on that. (Barry Kavanagh int., 2000)

While trying to stay true to the established origins as possible,  he build the character behind the mask from scratch and infused it him with deep story and pathos, as he usually did with his characters, yet still preserving the fact that the young man worked at some point in the lab/factory. The pre-fall Joker was now a struggling young comedian who had trouble making ends meet and supporting his pregnant wife.

The reality of life has gotten hold of him, and he decided to cross the line and help with a robbery. The two gangsters that hired him made him assume the identity of a known robber Red Hood, which is just an identity assigned to different people, not a single gang leader as Police and Batman thought. While still not sure about this move, he wants to do it just for his pregnant wife, yet finds out she dies in an accident the night of the robbery, but there's no turning back with the gangsters.

From Batman's POV, Red Hood got caught by surprise,"his" thugs get killed and the panicked Hood makes a shocking move by jumping into the river where toxic wastes are emptied.

 And again, it's the first look at his new appearance that triggers his madness

There's a misconception that the story Moore presents in The Killing Joke is not a real story of Joker but merely a figment of Joker's imagination. There's no indication that the flashback story that is intercut with the current story isn't true. The only line that can be taken as an argument is Joker saying that he prefers to have a multiple choice when it comes to his backstories, yet he also says that he does not remember his past so there's no assumption that the flashback story is him remembering.

It's rather a separate story , poetically and appropriately intercut within the contemporary story of Joker kidnapping Gordon's daughter. Then there's the fact that for decades Joker's origins were set in stone and were not contradicted by Moore, who even said himself that he doesn't like inconsistencies with previously established canon. And then you have Moore talking about infusing the character with pathos and dramatic story. It wouldn't not be so if the flashback was merely a made up figment of Joker's imagination, because the pathos given to the character would just go out the window as part of that imagination.

You made the villain such a pitiful figure. In the comics for years, he was a psychotic maniac who kills indiscriminately, just does terrible, terrible things, and you made him so pitiful and sad. 
Alan MooreI suppose that's what I was saying. Well, psychotic murders -- the key word there is "psychotic," which is, as far as I know, an illness. This is not to say that people shouldn't be entitled to feel rage or the lust for revenge when something happens to them at the hands of somebody like this, but you've got to remember at the end of the day it's not strictly speaking that person's fault. That something has happened to them, they have made some bad decision in their life, and while all of us are responsible for our actions, sometimes people get broken and it is increasingly difficult for them to know their own actions. So I suppose that if there was anything actually being said in "The Killing Joke," it was that everybody has probably got a reason for being where they are, even the most monstrous of us. (, 2009)

On top of all that, Moore has never ever hinted or undermined the legitimacy of the flashback story. And most importantly, the flashback story has been confirmed in past issues multiple times, which is going to be addressed in the article later.

The one who actually originated the retrofitting idea that the flashback story isn't true (at the same time acknowledging it was meant to be and disliking the fact)  was the artist Brian Bolland.

It's important to note that he was not the storywriter and that he stated so only at the time of the release of The Dark Knight when DC was heavily pushing the angle that the movie was taking, which was to have Joker's origins ambiguous or purposefully unknown, which was an idea which originated solely from the sentence Joker said in The Killing Joke. It's also worth noting that Bolland statement was in The Killing Joke's rerelease in 2008, the same rerelease which changed the colors of Joker's outfit to match Heath Ledger's suit and added black around Joker's eyes and removed the yellow from Batman's emblem. Point being, the rerelease was clearly altered so it would match the movie, and so was Bolland's idea of discarding the origins which are actually shown to preserve the multiple choice angle the movie took.

One should also have in mind that aside form the idea being appealing to David Goyer and the Nolan Brothers, it would nullify the long established Joker origins involving permanent white skin which Nolan did not want to use in order to fit the character into our real world. By undermining the credibility of the origins, it erases them as canon in public's eyes and leaves a blank card for the filmmakers


The 1989 Batman deviated from the story a bit. Michael Uslan, producer: After much discussion, it was agreed that for the movie the Red Hood storyline would be too confusing, time-consuming, and unnecessary to include in the film. There was no compelling reason to add a third identity to The Joker. And so, it was Jack Napier who took the plunge into the vat of chemicals, not the Red Hood.(BITF 2002)

Joker still is born out of a criminal falling into vat of chemicals that emptied into the river, but the pre-Joker character was different.

He wasn't a robber but a mob hitman instead who already had psychological issues and was a multiple murderer who was doing hits for the mob for many years. According to the filmmakers in Shadows of the Bat documentary, they decided that it wasn't believable that a person can be so evil just by falling into chemicals. The fall has to have been the triggering mechanism to release or amplify an inner madness.

As in the comics, it was the first sight of his altered look that does the trick, and as in The Killing Joke, he just breaks laughing once he sees himself

The name Jack Napier was adapted into comics and written stories beginning with Dennis O'Neil's story "Images"

The first time Moore's story was referenced was in 1990's Batman #450. In this issue, after getting seriously injured Joker actually regains his sanity and recalls his entire life alone in the room while struggling with his confusion about what to do next and which road to take

In the following issue, Batman #451, it was Batman who was recalling the story presented by Moore. The Killing Joke's flashback story was now confirmed to be a part of canon continuity and the real event that really happened

The next reference/recollection to Moore's story was in 1993's Legends of the Dark Knight #50, written by Dennis O'Neil. In this issue it was Batman in disguise who recognized Joker by his voice and recalled what happened with Red Hood who jumped into the toxic river in panic

In 2004's Batman: Gotham Knights #54 Moore's story was not only recalled but also expanded and continued. A witness comes forward who knows that the comedian's (named Jack Napier in comic books since 1993) wife was actually killed to look like it was accident by the same mob that was trying to get him to participate in the factory robbery.

In this issue Joker gets the name of the man who killed his wife

Ironically, while some of other villains' origins were changed throughout the years like Catwoman's, Joker was the one whose origins remained so consistent for so many decades. It was until 2008, the release year of The Dark Knight and the year where DC started pushing the multiple choice theme and undermine the credibility of Moore's story, that Joker's origins were remade. It was in Batman: Confidential #9 where we get to meet a bored criminal named Jack who wants to face Batman one day. When he actually does, Batman throws Batarang to stop him from escaping and cuts his face leaving a Glasgow smile - which is naturally another preparation and retrofitting for The Dark Knight's arrival

The story still ended up in a vat of chemicals and medications, but in a very different way. Kidnapped and beaten, Jack gets loose and fight off his perpetrators but ends up flushed with the chemicals used for the antiseptic drugs, ending up looking like a clown. What remained the same was that the first look of himself was what pushed him over the edge

Just two years later the origins were retconned yet again to reflect the Joker of The Dark Knight. In Brave and the Bold #31, The Arkham doctors want to save the dying Joker because they've sworn in oath to save lives, so they call upon the Atom to help with the procedure. The Atom doesn't want to help save the Joker's life because it's the Joker, yet he agrees to once he finds out that in trying to save the criminal, he very well might end up killing him. After the Atom is inevitably overcome by the Joker's firing brain synapses, the narrative weaves in and out of the villain's violent memories, with the Atom forced to experience the disturbing instances first hand. We see the Joker as a twisted child, who kidnaps local pets and kills them, we see him trapping his abusive parents in the house and setting it on fire,

 we see the first traces of his philosophy and  the rise of his criminal career.

 The final, three-page sequence shows the Joker we all know and reveals/suggests that it is indeed the Joker from The Dark Knight

The Multiple Choice theme introducing the mystery and ambiguity of Joker's origins is inspired solely from one panel of one comic book, which doesn't take anything away from the concept, however the fact remains that it was The Dark Knight that introduced the concept and it was never that way in the comic books. Still, it makes no impact on how well the idea worked for the new portrayal of Joker in The Dark Knight, nor does it take away anything from the comic book origins that were established in 1951 by the character's creators and survived for nearly 5 decades. Jonathan Nolan pretty much confirmed himself that the ambiguous origins for Joker was an idea he and Goyer invented, inspired by that one line from The Killing Joke.

Jonathan Nolan: It grew from a little bit in part from a detail in The Killing Joke—the Allen Moore book—where he talks about if he had a past--he had to have a past--he’d want it to be multiple choice. And very much we sort of did a…felt like a little bit of a riff on that idea.(

In addition to Joker's preference of having multiple choice when it comes to his backstory, his name is also never revealed and his personal data is unknown, as it was in The Killing Joke which made that fact much more prominent.


While Bolland wishes Moore's story didn't reveal the origins and wishes Joker had a mystery about him, he acknowledges that this is not what actually happened in the comic books. The release and then the success of The Dark Knight prompted the changes in the comic books and numerous retconning and retrofitting but not only in comic books, but in some comic writers themselves. Jerry Robinson, who was one of the first employees of Bob Kane, claimed, post-The Dark Knight naturally, that Joker was always intended to be mysterious and unexplained. However, it is more than suspicious that he only mentioned it after nearly 60 years of character's existence and only after The Dark Knight's release and popularity of the movie's version of the Joker character, even thought he spoke about the character many times throughout the years even claiming its authorship.

Jerry Robinson:  I decided to leave his face white simply because I wanted him to resemble the playing card joker. He didn’t have green hair. It was just the white of the face and the red lips. We decided deliberately not to explain it, not to write an origin. We thought that would detract from the whole aura, the mystery of the Joker – where did he come from, how did he get that way? No, we did not explain that, quite deliberately.(Comic Con panel 2009)

It is important to note that Robinson did not ended the relationship with Kane on a good note and Kane denied his claimed contributions to Joker's character. He stated that he only came up with Joker's card that they used for Joker and that Joker is a character based on The Man Who Laughs, a character Bill Finger pointed out and Kane drew. For their entire lives, the undisputed co-creator of Joker, Bill Finger, never mentioned any ambiguity or mystery about the character's origins once in his life, neither did the also undisputed co-creator Bob Kane. Finger actually wrote the origin story, something Robinson denies himself

Jerry Robinson:  Well, we had a lot of discussions about that. Bill and Bob and myself, we discussed at my first outline of that first story how I was going to explain his visual look. (...) The origin story was written by a subsequent writer many years later.
Travis: So you and Bill did not drop the Joker in a vat of acid.
Jerry: ''No, we did not. Our initial reaction to that was if we dropped him into that vat, he obviously would have come out deformed.''
(Comic Con panel 2009)

This is one of the examples of why Robinson's credibility is shaken. Robinson could not have been developing Joker's look since Joker was basically the Conrad Veidt character drawn onto paper with no visual changes whatsoever, and its agreed by everyone involved that it was Finger who pointed out the Veidt character. Secondly, Robinson was a young employee of Kane whose job was lettering and backgrounds at the time Joker was developed, and Finger was the writer among few others. It was not Robinson's turf to characterize new characters. Another issue is that with that quote Robinson betrays his lack of knowledge of the development of the character, since the original Joker, like the Veidt character, had a frozen smile on his face aka was deformed this way by Gypsies. So he indeed was deformed after coming out of the vat. Third, he claims Finger did not write the origins  yet he wasn't even working on this issue.Not only that, but he wasn't even working on Batman or DC for that matter at that point at all for years. He was gone before Joker's origins were written. He left in 1946 while the origins were written in 1951. Besides, Jonathan Nolan himself confirmed he came up with the ambiguous nature for Joker, it wasn't something from the comic books

Today, the Joker's bio on the official DC website recognizes the multiple choice angle as canon, and the bio was co-created by the big fan of the idea , Brian Bolland. It is interesting to note that the bio shows 3 "possible" origins, but two of them are one and the same and two of them come from the comics while one comes from the 1989 movie. It does recognize the part about the factory accident

Both the Multiple Choice approach and the established origins were great and worked just perfectly for their particular portrayal of the character in Batman and The Dark Knight.

Batman/Joker Relationship on paper and screen


The Tim Burton movies are based primarily on the Golden Age, the original Kane/Finger vision. For clearer picture of the influences of this era check the Comic Book Influences in movies Part I and II articles, and for quotes and further examples check Batman in movies Part I article.
 In the earliest issues, Batman was only an obstacle on Joker's way to his goals. Naturally, obstacles have to be removed, and Joker's were Batman and Robin. Once Batman started intervening and ruining Joker's plans time after time, Joker's hate towards Batman grew, and so did his eagerness to kill him, either with guns...(panels below from Batman #1 and Batman #4)


Or just about anything available (panel below from Batman #4), giving his best in hand to hand fight

Which was never nearly enough (panel below from Batman #8)

There's a common misconception that Joker was a physical match for Batman in the early issues. While some may say it's true, it would have been taking things out of the context. Back in those days, every villain was a physical match for Batman , and they fought the same way (kicks and fist punches) getting the same results: Either temporary knocking him down,  fighting him long enough to make an escape or simply be ineffective and got beaten up. But Batman always had an upper hand, even if he absorb good hits

The Modern Age Joker didn't even try against Batman, knowing he stands no chance whatsoever, unless he already had advantage of Batman being dizzy or down and some kind of a weapon next to him. The Bronze/Modern Age Joker certainly wasn't thrilled about getting beaten up (Panel below from Shadow of the Bat #4)

Joker pretty much tried to kill Batman in every era aside from Silver Age, despite his contradictory claims in Bronze and Modern Ages. (Panel below from 1981's Detective Comics #504)

Batman of course didn't want anything else than to put Joker away and was ready to do whatever it took. He beat him up on many occasions when he finally had a chance and also tried and even thought he killed him a few times, sometimes by accident, sometimes in self defense

In Bronze and Modern Age, sometimes Batman was ready to kill Joker out of pure hate (Panel below from 1983's Detective Comics # 532)

Panel below from 1987's Detective Comics #570

During the Golden Age Joker became jealous/in awe of Batman's customized gadgets and started to imitate all that, creating customized cars and planes that visually represented him just like Batmobile and Batplane represented Batman in its visual design. That was mirrored in the movie by the line "Where does he get those wonderful toys" and his knack for customized equipment as well. (Pages below from 1946's Batman #37)

The Joker simply had his own plans which Batman always interrupted, which made Joker hate Batman even more and prepare traps for him to get rid of him. This type of relationship from the earliest comic books was the one which was the inspiration for the 1989 story, which, as almost everything else, was primarily based on the earliest version of Batman mythology, going back to the roots.

There were some elements from other eras as well naturally. In latter years of the Golden Age and then during the Silver Age, Joker was obsessed with coming out on top and being better than Batman. This mirrors Joker's frustration from Batman stealing his thunder in the media. This has also happened often with 70's Joker who wanted to be the villain in Gotham and be the headline (Panels from various issues of Dennis O'Neil's Joker comic books)

The 1989 movie drew primarily from the early 1940's but also a lot from the 1980's. It is interesting to note that during the movie's filming, the conclusion to "Death in the Family" was released in January of 1989 in which Joker kills a member of the Batman "family", the second Robin Jason Todd. Since then, Batman's flashbacks and obsession switched to thoughts about Joker killing Robin and Joker became a villain on a very personal level. (Panel below from Detective Comics #617)

Batman very often couldn't contain himself from killing him, just like Joe Chill. Joe Chill was the murderer of Wayne's and the murder and murderer was constantly on Batman's mind, as was Jason's death (panel below from Detective Comics #606).

That sort of personal revenge motif of the late 80's was well in full swing when Batman premiered months after, and it also included that same motif. Batman's hatred and pain was geared towards Joker for murdering those close to him.
In the comics books it wasn't Joe Chill who haunted batman's head when gased with Scarecrow's poison, it was now Joker. It can be said that Chill and Joker were merged together, became one, from a certain point of view.


Certainly the feelings toward him, the obsession with finding him and the personal hatred was the same.

Batman was close to killing Chill when his anger and hunger for vengeance were clouding his judgment (panel below from Batman: Year Two)

The same with Joker. There were instances where Batman nearly killed him thinking about the "family" member he killed. Example from 1993's Batman #496

There were also some interesting dynamics presented in the movie. The movie hints that both Joker and Batman are the same in some ways, both insane but manifest their insanity in different ways and for different purposes. The notable moment was when both Joker and Bruce say the exact same thing when they enter Vicky Vale's apartment - "Nice place, lots of space"

Bob Kane echoed this theme: [Bruce Wayne] became, in his own way, as psychotic as the Joker, except the Joker fights against justice and for evil. They're mirror images of each other. (People, 1989)

It was also Batman who actually created Joker. Panel below from 1980's The Untold Legends of Batman


Christopher Nolan's movies were based primarily on graphic novels and one shots or limited series' from late 80's and early 90's. For The Dark Knight, the earliest Joker appearances were also cited as influence.

The relationship between Joker and Batman started changing 2 years after the introduction of the Joker character. Starting with 1942's Batman #12, Joker did not want to just kill Batman to get him out of his way. He decided that it was too easy to just dispose of Batman by killing him in "simple" ways.

Instead he started coming up with very imaginative traps, tests and games for Batman to play and get killed in

Facing off Batman became something of a fun for Joker and something he actually enjoyed and thoroughly planned.  He still wanted to kill him but enjoyed the prospect of setting up the traps and trying to outwit Batman. The idea was restated in 1942's Detective Comics #62 when Joker didn't want Batman to get unmasked

Years later the same motif was restated in 1978's Detective Comics #475. Joker doesn't want to unmask Batman and tries to prevail his secret identity, as did Joker in The Dark Knight. As time progressed, Batman became pure fun for Joker.

While beginning with Batman #12 Joker doesn't want to kill Batman in any "conventional" way and instead has fun trying to kill him with most imaginative ways involving games,  he doesn't always stay true to his vouch and simply gets fed up with Batman to the point where he just wants him dead. The first time he contradicted his mantra was as early as in 1943's Detective Comics #71

And it happened many times since (panel below from 1977's Batman #286)

The relationship was developed even more in 1977's Batman #294 when Joker states that he doesn't want to kill Batman, simply because he has so much fun with him. The panel below shows Joker once again trying to prevail Batman's identity by wiping out his face

 It was then restated in 1987's Detective Comics #570

Panel below from 1988's Batman #400 and #429

But as before, Joker sometimes just gets fed up with Batman or just simply wants to kill him for fun. After all, it's Joker and he changes his mind whenever he wants, whenever he finds something to be fun. Even though he seems to have a bond with Batman in 1988's The Killing Joke, in the very same issue he's trying to kill him by stabbing him

And it also happened many times since when Joker wanted Batman dead one way or another, sometimes even just trying to simply shoot him because he either got fed up with Batman's interference..(panel below from 1990's Detective Comics #617)

Or out of rage if he gets beaten up by Batman (panel below from 1993's Batman #496)

Or simply because he feels like it

The same pretty much happened in the movie when Joker says he doesn't want to kill Batman after all because he's too much fun and gives him the speech about the special bond the two share, yet tries to stab him during the fight at the end.

Christopher Nolan: We wanted the Joker’s final taunt to Batman to be that they are locked in an ongoing struggle because of Batman’s rules. There’s a paradox there. Batman won’t kill. And the Joker is not interested in completely defeating Batman because he’s fascinated by him and he enjoys sparring with him. It’s trapped both of them. That was really the meaning of it ( 2008)

Joker addressed the flip flopping on the issue in 2005's Batman: Dark Detective #3. His explanation makes no sense whatsoever, proving that Joker doesn't really think logically and just goes with the flow of his thoughts. He's crazy after all

In The Dark Knight, the relationship between the two also gets personal because Joker kills Rachel, a love interest of Bruce. Batman goes ballistic but even tho he's sometime close, he never really plans or intends to kill Joker. Panel below from 1987's Detective Comics #570