From his first appearance in 1940’s Batman #1, the Joker has struck a cord with readers for being calculating, enigmatic, most importantly, every bit as cunning as Batman is brilliant – the ultimate id to Batman’s superego. Combined with the character’s lack of a definitive origin story (depending on his mood, he’s been everything from a former career criminal to a failed standup comic), the character continues to compel, eight decades on, with no signs of popularity waning anytime soon.
Over the years, we have been treated to many interpretations of the Clown Prince of Crime, from Cesar Romero’s (The Thin Man) maniacal trickster in the 1966 Batman tv series, to Jack Nicholson’s (As Good As It Gets) scene-stealing self-caricature in 1989’s blockbuster Batman, to Mark Hamill’s (Star Wars) iconic homicidal lunatic in Batman the Animated Series and Arkham Asylum series of video games.
Last week, the unveiling of this October’s Joker trailer stopped the internet in its tracks, presenting a heretofore unexpected take on the Harelquin of Hate, one dripping with atmosphere and the sort of twisted, emotional imagery that would make Martin Scorsese proud. Coming in the wake of Jared Leto’s execrable attempt in Suicide Squad (2016), seeing Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) in the title role came not so much as something we didn’t want as it was something we had no idea we needed.
As we await the October 3 premiere of Joker, here are eight essential Joker stories you need to catch up on to get a feel for Gotham’s Jester of Genocide.
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson may be beloved for their broader takes on the Joker, but no live action interpretation has come close to capturing the character’s calculating nature or his relationship with Batman as Heath Ledger (10 Things I Hate About You) in The Dark Knight. Directed by Chris Nolan (Inception, Dunkirk), the film is a stark crime drama that isn’t afraid to delve into its characters’ broken psyches, presenting a Joker that, as one character puts it, “Just wants to watch the world burn.”
As portrayed by Ledger in an Aademy-Award-winning performance, The Dark Knight’s Joker was an anarchic force of nature, exuding menace, gravitas, and unpredictability that enthralled the viewer. We’d never seen a Joker like this before and, given Ledger’s untimely passing shortly before the film’s release, we never will again.
GOING SANE (Legends of the Dark Knight Vol.1 #65-68)
Any dissection for the relationship between batman and the Joker will show that one cannot exist without the other. Whether this is expressed narratively (Tim Burton’s Batman), thematically (The Dark Knight Returns), or even through parody (The Lego Batman Movie), their dichotomy makes for an adversarial relationship as fascinating as any portrayed in literature. “Going Sane” takes this conceit and runs with it, presenting a Joker who slowly begins to go sane based on the belief that he’s finally killed his nemesis.
Published under the Legends of the Dark Knight label –which allowed creators to craft tales unfettered from the restraints of continuity and canon– “Going Sane” goes places no Bat story has gone before. Without an enemy to consume his thoughts, Joker makes the transition from chalk-faced super criminal to unassuming accountant. All told, “Going Sane” is a fascinating character study on the nature of fear and madness, and one impossible to forget.
THE MAN BEHIND THE RED HOOD (Detective Comics #168, 1951)
These days, the Red Hood identity has been adopted by antihero (and former Robin) Jason Todd, but once upon a time, it was an alias used by none other than the man who would be Joker.
Published in 1951, “The Man Behind the Red Hood” is one of the earliest attempts to provide the Joker with an origin story, and definitely one of the most influential. Here, Batman, while teaching a criminology class (ahhh, the 50s) at Gotham University, decides that his students are ready to solve a real case, giving them information about the Red Hood, a criminal that he himself never caught. The identity of the criminal proves to be the story’s most surprising element, as prior to this, no one even suspected the Joker could have had a prior alias.
In the decades since, the Joker’s stint as the Red Hood has found its way into subsequent interpretations of the character’s origin. Whether it was as a down-on-his-luck nobody in The Killing Joke, or the current version’s time as a member the Red Hood Gang, the notion of the future madman in a featureless crimson helmet has become as indelible to the Joker mystique as the ghastly smile that would become his signature.
KNIGHT OF VENGEANCE (Flashpoint: Batman #1-3, 2011)
Not technically a Joker story, per se, but one so incredibly messed up, it deserved a spot on this list. In the “Flashpoint” continuity, one of the Flash’s enemies has altered the past to prevent the formation of the Justice League, resulting in a number of changes to previously established characters and events. In this reality, the mugger that attempted to rob the Wayne family actually killed young Bruce, resulting in his father Thomas becoming Batman, and driving Martha so insane with grief that she becomes the Joker. A treatise on grief and matrimony, the story involves a kidnapping plot by the Joker and culminates in a brutal confrontation between her and the Bat that only one will be able to walk away from.
THE LAUGHING FISH (Detective Comics Vol.1 #475-476, 1978)
While recent years have emphasized the Joker’s intelligence and brutality while downplaying his warped sense of humor, this story is a striking reminder how terrifying the Joker can be when he’s trying to tell a joke. “The Laughing Fish” tells the tale of the Joker’s (clearly) insane attempt to copyright the fish in Gotham after mutating them with a strain of his smile toxin. Filled with memorably macabre imagery as the Joker goes about murdering uncooperative city officials when they refuse his copyright application, this story captures the Joker’s brilliance and lunacy in an efficient manner few stories have managed. Later adapted into a somewhat lackluster episode of The Animated Series (combining it with elements of “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge”), the original comic book version remains the best telling of this classic story.
MAD LOVE (The Batman Adventures, 1993)
Since being introduced in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, Harley Quinn has been an irresistible part of the batman mythos, to the point of being carried over into the main comics in 1997. Her appearance in 2016’s Suicide Squad (played by Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie) only solidified the character’s popularity, with Harley’s portrayal being seen as one of that film’s few high points.
In 1993, Batman: The Animated Series creators Bruce Timm and Paul Dini set out to chronicle Quinn’s never-before-seen origin in a standalone comic set in the continuity of the hit show. In telling the story of Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist who falls in love with the Joker over the course of treating him, Mad Love was far from the (mostly) family-friendly fare of the actual show, packed full of violent imagery and sexual innuendo. An instant hit with critics and fans, the story won for “Best Single Issue” at the 1994 Harvey Awards, and, in 1999, was adapted into an actual episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Since then, elements of the story were incorporated into everything, from the main comics and the Suicide Squad film, to the Arkham Asylum video games.
THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (one-shot, 2005)
The nebulous nature of the Joker’s past has allowed many a creator to put their own spin on the character’s origin, and one of the best is “The Man Who Laughs”, by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke. Recounting his first appearance, the story involves the Joker’s plot to poison Gotham’s water supply and the rookie Batman’s attempts to stop him. Chronologically set a short time after Frank Miller’s seminal “Year One”, “The Man Who Laughs”, includes references to a number of other Joker stories. Even the title itself is a reference, as creators Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and (depending who you ask) Bob Kane based the Joker’s famous visage on actor Conrad Veidt’s look in the 1928 silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.
THE JOKER’S FIVE-WAY REVENGE (Batman Vol. 1 #251, 1973)
Published in 1973, “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge” was a return to the more serious storytelling that was eschewed due to the popularity of the campy 1960s Batman TV show. From the opening page, with the joker cackling madly as he drives through pouring rain on a mission of vengeance, it is clear that this story will be anything but lighthearted. With the Joker dead set on exacting murderous revenge on five of his former henchmen, the Batman must stand in the way of his greatest foe to defend criminals who want nothing to do with him.
After years of corny jokes (at that point), this story is iconic for re-establishing the Joker’s homicidal sense of humor, as well as cementing his egotistical belief that the death of Batman cannot occur by mere chance or luck, but as the end result of meticulous, murderous planning. Featuring a solid story with a slam bang finale that includes handcuffs, a wheelchair, and a great white shark, The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge is a classic whose reputation holds up all these years later.
Know of other essential Joker stories? Share them with us below!