We Live in a Society1 of 12
As one of Batman’s longest-running rogues, the Joker has almost as much cultural cache as the Dark Knight Detective himself – but even icons are not immune to big changes, in the world of comic books.
To that end, Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok’s long-awaited Batman: Three Jokers will finally arrive starting in June, potentially rewriting much of what fans know about the Clown Prince of Crime.
But before all that, we’re looking back at Joker’s long comic book history to pull out ten definitive tales that wrote the book on Batman’s greatest foe – and paved the way for Three Jokers.
"Joker"/"Joker Returns" (Batman #1)2 of 12
Considering current comic book tropes, it’s pretty crazy to think that the Joker was intended to die in this issue (like, actually kick the bucket for good). But the Joker’s continued legacy is a testament to the fact that not all editorial interference is created equal.
The two stories here really lay the foundation for everything that the Joker would become later on. He’s clever and conniving. He’s intelligent and doggedly determined. And his motives are somewhat a mystery. His plans seem to serve a singular end: create chaos. Nothing more, nothing less.
Bill Finger’s script leans pretty heavy into the playing card motif here which opens up Batman for some killer puns, but Joker is positioned as legitimate adversary to the Dark Knight. Plus Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson’s design for Joker with his Steeplechase grin, purple suit and stark white skin is instantly iconic.
Even seven decades later, the Joker’s first appearance serves as a great primer for what the character would become.
Mad Love3 of 12Batman: The Animated Series remains a beloved piece of superhero media even in an age of endgames and countless TV adaptations. Mark Hamill’s portrayal of the Joker is unforgettable, but the show also introduced a character that would help impact the laughing lawbreaker’s legacy to this day: Harley Quinn.
“Mad Love” explores the dynamic between Harley and Joker, allowing readers to see the villain from a slightly different angle. Sure, Harley’s infatuation might be misplaced, but her relationship with the Joker stands as an interesting juxtaposition to Joker’s relationship to Batman.
In a lot of ways, Joker is very much defined by the characters around him and “Mad Love,” despite it’s kid-friendly tone, is a great example of how great characters have room for endless exploration.
Batman: White Knight4 of 12
The Joker isn’t a character keen to turn hero like so many other comic book super villains, but Sean Gordon Murphy’s Batman: White Knight sees the funnybook felon in something of a role reversal with the World's Greatest Detective.
After winning a lawsuit against the GCPD and receiving a cure for his criminal condition, Joker jumps into the political arena to rule Gotham once and for all – through electioneering. But can he really walk the straight and narrow or are his plans more pernicious?
Murphy crafts a world that pulls in details from so many different iterations of the Batman mythos that this comic works as a sort of a love letter to one of the greatest hero/villain rivalries in fiction even while turning it on its head.
A current sequel, Curse of the White Knight, is exploring Joker's origin once again.
"A Death in the Family" (Batman #426-429)5 of 12
If there’s anyone that the Joker hates as much as Batman, it’s Robin - and “A Death in the Family” is testament to his loathing for the Dynamic Duo. A loathing so deep, so wretched, it leads directly to the murder of the second Robin, Jason Todd.
But this story is much more than just the infamous death of Jason Todd. It’s a reminder that for all the goofy gags and silly setups for his crimes, the Joker is dangerous. There is no line he won’t cross in the pursuit of chaos especially if it means Batman will suffer as well.
Fans looking to experience one of the peaks of Joker’s brutality will find exactly what they are looking for in this story.
Batman: The Man Who Laughs6 of 12
For readers who prefer a more modern storytelling approach, Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke’s The Man Who Laughs serves as a great update to the Joker’s origin.
The script pulls some of the more disparate elements of the character together and repackages them to create a more complete picture of the Clown Prince of Crime.
Brubaker uses the weight of continuity to give the story more stakes and momentum. And coupled with Mahnke’s nightmarish vision of the villain, this is a stylish retelling of Joker’s origins that brings him some added depth and context.
"The Laughing Fish" (Detective Comics #475)7 of 12
Some Joker stories showcase his penchant for anarchy through nihilistic chaos. Others feature Joker trying to patent “laughing fish.”
“The Laughing Fish” might seem like it has a pretty goofy set-up, but too often we forget that Joker is a (failed) comedian. Jokes are supposed to be part of the schtick. While this is a funny story, it shows us just how crazy Joker is. We’re able to better understand that it’s his unpredictability in addition to his intelligence that makes him a formidable foe for Batman.
Steve Englehart and Terry Austin strike that balance incredibly well and in the process deliver an iconic story.
"Joker's Five Way Revenge" (Batman #251)8 of 12
Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams craft a stone-cold classic with this issue. The Joker is an unrelenting force of death and destruction but he does it with a severe commitment to the bit that makes this story so fun.
What’s funny is that he almost defeats Batman but decides against killing him because he doesn’t want to win out of sheer luck.
Instead, he puts together a much more complicated plot involving a shark that doesn’t go as planned. It might be an unceremonious end for the Joker in this one as he gets beat up on the beach, but this story speaks to Joker’s single mindedness and strange personal motivations.
"Soft Targets" (Gotham Central #12-15)9 of 12
Superhero comic books sometimes downplay the human element of the stories they’re telling, resulting in work that lacks stakes and something to ground it. Fortunately, there are books like Gotham Central to pick up the slack.
Focused almost exclusively on the Gotham City Police Department, Gotham Central gives us a Marvels-esque “man on the street” look at the world of Gotham City. And the story “Soft Targets” puts into perspective the severity of Joker’s crimes.
Superhero fans have become somewhat desensitized to the collateral damage inherent in the stories they enjoy but this arc (and really Gotham Central in general) showcases just how precious human life can be and the ripple effect felt by people who never asked to be part of Batman and the Joker’s never-ending war.
Arkham Asylum10 of 12
This is one of the most terrifying Jokers in history. And it starts with Dave McKean’s unnerving portrayal of the Joker. His strange proportions, his permanently bloodshot eyes and hellish grin take on a much more horrifying vision of the character in McKean’s painted style.
Then Grant Morrison’s narrative ups the ante, forcing Batman to suffer through psychological torture in a prison somewhat of his own making. The writer doesn’t let up as he shows how broken Arkham Asylum is and how much more twisted the Joker can make it seem when he’s in control.
This is the Joker at his most strange and sadistic in a story that leans into the horror elements of Batman more than most and it’s better for it.
The Killing Joke11 of 12
It’s almost not a Joker story list without The Killing Joke.
While the story has undergone some critical reevaluation over the past few years due to the treatment of Barbara Gordon, it still remains a somewhat definitive word on the Joker.
The villain has never pushed Batman to the brink the way he does here and while the events of the story can be hard to stomach at times, they show exactly who the Joker is: a nihilistic force of evil unparalleled in the DC Universe.
Like the Joker says, “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
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