As the world thaws from the shock of actor Heath Ledger’s sudden passing, I am inspired to take a closer look into the Frankenstein’s monster that he had spent the last few months of his life invoking – the one called the Joker. His role as the Clown Prince of Crime in the latest Batman movie was something that was at first marred by bitter skepticism from fans of the comic book who thought Ledger an overrated heartthrob, and then revered by those same fans when the slashed visage of Ledger’s Joker was revealed to the world on a viral marketing website. It was clear, at that point, that a veracious new age for the Batman movie mythos was beginning, an age when the villains will prove that a criminal with super powers who can kill people is nowhere near as threatening as a criminal who can kill people without them. It was also obvious that Ledger’s Joker was destined to steal the show.
From his gruesome yet playful appearance in rough promotional photographs, to a scene in the movie’s trailer of him peering out from behind his smeared make-up and smacking his lips apathetically at the camera, this new Joker seemed dead on the mark. The character of the Joker has been one of my top two or three all-time favorite comic book characters for as long as I can remember, and I was thrilled to see what Heath was doing with him. All of my geeky friends and I couldn’t wait to catch another screenshot of Ledger’s Joker in action, or to find another plot point of some wretched thing he does to the people of Gotham City. With every tiny new piece of the puzzle I grew a million times more excited to see the movie.
The day Heath died, new facets of his role as the Joker had been brought to my attention. It seems that, according to the coverage on CNN Headline News, Heath had spent so much time invoking the character and living inside the mind of a demented, serial killer clown that he was only able to sleep about two hours a night for weeks after the production on The Dark Knight had wrapped. The insomnia forced Ledger to seek doctor prescribed sleeping medication, the same kind of medication that was found around his body the day he died.
Did the Joker kill Heath Ledger? It was a major point of speculation put forth by the media for some time after the revelation of his death. Did seeing the world through the Joker’s eyes take too great of a toll on the young actor? Was it too much to live for months on end in that character; seeing the Joker’s mutilated face in the mirror for time and again? What could it have been like? Did his mind fracture from having to laugh at all of the things that any sane person would find troubling and sadistic?
I’m sure that as the media settles and the investigation moves further along we will see that the reason for this man’s unfortunate passing was nothing as extraordinary, or perhaps heroic, as death from acting. However, learning of the passion and commitment that Heath brought to a character that so many of us love certainly made him a hero. In an interview with Sarah Lyall of the New York Times that would prove to be one of his last, Heath unintentionally revealed a sacred tome that he had been carrying with him throughout the last several months: his Joker Diary. Inside was a collection of images and journal entries that he had begun compiling four months before the filming to help him flesh out the character. Among the pages was a list of things the Joker would find funny, which included the AIDS virus. Heath Ledger died leaving us a gift, a respectful and artistic portrayal of one of the most idolized and complex cult icons of the last half-century; a portrayal that he gave everything he could to make as realistic as possible. Thanks, Heath. Thanks for doing more for this character than most of the writers and artists in the comic book field have ever dared to do. You made the Joker living fiction, and your work will live on forever as the new standard in an era that you helped pioneer.