Theorizing about the Joker in All Seriousness

And it’s not that easy. One thing becomes clear as I go about snooping on the Man Who Laughs – you cannot quite ‘come to know’ the Joker. You can read about him, theorise all you like, interpret him in a thousand different ways but you still won’t know him. The centre does not exist and all you can get is layers…of meaninglessness. The Joker, in his own words, “aint deep, but simply fathomless.” Which is why perhaps, he remains overtly underestimated and completely mysterious even today, albeit being one of the most popular comic book villains of all time. And over the ages, as one traces the Joker’s growth within and without the Batman plotlines, one cannot but realise that he is slinking further and further into, for wont of a better word, illegibility. The edges are getting blurred, all that remains in full clarity, high definition, is the red lipped smile and the cacophonic laughter. While admirers of Ledger, Hamill or Nicholson would swear how their heroes have completely laid bare the Joker’s psyche for them, the truth remains we haven’t even breached his surface.

Well, one way to deal with Joker would be to follow the chronological line. Not that we have much choice, unless we are planning to plunge into the abyss straight away, which again, can get a bit scary.

The Joker started off as a mal-nourished child. He was initially slated for a single-issue send off. But then, both Bob Kane and Bill Finger (and, more importantly, their DC editor Whitney Ellsworth) decided they would let him live and he was revived – through some hasty illustrations. Almost like an after-thought. What followed was a long series of identical entries, apparent deaths and comebacks fit for a mid-40s Team Rocket. Not that this would be remedied anytime soon. The Silver Age saw Joker morph into a goofy little thief cracking jokes even little KG kids won’t sigh at.

By the late 1950s the Joker had been reduced to nothing more than a circus clown – harmless, silly and within the Batman context, quite meaningless. And so by the time when Julius Schwartz took over in 1964, Joker got discontinued altogether.

It was only in 1973 that we see writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams bringing back the Ace of Knaves in Batman #251, with “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge”.

Interestingly, the Silver Age Joker is almost an alien to the Clown’s fans today primarily because it is Kane and Finger’s Joker which provided the road map to his present cult-defining avatar. O’Neil’s idea was to “simply to take it back to where it started […] to get a sense of what Kane and Finger were after.” Everything from the smile on his dead victim’s face, the Joker venom to the swaggering walk, and the whimsical nature of his modus operandi found their way back into O’Neil’s clown. Joker, even in his salad days, worked with logic and reasoning which “make(s) sense to him alone”. Kane and Finger’s Joker was a maniac, yes, a psychopath, a sadist, yet just about that and nothing more. No unpredictability, no I-am-the-sexiest-devil-on-earth charm; certainly not the depth.

O’Neil started the transformation; the famous 1978-79 run by writer Steve Englehart and penciler Marshall Rogers built-up on this, deepening the severity of the Joker’s insanity. Meanwhile Joker became the first DC super-villain to get a Comic-book title of his own in the nine-issue The Joker. This started a lengthy line of graphic novels and crossover series like The Man who Laughs, The Killing Joke, The Last Laugh, Death in the Family, Switch, Arkham Asylum, Joker and Emperor Joker which kept on adding layers and dimension to the Joker’s personality. Add to that a smattering of iconic portrayals on-screen including those of Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and Heath Ledger, and you’ll get a character sketch best described as distorted.

Over the years, and across media-scape, there have emerged several Jokers, even when we talk about only the visual personality. Now, the focus here is not the details of each such interpretation, but the scope which the character itself provides for such a wide range of perspectives to be possible. There is Brian Bolland’s Joker in The Killing Joke, who is a victim. Drawn and inked to traditional perfection, we see a man broken down by the society and made into a joke. He is week, emaciated and driven by a meaningless hunger – something way past revenge. Then there is Lee Bermejo’s Joker in Joker – suave, murderous, more physical and of a beastly brawling type – the dominant. And then there is Dave McKean’s version in Arkham Asylum – a convention defying haze of white and green and red – a visual embodiment of the Joker’s characteristic incoherence. Remember, Kane and Finger never demarcated an origin for the Joker. He was just there. The Joker was therefore always an easy flux. And with hardly any fixed quantum to define his appearance, his character, his mentality, the Joker can be anybody donning a similar looking garb and cruising out to do what he deems best. The ‘Joker’ is rather a collective noun then, than a proper noun. The Joker(s) breed(s) in the madness inherent not only to the fictional cityscape but also our world. All that is needed to give birth to a Joker is “one bad day,” or so the madman would make us belief. But the question is what happens after that “one bad day”? To find that out, one must first detach oneself from the negative space that the Joker occupies, the space of the villain.

For one, Joker and his ‘sane’ other, Batman, can be together seen as representing the Nietzschean Dichotomy. Nietzsche, in  The Birth of Tragedy, uses the concept of Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy present in the ancient Greek society to explain the constant struggle between Apollo’s order (law, beauty, reason) and Dionysius’ chaos (hedonistic appetites, drunkenness, sexual urges, primal instinct). These two forces are constitutive of the microcosm. I use the word microcosm here, to denote the applicability of this theory to both the society as well as the human psyche. Thus, as far as this reasoning goes, to totally repress the darkness would be to remain ignorant, and thus misunderstand reality as it is only understood in the Apollonian context. So Nietzsche would rather propose that these two elements were not opposing, but complementary. And in this scheme, therefore, if Joker were to be the Dionysius to Batman’s Apollo, then the Joker’s constant insistence that neither can exist without the other makes a lot of sense. In “The Clown at Midnight” (featured in Batman #663), the Joker states to Batman, “You can’t kill me without becoming like me. I can’t kill you without losing the only human being who can keep up with me. Isn’t it ironic?!”

Even in Emperor Joker, where the Joker steals Mister Mxyzptlk’s reality-altering power, remaking the entire world into a twisted caricature, with everyone in it stuck in a loop, he tortures and kills his ‘dear ol’ Bat’ every day, only to bring him back to life and do it over and over again. And it soon becomes evident to Superman that the Joker cannot erase Batman from existence, because he totally defines himself by his opposition to the Dark Knight.

This is quite insightful and is reminiscent of Ledger’s memorable “I’m a dog chasing car” quote. The Joker does not know what to do when he has full control. “I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it”. He does not wish for full control then, and is impatient with total control, the lack of something to ‘toy’ with. What he is more interested in is the process itself. He needs Order to expose its futility.

Conversely, it seems Batman too suffers the same bindings. After capturing the Joker in one story, he threatens to kill his old foe, but then says, “But that would give you the final victory, making me into a killer like yourself!” It seems Order too needs Chaos, if only to prove its efficiency, its infallibility.

But then that’s again reducing the whole thing to a single line, and that’s downright immoral in case of the Harlequin of Hate. The chaos is not only for the world to see, but also inside. And no one, not even Grant Morrison, Allan Moore or Brian Azzarello have dared a peek inside the Joker’s head. That’s the abyss I mentioned earlier. Each Joker portrayal is a view from the outside, where the artist, as well as the reader, is left to decipher the Clown by his actions, his words and not by his thoughts. We have never had a first person narrative from Joker’s point of view, even as both Lex Luthor and Penguin were given a chance to spill their minds’ contents.  Joker would rather keep his thoughts to himself.

The Joker’s universal appeal derives from his insanity, a thing of lengthy analysis and often deemed a mere facade. Morrison’s Arkham Asylum would say that the Joker isn’t quite insane. Instead his mental state is that of an unprecedented “super-sanity,” a kind of ultra-sensory perception. This makes his mind flip through personalities. He could be a goofy, harmless clown one moment, and almost involuntarily flip into a vicious killer. However, it’s not quite involuntary. In many instances, when the Joker realises he just cracked harmless gag, he is disappointed and corrects his error by turning the very gag deadly, instantaneously. For example, the ‘Bang’ gun, which in its earlier versions used to pout a small flag with ‘bang’ written on it and the Joker, feeling disappointed, would extract the flag out and hurl it like a dart at his adversary in a swift flurry.

But then, far from being super sensory, Joker’s mind is a blank, a void. It’s hard to say whether Joker feels anything except the void. He feels no fear, for one. During the Knightfall saga, after Scarecrow and the Joker team up and kidnap the mayor of Gotham City, Scarecrow turns on the Joker and uses his fear gas to see what Joker is afraid of. To Scarecrow’s surprise, the gas has no effect on Joker, who in turn beats him with a chair.  Neither does he feel sadness. And therefore the name Joker stands for more than the silly get up. The Joker’s super-sensory mind finds a kind of ecstasy (use of the word is not incidental here – it indeed means outside stasis, outside the given order of things, out of order) in the loss of emotions. Like post modernism itself, there is a celebration of loss, jubilation in the existence of inexistence. Therefore while this super-sensory part would give a heteroglossiac frame to his mind, the sense of loss and void sets up a carnivalesque response to it.

Both these make him the most unpredictable foe to Batman. And not only in the methods. The larger motive too is unpredictable, unknown. Sometimes he commits crimes just for the fun of it, while on other occasions it is part of a grand scheme. And this brings us back to what we said about not coming to know him. We cannot leave him alone, saying he is just another mad man doing mad things – dangerous, murderous but mad nonetheless. However he is sometimes so unpredictable, eccentric and whimsical, any amount of psychoanalysis and philosophical theorisation would fall inadequate to gauge his mind. All the above theorisations that I have put forth would seem meaningless jargon. He is Absurd in all sense of the word – like Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot, there happens a lot of over-analysing and theorising about the Joker, and sometimes it’s best to sit back and enjoy the Clown’s performance.

Interestingly, there is a sharp sense of performance related to the Joker. Jokers are performers. And our Joker is no exception. This becomes evident from two things.

Firstly, the Joker refers to Arkham Asylum, from which he can escape at will, as a resting place between his “performances”.  And indeed for the Joker every crime, every move is a performance. Related to each of his crime is the notion of the spectacle. He is attention seeking and makes sure that his crimes are indeed like staged and minutely choreographed performances. In fact, if Gotham is a stage and Arkham the backstage, the Joker can be well described as a perfect performer, for whom the act and the performance, its perfection, is supreme and all else becomes a mere prop – women including Harley Quinn, money, equipment, henchmen. Not only that, despite having murdered enough people to get the death penalty thousands of times over, he is always found not guilty by reason of insanity – it is as if the Joker, as the actor, has no responsibility for his action, given that the role he plays is that of a lunatic and this role is already scripted for the performance.

Secondly, he is self-aware as a performer, a character. Continuously, throughout comics and episodes of the animated series, the Joker reaches out to interact with the audience – the fourth wall awareness. Once in a JLA crossover, the Joker cracks a particularly funny joke and after laughing for a two and a half pages, stops abruptly to address the reader in the following words: “Stop laughing already! That’s enough. If ya’ laugh so much ya’ gonna make yerself all giddy and then the next page is full grizzly gory stuff and you’ll throw up and ruin my perfectly inked suit. So just shut up now”. The next page indeed turned out to be quite gory.

This fourth wall awareness also carries over to Batman: The Animated Series. The Joker is the only character to talk directly into the “camera” (such as in Joker’s Wild, where he says “Don’t try this at home, kids!” before lassoing a passing truck and using it to swing him over the fence of Arkham Asylum), and can be heard whistling his own theme music in the episode adaptation of the comic Mad Love.

Back when I had first started to read the Batman comics with serious enthusiasm, Joker would give me sleepless nights. Even Mark Hamill’s eerie laughter in the Animated Series, would make the hair on the back of my neck stand up like charged iron fillings.  He was, and still remains scary to me. Two realisations, complimentary to each other made me fall in love with the character. The first was that it’s a performance and the second that it’s a performance of the deepest human nature. If one accepts the Joker inside, lets the freaky smile creep out once in a while, when standing next to a mirror, it’s only then that we would start to realise who the Joker really is. I still don’t know him. I don’t try, and I would urge you not to. Only sit back and enjoy.

Oh and do stop trying so hard to be sane. Sanity is seriously over-rated. Ask the Joker, if you don’t believe me!

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Debarghya is an imaginary character (most likely a dwarf and as grumpy as any) stuck in a wrong world. He currently masquerades as a student of English Journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, India. He would rather flourish swords and wands, however is bound to flourishing pens and ink stained papers. But since that cannot be remedied, he will keep throwing vicious lampoons and caricatures, biting satires, and mind numbing articles full of jargon fit to liquidify your cerebellum. So, quite a charming personality altogether.

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  1. I enjoyed reading your write-up. The Joker is a touchy subject because as you said, no one seems to understand this character. I think that Bill Finger nailed it when he first created the Joker but it seems that he has been misunderstood since.
    There has been so much misunderstanding around the Joker. The Joker is like a child that does bad just to get the attention of his parents. He doesn’t take pleasure in torturing people for it’s own sake or desire to be rich or have power, he just wants someone to fill this void in him and make him feel alive for once. He is a tortured soul that mommy and daddy neglected. He was always told that he was a bad boy and acted as such, and more so when he wanted attention. He’s like Matt Damon in Goodwill Hunting choosing to be beaten with the wrench, because “Fuck you”.
    One of my favorite portrayals of the Joker is Brubaker’s portrayal of him in Gotham Central. The Joker goes on a killing spree where he would shoot random people just to put the city on edge for fear for their lives, and then, when that doesn’t get the response he wants, he surrenders himself to the police. They beat him and he laughs, the more they beat him, the more he laughs. And when he is tired of that game, he frees himself and kills some cops. The Joker is a genius who feels very alone and very much in pain. He looks for some kind of connection with others and can only relate to their fear which is where the Joker lives, in fear of that torture that he experienced as a boy. His intelligence makes it especially hard for him to relate to others because any attempts at empathy toward him are taken as others trying to fool him. He knows that he is worthless and no one is going to convince him otherwise. The thing is, so is everyone else worthless, even more so than him because they aren’t as intelligent as he is, though people just don’t know that they are worthless and that’s the job he has taken upon himself, to show others their worthlessness and the worthlessness of life in general.
    Batman is his greatest advisory because the Batman is the only one that can match the Joker’s feelings of terror and worthlessness, though instead of showing others their worthlessness, Batman attempts maintain the illusion of sanity and order, though he doesn’t believe that there is. He is in denial of his pain, desperately trying to keep it all together.
    It’s an epic mythos though one greatly misunderstood by most creators.

  2. When/where did the Joker say he ““ain’t deep, but simply fathomless”? I can’t find that quote.

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