Robert Moses Peaslee and Robert Weiner on The Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime

Robert Weiner has either authored or co-edited close to a dozen academic text examining comic books and popular culture.  He is also the Popular Culture and Performing Arts Librarian for Texas Tech University Libraries.  With Robert Moses Peaslee – the Chair of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas Tech University – as his co-editor, Weiner & Peaslee’s latest book is an essay collection examining the Joker.  Wanting to learn more about The Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime, Sequart was able to interview Weiner & Peaslee about the Joker and this character’s impact on popular culture. (You can pick up your own copy of The Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime HERE.)

Nicholas Yanes:  Since we last talked, you have yet to provide an explanation as to why you and Batman are never in the same place at the same time.  What is going on with that?

Robert Weiner: Well, for one thing I never get a chance to see Batman in action because I am off doing one project or another, teaching classes, or working on library stuff. I just never have sought him out. Besides, I don’t have the ingenious mind he has to come up with all those gadgets, much less the body. Ha ha!

Robert Moses Peaslee: That self-deprecating nature is how he maintains his disguise. Don’t buy it.

Yanes:  On a more serious note, what was the inspiration for developing a book centering on the Joker?  Specifically, what type of academic insights do you think a study of Joker can provide?

Weiner: Well, the Joker is perhaps the most well-known and loved super-villain of all time. I had the idea for the book 8 years ago. There is so much on Batman, I thought it was time to give his main nemesis a chance to be a part of the academic conversation in book form. While there were, of course, scholarly articles and book chapters on the Joker before our book, there wasn’t a book just about him. The Joker is such a rich character and like Batman he has changed with each decade, and yet he remains the same. At the core of the character the Joker is a wildcard.

It took Dr. Peaslee and myself 4 years to put the manuscript together and get it published with University of Mississippi Press.

Peaslee: Yes, a long, strange trip. The thing I love most about the book is that it shows just how much interdisciplinary diversity there can be in thinking deeply about the Joker. You can come at him from so many angles, and yet no one point of view can possibly pin him down.

Yanes:  Given all of the villains Batman has faced over the decades, why do you two think the Joker has remained so popular? Additionally, go to any comic book related event and there is always a sea of people dressed as the Joker.  Why has this become the character that so many want to dress up as?

Weiner: I think the reason for the Joker’s consistent popularity, depending on which media version one considers, is that the character is at times just fun to watch, at other times he is interesting, and sometimes he can be downright terrifying.

Peaslee: As someone who has cosplayed the Joker, I can tell you that there is something deeply satisfying about it. I think anyone who’s had that experience will tell you that, on some level, they sensed the profound freedom that character enjoys. He is unbound by law, custom, or convention. But that’s also spooky after a while. It’s good that you can take it off.

Yanes:  Harley Quinn first appeared in 1992 as a TV character (fifty-two years after the Joker was first published), yet she has almost become just as, if not more, popular than the Joker. Why do you think Harley Quinn has been such a successful character when other female counterparts to established heroes and villains never do as well?

Weiner: We sometimes see stories where Harley gets over the hold the Joker has her. It’s great to see her become a strong character and a female counterpart to the Joker. I think there is an audience for this type of character in sequential art related narratives (and on film / video games).

No matter how Batman tries to rehabilitate Harley, it is not going to happen. She might occasionally do something “good,” but she really likes to live dangerously on her own terms. Like the Joker, she is cool. She no longer has to live in the Joker’s shadow either! With that being said Harley and the Joker are forever going to be associated.

I do think female characters are getting better recognition both critically and in terms of readership; Captain Marvel / Ms. Marvel being one high-profile example. We still have a long way to go, but at least there are some strides being made. As a side note, my library colleagues Shelley Barba and Joy Perrin just announced they are putting together an edited collection on Harley Quinn so look for the CFP, available HERE.

Peaslee: Speaking of cosplay, based on my anecdotal experiences at cons, there’s likely no more popular female character than Harley Quinn. I’ve seen some discussion of why this is in academic circles, and I’m sure there are lots of reasons. But there’s no question that female (and male) fans have embraced her in a pretty unique way. I’m so interested in Margot Robbie’s take on her – I think she’s going to steal the show next summer.

Yanes:  There have been several people to play and / or voice the Joker for TV, movies, and videogames. Which interpretations of the character do you two think will stand the test of time?

Weiner: Well, certainly the Mark Hamill version is one of the best loved, and rightly so. That version of the Joker will always stand the test of time, as will the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger versions. I personally like Caesar Romero too, and I think his quirky version has a place.

Peaslee: Ledger. At the end of the day, there’s so much mystique around his performance, and it’s so raw. I don’t think anyone’s going to watch Suicide Squad and think about how Jared Leto measures up against Nicholson, and that’s not just because Ledger’s performance was more recent. It is iconic, like Brando’s Don Corleone; the sort of thing movie fans are treated to once or twice in a lifetime.

Yanes:  When putting together this collection of essays, what were some of the topics that took you both by surprise?

Weiner: There are many unique arguments (and lots for academics to debate and discuss). One of which is making the Joker into some kind of “super-hero” via philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The other philosophical piece on the Joker’s “six inch teeth” is pretty interesting. The way scholars interpret Grant Morrison’s work is always surprising.

Peaslee: I’ve always loved the chapter on Internet trolling as a new manifestation of the Joker “ethos.” It helps me understand Anonymous and about a hundred other things about the 21st century.

Yanes:  Outside of the comics, how do you both think the Joker has impacted other forms of entertainment and mainstream culture?  Which essays in your book do you think best contribute to this topic?

Weiner: We have a piece looking at the performance style of Lady Ga Ga and comparing with the Joker, titled “Lady HaHa.” Also I think it is important to remind people just how controversial Heath Ledger was at the time of his casting. There was lots of online backlash against his being cast as the Joker (similar to Daniel Craig’s casting as James Bond). We have a piece tracing that history and discussion, and now of course nearly everyone agrees Ledger nailed it. We also have a fine piece on the animated versions of the Joker which, of course, are extremely important in any discussion of the character. The Joker has had tremendous impact on politics, videogames, toys, and other forms of popular culture.

Peaslee: I’ve been surprised by how many people we talk to whose most prominent association when it comes the Joker is from the Arkham Asylum series of videogames. That was unexpected to me, but it shouldn’t have been. We are increasingly in a time where people play more than they watch, and of course the Joker is even scarier and more compelling in a ludic environment.

Yanes:  Given all the stories the Joker has been in, what are the stories that you both think represent the Joker the best?

Weiner: Batman # 1, the first appearance of the Joker, because it is the story that set the standard for everything to come; “The Joker’s Millions” from Detective #180, which was adapted into the animated series, “Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” by Denny O’ Neil and Neal Adams; “The Laughing Fish” storyline by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers; “Going Sane” by J.M. DeMatteis and Joe Staton; and Englehart and Roger’s controversial storyline “Dark Detective”. The recent “Death of the Family” by Scott Synder is pretty brutal as is Tony Daniel’s prequel “Faces of Death,” from Detective #1 (2011). The Killing Joke is a favorite, and I make my super-hero class read that one.

One of my all time favorites is when the Joker tries to kill Batman on the moon in Detective #388 and when Jerry Lewis meets the Joker from The Adventures of Jerry Lewis #97. One has to remember that the less dark, but extremely wacky, almost silly version of the Joker is still in keeping with the Joker’s modus operandi. In fact the Joker does not always have to be dark in his methods. Wackiness is just as much a part of who he is, and all those Comic Code stories from the 1950s-1960s that may seem stupid or naïve to today’s audiences still fit. Those stories still have relevance to the central core of the Joker as a character. The darkness and the light fit together. Let’s not forget the word “joke” in the character’s name. Of course, I could list two dozen more.

Peaslee: I think Rob’s got that one covered. Although I will make a pitch for Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever read. It’s like a nightmare vomited onto the page.

Yanes:  Overall, when people finish reading this book, what do you hope they will take away from it?

Weiner: I hope they come away understanding why the Joker is one of the most complex characters ever created. He, along with Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, (in the super-hero genre at least), is part of what we call “the big four” of major characters from sequential art. That is known worldwide (at least pre-Avengers movie). The Joker’s the only villain in that list that nearly anyone ages 5-85 could name whether they have seen a film, read a comic, played a video game etc.

Peaslee: I’d like readers to come to a better understanding about our times and why it is that today we find the Joker so compelling, particularly in the West. As a manifestation of the trickster archetype, he holds a spot in an ancient lineage of troublemakers and truth tellers. We should listen to some of what he has to say.

Yanes:  Finally, what are some other projects you are both working on that people should keep an eye out for?

Weiner: Dr. Peaslee and I have another edited volume that we did with librarian Matthew McEinry on films related to Marvel Comics.

Peaslee: Yup, on to the next, and this time we go back to Marvel and dig through some dusty crates of forgotten adaptations (as well as a few more familiar ones). We want to look at how the cinematicization of the Marvel “universe” goes back rather a long way, and certainly well before Iron Man. Look for it with McFarland soon!

You can pick up your own copy of The Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime HERE.

Remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Sequart on Twitter @Sequart and on Facebook.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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