I love The Joker. However I’m not oblivious to how problematic that kind of admiration can be. Recently I have had cause to reflect on this even more. Particularly in light of two things. The revelations of the DC Universe Rebirth one shot and the release of Suicide Squad in cinemas. The former is the proposition of an even greater mystery revolving around the Clown Prince of Crime’s already nebulous identity. While the latter is the solidification of this mercurial master of mirth by virtue of it being the debut of the current cinematic interpretation of this iconic individual. Actually make that three things. The third is the release of an animated adaptation of The Killing Joke a work which while seemingly popular is also undergoing a rapid reappraisal of it’s content and merit. This alongside the addition of some unnecessary sexual objectification of Barbara, beyond that already implied in the Joker’s assault, are no doubt contributing factors as to why I have yet to see it.
In a bizarre way the attention the Joker has received recently and the way he is apparently moving from the abstract into the concrete has made me almost a little ashamed of my fascination with him. Better then of course to remember my personal interpretation, albeit one heavily influenced by Grant Morrison, that the Joker is like a diamond. A multifaceted jewel. Born under intense pressure. One with intricate refractive and reflective depths. Indeed the more problematic aspects of his character may well force us to look upon our own actions and apprehensions. The motivations of others and the world around us. While his rare moments of introspection, reflection or even frailty force us to question the notion of him, or indeed any villain, as a being of absolute evil.
That said the idea of this character being utterly and irredeemably evil is one that has been gaining popularity with both creators and consumers of late. Scott Snyder’s run essentially culminated in the idea of the Joker being an ancient and possibly eternal malevolent power. As did, I believe the Gotham TV show. These almost mirroring Morrison’s conception of Batman as an eternal atavism.
Stranger still then on the back of all this supernatural vilification is the Suicide Squad cinematic cut’s framing of him as a sort of Luciferian romantic white knight. I say cinematic cut as a rumoured original cut frames him as far more malevolent and his relationship with Harley being far more violent and abusive. According to some posts on Tumblr remnants can be found in the cinematic cut but only through the subtlety of Margot Robbie’s performance and a hindsight re watch. This is truly a Joker I do not like. Not as a critique of Leto’s performance. I applaud him for playing a Joker I have almost no affinity or sympathy for. I like it because I don’t like it. How contrarian.
Which brings us back to DC Rebirth. The revelation of there being three Jokers is so maddeningly obvious and simple. True until this point Morrison and myself would have had it that all the Joker’s are one Joker. However when we look at the published stories and extended narratives we have had three origin tales. These nestled between the two radically canon changing crises of Crisis On Infinite Earths and Flashpoint. We have the Pre-Crisis Joker defined or perhaps remembered more by his clownishness than the callous cruelty of his early and later days. Each Joker it can be argued reflect the ages in which they were published. Pre-Crisis Joker moving from noir pulp horror, through psychedelic lampoon into sleazy slapstick.
Post Crisis Joker’s narrative course and popularity may well stem from the gradual transition of mental illness as becoming less and less a taboo subject and conversely the explosion of the acid house movement. Many are quick to cite The Killing Joke as defining the Post Crisis Joker. True it both clarifies and yet further muddies the Joker’s origin but it was not initially intended to be canonical. Nor perhaps should it have ever been. The murder of Jason Todd in Death In The Family might equally be taken as the (re-)defining moment of the character. Interestingly so this was achieved through a skewed form of reader mandate. As well as cementing the idea of the meta-Joker as much as it did the meta-Bat Morrison’s run also gave this Joker a minor shot at a minuscule act of redemption through the machinations of a certain Oberon Sexton. Of course to the Joker this is not about redemption but recompense and revenge. Which makes it even more delicious.
However let’s be clear. He could never be a hero. Nor would he want to be. One of the Joker’s last appearances before the New 52 was in Gotham City Sirens reuniting him with Harley in way that, though it could be framed as somewhat manipulative, could also be seen to evoke the romance of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Much like that movie the path to this reunion is littered with many innocent bodies, even before it’s riotous end.
And so after a brief dalliance with a rather novel take on the Joker and Batman relationship in Flashpoint finally we find our third contender. The post Flashpoint Joker. Who while thoroughly evil even before he fell in the chemical vat, is intriguing as an essentially revised or supra-condensed take on all that had gone before. All three of Snyder and Capullo’s Batman arcs involving the Joker, along with James Tynion IV’s back ups, are worth the price of admission alone. In a gesture begun in various Suicide Squad tie ins Harley Quinn’s solo series has relegated him to the role of almost formulaic recurring nightmare. Again no real criticism but the often gratuitous scenes of violence and torture porn really cement how repugnantly we should view him.
The New 52’s Joker could easily work as another facet of our meta Joker diamond and might well have done so had Batman not inherited Metron’s chair during the Darkseid War. As it now stands we are meant to believe that having three separate origin stories, and potentially three distinctive individual characters, there are three Jokers. Of course Metron’s chair could well have trolled Batman massively and is merely reminding Batman -and us- of the albeit brief existence of Curtis Base. Either way Metron’s chair has been present or involved in enough crisis events that why couldn’t it be able to perceive some kind of distinction?
Finally we have a wildly speculative theory based on the gradual infiltration of the elements of Watchmen into the pre and post Rebirth canon. This theory being one of the Joker’s actually being Eddie Blake, The Comedian. To describe this as the figurative whoopee cushion of the Watchmen related theories is, like my comment on Leto’s performance, again intended as no slur. If I had to decide which Joker is The Comedian I don’t think I could. Nor would I really want to. The more I think about it the more absurd the reasoning behind any choice becomes.
So I started this piece by saying I love the Joker and in a way I suppose I have to choose which one. Well ultimately I love the meta-Joker. Not least because it means I can love all the different phases and faces without being overly judgemental. And that’s before we even consider the various Joker’s of the Multiverse. Marguerite Bennett, for example, uses her Bombshells to put an interesting twist on the Joker (and his nearest and dearest) that proves as refreshing and intriguing as any other aspect of that series.
Within the choices framed post Rebirth however? Pre Crisis Joker up to and including his supporting role in Crisis On Infinite Earths. My consistently favourite Joker stories I now realise are nearly all Pre-Crisis. All my favourite aspects of various other incarnations are almost distinctly Pre-Crisis. I love the clown quality. Indeed the qualities that I admire most in the Joker are found in another villain penned by Morrison. Another fully functional homicidal artist. One who, though their career is briefer may actually supersede him in my eyes.