§ October 24th, 2005 § Filed under batman Comments Off on Origins.

(SPOILERS ahead for The Killing Joke, Batman: Gotham Knights #54, and some decades-old Bat-comics)

So I was discussing something with pal Dorian the other day…when the Joker was introduced in the Batman comics, he was (I believe) just another deformed villain. I don’t think any explanation was given for his appearance at the time…if I’m wrong, set me straight.

A decade or so later, the Joker’s history is revisited, as we find out why he looks the way he does…he was a crook called the Red Hood who fell into a vat of acid.

Then, in the late 1980s, we find out why he was committing crimes as the Red Hood, in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke…his career as a stand-up comedian was flopping, and he needed the money for himself and his pregnant wife. This is presented as a possible backstory for the Joker, as the narrative itself gives the out that, due to his insanity, the Joker doesn’t always remember his own past accurately.

And then, a few months ago, Batman: Gotham Knights #54 revisits the scenario presented in The Killing Joke, establishing that (with some minor timeline changes) the backstory presented there is the actual one. Part of it is apparently witnessed by a young Edward Nigma, AKA the Riddler, so at least part of the story has independent confirmation. (Now, I’m not a regular reader of Gotham Knights, so perhaps this has all been contradicted by later events in the comic.)

Of special note, in the Gotham Knights story, the Joker’s real first name (Jack) is revealed for the first time, in comic book continuity (as opposed to the Tim Burton film, though it’s “Jack” there, too). It had been hinted at in a comic before (in Legends of the Dark Knight #50, when the Joker’s cousin calls him “Ja–” before being interrupted).

So, over a period of 60 years, the Joker’s backstory/origin has slowly been revealed…and, as Dorian said during our discussion, that probably means that the Joker’s origin, when you get right down to it, isn’t important to the character. He’s a crazy deformed murderer, straight outta Dick Tracy, and that’s really all you need to know. The first two times we received backstory was as a surprise ending to the Red Hood story (“…and the Red Hood turned out to be…the Joker!”), and as a contrast to the lives of Batman and Commissioner Gordon (in The Killing Joke). The third occurrence, in Gotham Knights, was to kick off a subplot/storyline/something-or-other that may very well still be going on, for all I know.

I have no real point here (and boy, aren’t you glad I’m admitting it now after reading all that?) aside from thinking how odd it is that a character as well-known and established as the Joker has had so little revealed about him over the years. His backstory is rarely revisted (as opposed to, say, Superman, whose home planet of Krypton is constantly brought up, or Lex Luthor – the Silver Age version at least – whose childhood and family was well documented). Aside from some expansion on the Joker’s pre-Joker life in the cartoons and movies, he still remains more or less a mystery.

There were other characters whose origins went untold for decades…the Golden Age Starman didn’t have his full origin told until All-Star Squadron #41 (cover date Jan ’85), and, if memory serves, the formative moments of another Batman villain, the Penguin, weren’t revealed until a new one-page origin sequence in a digest otherwise filled with reprints (Best of DC #14) from 1981. And I’m sure there are several superheroes and villains from the Golden Age that have never had origins, as new characters with fantastic powers were rushed out to capitalize on the initial success of Superman without much thought to who they are and where they came from.

At the other end were the characters whose origins were left purposefully obscure, with clues dropped here and there about the character’s history without ever coming together into a cohesive whole. Wolverine would be the prime example of that, though most of the big questions have been answered between Barry Windsor-Smith’s “Weapon X” story and the Origin mini-series (which, I believe, was instigated by the fear that the X-Men movies were going to establish their own origin for Wolvie). The creation of the X-Men character Cable tried to follow this pattern, by presenting a full-blown superhero character with a mysterious backstory dribbled out in bits and pieces, to lesser effect.

And then there’s the Phantom Stranger, whose origins are purposefully obscure, though he’s either an agent of God (or of the Lords of Order, as in this mini-series). An issue of Secret Origins provided four possible origins, though, given the character’s later treatment, it seems Alan Moore’s origin of “an angel who rebelled against God and later changed his mind” seems to be the one most people are going by.

Any other superhero-genre characters that you can think of whose origins have remained relatively unknown (by design, or by accident – i.e. early cancellation)?

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