In which I explain a couple of words with about 500 of them.

§ October 14th, 2022 § Filed under batman § 13 Comments

So I got a soupçon of disagreement over my reducing the the Joker’s motivation to “causing chaos.” And…okay, none of you are wrong, and there’s a lot of discussion in the comments there about just what is the Joker’s deal, anyway, but I think my initial generalization is fairly on target still.

And it is a generalization. I was speaking to the opposing forces that Batman and the Joker generally represent in their stories. Batman is a (usually) dour chap dressed in grays, blues, and blacks (and a smattering of yellow) who fights to bring justice and order to a world. Joker is a dude dressed in bright, garish colors who is trying to do…well, more or less the exact opposite of what Batman’s doing. I mean, dropping the resolution even more we have “Batman is a good guy” and “Joker is a bad guy,” a big gray dot bumping up against a big green dot, but that lacks the nuance that makes stories interesting. But as we zoom in and the Joker resolves into view, what exactly makes him tick isn’t so clear cut.

We’ve had various iterations of the Joker over the years, ranging from a merry crime prankster pulling boners, to a homicidal maniac who beats kid sidekicks to death with a crowbar. And we’ve had explanations along the way as to why that is, with Grant Morrison’s interesting suggestion that the Joker undergoes occasional dramatic personality shifts, to Geoff Johns’ simultaneously literal and nonsensical approach of “there were actually multiple Jokers.”

Regardless , their ascribed motivations and plot purposes are always, naturally, to oppose Batman. That’s why the character exists. And there have been so many people writing and drawing and editing the character over the decades that the methods and reasons to that opposition are inconsistent, so much so that attempts have been made, as stated in the previous paragraph, to internalize that inconsistency into the character. And it works with the Joker more so than with another character in the book who’s been inconsistently portrayed over the years — Batman himself — in that the Joker is this “wild and crazy guy” who can be defined by contradictory depictions. Well, sure, Batman can, too, in that Morrison’s idea was that all Batman stories were basically “in continuity,” and the cheery Bat-swashbuckler existed in a continuum with “the Dark Knight,” even maybe near-simultaneously, but that feels more the exception than than the rule.

What I was trying to say with “Joker creates chaos” is that he’s simply the opposite of Batman. That he represents the “contrasts with the hero” type of villain, like “strongest man” Superman versus “smartest man” Luthor. As the Joker’s origin in The Killing Joke becomes increasingly official canon, even the shared element introduced there between Batman and the Joker, in that they were both formed by trauma, leads into their inverse relationship in how they each dealt with it. I wanted to say something other than “Joker is bad because Batman is good” and “creating chaos” seemed like the simplest way of describing our favorite Clown Prince of Crime. Feel free to insert whatever purpose or motivation you’d like instead…given the Joker’s history, it’d probably fit just as well.

13 Responses to “In which I explain a couple of words with about 500 of them.”

  • Sean Mageean says:

    In the vintage Batman panel depicted, I like how The Joker’s purple-clad henchman resembles Jack Palance, but I wonder why the writer chose to describe The Joker’s hideout as “unique” as opposed to “gaudy,””garish,” or some other adjective with a bit of pizazz.

    I’d say my favorite depiction of the Joker is from the Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers Bronze Age classic “The Laughing Fish” story in Detective Comics no. 475-476–but Killing Joke’s iconic page of The Joker and the usually stone-faced Batman both laughing in the rain while the GCPD sirens keep getting louder is the ultimate Batman/Joker image–Alan Moore and Brian Bolland will not be topped!

  • Mike Loughlin says:

    The problem with the Joker is that he’s been written as everything from a colorful, gimmicky bank robber to a remorseless mass murderer. In some stories, he gets his kicks by causing chaos. In others, he’s obsessed with Batman and beating him, destroying him psychologically, and/or having Batman join him. I like the Grant Morrison approach, that he shifts personality traits & motivations along a spectrum.

    I think “causing chaos” is a good generalization. That tends to be the results of his actions.

    Sean – “Laughing Fish” is also my favorite Joker story. I wish more writers would play with how the character’s mind would twist and warp the mundane. To that end, I recommend the Gotham Central story, “Soft Targets.” It’s more grounded and gritty than most Bronze Age fare, but the Joker’s reasoning for his crimes work along lines similar to what Englehart conceived.

  • scipio Garling says:

    Thanks for following up on this topic, Mike. I have to do so myself, thank to your inspiration. One point I’d like to disagree with right here, though:
    “As the Joker’s origin in The Killing Joke becomes increasingly official canon”
    I don’t think that’s true. I think quite the opposite, actually. As time passes, The Killing Joke, which even Alan Moore admits he wrote with too little understanding of the characters involved, recedes in the rear view mirror (of those who even bother to look back). I don’t know of anyone who thinks of that as ‘canon’, and certainly with each universal reboot it seems less and less relevant. It’s pretty clear DC would rather retcon Barbara Gordon’s injury and time as Oracle away entirely (but don’t, because they know that that would cause a firestorm among certain fans).

  • Andrew says:

    That Detective run is one of my all time favorites and set a bar (for me) as to how the Joker is best handled: dangerous but not unstoppable. and the art from that run is my sweet spot of graphic storytelling.

  • Mike Loughlin says:

    Hey Scipio! Great to see the Absorbascon posting new content again!

    Anyway, I’m glad Moore wrote the Joker’s line about remembering his personal history in different ways and preferring to have a past that’s “multiple choice.” In publishing other possible-origins for the Joker, DC agrees with him.

    The problems are: 1) most readers of Big 2 comics have read The Killing Joke, and it was the only possible-origin for the Joker presented in our lifetimes; 2) it’s a prestige-format comic by prestige-level creators – Brian Bolland is possibly the definitive Joker artist; 3) none of the Joke’s other possible-origins have caught on. Even if it’s not DC canon, I think Killing Joke is still fanon to many readers.

    I think you’re right that DC wants to retain out Oracle. I don’t like how wishy-washy they’ve been about Barbara’s injury. Nowadays, she can fight as Batgirl, but probably shouldn’t because she could hurt herself again? Huh? Here’s what I would do (assuming DC editorial decreed that she could walk again, or even that she was never disabled in the first place): Barbara realizes she finds her role as Oracle was more fulfilling, and that she saw herself doing more good as coordinator of various super-teams and mentor to younger heroes.

    For all I know, that’s already happened. I only see Bans when she pops up in Batman or Nightwing, and I’m mostly reading Right-wing for the gorgeous art.

  • Sean Mageean says:


    Agreed! Marshall Rogers/Terry Austin really did draw an iconic Batman and Joker. It was great to see them reunited on Secret Origins, vol. 2, no. 6 (September 1986), drawing the Golden Age Batman’s origin. And then to see Englehart, Rogers, and Austin reunited on the Batman:Dark Detective mini-series from 2005.

    But Brian Bolland’s Batman art is next level. In addition to Killing Joke, I always recall Bolland’s amazing art featuring Batman, Green Arrow, and Black Canary in Justice League of America no. 200.

  • Mikester says:

    Scipio – My reference to Killing Joke‘s origin becoming “increasingly canon” is that recent references to the Joker’s pre-Joker years have shown the family dynamic that exists in that work. The blonde wife, the child (as the wife was pregnant in KJ), that sort of thing. Granted, one was an alternate timeline (in Flashpoint Beyond, the one where his supposed real name was revealed, shows him leading a normal life with his wife and child), and, granted, the possibly non-continuity Three Jokers, showing what happened to the wife and child after the wife’s supposed “death” in KJ. Yes, that second one, being a Black Label title (despite following up on a plotline in the regular DC Universe) may or may not be regular continuity, but that the KJ set-up was incorporated at all seems to show editorial leaning at least in the direction that KJ is the “official” origin. Whether it sticks or not is another question.

    I think there’s even a story in the Gotham Knights series that plays off the KJ backstory. So folks were pokin’ at the KJ origin before Johns decided to play around with it.

    Mike L. – I feel like that, while there is the “multiple choice” line in KJ, the way the story is presented seems to imply that what we see is the Joker’s actual backstory. Obviously it’s not cut ‘n’ dried, but that’s my sense of it. And as I’ve stated, that seems to be enough for later creators to build on it.

  • Mike Loughlin says:

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks the Joker never needed an origin (or, ugh, a real name) and works better as a boogeyman for Gotham in general and Batman in particular. The KJ origin makes sense, I’m just glad there’s wiggle-room. I get why other writers view it as foundational. And boy howdy, Geoff Johns sure does like to build off of Moore’s work.

  • Sean Mageean says:

    Mike Loughlin:

    Agreed that the Joker never really needed an origin.
    Also, re: Geoff Johns liking to build off Moore’s work–oh, yeah! But I think Grant Morrison’s “Pax Americana” has been my favorite Moore homage DC project so far.

    I’ll have to check out that Gotham Central story you mentioned.

    I’m curious to know if it was ever stated in any interviews with Moore and Bolland if either of them was listening to albums by the band Killing Joke while working on the Killing Joke project?

  • Snark Shark says:

    Sean Mageean: “Killing Joke’s iconic page of The Joker and the usually stone-faced Batman both laughing in the rain”

    “Ohhhhhhhhhh I hear LAUGHTER In the Rain, Walking Hand INnHand with the One I Love!”

    “Moore and Bolland if either of them was listening to albums by the band Killing Joke while working on the Killing Joke project?”

    I certainly hope so!

  • Snark Shark says:

    Barbara is honestly MORE interesting as Oracle than Batgirl. Didn’t need a severe injury to put her there, either, maybe just a close brush with death and a realization that her computer skills could be put to good use!

  • Sean Mageean says:

    Snark SharK:

    Ah,–so maybe Alan Moore was actually listening to Neil Sedaka while writing Killing Joke! Funny thought, that!

  • Mike(s):
    I still find the RED HOOD origin too dubious (read “stupid”) to be believable, after all these years.