Supervillainy and the Joker
I can remember a time when supervillains used to be old-fashioned criminals with a penchant for dressing up rather than the near-godlike beings so many of them are these days. I liked it when they were just bad guys, when motivations were clear-cut and easily understandable.
In the old days, it was easy to invent a supervillain. Some of them were tarnished by unhappy childhoods, their personae formed by significant traumatic events. Some were scarred by experiments that went wrong and they used these to justify their criminal careers. Then there were others who were possessed by some simple human foible, some character flaw that allowed greed or revenge or jealousy to overtake them and dictate all their subsequent actions; they gave in to temptation or an obsessive nature and were consumed by it.
I liked it when they represented an aspect of our own behavior, stuff we keep buried because we rightly try to keep those traits under wraps in a civilized society. I like it when they’re metaphors, acting out on some recognizable human emotion. Supervillains, at their best, are the human subconscious having a childish tantrum. These days we demand slightly more from our storytelling (whether in comics or other media): we want sophisticated motivations and backstory, we want characters with deeper psychologies and irresistible compulsions. We want soap, drama and crossovers, character arcs that mine ever-deeper strata of the human psyche.
Which brings us to the Joker. I like the Joker because he remains curiously resistant to any attempt to overhaul and modernize him. Many writers have added much to the mythology of the character over the years, but ultimately the Joker remains the sinister clown, the laughing maniac, an antithetical opposite to Batman.
I’ll come clean—these days I’m not really sure what Batman is. I grew weary of the never-ending tide of merchandising, the oncoming storm of it that heralds each new movie release. Is he a comics icon, a gaming phenomenon, an advertising character that exists to sell stuff? He’s definitely not just an old comic character anymore. I always liked the old TV show as a kid, Neal Adams’ Batman, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, and the animations helmed by Bruce Timm but beyond that, I’m lost. As my brother observed as we walked out of a movie theater after watching Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, “That was a great movie about a psychopath. But why did that guy keep getting dressed up in the bat costume?”
Arguably, Nolan’s hyper-realistic take on the character reveals roots that aren’t really supposed to be put under the spotlight, origins that require new levels of suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. Batman on paper, as a character in pulp media, is a great idea—a vigilante dressed in scary clothes to freak out his prey, the criminal underworld.
Some superheroes transcend their pulp origins and translate favorably to the cinema screen—Donner’s Superman, Raimi’s Spider-Man, Favreau’s Iron Man. But not Batman. Not even when he’s handled by consummate directors like Nolan or Tim Burton, not for me. I seem unable to make the same leap of belief with Batman that I can with other heroes making the transition from page to screen. I admit this blind spot. For me, Batman isn’t a character anymore, he’s a brand and he has been for years.
But I always liked the Joker. I liked the idea of the Joker; I liked him because he’s terrifying. For some reason, the Joker still works, as exemplified by my brother’s comment. (Which was also a backhanded compliment to Heath Ledger’s remarkable performance.) If ever there has been a personification of a side of evil that is almost childlike in its straightforward, malignant glee, then it is Batman’s oldest, deadliest enemy. Evil is said to be banal and in the real world, it often is—inertia, stupidity, corruption—but I’m not here to discuss that. This is the great thing about “evil” in comics and as regards the Joker in particular. He exudes both a dark glamour and a lurid appeal that is a stark contrast to Batman and everything Batman’s become.
Batman’s personality has gradually changed over the times, from a dedicated, serious-minded detective to that of a darker, brooding avenger who is simultaneously more earnest and intense. This is as a result of the way serial comics are written, of course, by any number of creative teams (and these days, the cynic in me says, accountants). An iconic superhero is the result of hundreds of different storytellers, each adding their small contribution to the mythos like a coral creature their shell to a reef. Somehow, in all of these storytellers, a consensus of a personality is reached and maintained.
Broadly, that’s how it works for any pop culture character that is reinvented from time to time and written by different teams of creators, from all the Marvel and DC heroes to the Doctor, James Bond, even Sherlock Holmes and every soap character on TV screens around the world. These days, with the amount of reboots around, we apply the same rules to our celluloid heroes as we did to our old literary or pulp ones. These days, even Kirk and Spock can be rethought, reimagined and recast.
But I digress. The Joker—somehow, he’s a little different. He is, of course, also a part of the merchandising empire of Batman. Images of his freakish physiognomy are almost as prevalent as Bats himself. I find that oddly unsettling. Maybe that’s just because clowns are inherently spooky or maybe it’s just down to my perception of the evolution of the character. Whatever and however the official DC chronology currently goes, that malevolent, red-lipped grin remains constant. And, as change is in fact his only consistent characteristic, as his personality is in permanent flux, so severely mutable, the Joker remains something of an archetype.
I’m really not one to follow the DC Universe’s convoluted and labyrinthine continuity but a couple of years ago I read a run of books by Grant Morrison who seemed to nail the essence of the Joker. As I recall, Batfans didn’t unanimously love this run but I always thought Morrison understood the structure of superheroics as modern myth and dark parable better than almost anybody. In this story, the Joker had run amok and was seriously incapacitated by Batman. Recovering at Arkham Asylum, a shadow of his former self, the Clown Prince of Crime was confined to a wheelchair, barely able to speak. And yet, something very like the Joker still stalked Gotham’s streets. This wasn’t just a copycat, an idea gone viral in the distorted mirror mind of another sicko; this was the spirit of the Joker, still out there in the dark night wreaking havoc. It was also Morrison very cleverly acknowledging how deeply such “pulp” characters become a part of humanity’s own cultural psyche and making that idea a part of his own continuing narrative.
The Joker and the Batman have always been two sides of the same card, a Moriarty and Holmes, a Doctor and a Master. Now however, there were hints that there was a supernatural aspect to their symbiotic existence. The Joker is far more than just a fragmented persona constantly reinventing itself. He—or it—is a being that exists to subvert and sabotage humanity. The Joker is a kind of cipher, a blank slate that is constantly reborn as a physical personification of evil whose methods become ever more dangerous and opaque; a creature that continues to take a malignant glee in spreading pain, confusion and fear. If Batman represents the way things should be done—the heroic, the proper, the rigid, the bureaucratic and systemic—the Joker is chaos. Not even his own writers can never precisely pin him down.
For all his origins as a cartoon pulp villain, he is in many ways a manifestation of something freer but darker, perhaps our most sociopathic possibilities played out on the printed page. He exists there, but the idea of him is abiding, enduring. That makes him truly terrifying and totally current, both rooted in the four-color past and yet timeless—truly a super villain for modern times.
Nick Abadzis writes and draws comics. He’s also worked in the field of merchandizing tie-ins, but don’t hold that against him.