Movies & TV / Columns

The Greatest Joker Stories of All-Time

October 23, 2019 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
Joker Killing Joke

I’m Steve Gustafson and thanks for stopping by. If you enjoy reading or discussing anything comic book related, you’ve come to the right place. I throw out a subject, you comment below. Easy. Let’s get started. 

Previously on…
Last time we discussed The Scariest Comic Book Characters!. Here’s what some of you had to say:

Dorath: “Everything about Red Skull is terrifying. The look, the ideology, the methods. When you think Hitler didn’t go far enough, you are one evil thing.”

Wrestling Fan: “Mr. Zsasz by far. Particularly Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s depiction of him. All those tally mark scars on his body, those dead eyes, the willingness to kill anyone, any time, for no reason at all. All of Batman’s other villains have some kind of modus operandi, some reason why they do what they do. Zsasz kills because he can, and that’s what makes him so much scarier than any other member of Batman’s rogues gallery.”

Tayo Jones: “Victor Zsazz. The only bat rogue who looks and acts like a real life serial killer. His motive to kill is scary because there is truth behind it. In his mind, We care all zombies, wasting our lives with pointless distractions and empty inside. And Zsazz has come to “set us free”.”

El Atomico: “Joker from The Killing Joke for me. What he did to Barbara Gordon was sick and sadistic.”

hybridial: “Johan Liebert from Monster. As a character he is a lot like Ledger’s interpretation of The Joker but, I think he’s more effective in that he doesn’t outwardly show his intentions, nor look abnormal, quite the opposite.”

D2Kvirus: “The Governor from The Walking Dead not only had an air of menace to him that later Big Bads such as Negan and Alpha simply didn’t have, but it was the cold indifference to his brutality and the messed up stuff he was happy to dish out that made him particularly creepy.”

Too many great comments to share. Go back and see for yourself. Also, as always, thanks for the input!

This week we discuss…

Favorite Joker Stories
In the spirit of Halloween season I wanted to shine the spotlight on one of the greatest villains in comic books, the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker. 
Not only that, his movie is doing shockingly well at the box office. As of October 21st, Joker has grossed $250 million in the US and Canada, and $491.3 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $741.3 million. That makes it the eighth-highest-grossing film of 2019 and the fourth-highest-grossing R-rated film of all time.

What better way to celebrate the scary than to discuss our favorite Joker stories? Be warned, when you’re talking about a psychopath with a warped, sadistic sense of humor, things tend to get a little dark.

The Joker is one of the most iconic characters in popular culture, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest comic book villains and fictional characters ever created. As Batman’s foe, the Joker has been part of the Dark Knight’s defining stories and anytime he shows up in a story, you know big things are going down. He’s the antithesis of Batman in personality and appearance and is considered to be his perfect adversary.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Enter…the Joker! Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane are credited with creating the Joker, but each man had their own version of the character’s conception and their role in it. The Joker made his first appearance in Batman #1, which was published in 1940, one year after Batman’s debut in Detective Comic #27. Even in his creation, he inspired conflict.

Kane did an interview in 1994 interview with journalist Frank Lovece and said:

“Bill Finger and I created the Joker. Bill was the writer. Jerry Robinson came to me with a playing card of the Joker. That’s the way I sum it up. [The Joker] looks like Conrad Veidt – you know, the actor in The Man Who Laughs, [the 1928 movie based on the novel] by Victor Hugo. … Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, ‘Here’s the Joker’. Jerry Robinson had absolutely nothing to do with it, but he’ll always say he created it till he dies. He brought in a playing card, which we used for a couple of issues for him [the Joker] to use as his playing card.”

Robinson credited himself, Finger and Kane for the Joker’s creation. He said he created the character as Batman’s nemesis and he received credit for the story in a college course:

“In that first meeting when I showed them that sketch of the Joker, Bill said it reminded him of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. That was the first mention of it … He can be credited and Bob himself, we all played a role in it. The concept was mine. Bill finished that first script from my outline of the persona and what should happen in the first story. He wrote the script of that, so he really was co-creator, and Bob and I did the visuals, so Bob was also.”

Hope that clears it up. 

In his first appearance, the Joker was portrayed as a remorseless serial killer who killed his victims with “Joker venom”. A signature was born as the toxin left the victim’s face in a disturbing smile. Interestingly enough, he was meant to be killed in his second appearance in Batman #1, after being stabbed in the heart. Finger wanted his death so Batman wouldn’t appear inept. Then-editor Whitney Ellsworth nixed the idea and a quickly drawn panel that indicated that the Joker was still alive was added. So popular was the character that he appeared in 9 of the first 12 issues of Batman. It was that ending that foreshadowed the Batman/Joker dynamic that would be continued over the years.

Joseph Kerr! I’ll be jumping around a little, keeping things uneven like the Joker himself. Back in Dark Knight #65 through #68, the Joker believes he’s killed Batman. The result? A perfectly sane Joker. He decides to get plastic surgery to have a normal appearance and live a simple life. He becomes Joseph Kerr, just a regular guy with a job and girlfriend. Of course everything changes once he discovers Batman is alive but it’s a great tale on how important Batman is to the Joker’s purpose in life.

Smiling Fish! Back in Detective Comics #475 and 476, we get to see that while the Joker is unbalanced, he’s also a genius. His plot? Poison the Gotham harbor and mutate the fish into Joker fish, complete with grotesque smiles. The hook? The fish are still OK to eat. The Joker wants to copyright the fish and make some dough off of selling them to the people in Gotham. Who wouldn’t want Joker Fish Sushi?

What If the Joker had Powers? A nine-part DC comics storyline that ran in late 2000. It encompassed four Superman titles (Action Comics, The Adventures of Superman (known as Superman: Volume One before 1987 and after April 2006), Superman: The Man of Steel, and Superman: Volume Two. A scary question to ponder. He causes enough chaos without them but in the crossover, ‘Emperor Joker’, we find out what happens when he has Mr. Mxyzptlk’s abilities to manipulate reality and create a world in his own vision. The results aren’t pretty. Especially when he visits China. With some really big chopsticks.

Look Ma! No Face! The New 52 was hit or miss but the Batman titles have been pretty consistent. When Scott Snyder took over, he turned some heads with the popular ‘Death Of The Family’ storyline. The story follows the Joker and his plan/obsession to slim down the Batman family and get things back to basics. Namely, just the two of them. Snyder took things up a notch in showing the Clown Prince of Crime’s madness when he had the Dollmaker remove Joker’s face. Now that’s a statement.

This isn’t to be confused with Grant Morrison’s take. Morrison is always a name that draws a reaction. He caused another reaction when during the ‘Batman R.I.P.’ arc, the Joker cut his own tongue in half. Just thinking about the act sent chills down reader’s spines.

It’s also not to be confused with the Joker’s Elseworld graphic novel where he’s released from Arkham Asylum by his former goon, Monty, who’s now someone high up on the criminal ladder. Monty crosses the line when he gets Harley Quinn to strip at his club. The Joker’s reaction? Monty gets skinned alive and left to die on the stage.

Five Way Revenge! “No! Without the game that the Batman and I have played for so many years, winning is nothing. He shall live until I can destroy him properly.”

This is the story where everything changed. Batman #251’s story ‘The Joker’s Five Way Revenge’ presents us the Joker as a homicidal, violent, maniac. Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams gave us this classic story that still holds up today. The Joker escapes from the State Mental Hospital and takes out his old gang. This Joker plays for keeps and relishes the game of wits and madness that he plays with Batman. When he overcomes his foe and has him at his mercy is where we see the true bond between the two.

The Killing Joke! Before we delve into The Killing Joke, I want to cover ‘No Man’s Land’. Outside of Batman, no one has more conflicted and brutal dealings with Joker than Commissioner Gordon. From attacking Gordon’s sanity, family, and city, the Joker has struck at him on all fronts. In the ‘No Man’s Land’ storyline, Gotham is devastated by a massive earthquake. Among those taking advantage of the situation, the Joker leads his gang on a ride of chaos. The scene that gets us in the gut is when he murder’s Gordon’s wife while she’s protecting a group of abandoned babies. Chilling.

Before that though was The Killing Joke. Released in 1988, it’s considered the definitive Joker story and it still influences the Batman titles today. That’s impressive. The Joker takes things to another level with with ruthless madness. The plot revolves around the Joker’s attempt to drive Commissioner James Gordon insane, and is spliced with the villain’s flashbacks to his life before his criminal life. What most people remember is the unsettling torture of Gordon and the shooting and paralysis of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl.

The graphic novel won the Eisner Award for ‘Best Graphic Album’ and garnered writer Alan Moore the ‘Best Writer’ award in 1989. Hilary Goldstein of IGN Comics called the story, “easily the greatest Joker story ever told,” and added that “Moore’s rhythmic dialogue and Bolland’s organic art create a unique story often mimicked but never matched.”

A Death In The Family. “His insanity always got him a stay of execution. But no more. Jason’s dead.”

Jason Todd was unpopular with readers, something DC Comics and Batman editor Dennis O’Neil were aware of. They made the decision to take him out of the book and do so in a unique way. It would also show just how dangerous the Joker is. Seeking a new way to get fans involved, DC set up two 1-900 number 50-cent hotlines and gave readers two options: Vote for or against Jason’s death. Over 10,000 votes were cast, with the final vote being 5,343 votes for Jason to die over 5,271 for him to live.

‘Death In The Family’ changed a lot of things. It got rid of Todd (temporarily) and intensified Batman’s feud with the Joker, making it more personal than ever. It reminded everyone that the war between Batman and Joker raged on, there would be casualties and the Joker played for keeps. It depicted Batman in a raw emotional state that continued for a while. The phone-voting gimmick gave ‘A Death in the Family’ mainstream attention and became a milestone in comic books.

The Dark Knight Returns! I’ll use this one to cap it off. When Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns came out, it revolutionized fans perspective of Batman and offered a final story to our hero. No moment stood out more than the final fight between Batman and the Joker. When Batman returns to the streets, this sets off a chain of events that stimulates the Joker, renewing his true purpose in life. The Joker manages to convince his caretakers to let him appear on a talk show. He makes his return and escape count when he kills everyone in the audience. Batman tracks him to a county fair where they fight one more time. While Batman beats the Joker, it’s the Clown Prince of Crime that gets the last laugh. He incriminates Batman for murder, when he snaps his own neck and dies.

OK, that’s my take. What about you? What moment stands out to you? What did I miss?

That’s all the time I have. Check out our Comic Book Reviews tomorrow and see you next week!