Post #6: “Sometimes I Just Kill Myself!”: Creating and Killing the Joker
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published on Sunday August 17 2014
The most iconic, colorful, and dangerous foe in Batman’s rogues’ gallery is the Joker, AKA the Red Hood AKA the Clown Prince of Crime AKA the Harlequin of Hate AKA Jack Napier AKA Inmate # 0801 AKA Martha Wayne. Created in 1940, just a year after Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27, by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane, the Joker has tested Batman’s ethics, both in his creation(s) and death(s).
On a recent podcast of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, Glen Weldon opined that superheroes don’t kill. This has been an essential aspect of Batman across media; he refuses to kill supervillains like the Scarecrow, Two-Face, and, yes, the Joker, who escape police custody to kill again and again. However, in his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 (1939) Batman allows a gangster to fall into a vat of acid with the stinger, “A fitting end for his kind” (figure 1). Batman’s character evolved away from this behavior in the 1940s, and the vigilante did not use guns and refused to kill. This is the primal scene for Batman’s ethics, the scenario that causes anxiety for artists as they return to again and again to explore Batman’s character.
The Joker’s genesis has been depicted several times in Batman media, although the outlines are generally similar. When he was first introduced in Batman #1, there was no origins story; as in The Dark Knight, the Joker sprung fully formed from the void. The first origin story appeared in Detective Comics #168 (1951), in which the Joker claims that he was once the Red Hood, a small-time crook who dove into the Monarch Playing Card Company’s chemical waste to escape Batman and the police (figure 2).
Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988), the graphic novel that was inspirational material for both Burton’s and Nolan’s films, returns to the Red Hood’s story, painting Joker as a slightly more sympathetic figure who agrees to help gangsters commit a robbery so that he can support his wife and unborn child. Security guards kill both of the criminals accompanying him, but when Batman shows up, he stops the guards from killing the Red Hood (“No. No more shooting. I’m here now. We handle it my way.”), but the terrified Hood still jumps into a chemical vat to escape (figure 3). The Joker’s creation is very much accidental.
In Burton’s film, Jack Napier is sent by his boss Carl Grissom to steal incriminating files from the Axis Chemicals plant. The police confront him and his fellow thugs and open fire. Napier falls into a vat of chemicals that will turn him into the Joker, but unlike the comics versions, where the Red Hood voluntarily leaps, Napier falls. When Napier fires at him, Batman uses his gauntlets to deflect the bullet, which then ricochets off an instrument panel and into Napier’s face. The gangster stumbles backward, right into the catwalk railing, and tumbles over, but Batman catches him by the wrist. After a few seconds of struggle, Napier slips from Batman’s grasp and into the vat (figure 4).
FilmSpotting’s Adam Kempenaar rightly calls this scene “ambiguous”; the film doesn’t make it clear what the audience should think about this event: did Batman let Napier go intentionally or was it truly an accident? In the next scene, newspaperman Alexander Knox is on the phone with an unnamed informant who claims that Napier’s fall was “suicide” while Knox argues it must be due to Batman. In the climactic battle the Joker perhaps alludes to his first encounter with Batman when he offers Vicky Vale “a hand”: for some unfathomable reason she takes it and almost falls when the fake hand comes off. I’ve saved the best (=loopiest) idea for last: the Wikipedia article on the film refers to a book by Ken Hanke, Tim Burton: an Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker that apparently theorizes that Burton includes a shot of Batman leaving the plant with the neon sign of the plant behind him (figure 5) to refer to the Axis Powers in World War II. Batman is thus directly responsible for creating the Joker, just as the fascist governments were responsible for committing atrocities in the war. This particlar interpretation seems a bit far-fetched to me, although the film clearly wants to pin more blame on the Dark Knight, as the following exchange makes clear:
JOKER: You idiot! You made me, remember? You dropped me into that vat of chemicals. That wasn’t easy to get over--and don’t think that I didn’t try.
BATMAN: I know you did. [BAM! POW! WHAMM!] You killed my parents.
JOKER: What? What are you talking about?
BATMAN: I made you; you made me first.
In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight the Joker’s origin is mysterious and his “grin” comes from the scars on the sides of his mouth (the so-called “Glasgow smile”), which he got for unknown reasons--he claims both self-disfigurement and abuse by his father, a contradiction that suggests the truth is something else entirely. In any case, Batman is not involved in the Joker’s creation as he is in the comics or Burton’s film; in fact, his skin isn’t bleached white in an encounter with toxic waste, but instead he puts on make-up as “war paint” “to scare people”, in the words of one of his associates. Although Nolan’s trilogy eschews the typical vat-of-chemicals narrative for the Joker, it still suggests that Batman is indirectly responsible for the creation of the Clown Prince of Crime. In the final scene of Batman Begins, Commissioner Gordon is worried about “escalation.”
GORDON: What about escalation?
GORDON: We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds...
GORDON: ...and you’re wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops. Take this guy: armed robbery, double homicide, got a taste for the theatrical, like you. Leaves a calling card (figure 6).
Without the example of Nolan’s Batman dressing up like a bat to fight crime and upping the ante, the Joker might not have been attracted to Gotham, or even taken on the Joker persona in the first place. In both Burton and Nolan Batman attracts even greater levels of criminality through the presence that he wants to use to terrify ne’er-do-wells. Burton’s Joker is an (un?)avoidable side-product of Batman’s crime-fighting, Nolan’s Joker cannot be explained in the same way because he represents nihilism incarnate.
The Joker has died a number of times in Batman media, even though like any profitable comics character, he doesn’t stay dead. Beginning in the late 1980s with the dark, gritty, adult tone of comics in the wake of Frank Miller’s and Alan Moore’s work, artists decided Batman had had it with his arch-nemesis. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) an older Batman pummels the Joker to death, a scenario that is repeated in one of my favorite Batman fan films, Patient J, which depicts Batman choking the Joker on a stage, complete with a spotlight and shocked gasps from the audience (figure 7).
Burton’s film similarly depicts Batman as more or less responsible for his death. Joker leaves Batman and Vicky Vale hanging on a cathedral’s parapet while he attempts to make an escape hanging from a ladder from helicopter piloted by his goons. Batman uses one of his grappling hooks to tie Joker to a gargoyle (figure 8). Either because of age or because of Impossible Movie Physics™, the gargoyle breaks off and pulls Joker to his death. As in the Axis scene, there is an ambiguous tone here: it is unclear whether Batman meant to kill the Joker or merely immobilize him.
In the analogous scene of The Dark Knight Nolan responds to Burton by having his Batman save the Joker. When he knocks the Joker off the edge of a building, Batman saves him by using a grappling hook, hauling him back so that the police can arrest him. Batman could’ve allowed the Joker to die, considering his ethical stance at the end of Batman Begins, when he told his villainous ex-mentor Ra’s Al Ghul that he wouldn’t kill but also didn’t have to save him. The Joker has changed the name of the game, however, because allowing his death would mean Batman has broken his ethical code.
The Batman: the Animated Series episode “Christmas with the Joker” similarly betrays an anxiety about killing the Joker and, simultaneously, about his origins. Although the series never depicted how the Joker came to be, in “Christmas with the Joker” the Joker almost falls into a vat of acid after slipping on a skate as he flees from Batman on a catwalk. But Batman valiantly saves him, catching him (once again) by the ankle (figure 10). This series is clearly worried about the ethical precedent of Burton’s film, and while the creators could have simply made a more ethical version of Batman for their young audience, they instead included a detailed reference to earlier instantiations. The series thus rejects the hardline Batman of the ’80s and ’90s--ironically, since the show, despite being aimed at adolescents, was fairly dark and gritty anyway.
Side note: The Joker was memorably voiced by Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame (both past and future) and recently concocted a conversation between the Clown Prince of Crime and Luke Skywalker. Genius!
The Joker is a litmus test for Batman’s ethics and for the artists who are responsible for him at any given moment, but we should also ask ourselves why this is true of the Joker and not any other antagonist. It’s true that Joker has had the longest run of Batman’s rogues, but others aren’t far behind: the Penguin in ’41, the Riddler in ’48, the Scarecrow in ’41, and so on. The reason is that Joker is, more than any of the others, a mirror of Batman. By creating and destroying the Clown Prince of Crime, Batman re-enacts his own creation and (potential) destruction over and over.