Chemicals & Chaos: The Joker’s (Many) Bizarre Origins

The Joker Falling Into Chemicals In this piece, I delve into the murky multiple origins of €˜The Clown Prince of Crime€™ and come out offering both a history lesson and a splash-page headache. SPOILER ALERT (well, sort of)... After reading this month€™s double-sized Batman Issue 24, it seems we have yet another origin for The Joker, The Dark Knight€™s quintessential arch villain... In this newest genesis, the villain formerly known as The Red Hood falls into a vat of toxic chemicals, as usual, but this time he does so with an (literally and figuratively) explosive twist. Its revisionist history, yes, but it isn€™t without precedent. You see The Man Who Laughs has been born (and then re-born) a great many times before. When comic book readers first met The Joker, he was fully formed and ready to create chaos. Initially a homicidal prankster, The Golden Age Joker€™s character would be smoothed over during the McCarthy/Wertham era, making him a somewhat loveable goon, yet still always a memorable character. So it was, in 1951, just a few years before the dawning of the Silver Age that The Joker, by now firmly entrenched as Batman€™s arch nemesis, finally revealed his nightmarish origin story. After taking Batman and Robin hostage, the villain gleefully gloats that, €œI was a lab worker, until I decided to steal $1,000,000 and retire! So I became The Red Hood! Finally, I reached my goal €“ by stealing from the Monarch Playing Card Company. My hood€™s oxygen tube enabled me to escape by swimming under the surface of the pool of chemical wastes...But at home I looked at myself with growing horror...€ We next see the unfortunate crook in front of his mirror, the pill-shaped helmet sitting on a conveniently placed sideboard across from a chair and painting combo (that I always felt recalled the famous painting of Van Gogh€™s bedroom in a sort of confused way) as he loudly exclaims to no one in particular: €œThat chemical vapor€”It turned my hair green, my lips rouge-red, my skin chalk-white! I look like an evil clown! What a joke on me!€ In and of itself, this was a retcon of sorts, as The Joker had actually been modelled on both a playing card design and actor Conrad Veidt€™s appearance in the 1928 silent movie The Man Who Laughs. However, nobody had ever explained the character€™s ghoulish appearance, nor where he came from and what in the world his motivations might have been. Despite a healthy dose of controversy, writer (and Batman co-creator) Bill Finger did such a good job crafting the story that fans are still debating it to this day. Detective The 1951-era Joker story is usually presented as his €˜official€™ origin, although others have deviated from it, particularly with regards to media outside comics... In the 1989 movie Batman the character is given a name (Jack Napier) and a previous occupation (Professional Gangster), as well as a dose of masculinity and offbeat, quasi-Satanic sexuality courtesy of actor Jack Nicholson (although it kept in the chemical vat sequence, arguably the best realized bit in the movie). Likewise, the 1993 animated movie Batman: Mask of The Phantasm (for my money the best screen depiction of the character) paints the Mephistopheles of mirth as a mafia henchman long before he became The Joker of the animated series (and was played to absolute perfection by Mark Hamill). Heath Ledger€™s twitchy, anachronistic Joker from 2008€™s The Dark Knight frequently nods to the character€™s multiple origins in both comics and other media with the memorable phrase €œyou wanna know how I got these scars?€ usually accompanied by a tall tale (or is it?). Back in the comics, Alan Moore revived the now-classic 1951 Bill Finger story, before adding a huge dose of pathos and tragedy to it for 1988€™s The Killing Joke graphic novel. In Moore€™s version, which subsequently became canon, The Joker is a failed comedian with a heavily pregnant wife who dreams only of making enough money to take care of her. He recently quit a steady job as a lab assistant at the A.C.E Chemical plant, so he agrees to help some mobsters break into the neighbouring Monarch Playing Card Company. The mobsters force him to wear the pill-shaped Red Hood helmet over his head, ostensibly to hide his identity, but in reality it is so that they can blame the crime on him should they get caught. However, Batman foils the intended robbery and, in the ensuing scuffle, the comedian jumps over the railings and into the waiting vat of chemicals. This origin story was actually deeply personal to Moore, who, not too many years earlier, had quit a steady job in order to write comics for a living, only to discover that his then-wife was pregnant. The agony of trying to make it in an artistic medium, whilst at the same time balancing a budget and an adult life, is something that was so relatable that it heightened the pain and fear caused by The Joker€™s horrific actions throughout the book. The Joker was at once everyone and no one. The Joker - Killing Joke This was finalized to some degree in 1990€™s Wildcard/Judgements two-parter, in which Marv Wolfman brilliantly wrote a Human and vulnerable Joker who was in the process of returning to crime after murdering Jason Todd in Jim Starlin€™s Death in the Family (1989) and paralyzing Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke. Joker once again dons the mantle of the Red Hood in this tale, but finds the experience to be ultimately too traumatic. Eventually, an impostor version of Joker surfaces, intent on supplanting the original, but this time, his self-inflicted tumble into the chemical vat proves fatal... Ed Brubaker€™s sublime 2003 story The Man Who Laughs builds upon The Killing Joke€™s version of the origin, whilst at the same time re-telling the story of Joker€™s first appearances from Batman Issue 1 in 1940. In this story, Batman figures out that The Red Hood must have survived his fall and thus become The Joker. This story would be alluded to several times throughout 2012€™s blockbuster Joker event Death of the Family. Moore€™s version of Joker€™s origin was referred to again and again in the 1990€™s & 2000€™s, with the comedian eventually being named €˜Jack€™ by writer A.J Lieberman for 2004€™s garbled-yet-morbidly-fascinating Pushback storyline. The Joker€™s famous line €œIf I€™m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice HA HA HA€ written by Moore for The Killing Joke has long provided Batman writers eager to add their stamp to the Joker mythos with a convenient €˜get out of jail free card€™, because, in that way, any origin for The Joker makes sense as long as The Joker is the one having the flashback. Because of this, legendary Batman writer Steve Engelhart was able to get away with returning to the 1951 version of the story for his criminally underrated Dark Detective series in 2005, in which The Joker recounts, €œI€™ve always been smarter than everyone else. In my first life, I was an inventor €“And a criminal, of course. I created a Red Hood that let me breathe underwater and seemed to have no eyes. It was creepy...But it wasn€™t THIS!€ (Referring to his now €˜chalk-white€™ appearance). Paul Dini was able also to create another possible early life for the character (he was also partly responsible for the one in Mask of the Phantasm) in his 2010 story The House of Hush, in which a young boy, nicknamed €˜Sonny€™ is cared for by Thomas and Martha Wayne before being kidnapped, beaten and sexually molested by mobster Sallie Guzzo (whom The Joker later brutally murders). The Joker House Of Hush With the €˜chemical vat€™ sequence of events seemingly untouchable, recent years have seen a couple of stories that featured Joker€™s supposed childhood. The most recent was in last month€™s Joker 1-shot, in which Andy Kubert depicted the boy who would be Joker being tortured by his (possibly murderous) Aunt Eunice, who regularly scrubbed his face with bleach (lovely). When it comes to explaining Joker€™s erratic behaviour and origins (as well as providing an alibi to writers everywhere) few ideas are as oft-used as Grant Morrison€™s €˜Super-Multiple-Personality-Disorder€™ concept, which was first introduced in 1989€™s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth OGN and further alluded to in his other work like 2008€™s Batman: R.I.P and 2009€™s Batman: Reborn. In Arkham Asylum, Joker€™s therapist says: €œIts quite possible we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here. A brilliant new modification of Human perception. More suited to urban life at the end of the 20th Century. Unlike you and I, The Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he€™s receiving from the outside world. He can only cope with that chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. That€™s why some days he€™s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day. He sees himself as the lord of misrule, and the world as a theatre of the absurd.€ In this fashion, Joker can have multiple childhoods and multiple origins that pretty much all make sense. However, it is entirely possible that the boy ran away from Aunt Eunice, ended up in the custody of Sallie Guzzo and then attempted to become a comedian before falling into the vat of chemicals. It is also possible that much of this life story was an hallucination brought on by feelings of suppressed guilt as Snyder€™s new take on the €˜Red Hood€™ character sank to the bottom of the chemical cocktail... It is even possible that a couple of Joker€™s past memories from Paul Dini€™s Mad Love story (both the TV episode and the comic) are actually true, especially the runaway orphan one... This makes quite a bit of sense when, in Batman & Robin Must Die! Joker (who€™s adoption of the €˜Oberon Sexton€™ persona is itself a muddled version of his own origin) says to Damian Wayne, €œI was a little boy wonder once, too. I didn€™t set out to be this€. In House of Hush Guzzo referred to €˜Sonny€™ as €œthe little boy wonder who tried to call the cops on us!€ referring to the boy€™s foiling of their scheme to spread a plague through the slums of Gotham... Hmm... Mrj Going back to Snyder, despite nods to Finger, Moore and Jack Nicholson, his early-years Joker from the most recent instalment of Zero Year actually has most in common with Michael Green€™s non-canon Joker origin from the 2009€™s Lovers & Madmen story. A good, but slightly undercooked, psychological thriller from Green (who made his name on TV shows like Heroes and Smallville and also co-wrote the far-better-than-the-reviews-suggest Green Lantern movie), Lovers & Madmen features Joker as a bored criminal genius, simply looking for a challenge. Also, if you consider the possibility that Moore€™s Red Hood Gang of opportunistic mobsters are actually copycats and that Snyder€™s Red Hood Gang operates in the same reality, both stories could still run parallel, after a fashion, but I digress... Scott Snyder€™s most recent Joker origin does, at least, allow for the possibilities that most (if not all) of these stories are in some way true (even if they are only imagined). At the end of the issue, Bruce and Alfred discuss the possibility that the man who fell into the chemicals wasn€™t actually the original Red Hood, so we€™re left with just enough mystery to keep us guessing for another twenty years or so... DISCLAIMER: Yes, I know, its a new timeline and so on, but before you blah blah blast me in the €˜comments€™ section below, remember that this in an overview of The Joker€™s origins, running on the Morrison-esque assumption that they are all true, so please don€™t explain to me what I already know, OK? Cheers.
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I am a professional author and lifelong comic books/pro wrestling fan. I also work as a journalist as well as writing comic books (I also draw), screenplays, stage plays, songs and prose fiction. I don't generally read or reply to comments here on What Culture (too many trolls!), but if you follow my Twitter (@heyquicksilver), I'll talk to you all day long! If you are interested in reading more of my stuff, you can find it on (my personal site, which has other wrestling/comics/pop culture stuff on it). I also write for FLiCK, which is the best place to read my fiction work. Oh yeah - I'm about to become a Dad for the first time, so if my stuff seems more sentimental than usual - blame it on that! Finally, I sincerely appreciate every single read I get. So if you're reading this, thank you, you've made me feel like Shakespeare for a day! (see what I mean?) Latcho Drom, - CQ