image courtesy of WB, 'Joker' dir. Todd Phillips

Being the nightmare-creation of Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson, and pitted against the Dark Knight of Gotham, Joker (Batman # 1, 1940) quickly became the most celebrated villain in pop-culture history. Originally he was meant to be killed in the second issue, but DC noticed how well-received their newest rouge was and (wisely) extended the Clown Prince of Crime’s life. Since that day he has proven to be the Batman’s deadliest challenge.

The Joker’s crimes and atrocities are legendary and often prove to have no reason or motive behind them. He’s set off a nuke in the middle of Metropolis, personally targeted and killed members of the Bat-Family, and even threw a baby at Comm. Gordon’s wife, distracting her, and as she frantically struggled to save the child Joker shot her and left her on the floor with several stolen babies crawling over her still-warm and bleeding corpse. That’s not even the tip of the iceberg though.

image courtesy of DC comics, artist Bill Bolland, Allan Moore, ‘The Killing Joke’

Despite his colorful attire, comical demeanor, and never-fading smile Joker is terrifying! He kills because it’s funny to him. It really just boils down to one thing – life is a sick joke and death’s the punchline. That’s his perception of reality. If you disagree then you simply don’t get the joke.

His weapon is simple – though he’s used dozens of instruments to get the point across – laughter! That alone makes him dangerous and frightening, but, of course, Joker has to take it one step further than we’d expect. He’s not above his own methods of cruelty and sadism, as, to simply shock the whole city, Joker allowed his own face to be sliced off. Then returned a year later, stole the face from lockdown at the GCPD, and wore it like a Halloween mask.

image courtesy of DC comics, ‘Death of the Family.’ written by Scott Snyder, illustrated by Greg Capulla

Because that’s the gag – no one is exempt from the horrors of reality. And he’ll wear that horror proudly for all to see.

 

Joker and a Dark Origin

His origins are steeped in horror history. I’m not talking about how Joker became what he is in the comics – there are too many variations to choose from there – but rather, what inspirations the creators drew from when designing the signature look of the character.

Taking inspiration largely from Paul Leni’s German expressionist silent horror, The Man Who Laughs (1928), Joker found his trademark smile from Conrad Veidt’s ghoulish disfigurement. The tragic figure of Veidt’s character, Gwynplaine, is left with a morbid smile permanently etched across his face. If that sounds familiar to you, that’s because it bears an eerie resemblance to both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker.

image courtesy of WB, ‘Batman’ and ‘The Dark Knight.’ Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger

It’s a smile meant to provoke dread, discomfort, and nausea out of the viewer. Veidt’s smile is anything but the result of comedy and is a curse to him. The same can be said for Joker’s wicked grin.

image courtesy of Universal Pictures, ”The Man Who Laughs’ starring Conrad Veidt

Taking a cue from this classic tragedy, Todd Phillips, director of Joker (now in theaters) gave his titular character a similar ailment, the inability to keep from laughing during times of stress or anxiety, again, lacking humor or good-nature in Joker’s random outbursts. Like Veidt’s smile, Arthur’s (Joaquin Phoenix) laughter is a disfigurement, and a cause to pity him.

Again, as was the case with TMWL, it causes Joker to be the target of ridicule and violence.

image courtesy of WB, ‘Joker’ directed by Todd Phillips, starring Joaquin Phoenix

 

“Wanna Know How I Got These Scars?”

In his Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight,  Heath Ledger’s Joker is literally scarred ear-to-ear across the mouth, leaving him with a hideous grin he could never escape.

We’re never told how he got those scars and the few times Joker offers an explanation the stories are never the same. When they happened and how are irrelevant, he just has them. And that trauma is part of who he is.

image courtesy of WB, ‘The Dark Knight’ directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Heath Ledger

The Man Who Laughs is about a boy who is purposely disfigured at an early age. His father is tried as a political prisoner and is sentenced to death by means of an iron maiden (METAL!). The boy, Gwynplaine, must go on and live with his hellish smile for the rest of his days, finding acceptance only in a traveling carnival of freaks.

Although unlike Gwynplaine, Phoenix’s Joker has no physical deformities, the two are connected in a spiritual sense. Both are results of a wicked society governed by corrupt elitists who care not a thing for those suffering in the alleyways and outskirts of high society. Both men are social outcasts, long for acceptance and are denied the comfort of any genuine affection.

They both face ridicule, mockery, and suffer from violence until in a twist of irony (or perhaps destiny) they turn violent against those who broke them down. And the smile (or the laugh) finally feels honestly earned.

image courtesy of WB, ‘Joker’ dir. Todd Phillips, starring Joaquin Phoenix

Finally, throughout TMWL, Gwynplaine does everything he can to hide his smile, almost as if he’s trying to smother it against his arm. Shadowing this same action, Arthur, who (as aforementioned) suffers from a mental ailment that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, desperately fights against the impulse to laugh and smothers his outbursts in his arm, mirroring the very character who originally gave life to the Joker many decades ago.

Even just a curious glance at TMWL‘s trailer grants the watchful eye a view of a clown is wearing eerily similar makeup to Phoenix’s Joker (0.09).

It’s little details like that I love so much.

The Joker has enjoyed a long history of maniacal success and has been seen in many iterations. His latest incarnation is not only faithful to his comic-book history but also pays homage to the smiling man who first inspired life into our favorite clown. If you’ve not seen Joker already I highly recommend it. It is part of the horror community and is very much so a piece of our history.