Villain Spotlight II: The Joker
In our first installment of the Villain Spotlight, we talked about the origin of The Joker’s most famous (and infamous) sidekick and partner in crime, Harley Quinn. Today, we’re turning our attention to the clown prince of crime himself. Keep on scrolling to learn everything you need to know about The Joker, as well as everything you need to know about Joker costumes.
In This Post:
- The Joker in Comics
- Actors Who have Portrayed the Joker
- Joker Costume Ideas
The Joker in Comics
Appearing in the very first issue of Batman’s first main comic book series, Batman #1, The Joker has been at odds with the Caped Crusader since 1940. As inspiration for the character, Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson looked toward the 1928 Expressionist silent film The Man Who Laughs. The main character, Gwynplaine, has a perpetually smiling, disfigured face, much like The Joker’s.
Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1928).
Designed as a true supervillain, above the ranks of common street thugs or mobsters, The Joker was originally a sadistic and emotionless serial killer. His weapon of choice at the time was Joker venom, a poison that disfigured victims’ faces to resemble his own, but he wasn’t above using any instrument to kill – including train derailments.
The Joker in Batman #1, art by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson.
The Joker was originally meant to die at the end of Batman #1, but a cliché “…or is he?” panel kept him alive. He went on to be Batman’s prime adversary in the majority of the books’ early issues and was met with great reception from fans.
The Joker’s Origin Story
Red Hood on the cover of Detective Comics #168, art by Lew Sayre Schwartz and George Roussos
The Joker’s immense popularity among readers in the 1940s carried over into the next decade, which saw The Joker receive his most well-known origin story. Before he became to be known as The Joker, he was a costumed criminal known as Red Hood. Following a confrontation with Batman, Red Hood falls into a chemical vat in an industrial plant while trying to make his escape. Batman assumes his foe has been killed, but the concoction of toxins merely leaves Red Hood deformed and disfigured. His skin becomes bleached white, his lips turn bright red, and his hair is colored green, creating the classic Joker appearance.
Trouble with Authorities Outside the Pages
The Comics Code Authority official seal, created by DC Comics designer Ira Schnapp
Unfortunately for The Joker, the 1950s also saw the establishment of the The Comics Code Authority, an official board of comic book censors and professional fun haters. In response to claims that comic books and other forms of entertainment contributed to juvenile delinquency, they devolved “The Comics Code,” a set of regulations that banned excessive violence, sexual innuendo, and other forms of radness from American comics. They would lose their minds if they saw the Batman: Arkham games today.
Cover of Batman #163 (May 1964), art by Sheldon Moldoff
The Authority saw The Joker, particularly, as too violent of a character, what with all of his wacky murdering and all, and made DC reinvent him as a silly, prank-playing criminal. This shift in demeanor did produce a lot of The Joker’s signature tropes, like electrocuting joy buzzers, acid-squirting trick flowers, and absurdly elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque traps, but it didn’t help the popularity of the character. Even Cesar Romero’s classic portrayal of The Joker in the 1960s Adam West Batman TV series couldn’t save the villain, and the Joker disappeared completely by the end of the decade.
The Joker’s Return and Revenge
Cover of Batman #251, The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge. Art by Neal Adams.
DC Comics decided to revive The Joker in 1973, with the issue of Batman titled The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge. Revisions to the Comics Code a couple of years prior meant that The Joker could return to his maniacal roots as a cerebral killer and Batman’s intellectual equal. Arkham Asylum was also introduced to the DC Universe in the ‘70s, which allowed for the expansion of The Joker’s insanity.
Cover of The Joker #1, art by Dick Giordano
The Joker also got his own standalone comic book series during this time, and was the first comic villain to do so. Titled simply, “The Joker,” the books ran for nine issues and showed The Joker as a protagonist and anti-hero. Since he didn’t face off against Batman in this series, the Comics Code Authority let Joker win against other villainous rivals.
The Killing Joke
Cover of Batman: The Killing Joke, art by Brian Bolland and John Higgins
With the 1980s came a darker, grittier, more adult-oriented side to comic books. The Killing Joke is a 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore that re-explores The Joker’s Red Hood origin story, and is critically regarded as one of the greatest comics of all time. Flashbacks show a former chemical engineer and current failing stand-up comedian resorting to crime in order to provide for his wife and unborn child. He reluctantly agrees to guide criminals through his former workplace, so they may break into the adjacent building. However, security discovers the burglars, and the criminals are shot.
The Joker’s transformation in The Killing Joke, art by Brian Bolland and John Higgins
While attempting to flee the plant, the man comes across Batman, who is responding to the initial break-in. He panics, and jumps into the plant’s chemical waste output, which sweeps him outside and causes his disfigurement. The comedian’s grisly appearance and personal problems drive him insane, causing him to adopt the persona of The Joker. “One bad day” was enough to turn The Joker into an insane villain, just as it was enough to turn Bruce Wayne into a hero, and Batman himself unknowingly created his greatest enemy.
A Death in the Family
Joker and his new sidekick, Crowbar, in A Death in the Family Part II. Art by Jim Aparo, Mike DeCarlo, and Adrienne Roy.
In the “A Death in the Family” Batman storyline from 1988 and 1989, The Joker finally and totally re-solidified himself as Batman’s true arch-nemesis by murdering Jason Todd, the second Robin. For the first time, The Joker killed a major supporting character, not just a random civilian. This plot point was actually the result of a fan vote; many readers hated Todd for taking over Dick Grayson’s role as Batman’s sidekick and were happy to see him go.
Actors Who have Portrayed the Joker
As one of the biggest characters in comics, The Joker has been in countless media and has been played or voiced by dozens of actors. Mark Hamill, for example, has voiced The Joker tons of times in Batman: The Animated Series and Batman: Arkham Asylum, among others. Here’s a quick look at the actors who have portrayed live-action versions of The Joker.
Cesar Romero in Batman (1960s)
On-set photo of Romero as The Joker, with Burgess Meredith as The Penguin and Frank Gorshin as The Riddler
The classic TV Joker, played by Cesar Romero, was inspired by The Joker of the late ‘50s and ’60 comics, i.e. the goofy prankster and not the crazy murderer. At a time when the popularity of comic books was declining, the Batman show was massively popular, and one of the biggest TV shows of the decade. Romero’s cackling Joker laugh and other mannerisms helped establish long-lasting aspects of the character, too.
Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989)
Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the 1980s Tim Burton movie follows, for the most part, the classic Joker origin story in the comic books. Jack Napier is the right-hand man of Gotham mobster Carl Grissom. The latter sets up the former to be murdered at a chemical plant, but after an unexpected appearance by Batman, Napier accidentally falls into a vat of chemicals.
Roger Stoneburner in Birds of Prey
Warner Bros. Television
Few people outside hardcore fans remember this live-action TV show based on the comic books of the same name. Not only was it canceled after its debut season in 2002 on WB Network, but it was on the WB Network. The Joker only appears appears onscreen at brief moments, and even though his trademark green hair and white paint are worn by Stoneburner, his voice clips are provided by Mark Hamill via dubbing.
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Legendary Pictures, DC Comics, Syncopy
If there’s one recent supervillain role that got the attention and accolade that it deserved, it’s the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in the second installment of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. As the first live-action movie Joker in nearly two decades, Ledger gave an Oscar-winning performance that was seriously twisted. Fittingly, Nolan has stated that his two main source material inspirations for the film were Batman #1, The Killing Joke: The Joker’s debut, and The Joker’s reinvention.
Jared Leto in Suicide Squad
DC Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment
You may remember when DC announced Ben Affleck as the new Batman for 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, because everyone everywhere on the Internet complained about everything. Then, director David Ayer tweeted a now-famous photo of Jared Leto as The Joker in Suicide Squad, and everyone everywhere on the Internet complained about everything. It is a pretty different take on the character – we’re definitely seeing some of Die Antwoord’s Ninja in there – but the movie is still going to be awesome.
Joker Costume Ideas
This collector’s edition Dark Knight Joker costume is a great way to get Heath Ledger’s Joker look. But, as Commissioner Gordon says to Mayor Garcia in The Dark Knight, “Clothing is custom, no labels.” In other words, The Joker is the perfect character to DIY. Red and white Joker makeup and a green wig (or temporary green hair coloring) are mainstays, but it’s up to you which look you want to achieve. Here three suggestions:
From Batman: The Man Who Laughs. Art by Doug Mahnke and David Brown
Raid your local thrift store for purple and green accessories to enhance your Joker costume. A quick Google search will net you dozens of Joker makeup tutorials corresponding to every single comic, cartoon, show, video game, or movie that he has ever been in, so pick your poison (as long as it isn’t Joker Venom). A deck of playing cards is an easy prop. Print your own Joker emblem on contact paper or sticky label paper and place it over the surface of a real joker. Or, use the instructions card that everyone just throws away anyway.
Legendary Pictures, DC Comics, Syncopy
One of the best scenes in The Dark Knight was the one in which The Joker breaks into the hospital in full nurse uniform. As such, The Joker’s nurse costume makes a great DIY costume idea. Start with a sexy nurse costume and nurse hat (if you’re a guy, it only adds to the humor) and customize it with white Crocs, black socks, and a homemade Harvey Dent political sticker. You’ll also need a fake gun with a silencer – to make your own easily, superglue a piece of wooden dowel onto the tip of a cheap water pistol or toy gun and paint the whole thing black.
Jared Leto’s Joker
DC Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment
Maybe we just wanted an excuse to post that picture again, but there’s no way that the Jared Leto Suicide Squad Joker isn’t going to be hugely popular with cosplayers and Halloween enthusiasts alike. As a bonus, he only wears one purple glove, which means you and friend can be Joker twins. As for the rest of the costume, it really just boils down to lightening the skin tone, applying deep red lipstick, smudging some eye shadow, and going bonkers with a black makeup pencil (or a ballpoint, for the true DIY spirit). Fake silvery chrome grill teeth can be easily found on eBay, or MacGyver-ed out of shiny tin foil.
If you liked this post and want to see more like it, let us know which costumes and characters we should talk about next. Share your thoughts with us on Facebook and on Twitter @BuyCostumes, and check out our Pinterest boards for more costume ideas, too.