The Joker is the perfect comic villain, with high scores across every conceivable grade. He’s instantly recognizable. He’s the dark reflection of Batman’s psychotic, violent tendencies. Joker’s got range, allowing him to be funny and charming while terrifying others.
Best of all, he never loses track of being terrifying. No one does bad better than him, and the few times he tries to be good? He’s worse.
Here, then, are some of the Joker’s best moments.
Related Reading Orders:
Batman: The Killing Joke one-shot
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s version of the Joker’s origin is a troubled masterpiece. On the one hand, Moore’s dialogue is positively infectious and it truly frames our voyeuristic interest in the dangerous and the mentally unwell. Moore’s illustrative direction and Bolland’s execution is an absolute masterpiece, with images carrying the reader, unstoppably, through this tragedy.
On the other hand, this book’s brutal treatment of Barbara Gordon is hard to stomach. From the shooting to the photo scene, to the tepid response from both her father and from Batman. Moore himself has said, variously, that he didn’t do enough research into the book and didn’t quite realize that this book would be considered canon.
Like the Joker himself, this book is difficult to get the measure of. It’s hard to justify the ways in which it is both entertaining and absolutely necessary. In the end, I am happy it exists. It fits alongside Watchmen and a whole host of mature writing in capes. But shattering Barbara’s spirit cost us something, too.
(Also, skip the animated film of the same name. It was a bad idea on everyone’s part.)
Batman: The Man Who Laughs one-shot
Ed Brubaker takes his own stab at a Joker origin story. This version takes the original Joker tale (Batman #1) placed right after Batman: Year One. In keeping with both that first tale and Miller’s masterpiece, Brubaker takes on a truly gruesome and pitiless tone which does a great job of setting The Man who Laughs apart from The Killing Joke.
Unfortunately, that’s also what keeps it from overtaking Moore’s work. This Joker is a grim, dark, violent, interesting figure. This makes the story captivating, but it prevents it from standing out from the other grim, dark, violent stories in either the Batman cannon or in Brubaker’s own work.
It is absolutely worth a read, but be aware that it’s a very “one-note” Joker.
The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge (Batman v1 #251)
Batman has been the crown jewel of DC Comics, film, television, and music for my entire life. I want to repeat that; I have never had a single conscious moment in which Batman was not one of the most important figures on the entire planet. I knew who he was before I knew who was president. I knew Batman’s full name before I knew either of my parents’ firsts.
And a lot of that comes down to this Joker story. Before this, the Comics Code Authority had fairly ruined the Joker. The Code took away his charm and his danger, leaving him just a buffoon with bad jokes. If he’d been “the clown prince of crime” before the CCA, he was just the first third of it now.
Then, DC’s best creative team decided to remedy that. In this story, Joker breaks out of a mental institution and goes on a cold, calculated killing spree to wipe out the five henchmen he believes had sold him out. The book makes the Joker a killer again, which would be amazing enough as it is. But adding in O’Neill’s deliciously black humor and Adam’s expressive art makes the story feel both terrifying and entertaining.
The Laughing Fish (Detective Comics v1 #475-476)
I have written before about how Steve Englehart and Terry Austin’s The Laughing Fish is a fantastic peek into the Joker’s thought process. But here’s a recap.
Joker decides to poison the fish in Gotham harbor, copyright them, and reap the profits. When some daft municipal worker tells him that this isn’t possible, the Joker does the only logical next step: kill as many people as is necessary until someone, anyone makes his dream a reality.
The inciting incident has a perfect setup and punchline (if The Colonel can have chicken, why can’t Joker have fish?). It also creates a plot where Batman can’t merely punch the Joker, but has to both anticipate his moves and try to bring him back into reality.
The book is good and important. But watch the animated version (Batman The Animated Series episode 46) right after. It’s better still.
Death in the Family (Batman v2 #426-429)
This is technically a Joker story, but it says much more about the audience than it does about the villain.
In it, Joker gets mixed up in some political intrigue in Lebanon as he tries to sell Joker weapons to terrorists because it was the 1980s. He rampages across the content, leading to a game of cat and mouse with Batman and the second Robin, Jason Todd. Jason had been working independently, and the young hero was no match against the seasoned psychopath, leading ultimately to Jason’s capture and a ticking clock situation.
This is where the story becomes famous. DC Comics let the fans call in and decide Jason Todd’s fate.
This is the kind of decision that could only have happened in the pre-internet era. Before companies learned about trolls and the ease of organized ballot stuffing or how awful a plan it is to let the public decide your brand strategy. Because the story goes that DC had thought fans would save Robin, only to be shocked when fans voted overwhelmingly to kill the boy. From the wiki:
“When it was first released, “A Death in the Family” generated massive media coverage and backlash over the decision to kill Robin, a beloved comic book character and pop icon. Newspapers such as USA Today and Reuters published articles about it, the latter of which would state that “a group of comic book artists and writers has succeeded in doing what the most fiendish minds of the century… have failed to accomplish” Frank Miller (…) was highly critical of the story, describing the “toll-free” number voting as “the most cynical thing [DC] has ever done.” O’Neil and his team were caught off-guard by the amount of attention the story drew; according to him, it lasted four straight days and was unlike anything the team had previously experienced. The storyline was a bestseller in both the standard single-issue and trade paperback format.
Not only did this story alter add new cruelty and danger to Joker and alter the Bat-family forever, its media frenzy set proved to be a test case for The Death of Superman.
Soft Targets (Gotham Central #12-15)
Gotham Central is a Batman book with virtually no Batman in it. It focuses almost exclusively on the police in Gotham City, the mere mortals who are trapped in the fight between two maniacs who seem nearer to gods.
This story is a fantastic example of this. It starts with the Batman/Joker conflict we know and zooms way out to make us feel how fragile human lives can be. Turning victims and collateral damage into human lives.
This is probably my favorite storyline. Its twists and turns had me racing through the pages the first time I read it, and I’ve probably picked it apart a dozen times since. After you read this book, read all of Gotham Central.
Death of the Family / Endgame (Batman #13-17/ 35-40)
A year after someone carved the skin from Joker’s face, he returns to Gotham. Only this time, he’s after James Gordon, Batgirl, Red Hood, Alfred, everyone in Batman’s life… but not the Caped Crusader himself. This is a riff on “Death in the Family” but this time focused more narrowly on Batman.
And when the Dark Detective fails to meet the Joker’s expectations, the story shifts into something different. The battle turns to scorched earth as Joker tries to open Batman’s eyes to something.
Fights between these two have been personal since The Killing Joke, but there’s something new. Something I found shocking and crazy… and somehow logical.
When a seemingly hapless gangster by the equally pitiable name of Sid the Squid appears to kill the Batman by sheer luck, the Joker goes even crazier than usual. Believing himself to be the true arch-nemesis and only rightful killer of the Bat, Joker comes down on Sid with a singular vengeance. Something in between empathy for his supposedly dead frenemy, and righteous fury that’s downright frightening for a children’s cartoon.
Mark Hammil’s voice acting is incredible across this entire series. But I think there’s something special about this performance. Something in the way he uses his entire range to sell Joker’s crazed internal logic.
Batman Beyond takes place sometime after The Dark Knight Returns. In it, Bruce Wayne has become too old to wear the suit, so he enlists young Terry McGuiness to become his protege.
Most of the series focused on new villains (or at least updated version of old ones). What makes this film special is how it uses this scenario to look at an old problem like the Joker. This time, distance, and new hero provides us the ability to look at this problem in terms of decades of death and terror focusing on this one family.
Don’t let the medium throw you: this is a fantastic comic book story.
Mark Hammil takes one more turn in his second most famous role, this time as a Joker who’s dying from a megadose of Joker toxin. Joker then infects Batman with the tainted blood, as much for the body horror as out of hope Bats will cure them both. The story is part action movie, part hallucinatory experience, the story is a phenomenal showcase for both a character and an actor who was planning to take a final curtain call at the end.