The Many Faces of the Joker: Modern Age Madness

Joshua Lapin-Bertone

Joshua Lapin-Bertone

Oct. 4, 2019


Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light? It might be an unusual question, but nobody could ever accuse the Joker of being an average criminal. Our week long celebration of the Clown Prince of Crime continues, and today we’re going to look at how the 1980s and 1990s pushed Joker to the next level.


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In 1986 writer-artist Frank Miller and inker Klaus Janson teamed up to craft ‘The Dark Knight Returns,’ a four-issue limited series which is a popular contender for the greatest Batman story ever told. The story is set in a possible future where a grey-haired Bruce Wayne has retired, Gotham’s streets are ruled by a gang of violent delinquents called the Mutants, and the Joker hasn’t moved or spoken since Batman disappeared.


Over the years, various writers have explored the Joker’s codependent relationship with Batman, but ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ took it one step further by suggesting that the Joker needs Batman to exist. Once he learns that Batman has resurfaced, the Joker immediately returns to life with the word “Darling.”


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The Joker manipulates Gotham’s media into propping him up as a victim of Batman’s brutality. The Joker reveals his true colors and kills as many people as he could in a television studio, before having a final showdown with Batman at a dark carnival. Batman is determined to finish the Joker off once and for all, jamming a Batarang into the Joker’s eye and then snappng the Joker’s neck just enough to cripple the clown. However, Batman just can’t bring himself to finish the Joker off. The Joker laughs at Batman, and condemns the Dark Knight by finishing the job and twisting his own neck until he dies.


The image of Joker’s lifeless body next to a bloody and aged Batman is one of the most memorable images from the iconic storyline. In the end, the Joker got what he wanted – one last battle with Batman, and as a final bit of revenge he framed the Dark Knight for his death. That’s one way to get the last laugh.


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The next iconic Joker story came in 1988. ‘The Killing Joke’ is a prestige graphic novel written by comics legend Alan Moore and illustrated by artist extraordinaire Brian Bolland. The Joker wants to prove that all it takes is one bad day to drive anyone insane, and he tests that theory on Jim Gordon. The Joker breaks into Gordon’s home, shoots and cripples his daughter Barbara and takes a series of disturbing photographs of her. The Clown Prince then abducts the elder Gordon, and subjects him to a series of psychologically torturing events but Jim never breaks.


The present day scenes are intercut with flashbacks, which reveal a tragic backstory for the Joker. Before he was the Batman’s archfoe, the Joker was an unnamed failed comedian who was pressured into helping a group of criminals rob a factory he once worked at. Through a series of unfortunate events, the unnamed man dives into a vat of chemical waste (inspired by the Joker’s original origin from ‘Detective Comics’ #168) which alters his appearance and drives him insane. Back in the present day, Batman eventually finds the Joker, and after an intense battle the Dark Knight tries to get through to his foe. The Joker feels it’s too late for redemption, and tells Batman a joke instead. The story closes with Batman and the Joker erupting in laughter.


‘The Killing Joke’ is a comic that raises many controversial questions, and fans continue to debate them to this day. Why was Batman laughing with the Joker at the end of the story? Were Batman’s actions appropriate? What was the significance of the joke at the end? Was the origin presented here an accurate flashback, or one of the Joker’s multiple choice backstories he mentioned? Was Barbara’s crippling an unnecessary move or an integral story point to demonstrate the Joker’s cruelty? Unfortunately for Batman, the Joker’s next move would show just how irredeemable the Clown Prince truly was.


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1988 was a big year for the Joker. First he crippled Batgirl, then he murdered Robin. During a storyline called “Death in the Family” Jason Todd tracked his long lost mother down in Ethiopa, and found out she was being blackmailed by the Joker. Although Jason was warned to wait for Batman, the Boy Wonder didn’t want to leave his mother at the Joker’s mercy. The Joker quickly overpowered Robin and brutalized the teen with a bloodied crowbar.


Any other story would’ve ended with Batman saving his old chum at the last minute, but this time Robin’s fate was up to the readers. ‘Batman’ #427 ended with a cliffhanger and Jason’s fate up in the air, giving fans the option to vote on Robin’s survival with a 1-900 telephone line. The votes were counted, and Robin’s death was decided by a 72 vote margin.


Batman was enraged, and Superman came in for the last act of the story to try to calm his old friend down. Bizarrely enough, the Joker briefly became an ambassador for Iran, but that ended as most Joker plots do – with him trying to kill everyone in the room. How do you follow doing something as big as killing Robin? Next, the Joker returned to live-action.




Batmania swept the world in 1989 as Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ came to the big screen and became a box office smash. Jack Nicholson starred as the Joker alongside Michael Keaton’s Batman. The script revealed that Jack Napier was the one who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, making the Joker responsible for Batman’s creation. While the move may have been controversial among comics purists, some fans overlooked the change to canon based on Jack’s performance. As the first live-action Joker since Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson had some big shoes to fill, and he was able to redefine the character and successfully make the role his own. Some of his more memorable lines (“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light” and “Where does he get those wonderful toys”) have become memorable catchphrases, helping to cement Nicholson’s Joker into our pop culture. Jack Nicholson was a hard act to follow, but the next actor to take on the Clown Prince of Crime was no joke…




In 1992 the Dark Knight returned to television in ‘Batman: The Animated Series.’ The Joker was originally going to be voiced by Tim Curry, but illness and scheduling conflicts necessitated a replacement and history was changed forever. While an idealistic farmboy from Tatooine might not seem like the obvious choice to play a homicidal criminal clown, Mark Hamill surprised everyone by bringing his own brand of savage lunacy to the role. The Joker became the breakout star of the series, and some of the most memorable episodes (“The Laughing Fish” “Christmas with the Joker” and “Joker’s Favor”) were centered around him. Hamill went on to reprise the Joker in various spin-offs, tie-ins and other media adaptations.


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‘Batman: The Animated Series’ also gave Joker a girlfriend – Harley Quinn. Nobody ever could’ve predicted the impact Harley would have, and how her popularity sometimes rivals that of Joker and Batman! Harley’s kooky personality and obsessive but toxic devotion to Joker resonated with viewers, thanks to the inspired vocal performance from Arleen Sorkin and her hilarious chemistry with Mark Hamill. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm expanded on Harley and Joker’s twisted codependent relationship in the comic ‘Mad Love,’ which showed how Harleen Quinzel once served as the Joker’s psychiatrist before he manipulated her and she fell in love with him.




Before the 20th century came to a close, the Joker had one more dirty trick up his sleeve. During the final hours of the “No Man’s Land” crossover, the Joker kidnapped the babies of Gotham and hid them in the basement of the GCPD headquarters. In ‘Detective Comics’ #741 Sarah Essen, GCPD officer and Jim Gordon’s wife, finds Joker with the babies. The Joker toys with her, and forces her to drop her firearm to save one of the infants. The moment Sarah loses her weapon, the Joker shoots her, ending her life. It was the last murder the Joker would commit for the millennium, and it proved he could still destroy the lives of Batman’s allies. Jim Gordon almost killed the Joker himself when he learned what happened, but the Dark Knight (who had been there before) talked him out of it.


The 1980’s & 90’s took the Joker to new heights, but you haven’t seen anything yet! Next time: Heath Ledger, Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder and more!


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