The Joker is one of Batman's most memorable villain. He could even be one of the most famous comic book villains along side Lex Luthor from the Superman comics or the Green Goblin from the Spider-Man comics. Since his debut in Batman #1 in 1940 he has remained one of the greatest fictional villains and today we'll be looking at his history.
The Joker was created as Batman's first villain for his own comic series by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. They were inspired by a Joker playing card and Conrad Veidt's character in The Man who Laughs who had a perpetual grin. In Batman #1 the Joker was portrayed as a psychopath wanting to kill three prominent members of Gotham City by using 'Joker Venom' which poisons the victim and leaves them with a permanent grin. He succeeds in poisoning the mayor and almost manages to poison Robin until he is defeated by Batman. Originally the plan was to kill off the Joker by stabbing him in the heart but a hastily drawn panel was added by orders of editor Whitney Ellsworth indicating that the Joker survived. The Joker quickly became Batman's most infamous recurring enemy killing countless of people ruthlessly and even derailing a train. As the Silver Age of comics dawned Bill Finger decided to create an origin story for the Joker in Detective Comics #168.
In this story it was revealed that the Joker started out as a criminal going under the alias of the Red Hood. While the Red Hood was robbing a chemical plant Batman and Robin intervened and to avoid capture he jumped into a vat of chemicals from Ace Playing Card Company. His helmet allowed him to survive but at a cost. He gained a permanent smile, green hair and a pale complexion which broke him mentally.
Silver to Bronze Age
In 1954 the Comics Code Authority (the CCA) was set up to censor comics (personally I believe that the CCA was a waste of time). Batman had to turn from a dark brooding vigilante into the cheerful, flamboyant hero that is synonymous with the 1960s Batman. Similarly the Joker turned from a homicidal psychopath into a goofy clown. Ironically this period saw one of the better adaptations of the Joker with Cesar Romero playing him in the Batman TV series. During the 1960s some of the Joker's most well known traits were established such as having over-the-top crimes and acid-spitting flowers. As the TV series went into decline in 1969 so did the Joker who vanished from the comics. In Batman #251 the Joker returned and with him he brought back the darker side of Batman.
Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams returned the Joker to his homicidal origin but also changed him mentally. Before the Joker had expressed psychopathic tendencies but he was not legally insane. This changed with his appearance not being in prison but rather in Arkham Asylum. Throughout the 1970s the Joker would brutally murder people as he tries to get to Batman. This version of the Joker would later inspire his adaptation in Tim Burton's 1989 film Batman (where he was played by Jack Nicholson) and the 1992 Batman: The Animated Series (where he was voiced by Mark Hamill).
The Modern Joker
Following the retconning of the DC Universe (where the DC writers remade the comic book storyline creating new origins for the characters) Frank Miller released The Dark Knight Returns. Here he created a future for Batman which was darker, more violent and more serious which would cause the Joker to become the character that he is now known for. One exemplifying this was the Death in the Family story arc. In this story arc the Joker captures Jason Todd, the second Robin who fans were not a fan of, and beats him close to death with a crow bar before blowing up the building that he was in. It was the first time the Joker had killed a central character but what was most shocking of all was how he had killed a character so close to Batman.
The second major event caused by the Joker was The Killing Joke written by my personal favorite comic writer Alan Moore (who also wrote Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell to name his most famous work). The Joker's backstory was explained in detail. We found out that the Joker was a struggling stand-up comedian with a pregnant wife. To financially support them he decides to help two criminals sneak into the chemical plant that he used to work in but when his wife dies in an accident he tries to back out. The criminals do not let him and he is forced to adopt the moniker of the Red Hood to divert attention away from themselves. A shootout occurs which attracts Batman and like in the 1951 story he jumps into the chemical vat to escape. Following his disfigurement and the loss of his wife and unborn child he goes insane becoming the Joker. The rest of The Killing Joke centers around the Joker trying to prove that anyone can go mad through 'one bad day'. He shoots Commissioner Gordon's daughter Barbara Gordon (who was then Batgirl) which paralyzes her before kidnapping Gordon. He strips Gordon naked and forces him to look at photos of his abused and wounded daughter to make him go mad. Batman manages to rescue him with the story ending with the Joker laughing manically as he is confronted by Batman. Barbara Gordon meanwhile would become the Oracle who would aid super-heroes by becoming their eyes and ears.
Since the 1980s the Joker has continued with his darker streak which has inspired many other adaptations such as Mark Hamill in the Batman Arkham video game series and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. During the Knightfall story arc he teamed up with Scarecrow (a Batman villain who uses a gas to make people see their worst fears) to mentally torture Gotham's mayor and during the No Man's Land story arc he became a virtual warlord in an abandoned Gotham. He even got a sidekick in the form of Harley Quinn. She first appeared in Batman: The Animated Series as his girlfriend and got her own backstory. She was the Joker's psychologist while he was in Arkham Asylum but he drove her insane and she became both his lover and he aide.
With Jared Leto playing the Joker in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie shows how popular the character is. From his origin in 1940 through his goofy side in the 1960s and his return to his dark roots in the 1970s the popularity of the character has never waned. It is easy to say that when we think of a comic book villain the Joker is one of the first that comes to mind.