What we all love the most about the Joker, it's that his backstory is so mysterious. In most comics, cartoons, and movies, questions about his origin are left unresolved. No one knows, for sure, how the Joker came to be. He just
exists. And that's certainly an idea that DC comics want to perpetuate with their reveal last year that there are actually three Jokers. Yes, not one, not two, but three different individuals who have been committing crimes as the clown prince this entire time. Making him, or their, history even more unclear. And surely, that is precisely the way the Joker would want it. From the changing explanations of his scars in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
- [Jocker] "Sticks the blade in my mouth. Let's put a smile on that face. I stick a razor in my mouth and do this."
To Alan Moore's seminal comic, The Killing Joke, a Batman story so iconic, we're meant to believe is the true detailed origin of the Joker, but it's all swept under the rug by one line.
- [Joker] "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another. If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice."
So, perhaps we'll never truly know the origin of the Joker in the comics, but what about his real origin, how the character was created. Well, here's what's interesting, that same ambiguity exists in real life. No one knows, for sure how the Joker came to be. He just exists.
The Joker debuted in Batman No. 1 from 1940, and like most villains the Dark Knight fought in earlier issues of Detective Comics, was promptly killed off in his first issue. Bill Finger, who was the person responsible for basically everything great about Batman, really didn't care for the idea of recurring villains. Finger's mindset was if you go toe to toe with the Caped Crusader, there's no coming back. Most bad guys in early Batman stories were killed by either Batman himself, or by others, or just themselves. Like the Joker here accidentally stabbing himself in a fight with the Dark Knight. However, DC editor Whitney Ellsworth didn't want to waste such a cool character. He demanded that the final panels of Batman No. 1 reveal that the Joker survived his self-stabbing and would return. And that he did. The Joker, quickly, became Batman's arch nemesis, and arguably the most
iconic comic book villain in existence. But we wanna look at what happened before all of that. How was the Joker created? Who was responsible? And what was the inspiration behind this man who laughs?
All accounts of the character's creation bring up, in some way, the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs which featured the character Gwynplaine, played by Conrad Veidt. Gwynplaine was disfigured by a monstrous surgeon who carved a permanent smile on his face. As an adult, he joined the traveling circus as The Laughing Man. The full tale involves love, and sword fights, and is way too much to get into right now, but Bill Finger was a fan of foreign films, and would always remember The Man Who Laughs in the back of his mind and would eventually use it as inspiration for Joker's visual appearance. That much we know to be true. Everyone can agree on that, but every other detail, from the multiple accounts of Joker's creation, is up for debate.
Bill Finger recalls that he received a call from Bob Kane, the other co-creator of Batman. According to Bill Finger, Kane was holding a playing card with a joker on it, and spouting about his concept for a new villain. Kane even drew up a sketch of what he wanted the Joker to look like, but Finger didn't particularly care for it. He thought it seemed a bit too much like a traditional clown. Finger remembered his personal copy of The Man Who Laughs which came with a photograph from the movie featuring Conrad Veidt's creepy smile. As he explains, quote,
"I cut the picture out of the book and gave it to Bob, who drew the profile and gave it a more sinister aspect. Then, we worked on the face, made him look a little clown-like, which accounted for his white face, red lips, the green hair. And that was the Joker,"
Bob Kane and Bill Finger created the Joker together. It was a joint effort. We seem to be overlooking a little bit of a small detail in that story, the card that Bob Kane had, right? The one that featured the joker on it, where did that come from? Well, in short, it came from a ghost.
Artist. A ghost artist. so while the art in early Batman stories is often attributed to Bob Kane, the reality is that Kane wasn't a particularly talented artist. When he wasn't blatantly swiping from other comics, the work that was credited to Bob Kane was, in large part, done by ghost artists who drew for him. Which sounds bad but was a fairly common practice back in those days. One of these ghost artists was Jerry Robinson, who also helped with lettering and inking, but what he really wanted to be was a writer.
As superhero stories, and Batman, in particular, started to take off, Bill Finger was swamped with the number of comics he was tasked with writing. Robinson, having a bit of an ulterior motive, volunteered to help take some of the load off, and write a Batman story for Finger. His initial goal was to create a new villain for the Dark Knight. As an English major, Robinson found inspiration in stories with antagonists who put the hero to the test. David and Goliath, Holmes and Moriarty. Robinson wanted someone larger than life who would be a worthy opponent rather than just another small-time gangster. Someone who would genuinely test the world's greatest detective. And that was a pretty new idea for superhero comics.
The prevailing mindset during the first handful of years was that the hero was the focus, the villains should never be too powerful lest they overshadow the superhero. Nowadays, 80% of what makes Batman interesting is, in fact, his villains. Robinson also wanted to give this new villain some contradictory attributes to make him stand out a little bit. Like an evil paradox. A murderous psychopath with a sense of humor. Quote,
"The Joker was a diabolically sinister villain and yet had a clownish aspect. I found the idea of a sinister clown utterly fascinating,"
With this comedy motif, he began to think of what the character's name would be. It's probably no coincidence that Robinson's brother was a champion Bridge player. Decks of playing cards were all over the house. He didn't have to search long for the name of this new villain. It was right there in front of him the whole time. It couldn't possibly be anything else but Joker. Robinson pulled out a deck and started drawing up a conceptual sketch of this new character based on the joker cards. It's an image you've probably seen in the comics, especially, in the Bat-cave.
Once again, what happens next is up for debate. Robinson claims that he brought the design to Bob Kane the next morning, who loved it so much that he started to sketch out the full character then and there. Shortly after, just as before, Kane called up Bill Finger, who didn't really care for the initial sketch, and instead proposed to base the character's the appearance of The Man Who Laughs and the rest is history. We get to the final story that calls into question the exact timeline of the events. So, here's the thing that you need to know about Bob Kane if you don't already. He had an enormous ego. Author Neil Gaiman put it best when he said, quote,
"Bob Kane was, by all accounts, a strange guy. He didn't have much
talent, but he had a certain amount of luck. And most people know that
Bob Kane was the creator of Batman, even if they don't know that he didn't
write or draw any Batman stuff. No one else who did anything got any credit in Bob Kane's head. The other people who drew Batman, even Neal Adams, or Frank Miller, in Bob's mind, we're just his ghosts. The only thing that was important to Bob Kane was Bob Kane,"
Bob Kane attempted to discredit Jerry Robinson as the co-creator of Joker, instead claiming that he, himself created the clown prince independently of Robinson.
[Bob Kane] "Bill Finger and I created the Joker. Jerry Robinson had absolutely nothing to do with it, but he'll always say he created it till he dies,"
Kane's story is that he and Bill Finger were already in the process of creating the Joker when Robinson came in with the Joker playing card sketch.
[Bob Kane] "Jerry drew this card after Bill Finger and I had already created the Joker. If Jerry had come to me first with the playing card, then I would have drawn the Joker in the image of that card, instead of like Conrad Veidt in the movie The Man Who Laughs,"
So, why should we even believe Bob Kane? Why should we believe this side of the story? We already know, it's already been established that he loves to take credit for things that he didn't actually do. Why would this explanation hold any water? As author Brian Cronin wrote in Was Superman a Spy?
[Brian Cronin] "What makes this story different from other Kane stories is that this time Bill Finger told a DC editor that he felt Kane's version was correct. Robinson feels that Finger is simply confused about the time frame and that the Veidt comparison came about after Robinson showed the drawing. But it's likely something that will never be sorted out for certain."
Over the years, stories change, memories fade and become corrupted. They lose details, they add false detail, and the true history remains unclear. Sometimes it's remembered one way, sometimes another, but if Joker is gonna have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.