1. The Joker – Batman #1 (Spring 1940)
And in a complete and utter shock to absolutely NO-ONE, The Joker tops my list. Sorry for the lack of surprise here gang, but there is a reason he’s the obvious choice. He is, plain and simple, Batman’s nemesis.
The Joker’s real identity is unknown. Throughout the character’s long history, there have been several different origin tales, the most common of which depicts him as falling into a vat of chemical waste. This event bleaches his skin and turns his hair green and his lips bright red, giving him the appearance of a clown.
Despite his often light-hearted appearance and attitude, he has been directly responsible for numerous tragedies in Batman’s life, including, but not limited to, the paralysis of Barbara Gordon, and the murder of Jason Todd.
Above we see Joker knock on the door and then shoot and cripple Barbra Gordon when she answers. He does so not even aware that she was Batgirl, as he is there simply looking to kidnap her dad, James Gordon. In the picture next to that is where Joker beat the 2nd Robin (Jason Todd) to death with a crowbar, before blowing him up.
Over the years The Joker has been portrayed both as a violent sociopath who kills people and commits crimes for his own amusement. As well as a goofy trickster-thief who is concerned only with annoying Batman. In the modern era, it is the prior we are most often confronted with.
In his initial dozen or so appearances, starting with Batman #1, the Joker was simply a mass murderer with a bizarre appearance. He was slated to be killed in his first appearance, but editor Whitney Ellsworth suggested that the character be spared. A hastily drawn panel (right) demonstrating that the Joker was still alive was subsequently added to the comic.
For the next several appearances, the Joker often escaped capture, but suffered an apparent death (falling off a cliff, being caught in a burning building, etc.), from which his body was not recovered.
In the 1950s and 1960s, following the imposition of the Comics Code Authority censorship board, the Joker shifted toward becoming nothing more than a harmless, cackling nuisance. This is the version that was depicted on the Adam West TV show in the late 60’s. With the psycho aspect of the character removed, writers and fans alike started to lose interest in the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’.
Hard as it is to believe, the Joker had disappeared from Batman stories almost entirely when Julius Schwartz took over editorship of the Batman comics in 1964. In 1973 however, the character was revived and profoundly revised in Batman stories by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams.
Beginning in Batman #251, with ‘The Joker’s Five Way Revenge’, the Joker returns to his roots as a homicidal maniac who murders people on a whim, while enjoying battles of wits with Batman. O’Neil said his idea was “simply to take it back to where it started. I went to the DC library and read some of the early stories. I tried to get a sense of what Kane and Finger were after.”
In an acclaimed run in Detective Comics #471-476, which went on to influence the 1989 movie Batman, and be adapted for the 90’s Animated Series, writers added elements deepening the severity of the Joker’s insanity. In the story The Laughing Fish, the Joker is crazy enough to disfigure fish with his grin, then expects to be granted a federal trademark on them. Only then to start killing bureaucrats who argue obtaining such a claim on a natural resource is a legal impossibility.
The Joker had his own 9-issue series during the 1970s in which he faced off against a variety of both superheroes and supervillains. Although he was the protagonist of the series, certain issues feature just as much murder as those in which he was the antagonist. Of the nine issues, he commits murder in seven.
The development of the Joker as a sociopath continues with A Death in the Family and The Killing Joke in 1988, redefining the character for DC’s Modern Age after the company wide reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths.
A definitive back-story has never been established for the Joker, and his real name has never been confirmed. He has been portrayed as lying so often about his former life that he himself is confused as to what actually happened. As he says in The Killing Joke: “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
In Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, it is said that the Joker may not be insane, but instead has some sort of “super-sanity” in which he recreates himself each day to cope with the chaotic flow of modern urban life. On several occasions the Joker has been known to address the reader in the comics, implying that he has another level of awareness beyond the pages of the comic book and may even know he is fictional.
The most widely cited back story, which the official DC Comics publication, Who’s Who in the DC Universe, credits as the most widely believed account, can be seen in The Killing Joke. It depicts him as originally being an engineer at a chemical plant who quits his job to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, Jeannie, the man agrees to help two criminals break into the plant where he was formerly employed.
In this version of the story, the Red Hood persona is given to the inside man of every job (thus it is never the same man twice) and this makes the man appear to be the ringleader, allowing the two criminals to escape. During the planning, police contact him and inform him that his wife and unborn child have died in a household accident. Stricken with grief, he attempts to back out of the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his promise. As soon as they enter the plant, however, they are immediately caught by security and a shootout ensues, in which the two criminals are killed. As the engineer tries to escape, he is confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance. Terrified, the engineer leaps over a rail and plummets into a vat of chemicals. When he surfaces in the nearby reservoir, he removes the hood and sees his reflection:
Bleached chalk-white skin, ruby-red lips, and bright green hair. These events, coupled with his other misfortunes that day, drive the engineer completely insane, resulting in the birth of the Joker.
From the Joker’s first appearance in Batman #1, he has committed crimes both whimsical and inhumanly brutal, all with a logic and reasoning that, in Batman’s words, “make sense to him alone.” In the aforementioned The Killing Joke, he shoots Barbara Gordon, rendering her a paraplegic. He then kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and taunts him with enlarged photographs of his wounded daughter being undressed. This is done in an attempt to prove that any normal man can go insane after having “one really bad day.” The Joker ridicules Gordon as an example of “the average man,” a naïve weakling doomed to insanity. But The Joker fails in his attempts to drive Gordon insane, because Batman saves the commissioner. Although traumatized, Gordon retains his sanity and moral code, urging Batman to apprehend the Joker “by the book” in order to “show him that our way works.” After a brief struggle, Batman tries one final time to reach the Joker, offering to rehabilitate him. The Joker refuses, but shows his appreciation by sharing a joke with Batman and allowing himself to be taken back to Arkham. The Joker murders Jason Todd, the second Robin, in the story A Death in the Family. Jason discovers that his estranged mother is being blackmailed by the Joker. He attempts to help her, but she betrays her son to keep from having her medical supply thefts exposed. This leads to Jason’s brutal beating by the Joker with a crowbar. The Joker locks Jason and his mother in the warehouse where the assault took place and blows it up just as Batman arrives.
At the time, DC Comics held a telephone poll to determine whether or not the character would die at the hands of the Joker. The vote was 5343–5271. They voted for him to die, hence Batman finds Jason’s lifeless body. Jason’s death haunted Batman for years, and has intensified his obsession with his archenemy.
During the events of the No Man’s Land storyline, the Joker is mysteriously absent for the better part of the year. The whole time, while Batman is trying to save the city, he is constantly worried about the Joker’s whereabouts, and for good reason. When the Joker finally re-emerges at the end of the year-plus story, he does so with a bang…or I guess, a blamm.
He murders Sarah Essen Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s second wife, by shooting her in the head as she tries to protect the infants that he has kidnapped. He surrenders to Batman, but continues to taunt Gordon, provoking the Commissioner to shoot him in the kneecap. The Joker laments that he may never walk again, and then collapses with laughter as he “gets the joke” that Gordon has just avenged his daughter’s paralysis.
Later, in a company-wide crossover, Last Laugh, the Joker believes himself to be dying and plans one last historic crime spree, infecting the inmates of The Slab with Joker venom to escape. With plans to infect the entire world, he sets the superpowered inmates loose to cause mass chaos in their ‘Jokerized’ forms.
Meanwhile, he tries to ensure his “legacy” by defacing statues in his image. The entire United States declares war on the Joker under the orders of President Lex Luthor. In response, Joker sends his minions to kill the President.
Black Canary discovers that Joker’s doctor modified his CAT scan to make it appear that he had a fatal tumor in an attempt to subdue him with the threat of death. Harley Quinn, angry at the Joker’s attempt to get her pregnant without marrying her, helps the heroes create an antidote to the Joker poison and return the super villains to their normal state. Believing Robin had been eaten by Killer Croc, Nightwing eventually catches up with the Joker and beats him to death. To keep Nightwing from having blood on his hands, Batman resuscitates the Joker.
In Emperor Joker, a multi-part story throughout the Superman titles, the Joker steals Mister Mxyzptlk‘s reality-altering power, remaking the entire world into a twisted caricature, with everyone in it stuck in an endless loop. The story focuses on the fate of Batman in this world, with the Joker torturing and killing The Dark Knight every day, only to bring him back to life and do it over and over again. As time runs out, Superman realizes that the Joker still cannot erase Batman from existence, as the Joker totally defines himself by his opposition to the Dark Knight. If the Joker can’t even erase Batman, how can he destroy the whole universe? The Joker’s control shattered, Mxyzptlk and the Spectre manage to reconstruct reality from the moment the Joker disrupted everything.
The Joker even got the honor of bludgeoning Lois Lane to death in Kingdom Come, taking away what should have been Lex Luthor’s right. On Wizard Magazine‘s list of the ‘100 Greatest Villains of All Time’ ranked the Joker as #1. Even other villains seem to be afraid to work with the Joker, especially those based in Gotham who have spent time with him at Arkham.
Joker is the most used villain in all of comics and has done just about everything. He is featured in pretty much every Batman video game and near all the cartoons. The Joker has appeared in numerous Batman-related media, including portrayals by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and the upcoming Jared Leto. There are also acclaimed animated versions with voice actors Mark Hamill and Kevin Michael Richardson.
Joker is the chaos and mayhem to Batman’s order and justice. Joker is happy, Batman is said. They couldn’t be more different, yet they just seem to fit well together. The Joker is Batman’s perfect foil. He kills for fun and seems to be in on a joke no one else gets.
However, this is also his greatest weakness, his inability to survive without his nemesis. In Going Sane, upon thinking Batman was dead, Joker completely reforms and spends months living a normal life, even falling in love and getting engaged under a false identity. Also, Joker has saved Batman’s life maybe more times than Robin. Anytime another villain has a real chance to end the Dark Knight, Joker makes sure they know that only he has the right to kill the Batman. He originally killed Mr. Freeze and has come close to killing Harley Quinn, Black Mask, and Two-Face all for just that reason.