The Joker: Exploring DC’s Most Horrific Villain

The Joker is a true chameleon able to switch between a clown and a monster with ease. Let's explore how he became DC's most horrific character.

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The Joker New 52

The Joker is a true chameleon able to switch between a clown and a monster with ease. Let’s explore how he became DC’s most horrific character.

The Joker is undoubtedly the greatest super-villain ever created. Also known as the Clown Prince of Crime, Ace of Knaves, the Harlequin of Hate, and the Jester of Genocide. The Joker has been tormenting the citizens of Gotham and his nemesis, Batman for over 80 years. The machinations of the bleached skin, green-haired perpetually grinning madman has brought laughter, tears of joy, shrieks of fear and abject terror to the media devouring-public for so long that the comic book character is one of the most popular in all pop-culture.

Since appearing in DC Comics’ Batman #1 (April 25, 1940), there was something about the character and his always present smile that made the editors decide to save the serial killer and not let him be killed as was the original plan. How different would the history of Batman and his Rogue’s Gallery would’ve been had they gone with the original plan?

But, luckily for us, he was spared the death he so deserved and went on to change comic book history. Since then he has been shown to be a twisted monster, a pure trickster, a psychopath whose mind rivals Hannibal Lecter, a Machiavellian terrorist who thrives on chaos and a bloodthirsty genocidal maniac. Each of these interpretations keeps similar aspects of the character but when you delve into the actual character himself, one thing becomes crystal clear.

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The Joker is Horror’s Ultimate Character!

Now, I’m sure most if not all of you reading this are scratching your head trying to figure out what the hell I’m talking about. Well, to put it bluntly, the Joker can fit into any convention or subgenre of Horror. And this all comes from the simple fact that like any long-standing popular character, the Joker acts and says whatever the current author wants him to.

The reason for this is because he is a reflection of the current fears of the author and society plus when you add the fact that anyone can be the Joker, for as he says in Alan Moore’s classic The Killing Joke “All it takes is one bad day,” the implications are truly frightening. He really is the personification of humanity’s dark side and is the release of its diseased parts. The Joker has no limits and is the maximum expression of freedom (or anarchy) in a truly messed-up way.

            Before you laugh hysterically as if you were being assaulted by Joker Gas, I’ve got the proof right here. Let’s explore how easy it is for the Joker to meld into any of the horror subgenres.

Origins and Reinventions

Batman #1 (1940)

Let’s start with the original version of the Joker. A remorseless serial killer with a mirthless grin, this version killed his victims with a toxin that left them smiling grotesquely. This first appearance was reimagined by Ed Brubaker in the one-shot Batman: The Man Who Laughs (2005), in which the Joker is presented as diabolical and evil. His insanity on display, while still keeping him in a constant state of mystery, which lumps him in with the likes of Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs 1991), Norman Bates (Psycho 1960) or even Sid 6.0 (Virtuosity 1995).

This particular version of the Clown Prince of Crime is more of a true psychopath who derives his laughter and enjoyment not from some twisted joke but from his own perverse pleasure at seeing the suffering of others and knowing that he is the cause of it. What makes The Man Who Laughs and Batman #1 Joker stand out is the serial killer element. The only difference between him and the others is that whereas they have a deep-rooted reason for being the way they are (let’s all ignore Hannibal Rising and Hannibal), the Joker has none and he never will.

The Joker is without limits or boundaries. He can and will do anything he wants if he thinks or even suspects it will aid him in his goal. This is part of the reason why he can jump between subgenres and have completely different personalities depending on who is writing him. For example…

The Killing Joke

Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)

Let’s jump ahead to probably the most twisted version of the Joker, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988).  In the famous one-shot, Moore gives us a possible back-story for the character, which he then proceeds to dismiss with the wonderful line…

“I’m not exactly sure what happened. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

For Joker, it doesn’t matter what his past is, the only thing that matters is his plan at that moment. Which, as those who are fans of the character know and who have read the comic, it’s to prove one thing and one thing only. That all it takes is one truly bad day for somebody to end up just like he or Batman. This version of Joker fits in perfectly well with that classic subgenre, the Psychological or Thriller movie. Think of films like Gerald’s Game (2017), The Gift (2015), Black Swan (2010), Taxi Driver (1976), or Seven (1995). Hell, you can even count The Purge (2013) among the annals of Psychological horror!

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This version of Joker fits perfectly with the subgenre, for starters he breaks into Barbara Gordon’s apartment to set his nefarious plan in motion. After that, he then kidnaps Jim Gordon, the target of his scheme. All the while he taunts them and drops clues for his nemesis to track. Then we have the flashbacks which try to show us his creation. Of course, we have that wonderful quote that makes everything we have seen before or even knows about Joker false. It’s the classic Villain move from this subgenre, just like John Doe from Seven. There is a twisted logic to this Joker’s way of thinking, he sees himself as being completely in the right, and his actions back him up. No matter what anyone says to him, no matter how rational it is or even if it is right by our standards, Joker has exactly the right thing to say and do. In Moore’s hand, Joker is no longer the Clown, now he is a truly dangerous foe who is not intimidated by anyone, not even Batman. This indifference is what makes him frightening and fits in well with the monsters of Psychological Horror.

One more point about The Killing Joke’s Joker is that part of the reason he is so dangerous and terrifying is that he is irrational. Which is exactly what fear is. An irrational emotion that affects us in different ways; it might make us freeze and piss our pants, run away, or curl up into a ball and cry for mummy. This is what fear does to us and is the child of Horror. Which is exactly what Joker does, he is irrational but not stupid. There is an internal logic to his actions that only he understands and anyone who tries to understand it too inevitably ends up one of his victims. In the hands of Moore, Joker becomes the perfect embodiment of fear. Fear comes from the threat of the unknown, and nobody on this planet will ever know what the Joker is thinking or planning on doing next. In this case, The Killing Joke’s version of Joker is the best example of this threat.

The Dark Knight Returns

The Dark Knight Returns (1986)

Of course, we cannot discuss any version of the Joker from the 1980s without mentioning Frank Miller’s turn with the clown in 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns. In this version of Batman’s world, he is older and retired. But after a string of more heinous crimes awakens his old self, Bruce Wayne dons the mantle of Batman once more and sets out to take back his beloved Gotham. All the while we cut to an insane asylum where a pale, green-haired man sits catatonic watching a TV. Who is he? Who was he? This man never speaks but we all know or at least suspect who he is. It isn’t until the moment the news announces the return of Batman that a smile creeps slowly across the skin and we see this twisted world’s version of Joker.

Just like Alan Moore’s interpretation, Frank Miller’s is a cold-blooded psychopath who manipulates every one around him just so he can get his own way and have one more confrontation with his beloved. For in this world, Joker’s infatuation with Batman borders on the romantic. For example, when he awakens and sees Batman on the TV his first words are, “B-B…B-B-Batman…Darling.” Throughout the comic and even the animated movie adaptation, Joker constantly uses names such as ‘Darling’, ‘Sweetheart’ and in the animated movie version during the climatic Tunnel of Love fight, he actually says to Batman “…And I love you for it.”

This scene in the comic is drawn to be fast and almost sexual with the way the two enemies’ bodies are entwined. But don’t let the love-dovey talk confuse you, the Joker is just as dangerous. In the lead up to his confrontation with the Dark Knight himself, Joker is seen handing out poisoned cotton candy to unsuspecting children, then in the chase, he uses a gun to kill any and all who get in his way. This super-villain is the pinnacle of terrifying, he doesn’t care at all what he does, who he hurts, or how many people he does it too. As long as he gets his way. Joker is chaos.

Keeping in line with this idea of Joker being chaos or even an agent of chaos. We must first look at the relationship between chaos and order. The short version is that both are necessary, without one there cannot be the other like with Batman and Joker. Whereas Joker tries to act randomly for others enjoying what he does completely and basically saying “I have no limits, so why should I be sad?” Batman, on the other hand, is stoic, serious and the ultimate goody-two-shoes, he too has no limits except for self-imposed ones and that is what both Moore’s and Miller’s versions desire most. To break Batman so he has no more limits, just like Joker. When that happened then he would have a real equal to battle for all eternity…It’s actually kind of sweet (in a weird way) when you think about it.

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (2008)

Of course, we cannot have a discussion about Joker, any version of him without mentioning Christopher Nolan’s and Heath Ledger’s Agent of Chaos from 2008’s The Dark Knight. It is obvious that Ledger’s portrayal is rooted in the feeling of modern terrorism, in fact, his Joker is nothing more than an anarchist. The most horrific traits of this version are his ability to induce paranoia and madness in the people of Gotham.

Ledger’s version of the Joker plays into modern-day random violence. Unlike other interpretations of the character, this one feels all too real. One could imagine Ledger’s Joker in the world of Maniac or Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer. While other versions of the Joker exist in a strange un-reality, Ledger’s interpretation is most chillingly true crime-esque.

Mark Hamill (Animated & Video Games)

Batman: Arkham City (2011)

At this point I probably should warn you that I’m not going to cover every single iteration of the character, for me to do that then this piece would go on forever and never finish. Which means at this point we’re going to focus on not a version of the charcter but rather the actor who has portrayed the Joker in a variety of different mediums and encompasses the reason why Joker fits into all of the different subgenres and that man is of course, the one and only Mark Hamill.

Starting in 1992 with Batman: The Animated Series, Hamill’s voice work cemented him as THE Joker. Ranging from being a silly over-the-top caricature of a clown to a truly dangerous psychopath, Hamill imbues his Joker with a joy and merriment that was unlike anything else that came before him. The fact that this Joker has a variety of different laughs also adds to the fear and terror. For most actors give Joker one standard laugh, but Hamill looked upon the laugh as being more of a musical instrument that the joker would use to show his mood; it could be a piercing shriek similar to a banshee or a deep sinister chuckle that would then erupt as violence ensued.

Of course, the best example of this is in the 1993 animated feature film Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm in which we do get a glimpse of his backstory, but what we see shows a sadistic man whose true nature is unleashed after becoming the Joker. In this movie, Hamill used it as a reason to create more laughs for the clown, and boy does it show. This Joker isn’t afraid to turn up the sinister and use his anger and rage to intimidate. One scene, in particular, that shows the wide range of demented and psychotic thoughts and emotions this Joker has is when he meets mob boss Salvatore Valestra. In this meeting Valestra tries to convince Joker to help him kill the Bat. Joker’s reaction goes from being bored to that of an excited child and when Valestra lays hands on him the laughter stops and Joker becomes an angry scary monster, just listen to the growl and snarl in the voice.

Of course, once the animated series was done and dusted the next we’d hear the dulcet tones of Hamill would be in the Arkham series of games; 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, 2011’s Batman: Arkham City and 2015’s Batman: Arkham Knight. In this gritty, darker and honestly scarier version of the Batman universe, Joker is a terrifying man who does become a monster, literally. In Arkham Asylum Joker uses a new toxin derived from Bane’s Venom to create Titan, at the end of the game he uses it on himself and turns into a hulking beast with elongated and deformed proportions, spine breaking through the skin, ribs pushing through and blood oozing from the wounds. In this moment, Joker’s personality finally matches up with that of his outward appearance. Then in Arkham City, he is a frail sickly man with a disease that is killing him. In that case what is a super-villain to do?

Easy! Just start shipping off packets of hid blood to hospitals for transfusions, of course. This is where Joker fits into the Virus subgenre of Horror, in this moment he has even less to lose than before and all he can do is take down as much of Gotham as he possibly can, anyway he can. For when a man who sees the world as nothing but a sick joke, take everything away from him and what remains is something more dangerous than nature itself. But then, once we get to Arkham Knight, Joker is gone but not forgotten. Appearing throughout the game as either a delusion or a ghost, this Joker is creepier and would fit in with The Ring or even The Grudge (both original movies). It also helps that since this Joker is older, grizzled and a lot meaner than the any other version Hamill’s voice is deeper and rougher with the sound of sandpaper coming through every now and then. The laugh is still there but sounds more like a man in pain than actual merriment.

Joker (2019)

Joker (2019)

Speaking of a Joker who sounds more in pain than anything else, Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal in Todd PhillipsJoker (2019) is the perfect cocktail of depression, paranoia, isolation, and the slow descent into homicidal madness. Now, a lot has been written already about Phoenix’s pitch-perfect performance, so all I’ll say is that the scariest moment from this version is not when he kills Murray, but when he is sitting in the comedy club and trying to imitate the people around them when they laugh. This shows that he is totally out of sync with everyone, one step behind them, and the laugh he uses is high-pitched, ear-piercing with just a hint of something sinister to that sends a shiver through the spine.

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989)

Now, let’s delve into a subgenre of horror that doesn’t get a lot of love right now, and that is Gothic Horror. The original version of Horror this is where we got the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Turn Of The Screw, and all of the wonderful tales from Edgar Allen Poe. Now, you’re probably wondering where Joker fits in, it’s easy. We have to thank Grant Morrison and Dave McKean with the wondrously demented graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth (1989).

If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor right now and go out and get yourself a copy. Apart from McKean’s eye-catching and frankly disturbing renditions of Batman, Two-Face, Clayface, Scarecrow, The Mad Hatter, Maxie Zeus, the Asylum itself and of course, Joker. Not only is he long, distorted with unnaturally stretched-out features with hair that would make any rocker or punk green with envy, but the way Morrison writes him with homosexual elements and once again being ‘in love’ with Batman. This idea does show up a bit and in a way it works. But what makes Morrison’s version of Joker all the more terrifying is that in this world he isn’t insane but quite the opposite.

According to the Doctors, Joker suffers from ‘super sanity’ which basically means that he re-invents himself every day, to suit his circumstances. He may be a harmless prankster one moment, and a homicidal maniac the next. Which does explain why throughout his sordid history he flip-flops between being a clown to a monster. And throughout the graphic novel we see both sides of this Joker and with the way he seems to know what is going on all the time and the grand spooky version of Arkham (which did help to inspire the design of the asylum in Batman: Arkham Asylum game) gives us the perfect gothic version of Joker.

Now, speaking of monsters let’s look at one of my personal favorite horror subgenres. Cosmic Horror! That wonderful place where dreams go to die and we find proof that our existence is meaningless because the cosmos just don’t care. The indifference of our surroundings and the vast emptiness of the unknowable was the playground of one H. P. Lovecraft, he who created the Elder God Cthulhu, and countless other horrors. However could Joker or even batman fit into this one? Well, my dear little one, just follow me and you’ll see.

Superman: Emperor Joker

Superman: Emperor Joker (2007)

It all starts and basically ends with Superman: Emperor Joker (2007) in which Joker tricks the mischievous imp, Mr. Mxyzptlk into giving him 99.99% of his power and then in just over a minute Joker reimagines reality into his own hellish twisted version. Throughout this story, Joker does whatever he wants to whoever he wants, and whenever he wants. At one point he even devours the entire population of China with a playfulness of a child. But the real horror comes when he turns his attention to Batman. Each day he finds a new way to kill the Dark Knight just to bring him back to be killed again and again and again and again.

When you have a character like the Joker who truly views his world with an almost unearthly indifference and that nothing matters and life/death are jokes, giving him the sort of power equal to a god asks multiple questions that are similar to the types posed by Lovecraft and Cosmic Horror. Just the idea of Joker having the ability to control reality and mold it any way he sees fit rivals that of Cthulhu, Azathoth, or any of the Great Old Ones or the Elder Gods for the sheer amount of craziness on display. The fact alone that when he devours China’s population and makes the sick joke, “Someone should’ve said ‘Peking, Duck!’” does illustrate how much of a cosmic horror this iteration is.

And that’s the beauty and terror of his madness. For at once it is both completely batshit crazy and totally illogical while at the same being absolutely logical and reasonable sounding. These quotes from the man himself (different versions of course) should help to prove my point; “Smile, because it confuses people. Smile, because it’s easier than explaining what is killingyou inside.” “We stopped checking for monsters under our beds when we realized they were inside us.” “And he didn’t die all at once. It was hours before the screaming stopped. I almost didn’t get to sleep that night. That was the last time I’d used crushed glass.” “Don’t test the monster in me!” “I know the voices in my head aren’t real, but sometimes their ideas are absolutely awesome.” As you can see, depending on who is writing Joker he can be either deep and philosophical or a demented killer.

The New 52

Batman: Endgame (2014 – 2015)

The final example for today is, of course, Scott Snyder’s epic run with The New 52. It’s been well documented that people either love Snyder’s take on the DC Universe or they hate it. For me, The Court of Owls, Zero Year, Death Of The Family, and Endgame were good storylines. Sure, not every twist, turn, and reveal was golden but at the same time, it wasn’t as bad as anything from the 50s and 60s era. What Snyder did do exceptionally well was take Joker and turn him into an actual monster.

This Joker is the perfect fit for the subgenres Extreme Horror (Splatter, exploitation, and gore) and Body horror. Don’t believe me? Well, children, gather round and I’ll illuminate my points. Let’s start with Death Of The Family in which our introduction to Joker is by him having Dollmaker cut his face off without anesthesia! We, the readers, are greeted by the shocking sight of Joker’s face, hanging from a tiled wall blood dripping from it and the smile looking even more demented.

From here it only gets worse. Throughout the first half of the story, all that anyone talks about is how Joker has vanished, leaving his face. This worries Batman because up until this point, Joker has always had a limit. Now, having his face surgically removed, shows that this Joker is without limits, without boundaries and now nobody is truly safe. This Joker is scarier than Jigsaw or the guys from Hostel.

If the previous incarnations of Joker, animated, video game, live-action, drawn, walked the tightrope between true lunacy and silly antics, this one goes to a dark place where no light shall ever touch. When Joker returns to retrieve his face from the GCPD, he kills nineteen officers without a single care. Snyder’s Joker has one mission in this run, one singular purpose that nothing will sway him from it. To eliminate all of those who he believes has made Batman weak, meaning, the entire Bat-Family.

His motivation for doing this is so that Batman will return to his true self, the strong single-minded man who would stop at nothing to achieve his mission. What Joker sees and believes is that Batman’s ‘family’ has weakened him, made him lose focus of what’s important, and taken him away from Joker. In one scene Batman himself muses that the look in Joker’s eyes was the same as someone in love. And as we all know, love can push us to do amazing things and also some quite terrible things.

Throughout this story, Snyder’s Joker does perform some atrocious acts all in the name of ‘love’. For example, after abducting Harley Quinn and breaking her down mentally, he convinces her that he is going to slice her face off as well. In that panel of the comic, you see an instant of regret from Harley. But then he attacks her, leaving her dressed as the Red Hood to deal with Batman. After this, she tries to escape and the two ex-lovers have a pretty nasty fight, but Joker wins. His revenge is to lock her up, chained to a wall with the rotting remains of other Harley Quinns. Joker’s final devastating blow is to make her believe she wasn’t the first nor the last, and she was meaningless to her ‘Puddin’.

From there he escalates each attack on the member of Batman’s family; Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Catwoman, Batgirl, and the various Robins. But for me, the crowning achievement of this Joker is when he kidnaps Alfred, leaves a calling card in the Batcave, and then has Batman’s faithful servant serve the family a delicious dinner. Their sliced off faces. All of this is to bring Batman back to his real self, the true version that Joker knows wants and needs.

For as Scott Snyder himself said…

“For me it’s less the idea of him being graphically horrific or explicitly horrific and more about being psychologically and emotionally horrific…To me, what’s so scary about him isn’t even the physical things he would do — those are horrific too and there’s plenty of them coming in Batman — but it’s the fact that he seems to know your worst fears about yourself, and he knows how to convince you that they’re true. He can look at somebody like Harvey Bullock, and the things he can say to Harvey can level Harvey and make him pause, this hardened cop, and not know what to do. Almost paralyze him with fear, but of himself. In that way, the Joker’s kind of the Devil’s tongue in our series. In that way, he’s very scary and horrific. He looks at Batman and says “I know what your worst fear is about yourself, and it’s true, and I’m here to deliver it and celebrate it with you.”… But I don’t think of him so much as a horror movie villain. He’s a force of primal horror.”

Comic Alliance Interview with Scott Snyder

But it doesn’t end here, for in the next big storyline from Snyder and Co. Batman: Endgame we see the Joker realizing that his relationship with Batman has betrayed, at least that is how he sees it. This is the Joker burning everything down because his dynamic with Batman has been forever changed by the events in Death Of The Family, and the only way he can deal with it is to launch a full-scale assault on Batman and the entirety of Gotham. All the while planting the seeds of doubt within Batman’s own mind about whether Joker is a man or something more, something worse. And at one point the Dark Knight starts believing, such as the power of Joker.

“Joker is trying to accomplish his goals by pretending to be this thing that is larger than himself, saying “I am forever, the scariest thing ever, an immortal being who knows the truth.” But the message he is presenting, that everything means nothing and it’s all absurd, is even more reductive than the perspective the other villains have.”

Comicbook.com interview with Scott Snyder

Joker will never succeed no matter how much death and destruction he brings forth, and the climactic battle between the two is brutal and horrific to watch. Snyder’s version of the iconic villain is truly the most brutal and bloodthirsty to come out of Joker’s dark twisted hilarious history.

No matter which version of the Joker you like, whether it’s a particular comic one or the animated series or even one of the live-action portrayals, we all have to admit that Joker is definitely Horror’s ultimate character. He can dive into the dark void of cosmic horror, be a knife-wielding slasher up there with Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers or a sadist who isn’t afraid to show you your deepest fears before cutting you up and serving you to your family.

This article was co-written with Mariana Alvaradejo, who supplied a lot of the psychological insight into Joker and the fans who cosplay as him.

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