The 10 Defining Joker Stories
Besides The Killing Joke!
Before you see Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, read these classic old and new tales that have shaped our view of the Clown Prince of Crime.
Moviegoers are about to go Joker crazy when the film, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, arrives in theaters this October. The character is one of the masterworks that comics gave to the literary canon, and his on-screen development into a lead divorced from Batman was inevitable. He has fascinated readers for decades, and as Phillips and Phoenix prepare to finally unleash their character study on audiences, we thought we’d take a look at some the best comic-book stories featuring the Clown Prince of Crime – a kind of homework guide for Joker enthusiasts leading up to release.
And to make things interesting, we’re taking Batman: The Killing Joke out of the running. (Because, well, you already know that one back to front.) Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 masterpiece is the definitive Joker story. It purports to tell you the 100 percent true origin of the Joker – a failed comedian who turned to crime – only for the Joker to reveal he’s forgotten who he used to be beyond knowing one bad day made him Batman’s greatest enemy. And he plans to give Jim Gordon that one bad day, but utterly fails to break anyone in the process. Bolland’s art, with colors by John Higgins, is absolutely exquisite with its dual sense of realism and cartooning. The whole package is the inspiration for The Dark Knight and Joker, even if Phillips set out to create a new origin for the character. It is always the top of any list of Joker stories.
But what else stands out when we enshrine The Killing Joke as the unimpeachable best Joker story? Take a look below and find out.
“The Man Behind The Red Hood” from Detective Comics #168
For roughly 11 years, the origin of the Grim Jester was not really an issue in the pages of DC Comics. Co-creator Bill Finger and other writers were pretty happy with him the way he was. Flash forward to 1951, when the decision was made to introduce a slice of the Joker’s history.
In the story, Batman agrees to teach a criminology class at “State University.” As his students become better detectives, he challenges them to determine the identity of the Red Hood, a criminal he faced 10 years prior but never defeated. News of the homework assignment brings the Red Hood out of retirement to steal the university’s payroll fund. The robber is stymied by Batman and eventually apprehended after some more high jinks, revealing the Joker under the Red Hood.
Despite some silly 1950s comic book conventions – and the problematic rendering of Hawaiian criminology student Paul Wong by artists Lew Sayre Schwartz, Win Mortimer, and George Roussos – the story is gripping, with the narrator challenging readers to find the clues to the Red Hood’s identity. In hindsight, references to the hood obscuring “the shape of the chin” and Robin’s use of a “botched” chemical process to uncover a green hair from the Red Hood’s discarded hat are really clever tells. You could imagine a reader either missing these details (despite Batman’s insistence to look closer) or getting excited as the story begins to confirm their hypothesis. Even if you know the answer already, the tension ramps up in an unexpected and pleasing way.
The story also has a legacy in introducing the Joker’s early, less inspired, criminal persona. By doing so, it acknowledged that his true identity was a mystery Batman never cracked.
“The Joker’s Comedy of Errors” from Batman (Vol. 1) #66
Sixty five issues into Batman’s run, the Joker’s early days as a laughing killer were behind him. Instead, he was Gotham City’s most flamboyant bank robber. But we’ll be honest, this story is famous – or infamous – thanks to the way language changes, making a single word used throughout the story seem like the title character is playing a long-game practical joke on readers across the decades. That word? “Boner.” At the time, it was synonymous with “a screw-up,” not “an erection.” We’re not sure when the meaning completely changed (although we suspect it was sometime in the 1980s), but it seems writer Bill Finger was unaware of its randy connotation back in the 1950s.
Then again, maybe he was having a laugh alongside the Joker.
In the story, the Joker commits a silly blunder during a robbery, which makes him the butt of a running joke around town, with even newspaper headlines referencing his boner. Aggravated, he sets out to make Gotham “rue the day they mentioned the word ‘boner’” by committing crimes based on famous blunders in history. His primary target is, of course, Batman, who “falls” for the trap in order to find Joker’s hideout and take him into custody.
Published the same year as “The Man Behind the Red Hood,” there’s something archly mid-century about the whole thing, particularly in the innocence surrounding the now-ribald term. But it is also a window into what the Comics Code Authority-sanctioned version of Joker looked like. Without his original murderous drives, these were the sorts of shenanigans he concerned himself with for almost 25 years before homicide returned to his tight five-minute act.
But for all the latter-day guffawing over the Joker’s boner, the story is also a prime example of the character’s incredible ego and how it often gets the better of him.
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