A Terrifying Debut (BATMAN #1, 1940)
The Joker made his debut in not one, but two separate stories in 1940’s BATMAN #1. In “The Joker,” the criminal announces on the radio that he will kill three of Gotham’s wealthiest and most important citizens, including its mayor. Although the police manage to protect the mayor, it’s discovered that The Joker poisoned him before making his announcement, and the politician dies wearing a Joker-like grin on his face. Batman ultimately defeats The Joker at the end of this story, sending him to prison—though he’s left puzzled over just what The Joker was after, besides a sick form of glee.
The Joker didn’t remain in prison long. Later in the very same issue, readers were treated to “The Joker Returns.” Here, just days after the newly crowned Clown Prince of Crime was captured in the earlier story, he escapes prison and resumes his crime spree. He kills a police chief and steals a priceless painting and a valuable gem, murdering the latter’s owner. In just these first two tales, The Joker was established as an evil force of nature, and easily Batman’s greatest foe.
The Joker went on to appear in nine of the first twelve issues of BATMAN, upping his body count with each reappearance. In fact, in his first twelve stories, The Joker managed to kill some three dozen people. Yet as Batman comic books grew in popularity among younger readers, The Joker’s crimes eventually grew less deadly, and he was portrayed as more of a loony prankster than a mass murderer.
“The Man Behind the Red Hood!” (DETECTIVE COMICS #168, 1951)
After appearing in the pages of BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS for over a decade, The Joker finally received an origin story of sorts—although we never learn what his true name was, or what his face really looked like before his life-altering accident. Batman relayed his origin to a group of students, recalling a case he’d never solved—about a criminal who called himself the Red Hood, named for the red helmet that covered his entire face.
One day the Red Hood managed to escape Batman and Robin after committing a crime in a local factory, by diving into a vat of chemicals from the Ace Playing Card Company, which he’d tried to rob. After falling into the vat, the Red Hood disappeared before he could be caught. But the story implies the chemicals that changed his appearance also affected his brain, making him totally insane and turning him into The Joker who would plague Batman forever.
The Silver Age (1956-1969)
During the Silver Age, The Joker became more of an annoying nuisance to Batman than a deadly killer. Most of the stories in which he appeared depicted him as a thief, though ultimately a harmless one. His murderous tendencies all but vanished, leading to his playful portrayal by actor Cesar Romero on the 1966 Batman television series. After the show’s cancellation, The Joker vanished from the pages of DC Comics for nearly four years.
The Bronze Age (1970-1984)
In 1971 The Joker made his long-awaited return, in a story titled “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” in BATMAN #251. This take on the character was a return to the killer clown of the 1940s. His look had changed. He was leaner and taller, with an unsettling, elongated face. His crimes were more absurdist as well, and the kill count resulting from them again skyrocketed. From this point onward, The Joker was no longer a harmless clown.
The Joker’s renewed popularity even resulted in his own self-titled ongoing series in 1975—the first ever for a DC Super-Villain. Nevertheless, The Joker continued to menace Batman and his partners far more frequently throughout this era, culminating in a two-part story in DETECTIVE COMICS #475-476 (“The Laughing Fish” and “The Sign of the Joker”), which established him as a twisted reflection of Gotham’s protector.
The Modern Age (1985-2005)
In the era following the Multiverse-altering CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, The Joker became darker and deadlier than ever before. It was during this time that he struck his biggest blows against the Batman family, hoping to make Batman finally break his vows against killing, and to prove that anyone could be morally compromised, even the Dark Knight.
BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE (1988)
No story crystallizes the essence of Batman and The Joker’s relationship more than BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, which was first published as a one-shot graphic novel in 1988. In this story, The Joker tries to turn Commissioner Gordon insane through a series of horrible acts, all to prove to Batman that anyone can go insane if they just have a bad enough day. The story begins with the Batman visiting The Joker at Arkham Asylum, trying to resolve their relationship before one of them kills the other. He soon realizes The Joker in Arkham is an impostor, and the real deal is loose upon Gotham.
The Joker decides to use an abandoned theme park as the stage on which to drive Gordon mad. He first shoots and cripples the commissioner’s daughter Barbara, and then forces Gordon to watch images of her suffering before an audience of The Joker’s carnival freaks. This is peppered with flashbacks to The Joker’s past, in which he was a struggling stand-up comic with a pregnant wife, who was forced into criminal acts to pay their bills. When his wife died, he was forced to go through with the crimes anyway, and when he was dumped into a vat of chemicals, all of these disparate tragedies resulted in him losing his mind. He attempts to do the same to Gordon, but ultimately fails. At the end of the story, the Batman, at his wit’s end with The Joker, finally laughs at one of his enemy’s nonsensical jokes, realizing they are trapped forever in an endless cycle of violence.
“A Death in the Family” (BATMAN #426-429, 1988)
The same year that The Joker crippled Batgirl, another horrible blow came to the Batman family, as The Joker murdered the second Robin, Jason Todd. “A Death in the Family” follows Jason as he tries to find his birth mother, after being fired from being Robin by Batman. Along the way, however, The Joker kidnaps and beats him with a crowbar, before blowing him and his mother up with a bomb. One of the most infamous aspects of this particular story was its 900-number voting gimmick, in which readers were allowed to call two separate numbers and choose whether Robin would survive The Joker’s attempt on his life or not.
MAD LOVE (1994)
Although technically set within the continuity of TV’s Batman: The Animated Series, elements of the 1994 graphic novel THE BATMAN ADVENTURES: MAD LOVE were absorbed into DC Universe continuity. MAD LOVE tells the origin story of The Joker’s sidekick and girlfriend, Harley Quinn. Here it is revealed that she was originally Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, who specialized in mental illness. Instead of Dr. Quinzel studying The Joker, however, he wound up studying her, twisting her mind until she fell in love with him—and became his costumed sidekick. Although Harley Quinn would eventually break away from this twisted relationship, it remains the closest thing The Joker has ever had to a genuine human connection.
JOKER: LAST LAUGH (2001-2002)
This six-issue limited series centered on an attempt by a doctor at Arkham Asylum to cure The Joker of his insanity. The doctor scans The Joker’s brain and makes him believe he has an inoperable tumor that is slowly killing him. Believing he is going to die, The Joker creates a virus to “Jokerize” other villains in Arkham, and then begins one giant, final crime spree.
The Joker even goes so far as to make Nightwing (a.k.a. Dick Grayson, the first Robin) believe that the current Robin (Tim Drake) has been killed at his hands. As a result, Nightwing subsequently beats The Joker to death. Although Batman finds a way to bring The Joker back to life, in order to prevent Nightwing from becoming a killer, The Joker has the last laugh, as he’s succeeded in making one of the members of the Batman family into a murderer.
“Death of the Family" (BATMAN vol. 2 #13-17, 2012-2013)
The Joker’s insanity would only grow more extreme in the post-FLASHPOINT universe of the New 52. Here, The Joker cut off his own face, only to later reattach it, making his appearance look like a horrifying mask. In the “Death of the Family” storyline, he tried to strike once again at Batman’s extended family, seeking to convince Batman he was the only one the Dark Knight “needed,” and that his partners and sidekicks were a distraction. Ultimately, however, his plan failed. At the end of this storyline, The Joker falls off a cliff, leaving no body behind.
“Endgame” (BATMAN vol. 2 #35-40, 2014-2015)
The Joker returned in 2014’s “Endgame” storyline after his apparent death, now purely out for blood because Batman didn’t appreciate him. In this storyline, The Joker manages to brainwash the Justice League into attacking Batman, an event that Batman narrowly survives. The Joker also unleashes a deadly plague on Gotham City as his ultimate revenge.
This story is the first to suggest that The Joker is some kind of immortal, and that he has existed for centuries in Gotham as a constant cause of pain and suffering to the city. This is due to exposure to a substance The Joker terms “dionesium,” which explains why he is able to regenerate from mortal injuries time and again. Not only does this story restore The Joker’s face, it also reveals that he knows Batman’s secret identity of Bruce Wayne.
Following the events of 2016’s DC UNIVERSE: REBIRTH #1, Batman discovers there are not one, not two, but possibly three distinct Jokers he has faced over the years.