What!...a world without Joker?

Sep. 18, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

It is without hesitation that I say my favorite comic book super hero is Batman.

From early childhood I've been attracted to the character; in part for his darker image, cool gadgets, lack of special powers and an all-around boyhood fantasy of being a crime-fighting billionaire with a secret identity.

But... the main reason for my fondness of Batman was due to the assortment of psychologically diverse and visually intriguing villains he matched wits with each issue.

For me Batman comics showcase one of the most interesting core group of villains around. With several rogues standing out such as Two-Face, Scarecrow, The Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman, storytellers and artists alike have excelled throughout the years at keeping the stories fresh and exciting.

Each antagonist possesses their own unique layers of dynamic qualities that allow for some very interesting moments on the page as well as screen.

However, there is one villain of choice I have not yet mentioned.

One that I feel, trumps his peers and retains the title of my favorite comic book villain, he is... the Joker.

A truly unpredictable foe and perfect counter-part to the title hero, the Joker offers not only a visual contrast to Batman but has established over the years a backstory of pain and suffering on par with that of the caped crusader himself.

It's the Jokers' uninhibited nature, that when pitted against Batman's strict code of justice, creates an almost obsessive relationship between the two.

I could literally talk all day about them both and every fan out there has their preferred versions.

Be it the colorful campy 1960's television series depiction, or the more serious darker toned ones that emerged from the 70's 80's and 90's both characters continue to find new ways to represent one of the best protagonist/antagonist relationships anywhere.

But what if there was no Joker for Batman to battle?

Well, there almost wasn't it turns out, as his second appearance was almost his last.

Created in 1940 by a collaborative effort between Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, the Joker first appeared in "Batman #1."

Originally designed as a "court-jester" type character, the overly clownish version was at first rejected. However, inspiration was soon found in that of the iconic joker image found on many playing cards as well as in a photograph of actor Conrad Veidt wearing make-up for the silent film "The Man Who Laughs."

A straightforward spree-killing mass murderer from his onset, the Joker himself was slated to be killed off at the end of his second appearance. On the last page of the issue Joker accidentally stabs himself in the heart and is seen lying dead before Batman with the knife in his chest.

There was concern from the creators of the book that allowing villains to return would simply make Batman look inept as a crime fighter, however DC Comics editor at the time, Whitney Ellsworth, saw potential in the throw away character and suggested he be spared.

To do so, a last extra panel was quickly drawn and added to the page to imply that the Joker was still alive and would recover.

This "is he dead?" scenario did not die with that issue however.

For the next few appearances the Joker often escaped capture by apparent death such as falling off a cliff or being caught in a burning building, always leaving no trace behind to tell for sure of his fate.

Originally conceived as a more violent character who actually killed people, it was decided by the editors at one point that only one-shot villains should be allowed to commit murder not the main returning gallery of rogues. Reason being as to not make Batman look helpless and flawed in his inability to punish such violent recurring foes.

With that decision made, the character's image began to soften and the Joker shifted towards becoming a harmless, cackling nuisance that was used frequently during the Golden Age (1938-56) of comic books.

By the 1950's the Joker's appearances lessened even more and he disappeared almost entirely by the middle of the Silver Age (1956-70).

It wasn't until the Bronze Age (1970-85) of comics, during the 1970's, that the Joker began establishing the important elements to his character that would eventually mold him into the current image fans enjoy today.

The Joker's transition to that of a homicidal maniac coupled with countless exploration into the severity of his insanity, shaped a much more complex and dangerously challenging adversary for the equally-evolving Batman.

Overall, I find it to be an interesting relation that the two characters share; as when the time comes to re-invent or update one, the other quickly follows.

Still it's fascinating to think that the villain we know today as the Joker, almost didn't happen.

How these characters of modern mythology have continued to evolve and entertain fans generation after generation serves as a strong testament to the many talented artists and storytellers who clearly share in the same mutual respect for them as I do.