The Complete History of The Joker's Many, Many Incarnations

By James Whitbrook on at

Jared Leto’s prison-tattooed version of the Joker made a big splash when it was announced — and now is dividing audiences upon his appearance in the recently released Suicide Squad – but a radically transformed Joker is nothing new. Batman’s most iconic foe has undergone many revamps, re-imaginings, updates and interpretations over the past 75 years. Here’s the complete history of the ever-changing face of the Joker.

Read more: Suicide Squad Review: Chaotic, Manic, and a Mess

1940s and '50s

The Complete History Of The Joker's Many, Many Incarnations

Although the character of Batman was introduced in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, he wouldn’t get his own self-titled comic until the year after — where Batman and Robin’s first story pitched them against a new foe: the maniacal Joker. Bob Kane’s iconic, clown-esque design was inspired by Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine in the 1928 silent movie The Man Who Laughs and Bill Finger, who co-created the character and wrote the comics, planned for the Joker to die in the first issue. The Joker was stabbed through the heart, but an editorial decision lead to a hastily added panel showing the character survived the attack.

The Joker went on to become a recurring villain, and soon the archenemy of Batman and Robin. In his earliest days, he was also a ruthless killer — many of his crimes involved killing people. But when Jack Schiff became Batman’s editor, the Joker started softening, largely committing non-lethal crimes so that the comic could be marketed to children. The softening of the Joker would be fully completed in the mid '50s with the introduction of the Comics Code Authority, banning gore and excessive violence in comic books. The Joker was no longer a killer but a thieving trickster, a much more camp and light-hearted villain to go up against the blunted, less brutal Batman.

1960s

The Complete History Of The Joker's Many, Many Incarnations

Comics

This softer portrayal of the Joker continued into the mid-'60s, until the character practically vanished altogether after editor Julius Schwartz, who hated the Joker character, took over in 1964. The Joker became far less prominent in the comics, hardly appearing for half of the decade.

Other Media

The Joker as a character almost died out altogether — until the campy trickster incarnation was popularised by the 1966 Batman TV series, and its big screen spinoff Batman: The Movie. Played by Cesar Romero, the first ever non-comics adaptation of the Joker appeared in 19 episodes of the series, becoming its most-used villain (tied with The Penguin) and defining the campy portrayal of the character in non-comics media for decades. The late '60s also saw the character adapted into animation for the first time for The Adventures of Batman, voiced by Larry Storch.

1970s

Comics

After the end of the Batman TV series, the Batman comic books were struggling to sell copies, and a decision was made to revert the series back to more mature storytelling conceits to shed the camp reputation the Batman franchise had developed at the height of its popularity in the '60s. The Joker, who returned after a four-year hiatus from the comics in 1973, was reimagined to return to his roots as a ruthless serial killer who was on an equal level with Batman.

Under the wing of Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil, The Joker was depicted not just as a killer but also fundamentally insane, and unlike earlier eras, became an infrequent villain against Batman, used sparingly to maintain his impact as the Caped Crusader’s biggest foe. The Joker even got his own series in 1975, the first DC Comic to feature a villain as the protagonist, but the lack of Batman (and the fact that the Joker was arrested at the end of every issue) led to it being cancelled after nine issues.

Under Jeanette Khan’s tenure as Editor for DC in the mid-'70s, the Joker surged in popularity. Stories such as the famous “Joker Fish” storyline emphasised his mental instability as much as his capacity to kill, and the Joker became a character to be feared, rather than mocked or easily defeated — a period of comic book history that would heavily influence adaptations of the character in later years.

Other Media

But for all the darkening of the Joker on comic book pages again, for the '70s the Joker maintained his camp trickster persona in animated cartoon appearances. The character appeared in various episodes of The New Scooby Doo Movies, which crossed the canine investigator over with Batman and Robin. The Joker also made cameo appearances in DC’s two kids-focused animated series — Super Friends and the short lived Batman series The New Adventures of Batman, and was always influenced by Romero’s take on the character rather than the current comic book version.

1980s

Comics

Although the 1970s saw the birth of the insane, darker Joker, it would be the 1980s that defined the character at his most villainous. The '80s as a whole was a time of great tumult for DC Comics — 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths reset the continuity of the DC universe, and the new Batman series that followed took a turn into darker territory that still defines the character’s portrayal today.

Just as Batman’s tone got darker, so did the Joker, who spent the late '80s bringing his conflict against the Batman onto a personal, violent level. 1988’s The Killing Joke was not only iconic for revealing (one of many interpretations) the Joker’s origin as a rookie criminal mutilated after falling in a vat of acid while being chased by Batman, but also for the paralysis of Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl at his hands. In the same year, the A Death In The Family storyline in the main Batman comic saw the Joker beat Jason Todd, the second Robin — and a character not well received by the fanbase — to death with a crowbar. The Joker was no longer just a major villain to Batman, but a personal threat to his loved ones.

Other Media

1989 saw the release of Tim Burton’s Batman, and Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Napier, a mobster thought killed by Batman when knocked into a vat of chemicals, but instead transformed into the Joker. Nicholson’s portrayal of the character was an amalgam of the Joker’s previous forms — visually inspired by Adams and O’Neil’s mobster redesign of the character in the early '70s, but with a blend between the comical tricks and gadgets of the Romero Joker and the villainous, murderous streak that the comics had moved the character back to over the '70s and '80s. Despite initial perceived hostility in the mainstream to a dark take on the character — after all, the last live-action Batman was Adam West — Batman was a huge success, solidifying both Batman and The Joker’s portrayals as iconic interpretations of the characters for years to come.

1989 saw another first for the character as well — the Joker appeared in the second ever Batman video game, Batman: The Caped Crusader for a variety of computing platforms like the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64.

1990s

Comics

Tim Burton’s gothic approach to Batman had a large impact on the comics, and for much of the '90s, the Joker stayed the course — now that the insane, murderous trickster was the dominant portrayal of the character thanks to the movie, the character didn’t so much as evolve during the period rather than become a regularly appearing thorn in Batman’s side. Although not with the regularity of appearances seen in his earliest days, the Joker had returned as a regular reappearing foe for the Dark Knight.

Perhaps the most iconic moment for the character in the decade, comics wise, would be Images, a storyline in the Legends of the Dark Knight comic series — which retold the Joker’s very first encounter with Batman for the first time since Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted DC continuity. Another Legends storyline, “Going Sane”, explored what happens to the Joker when he thinks Batman is dead — he goes back to a normal life, without crime.

Other Media

Although it may seem like the Joker was treading water as a character in the 1990s, his greatest incarnation came outside of the pages of comics. Conceived as a semi-spinoff inspired by Batman and Batman ReturnsBatman: The Animated Series made its debut in 1993, and in its second episode, “Christmas with the Joker”, introduced incarnation of the clown prince of crime, played by Star Wars star Mark Hamill.

Hamill’s sinister yet wildly humorous take on the character became iconic, and even though it was heavily inspired by Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker, ultimately became the de facto interpretation of the character in the eyes of the mainstream public, leading him to lend his voice to the character in DC projects.The Animated Series was groundbreaking as a Cartoon, pushing levels of violence and darkness unseen in mainstream western animation as well as establishing the shared universe of DC animated projects that would last for nearly two decades. But it was also hugely significant in its expansion of the Joker’s backstory through the addition of a new sidekick: Harley Quinn. The former Arkham Asylum psychiatrist who fell in love with the Joker and turned to crime was introduced in the 1992 episode “Joker’s Favor”, and was so popular with audiences she entered the comics continuity in the 1999 arc No Man’s Land, becoming a regular accomplice to the Joker.

2000s

Comics

As the popularity of the Batman movies faded from public consciousness again (aided by the underperforming Batman & Robin and Batman Forever), the Nicholson-esque Joker portrayal gave way to a Joker that was less of a criminal villain and more of personal nemesis for Batman — the Joker became obsessed with proving either Batman’s similarity to himself, or pushing the character in an attempt to break him mentally. On the latter front, the Joker succeeded in a 2001 storyline called Emperor Joker, where the Joker gains access to the reality-manipulating powers of Mister Mxyzptlk and uses them to repeatedly torture and kill Batman (before realising he can’t imagine life without the Dark Knight to fight). The character even died (and was revived) multiple times, and his previous murder of Jason Todd — as well as Batman’s unwillingness to enact vengeance — saw the revived Jason turn villainous and take on the mantle of the Red Hood in 2005.

Other Media

Perhaps once again though, the Joker’s iconic impact on the public consciousness occurred outside of comics. Hamill’s portrayal of the Joker persisted into the 21st century through Justice League and its continuation, Justice League Unlimited, but a radically different animated Joker was introduced in the new cartoon series The Batman. Portrayed by Kevin Michael Richardson (the first African-American to play the character), this Joker carried on a similar portrayal to Hamill’s version, but underwent a major design overhaul to appear crazier, complete with Jester-hat inspired hair.

Hamill returned to the Joker to voice the character in the video game Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2009, a portrayal heavily inspired by his take in the DC Animated Universe. The game was a massive success (and considered a revitalisation of Batman games after years of lacklustre titles), and Hamill went on to play the character in its sequel, Arkham City — before retiring from the character for good, the strain of the vocal performance required becoming too much for the actor.

But the 2000s most iconic incarnation of the Joker would appear on the big screen. Following the huge success of Batman Begins, its sequel, The Dark Knight, introduced the Joker, portrayed by Heath Ledger. Befitting the more serious tone of Christopher Nolan’s films, Ledger’s Joker maintained the insanity that had defined the character for so long but cut much of the humour found in the Hamill Joker (or even in Nicholson’s), becoming a psychopathic killer desperate to destroy the Batman. Shortly after completing filming, Ledger died from a drug overdose, and was posthumously awarded an best supporting actor Oscar for the role — the only actor so far to do so for a role in a comic book adaptation.

2010s

Comics

With the reboot of the DC continuity in 2011, the Joker was kept out of the new Batman comics for a year (after grotesquely having the skin from his face removed by the Batman villain Dollmaker) before making a return in the Death of the Family storyline in 2012 and 2013. The crossover series pulled together every ongoing Batman series as the Joker launched an attack on Batman’s allies, believing the Bat-Family had weakened Batman as a hero.

The character seemingly fell to his death at the end of the story, but returned in the currently ongoing arc Endgame. Endgame has already had severe implications for Batman — Bruce Wayne will be leaving the role behind ahead of a relaunch after the ongoing Convergence event — but also with the Joker — heavily implying that the character may be immortal, capable of long life and recovery from fatal injuries.

Other Media

Although Hamill departed the Joker role in 2011’s Arkham City, the mantle was assumed by voice actor Troy Baker for a prequel title, Arkham Origins. The Joker also made an alternate video game debut in the Lego Batman series, voiced by Christopher Corey Smith, a portrayal inspired by Hamill’s own animated series incarnation (although with the violence muted, given its nature as a kid-friendly title). 2015 saw Hamill eventually return for the concluding Arkham Knight game – which was enough to inspire him to return for the divisive animated adaptation of classic Joker comic tale The Killing Joke. In a complete 180 on the character though will be goofball Zach Galifianakis' animated take on the character in the big-screen adaptation of LEGO Batman: The Movie.

With both Gotham and now Suicide Squad introducing new incarnations of the Joker in live action, it's an interesting time for the Clown Prince of Crime both in and out of comics.