Top 10 Depictions of the Joker
We all love the Joker. He’s one of the best known villains in pop culture and after decades he still has the power to shock, amuse and scare us. Even better, every artist and writer who tackle the mad clown can put their own spin on him without losing his base appeal. In putting together this list we had to skip over some obvious contenders, Frank Millar’s take in The Dark Knight Returns. What we have instead are these ten amazing Jokers.
#10 – Hush
Written by Jeph Loeb, Drawn by Jim Lee
The Joker only makes a brief appearance in Hush, but it’s an extremely effective sequence for the character. It’s almost a completely pure representation of Batman’s nemesis – no grand scheme, no psychological examination, just a lunatic out to mess with his enemy. Batman stumbles across Joker having seemingly murdered his childhood friend Thomas Elliot. The culmination of Batman’s grief and fury over the death of Jason Todd and attempted murder of Barbara Gordon erupts into a violent fury. In a shocking moment Batman begins pummelling Joker with the intention of beating him to death.
But of course the Joker didn’t shoot Thomas Elliot, he just wanted Batman to think that he did. Forcing Batman’s hand to break his oath and kill someone is something Joker often aims to do, and tricking him into killing a man for something he didn’t do would be the ultimate ‘gag’. Being drawn by Jim Lee certainly makes it noteworthy.
#9 – Arkham Asylum: Madness
Written and Drawn by Sam Keith
Instead of being out in Gotham tearing things up or running the show this story sees the Joker mingling with the rest of the inmates in the asylum. This isn’t Joker running a long con, just going about his day-to-day lunacy. Although many of the guards, doctors and nurses see him as part of the job the clown manages to keep them on their toes.
Although at times he lets things slide, his trademark violence springs at random times. Slamming a guard’s leg in a door until it becomes severed, gouging out a doctor’s eyes and drowning an orderly in fake blood. Worst of all his collection of vintage practical jokes that are actually souvenirs of the acts of violence he has committed on the staff, on display in his cell to taunt the workers of the asylum.
#8 – Joker
Written by Brian Azzarello, Drawn by Lee Bermejo
The design this particular version of the Joker is primarily influenced by The Dark Knight version, but doesn’t carry across the same behaviour or personality. Instead he’s fresh out of Arkham and looking to re-establish himself in the Gotham criminal empire. Rather than working alone he reunites with Harley Quinn and takes on a new lackey by the name of Johnny Frost.
The story is told from the point of view of Frost, taking the chance to get in good with the Joker, which he sees as a quick way up the pecking order. Instead he discovers that the Joker is everything that people talked about. Vicious, unpredictable and (unlike his usual sociopathic self) quick to anger Frost was unable escape from Joker’s manipulations and control until it become to late.
#5 – Batman
Directed by Tim Burton, Written by Sam Hamm, Played by Jack Nicholson
Whilst Nolan’s version of the Joker will be the one that people remember it does a great disservice to the awesome work done by Jack Nicholson in Burton’s 1989 film Batman. There’s plenty of Jack Nicholson in the performance, but as it turns out ol’ Jack has a dash of Joker in him. He’s manic, comical and violent, perfectly balancing the three parts of the character. He’s fun to watch while he’s trashing an art gallery, but then he flips the switch and becomes terrifying when confronted by Kim Basinger.
This Joker filled the screen with his presence, and coined some of the characters best known lines. ‘Ever dance with the devil in the pale moon light’ and ‘where does he get those wonderful toys’ are considered classic Joker.
#6 – Arkham Asylum: A Serious Place on Serious Earth
Written by Grant Morrison, Drawn by Dave McKean
Certainly one of the more off-beat depictions of the Joker and one of the most memorable. All of the characters in Dave McKean’s famous work are given an abstract presentation, with the Joker in particular having his rictus grin distorted beyond the boundaries of his face giving him a monstrous visage.
Writer Grant Morrison wanted to take the characters into the realm of surrealism, breaking them free from the more grounded works that were in fashion at the time. As a result the Joker becomes even more irrational than usual, forcing Batman to enter into the asylum that the Joker has taken over and turned into an extension of his own insanity. The abstract artwork mirrors the Jokers demented view of the world, drawing the reader into his mind.
#5 – Gotham Central
Written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, Drawn by Michael Lark
Whilst the previous entry was an abstract depiction of the Joker this one is the most frightening realistic version around. Gotham Central shifted the focus from the caped crusader to the everyday men and women of Gotham City’s Major Crime Unit and how they balance tackling the likes of Mister Freeze and Two-Face with bureaucracy, personal relationships and basic human emotion. Whilst arresting Firefly is a rough day on the job, but it doesn’t even compare to the day when Joker starts taking pot-shots at citizens with a high-powered sniper rifle.
Based in part on the real life Washington Sniper case, the story reveals that the Joker is only setting the scene for his real plan. With the mayor already murdered and members of the police support unit taking bullets the police can do little to stop the carnage. When the Joker starts putting taunts and threats on the internet and the population in hiding it creates a stark and haunting story of a madman who has absolutely no concept of empathy for his fellow man. The final frame is a startling one.
#4 – Arkham Asylum/City
Directed by Sefton Hill, Written by Paul Dini, Performed by Mark Hamill
At first Batman: The Animated Series was on the short list for this list but ultimately lost out to this version. The strength of both depictions is the unsettling voice work by Mark Hamill who has, without a doubt, the most iconic Joker laugh of all the actors who have portrayed the villain. Hamill spins the same magic with the character in both mediums, but it’s the design in the video games that wins in this round.
Whilst the characters in the game are exaggerated to reflect the comic book origins but also walks slightly into the realm of realism. As a result the characters are more frightening than usual without deviating greatly from the source material.
#3 – The Man Who Laughs
Written by Ed Brubaker, Drawn by Doug Mahnke
Over the years and many, many encounters Batman and Joker have fallen into a rhythm. Joker breaks out of Arkham, launches a madcap scheme, throws out a red herring that Batman predicts and then throws the clown back into the slammer.
The Man Who Laughs winds the clock back to their first encounter, back when Batman had never faced a criminal who was outright deranged instead of muggers and bank robbers. Finding a warehouse full of grinning corpses shakes Batman down to his core, and he’s got to rethink his entire approach if he wants to stop the trail and carnage that the Joker is causing.
This is the Joker as the spreader of chaos, shaking the city and Batman to their foundations. Batman is challenged in what he can do in the face of such pure madness, and he questions where his limits are. If being the Joker had a job description, this’ll be it.
#2 – The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan, Written by Jonathan Nolan, Performed by Heath Ledger
You saw this coming. Whilst this hugely, incredibly popular version of the Joker deviates from the comic book version more than any other on the list he is, in some ways, truer to the original concept than most. The Joker was intended to be scary and unpredictable, out to course chaos more than anything else.
Nolan does a fantastic job of grounding the over-the-top characters of the Batman universe in the real world, and this particular representation is no exception. His distended smile is swapped out some horrific looking scars, his styled hair becomes a lank, tangled mess and his pale skin is changed to thick, rotting make-up. He’s still as unpredictable but instead of shooting acid from his buttonhole he’s jamming pencils into people’s eyes. People were fascinated and shocked by this new, demented clown but that’s the response we are supposed to have towards the Joker.
#1 – The Killing Joke
Written by Alan Moore, Drawn by Brian Bolland
Just in case you’re one of the three readers of this site who don’t know the name Alan Moore, he’s the man who created Watchmen, V For Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and many other genre defining classics. During the late 1980s he was approached by DC to do two things. Finish the original Superman run and give reader’s a new insight into Batman’s greatest nemesis.
That he did in spades, yet without taking away the characters enigmatic appeal. The story begins with Batman storming in to Arkham intend on confronting the Joker and making an honest attempt to sort things out between them before their conflict gets one of them killed, for the sake of his own conscious. Of course he finds that the evil clown has already escaped. Joker is at the Gordon residence putting a bullet in to Barbara Gordon’s spine and abducting the Commissioner.
His plan is to push the Commissioner towards insane by bombarding him with images of his daughter to stripped naked and bleeding to death. His target is really Batman, his goal is to drive the dark knight to murder. This is the best early example of the Joker’s true obsession with Batman – that his ultimate victory would be forcing Batman to break his oath and kill him.
Alongside this we get a surprisingly sympathetic backstory to the Joker, giving him a family and a tragedy that set him on the path towards the demented villain we all love today. Whilst it is a great story for the character it doesn’t kill the mystique of the nameless villain…as he says, he wants his life to be multiple choice. Under the pen of the legendary Alan Moore (who is possibly as crazy as the Joker) we have the best version of the Joker ever written.