Earlier this week it was announced that after Bruce Wayne takes care of the evil secret society of Owls that has been plaguing Gotham City, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Batman will turn its attention back to the Dark Knight's premiere enemy: the Joker. Starting in Batman #13, the Joker will take center stage in an arc ominously titled "Death of the Family." This comes as something of a shock; though he has a rich 70-plus year publication history, Joker's appearances in DC's "New 52" have so far been fairly scant. He antagonized Batman in the first issue of Detective Comics, and at the end of it his face was removed—voluntarily—by another bad guy for reasons unknown. Yuck.
Since the last we've seen of Joker is that he's a crazy killer with no face, what direction Snyder and Capullo are going to take with the character is a total unknown. This is an especially interesting topic of discussion since, unlike basically any other comic book character, pretty much every story the Joker's ever been in is considered canon—it, for lack of a better term, "actually happened." Usually writers and artists have to navigate around the more embarrassing parts of a character's history, especially when they've been around so long. (Hey, remember when Batman carried a gun?) But with Joker, every weird variation of the character has been incorporated into this one demented individual. This was revealed in 2007's Batman #663, "The Clown at Midnight," probably the most important Joker story ever, where we learn that every few years Joker reinvents himself to respond to the world around him in general and Batman in particular. This reinvention is a violent process, described by writer Grant Morrison as some kind of perverted birthing ritual that can involve self-mutilation, exposure to deadly toxins, and mind games of the highest caliber.
So what transformations has the Joker gone through since his debut in 1940? Let's run 'em down!
1940 – 1942: Killer Clown
Key Example: Batman #1
Much like his arch-nemesis, Joker debuted as a hard-edged noir character with a comic book twist. For the first few years of his existence, Joker's favorite past-times were killing and robbing people; Batman was more the nuisance who stopped him. Of course, living up to his name, the Joker was a fan of overly complicated schemes and disgusting death traps, such as in his first appearance, 1940's Batman #1, wherein the Clown Prince of Crime uses everything from faked radio broadcasts to elaborate disguises to strike down his victims and take what he wants. Still, for this Joker comedy came second to crime.
1942 – 1973: Camp/Satire
Key Examples: Batman #73, "The Joker's Utility Belt"; Caesar Romero's performance in the 1960s Batman TV show
After a few years of gritty urban noir comics, Batman softened up a little bit… and so did the rest of his supporting cast. As comics began to shed their pulp roots in favor of campy sensationalism that hopefully wouldn't freak out kids (or their parents), readers got 31 years of Joker stories where he mostly would act as a comic foil for Batman. In other words, anything Batman could do, Joker could do better, or at least more hilariously. This led to crazy Joker costumes, nutty Jokermobiles, and even Joker's twisted version of Batman's utility belt—borne out of jealousy of the Dark Knight, of course—that included sneezing powder, Mexican jumping beans, and little black pellets that turned into snakes when they got wet. If you ever saw the old Adam West Batman TV show, this is the version of Joker they were channeling.
1973 – 1988: New Homicidal
Key Examples: Batman #251, "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge"; The Killing Joke
With a new age of "realistic" comics—and, more importantly, the amazing art of Neal Adams on Batman's main book—Joker again found himself "reinvented," though this time he went back to his roots. The Joker of the '70s and '80s was a stone-cold killer; he even shed some of the more clown-like elements of his early '40s version. It seemed the only things this Joker found funny were awfully morbid. It's this conception of the character that led Alan Moore to write what many consider the definite Joker story, 1988's The Killing Joke graphic novel, in which our villain paralyzes and sexually assaults Barbara Gordon, then takes pictures of it in an effort to turn her dad insane. This kind of story probably would not have flown in the '40s.
1989 – current: Supersanity
Key Examples: Arkham Asylum; Batman #663, "The Clown at Midnight"; Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight
The late '80s was a good time to be a Joker fan. One year after The Killing Joke brought a chilling new air to the character, then-newbie writer Grant Morrison was about to break him wide open with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, the best-selling original graphic novel of all time. Though Joker plays a relatively small role in the book, acting mostly as Batman's guide to the seedy world of his twisted enemies, it's there we learn an important fact about the Joker: he is not insane, we're told, but supersane; he can adjust his personality at will to adapt to his environment, which explains his wild differences over the years. This is explored in-depth in the aforemetnioned Batman #663, and the effects of this take on the character can be seen in Christopher Nolan's brilliant Dark Knight film, wherein the Joker has an ever-shifting origin and an impossible-to-read presence. Through a diary kept by actor Heath Ledger we can even pinpoint the main books Ledger read to nail down the character: The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, and "The Clown at Midnight." To people who were paying attention, this would not come as any surprise.
So what do you think's next for the Joker? Crazy clown or psycho killer? Maybe some mix of the two? What do you hope it is?