This week I'm going to lay down the law on what Batman's five most iconic foes are and are not, starting at the top: the Joker.
The Joker is highly intelligent and methodical.
The invention of Joker venom (below). His "cure" of the Weeper. His undoing of the Silver Age Justice League. The 48 Jokers (WAY better than just three). Crime in Reverse. The list of evidential stories and schemes is long.
|Pictured: Evil. Not crazy. Evil.
And it doesn't stop at comics. His bank heist planning (and about 9 other incredibly complex schemes) in Dark Knight Returns. The binarization and distribution methods for Smilex (Batman 1989). I mean: the work that must have gone into BTAS "Christmas with the Joker" ALONE, people.
This isn't really a point for much debate but it's an essential underpinning for several of my subsequent points.
The Joker is not an "agent of chaos."
The Joker doesn’t stand for chaos. The Joker doesn’t stand for anything. If you think otherwise, then you've fallen for one of the Joker's tricks, or you have been indoctrinated by a writer who has.
The Joker isn’t trying to make a point to Batman or to anyone else, because he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. This is one of the principal reasons I hate Heath Ledger's Joker: he's an insecure ideologue desperate for attention, trying to prove the validity of his worldview. That's a very weak figure, no matter how much dust he throws in your eyes or how impressive his schemes, because his motivations are based on caring about something rather than not caring about anything.
Writers are always desperate to make the Joker MEAN something.
|The real Joker told us exactly what he stood for when he painted
"Death of a Mauve Bat". And we loved him for it.
They are missing the point and defanging the Joker in the process. What makes the Joker scary is precisely that he stands for nothing. His only motivation is to have fun, which just might mean killing you; it's nothing personal and he doesn't care what you think about it.
Now, it's easy to make the case that the Joker, therefore, symbolizes the impersonal chaos that can ruin our lives in a second at any point; he's a bogeyman. But that's a far cry from chaos having anything to do with the character qua character and having chaos being HIS rallying cry.
The Joker is not obsessed with Batman.
The Joker is already obsessed with someone: himself. There's zero room for anything else. If you read Joker stories from the Golden Age and Silver Age, you understand that the Joker has only one true enemy and it's not Batman.
The Joker's not crazy.
The idea that the Joker is insane -- now considered by most to be most essential characteristic -- is an invention of the Bronze Age, specifically of one of DC's least subtle writers, Denny O'Neil, in 1973 (Batman #251, "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge").
|And, no, Batman #74 doesn't count.
Certainly, the Joker has always been... non-normal. His sense of humor is especially so. But, no matter how many times a writer tells you the Joker is" crazy", the evidence is strongly against it. The Joker could not function at the incredibly high level he does and meet any traditional real-world definitions of insanity (a severely disordered state of the mind usually occurring as a specific disorder).
|I'll admit his repertoire of reactions has always been ... non-standard. Most people do not laugh when they realize they are dying. But having an unusual worldview doesn't mean you're insane.
The Joker doesn't have a severely disordered state of mind and good luck trying to figure out which specific disorder(s) he has. Some mental pathology? Sure. Questionable taste in clothes and decor? Yup. Anti-social morals and a lack of empathy? No doubt. But if those were qualifiers, half of all celebrities would be eligible for Arkham.
|We don't need to talk about him.
The Joker has no backstory.
The Joker is a bit like the Phantom Stranger: the things that make him a bad character are part of what make him a great character. He has no origin and no name; he just is. It's not an oversight: it's an essential part of the character. The Joker isn't a person so much as he is a concept, an archetype.
|The Joker is a blank canvas, as it were.
He doesn't need to be more; he shouldn't be. The more you try to make him some else, something more specific, the less he becomes.
|He's like a talkative Art the Clown.
Trying to give him a backstory with a pregnant wife will not improve the character.
I'm not just a comic fan, I'm a huge horror fan. And in scary cinema, you make the distinction between horror and terror. Terror is what you feel BEFORE you open the scary door in the scary place; horror is what you see after you do. Horror is specific and concrete and known; terror is the infinite fear of all the things that MIGHT be behind that door, a fear of the unknown or unknowable.
|You want terror?
Too many clumsy modern writers write the Joker as horrifying and insist on increasingly graphic depictions of his huge and constantly growing body count. What the Joker should be is terrifying; an unknown evil, without origin or goals or relatable emotions.
|The Joker holding a baby is terrifying.
Giving the Joker an origin was stupid when they tried it the first time.
|Admit it; you haven't read this story.
Do; then you'll realize how stupid it is.
Why writers and fans are wed to this stupid story and the impulse to pin down the Joker's origin. It's not just that THIS story is stupid; ANY origin story you give to the explain the Joker lessens him.
The Joker's just like a beautiful butterfly. Free to be the simple creature it is, it's one of the world's most colorful, elegant creations. Try to pin it down, to add to your collection and all you get is a dead bug.
|Fine, it's a death's-head moth, not a butterfly.
I have to work with what's available.