Villains are everything to a story, and especially in the comic book medium, a hero is only as good as the villains that they thwart. Batman has the most recognizable, most iconic, and overall best rogue’s gallery in all of comics. From classics such as Two-Face, Catwoman, and the Riddler to relative newcomers like Bane, The Court of Owls, and Hush, all of these villains, and are strongly ingrained in comic book lore to a degree unmatched by other comic book villains. There are some heroes like Superman, Shazam, and the Hulk who have such a shallow crop of villains to draw from that it works against a creator’s ability to tell quality stories. Batman doesn’t have this problem; in fact, one of the greatest comic book villains calls the Dark Knight his archenemy.
What makes the Joker such an exciting villain isn’t just his diabolical deeds, but the way he acts as the perfect foil to Batman. The Caped Crusader is a dark and brooding shadow, bound by morals, rules, and logic. The Clown Prince of Crime is a manic, posturing madman, ruled by chaos, entropy, and a disregard for anything…including himself. Everything the Joker does is to make a point, or deliver a punchline even if it comes at his own expense. He knows no limits and pushes Batman to his own limitations like no our villain. The Joker is to Batman as Kurt Cobain was to Axl Rose, or as Aaron Burr was to Alexander Hamilton, a perfect antithesis in every imaginable way. Here’s a look back at 13 of the most iconic Joker moments. These are the moments that made the Joker the one of the most memorable and recognizable villains in all of fiction, across any medium.
13) An Ass-Whooping like No Other
Issue: Batman Vol. 1, #614
No one has caused Batman as much pain as the Joker had, and during the “Hush” storyline, Batman goes into a berserker fury and almost beats the Joker to death. After being fooled into thinking that the Joker killed childhood friend Thomas Elliot, Batman snaps and as he begins to bathe in the blood of the Joker, all the memories of pain coming flooding back to Batman, fueling his unstoppable rage. Barbara Gordon, Jason Todd, and Sarah Essen, all victims of the Joker, fill Batman’s head as he surgically goes about beating the Joker to something less than a bloody pulp with the full intent to finally kill him. It’s only with the timely intervention of Commissioner Gordon, who finally talks Batman off the ledge, that the Dark Knight’s rage relents. It just goes to show that no other villain can get under Batman’s skin and make him lose his cool like the Joker can.
12) The Joker Kills “The Tonight Show”
Issue: The Dark Knight Returns #3
They say that the greatest trick the Devil ever played was in convincing the world that he didn’t exist. In the dystopian setting of The Dark Knight Returns, the citizens of Gotham thought they could rest easy knowing that the Joker was locked away within the confines of catatonia. However, once roused from his vegetative state, Joker appeared on Gotham’s version of The Tonight Show complete with a David Letterman lookalike. Under the auspicious pretense of proclaiming his sanity, the Joker showed his true sinister intentions when he gassed the entire studio in a bold annunciation that the Devil of Gotham city had returned to once again wreak havoc.
11) Hitting Him Where it Hurts
Issue: The Long Halloween #3 “Christmas”
The Joker and Two-Face are the two most personal of Batman’s foes as they both own a monopoly in their niches. The Joker is Batman’s opposite, the one who matches Batman in every way imaginable. Two-Face is Batman’s most emotionally devastating villain to face; he’s the one man that Batman failed to save. As such it’s always interesting to see the two of them interact.
Trying to conduct his own investigation into the identity of the mysterious Holiday Killer, the Joker pays Harvey Dent a visit, and on top of threatening him, the Joker kick Dent right in the nuts, the last thing you want to do to a guy trying to have kids. It’s the oldest gag in comedy, a guy gets hit in the balls, but the symbolic value of the Joker emasculating Harvey Dent is doubly as powerful when considering the powerlessness that Harvey Dent feels throughout The Long Halloween, and the dichotomy between Two-Face and the Joker. The former is pure emotion, whereas the latter is the abyss devoid of any such feelings.
10) The Joker Bets on Batman
Issue: Batman Vol. 1 #681
After the smug and occultish Black Glove revel in their perceived destruction of Batman, the Joker places his money on Batman claiming that he will find a way to defeat them as that is what Batman does…he survives. He implies that Batman is actually his Joker; someone who he spends days on end trying to analyze and understand in a vain attempt to gain the upper hand. Joker knows Batman like no one else, and he’d be damned if anyone else got to finish off the Bat. With a forked tongue, the Joker sides with Batman and rushes out of the Black Gloves midst with the not so veiled threat of coming back to collect his earnings from this deranged club. No one else is as good as writing the Joker as well as Grant Morrison does as he understands the systematic apophenia that rules over this twisted psychopath.
9) There’s Something Fishy in Gotham
Issue: Batman Vol. 1, #475-476
After mutating fish with his own hideous grin, the Joker sets out to market and patent his own line of fish to sell to the public. Besides the public’s hesitation of buying poisoned fish from a known lunatic, the Joker discovers that he cannot patent a natural resource. Although it’s one of the more whimsical plots concocted by the Joker, the fact that he backs it up to a terrifying degree merges the campy, ridiculous Joker of the 1950s and 1960s with the homicidal and gritty interpretation that marked the original and current iteration of the character. Even at his most ludicrous, the Joker is still a madman eager to kill anyone who gets in his way…even if he’s trying to open up his own fish market.
8) “You’d Turn it Off When I was Halfway across”
Issue: The Killing Joke
Beyond the shooting and subsequent paralyzing of Barbara Gordon, The Killing Joke is famous for bridging the gap between Batman and the Joker. The most iconic moment of the graphic novel is the ending wherein the two foes share a laugh at an old vaudevillian joke that serves as an analogy for their relationship. The Joker had one bad day and it drove him to sociopathy; Batman lived through one bad day and it inspired him to become a nocturnal vigilante. The Killing Joke poses the question as to who the saner one really is. In doing so, writer Alan Moore showed that the two have more in common than their sense of humor.
7) To All Things, an Ending
Issue: Batman Vol. 2, #40
It’s called “Endgame” for a reason, and Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo certainly don’t let readers down. The final (for now) confrontation between the Joker and Batman left both men dead with no quarter asked and none given between them. The gore and brutality of this fight outdoes anything Frank Miller could come up with on an especially violent day. The Joker blinds Batman and makes a smiley face on Batman’s back with stab wounds. Batman in turn eviscerates the Joker’s face and stabs him in the gut with his antennae. This fight truly felt like the final one between two hated foes. As they both lay broken, battered, and paralyzed hundreds of feet underground, neither man has anything left to give except their obsession and hatred for each other. If DC never brings back Bruce Wayne or the Joker, rest assured that this would have been the perfect curtain call for such bitter foes who mean more to each other than they’d like to admit.
6) A Few of My Favorite Things
Issue: Batman Vol. 1 #663
Grant Morrison is a writer who made a name for himself by thinking outside the box of conventional storytelling and plot structure. Never was this more evident than in Batman 663, an all prose one-shot that deals with the spiritual resuscitation of the Joker after being shot in the face by a Batman imposter. The issue delves into the deranged psyche of the Joker in a way that’s both humorous and grisly. Never have readers gotten a better look at the broken mind of the Joker than when he recites a few of the things he finds hysterical: sombreros, bowel cancer, landmines, pencilcases, geniuses suffering irreversible brain damage, racism, brunch, blind babies, and statistics. This seemingly inane and nonsensical assortment of the mundane or morose sheds a thin beam of light on a black and abysmal mind.
5) Red Hood Takes the Ultimate Stage Dive
Issue: Batman Vol. 2, #24
It’s pretty obvious that in Scott Synder’s run on Batman Red Hood 1 is the man who would one day become the Joker. Despite not having bleached white skin, green hair, or a ridiculous rictus, Red Hood 1 still shares the same nihilistic view on life along the grand sense of gamesmanship. What makes this retelling of the Joker’s origin so fascinating is that even before he became the Joker, this man still possessed such bravado and deranged composure that became his trademark. He voluntarily jumps into the acid tank and vows to see Batman on the other side. Recognizing Batman as the previous vigilante who thwarted him, Red Hood 1 realized that he too had to evolve in order to continue his game with Batman. As Red Hood 1 said to Batman before his acid bath, “This is only just beginning”, words that would haunt Batman for years to come.
4) Stop…Crowbar Time
Issue: Batman Vol. 1 #427
Anyone who is remotely interested in comics knows about the Joker’s two biggest sins, one of which is the murder of Jason Todd. Although the “Death in the Family” storyline is incredibly dated and politically whimsical (Joker becomes the Iranian ambassador to the U.N.), the one thing that stands out is the sheer brutality of Robin’s death, and the glee that the Joker gets from beating a minor half to death with a crowbar. Not only does the Joker beat the shit out of Jason Todd in front of his own mother, he then ties the two up in a warehouse that’s rigged to blow. Batman was too late to save the second (and worst) Robin, and this failure is one that will still haunt the Dark Knight until his last days. I wonder how he’d react if he knew that the real murderers of Jason Todd were the fans.
3) Pulling the Ultimate Joke
Issue: The Dark Knight Returns #3
Up until Scott Snyder’s “Endgame storyline”, the climactic fight between Batman and the Joker at the end of the third issue of The Dark Knight Returns was the pair’s most vicious and brutal fight. The Joke repeatedly shanks Batman in the stomach and Batman throws a batarang right into the Joker’s eye. The fight seemingly comes to an end when Batman paralyzes the Joker from the waist down, however the Joker, disappointed in Batman’s inability to finish the job, takes matters into his own hands, and in an orgy of laughter, proceeds to snap his own neck.
“All the world is a stage” claimed William Shakespeare, and the Joker seeing himself as a mere player in his elaborate game with Batman, chose to go out in a blaze of glory. Realizing that he had won his war with the Dark Knight by driving him to such brutality (although at the time, no one knew that Frank Miller likes his Batman to be a sadistic maniac fascinated by his own cruel tendencies), the Joker had nothing left to prove except to drive the dagger deeper into Batman’s heart. Even if it cost him his life, the Joker ultimately got the last laugh, just as he always wanted to.
2) Exit Batgirl
Issue: The Killing Joke
Probably the Joker’s most controversial moment in the character’s entire 75 year career, the paralyzing of Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl, is a subject that draws immense dialogue anytime the topic is broached. Initially it didn’t seem to generate as much controversy as many critics thought that having a disabled superhero was a step in diversifying and including a new population into the series. As the years went by, and the “Women in Refrigerators” theory began to pick up steam, the maiming of Barbara Gordon became a focal point in the argument about the mistreatment of women in comic books. Regardless of one’s stance on the moment itself, everyone has to agree that this instance of the Joker’s patented sadism is his most dastardly and sinister.
1) Stop…Crowbar Time (Redux)
Issue: Batman and Robin Vol. 1 #13
Leave it to Grant Morrison to come up with the most iconic Joker moment, the one that completely and perfectly encapsulates everything that the Joker is. Grant Morrison created the canonical Joker by drawing on elements of every previous rendition of the character. The Joker is responsive randomness, someone who reflects the chaos of life and mimics it perfectly. He makes patterns where there are none and leaves a swath of destruction wherever he goes. He acts like a dog chasing cars, but there is an underlying method to his madness, it’s just that no one else is deranged enough (save for Batman, and Grant Morrison) to see it.
With that said, Morrison inverts the events of “Death of the Family” by having Robin (Damian Wayne) beat the shit out of the Joker with a crowbar. Morrison took one of the most iconic moments in all of comics and put his own twist on it. At the receiving end of such a bludgeoning, the Joker can’t help but laugh hysterically as his brains are literally being beaten out of him. He goes along with his own thrashing for two reasons: 1) because it’s funny to him having the tables turned, and 2) because it’s part of his plan to, oddly enough, save Gotham. As previous stated, for the Joker it’s all about the punchline, and if he has to sacrifice body and mind to deliver that punchline so be it. Add to it the deconstructive motives involved in taking one of the most iconic moments in Batman lore and using it to evoke such a twisted manipulation of the Batman-Robin-Joker triad.
The Joker is that snake spastically writhing across the desert sands with its back broken trying desperately to spell out its own name despite not being able to remember it. He’s a disciple of apophenia, who makes his own meanings and adores the chaos that slips through the cracks of reason and order. From the mundane to the violently absurd, the Joker occupies every inch in between. He is the empty space, that shape changer who can manipulate who he is on a daily basis depending on the joke of the day. The Joker’s best joke was simply getting pummeled by a 10 year old with an iron crowbar. Jet black irony, just the way he likes it.