The Joker's lasting laugh
From left, The Joker's inspiration: 1928's "The Man Who Laughs (with Conrad Veidt), and many iterations in comics, on live action TV (with Cesar Romero), in film (with Jack Nicholson) and in animation.
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"I've been thinking lately. About you and me. About what's going to happen to us, in the end. We're going to kill each other, aren't we?"
That's the Batman talking, a couple of decades ago, to his archnemesis, The Joker, in the opening pages of a graphic novel that changed both of them and made their relationship more wonderfully sick.
Usually The Joker is the one who articulates the nutty co-dependence here. Almost every time they meet, Joker has the gall to remind Batman that they are each nothing without the other, and he usually brings this up as Batman is kicking the holy-moley-frijoles out of him, in an almost erotic moment of sadomasochism. Joker loves it, laughing his head off with each punch. (And Batman loves it, yes?) The world doesn't quite understand, even though these two have been going at it for 68 years.
"To them, you're a freak," Heath Ledger's Joker tells Christian Bale's Batman in "The Dark Knight," the new sequel opening Friday. "Like me."
As if Batman didn't have enough problems, around which entire dissertations have been written, around which our cultural admiration for him is built: Batman has unresolved orphan grief; Batman has difficulties with authority, drifting literally above the law; Batman is rife with hints of inappropriateness (how many teenage boys have been his Robin by now?); Batman stands for fascism; Batman has bad manners (who told him it was OK to crash through the skylight? Why does he disappear when you're asking him a question?); Batman has terrible girlfriends (Catwoman, for one), whom he treats badly anyhow; Batman has issues, which are most evident in his vigilante scare tactics. It's all right there!
But the problem of Joker, the cruel terrorist with the permanent rictus and appalling clown face, has nagged Batman in one way or another since 1940. Writers and artists (and filmmakers, and actors) adore The Joker because the narrative dynamic is so arresting, as a pure visual: The guy in the black pleather get-up who lurks around parapets at night is the good one? And the clown is the bad one?
Sometimes, especially in the 1950s and '60s, their tangles were built for laughs. (Oh, that Joker -- spray-painting priceless works at the Gotham Museum of Art!) "Hoo-hoo-hoo, Batman! Hee-hee-hee!" -- and that was about as interesting as going to a cheap circus.
Later, in the '80s, The Joker story lines and depictions got scary enough that you didn't want to sleep in the same room with your comic books, even if you were 23. All of Joker's antics -- where does he get purple-and-green-striped helicopters? -- never trumped his infamous calling card, a joker from the deck, left on corpses. Corpses with frozen stares and frozen smiles.
Batman's villains all work from a starting point of derangement or misplaced rage, but they're also Type A enough to have plans and goals, for robberies, heists, control. From the first, the makers of the early Batman comic books felt Joker should be a mass killer, and that there shouldn't be any reason why he kills, other than it introduces anarchy into Batman's world. This was awful to think about back in '40s drugstore America, when there wasn't a serial killer with a new fetish greeting you in every airport bookstore and on the screen -- a killer clown, imagine!
"Batman" creator Bob Kane and others (parts of The Joker story-line inspiration and concept are alternately, and disputedly, credited to a ghostwriter, Bill Finger, and an illustrator, Jerry Robinson) took their cues from the 1928 silent movie adaptation of Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs," starring Conrad Veidt as the tormented soul with a garishly immobile smile that had been carved onto his face as a child. The plan was to kill Joker off in an issue or two, maybe because he was too scary. But, as comic book legend has it, the last panel of Joker's debut story was redrawn on deadline. That way, Joker could escape death and return later.
Joker came back again, and keeps coming: as an elaborately prankish bank robber in the 1950s, when the comics had been chastened by censors; as Cesar Romero's buffoonish baddie on the "Batman" TV series in the '60s; as a deranged post-Carnaby Street dandy with Manson undertones in the '70s.
Once the best comic books grew up and became graphic novels, the cruelty and psychosis of Joker became fuller and more terrifying. This is The Joker who possesses such superhuman intelligence that it has made him insane. Instead of becoming more of a cartoon, he became quiet and deliberate, and that's where he got creepy. There was a lot more blood.
Most famously, Joker became Jack Nicholson (or vice versa) in director Tim Burton's smoky 1989 update of the entire franchise. Nicholson, with a prosthetic grin, embraced the part as profane camp: "This town needs an enema!" Nicholson/Joker plunged off a tower at the end -- splat -- left staring up at the night while a laugh box in his coat pocket cackled on.
This became a variation on Joker's eternal escapes, and he's been killed a time or two, but then, so has Batman.
The world has become more accustomed to anarchy as a form of trendiness, and in a way The Joker is a symbol of that. Also, it helps his case enormously that people have a deep loathing for clowns.
Joker is a good fit in a culture fully accustomed to the discriminating yet random psycho. Fashionistas also like nightmare clowns, those punky androgynes in three-piece suits with mascara intentionally streaked.
Joker loves being on -- nay, interrupting -- live TV, a lot like our real-life bad men of the 21st century. (Bin Laden could have enhanced his scare factor if he'd only employed just one bit of English in his grainy videos from the caves: Greetings, people of Gotham. ... )
Batman pays a visit to Joker's cell at Arkham Asylum, that Gothic criminal mental ward on the outskirts of town, in the opening pages of the classic 1988 graphic novel "Batman: The Killing Joke."
"Perhaps you'll kill me. Perhaps I'll kill you. Perhaps sooner -- perhaps later," Batman tells his foe, starting to sound like he'd banged bongos in a men's support group. "I don't fully understand why ours should be such a fatal relationship ..."
But The Joker isn't listening because it's not really The Joker, it's a jail-cell impostor. Batman grabs him and runs a Batgloved finger over the face, and the white makeup comes off, and now he knows: Joker is on the outside, in the world, escaped again. In every Joker story this is always the best moment. He is not where you think he is, and the joke's on you.
Batman is a bore, isn't he, beneath all that sculpted latex? He's at his best as a concept, a shadow, drawn alone on his vantage points, in lots of dark ink, talking to himself in thought balloons. Put him on a movie screen, and then he has to speak aloud more than he gets to brood, and then ... something ... isn't ... quite right.
The villain is always more interesting, right? People write about the hero, but come Halloween or Comic-Con, they dress up as the bad guy.
Audiences with high expectations for "The Dark Knight" shouldn't be blamed -- once they see Ledger's mesmerizing take on Joker -- for wondering why the whole movie couldn't just be about him instead. Why do we have to go through Batman at all?
"You complete me," Ledger's kinetic, unhinged Joker explains to Bale's stony, gruff Batman.
This time Joker's a greaseball, at once evoking Norwegian metal rockers, Jame Gumb (the killer from "The Silence of the Lambs") and deranged drag queens. He's someone everybody wants to beat up, not just Batman, and everyone has a go at him. Previous Jokers came with a variation on the same origin story, where a younger Joker is kicked into a vat of chemicals by a younger Batman, turning his skin white, his hair green and his mouth into that grin. This Joker is simply smart, bizarre and damaged. His grin is a nasty cheek-to-cheek scar, which he likes to tell people was carved on his face by an abusive father. The clown makeup is something he wears.
See how much simpler it is without the vat of chemicals, without the complications -- more awful when it's redacted? Who needs explicit origin yarns, when you can just as easily freak people out with too much Maybelline?
Batman moves around stiffly here, trying out his new computer-vision sonar software. Joker moves like a disturbed dream. "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stranger," he says, and: "Guns are too quick. You can't savor all the little emotions." This is no longer a comic book; this is The Joker we deserve, having ratcheted up our appetite (and tolerance) for death masks, violence and anomie.
Finally, in this reevaluation of Joker, there is the matter that the actor playing him died in January, not long after completing the film.
There is no denying that Ledger's pill overdose increases the macabre fascination we get this time from watching Joker. His meaningless death is what passes for deeper meaning in the pop world of outsize comic books and the celebrity costume party of superhero movies. If The Joker were real, he couldn't have planned a more cruel joke.
In all the fretting this would affect the marketing of "The Dark Knight," people found it very difficult to say the awful, Joker-like truth: We like it better because of it.
Batman, the vigilante: so yesterday.
Joker, unhinged, bringing death: so today.
Who needs whom the most, now?
First Published July 17, 2008 12:00 am