Comic Book Starter Guide: Joker

Last Saturday, Joker debuted at the Venice Film Festival to rave reviews and an astounding eight minute long standing ovation, kickstarting the hype train for many fans. While the Joker is a controversial character (to say the least), it appears that this new version might not only be a potential hit, but a serious contender at the Oscars as well. But what about the comics Joker? Well, while the new film may not overtly take from the comics, there are still several important stories that you should read if you want to get a handle on the ever elusive Batman villain. All that being said, let’s take a look at the best of the Clown Prince of Crime!

Batman: The Killing Joke (By Alan Moore & Brian Bolland) 

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Let’s get the most controversial one out of the way first. Easily the defining Joker story, The Killing Joke is a graphic novel that both explores a potential origin for the character and follows his modern-day targeting of Commissioner Gordon and Batman. Moore’s script provides an interesting look into what circumstances can create a man like the Joker, while Bolland’s excellent art adds a grit and realism that makes the events so much more impactful. The Joker’s rampage is horrifying to behold, and Moore never makes the mistake of excusing his actions just because his past was so horrible. If reviews for Todd Phillips’ portrayal of the character are any indication, Joker also dodges that pitfall.

To address the controversy here, I totally understand why people don’t like this book. The Joker’s brutality towards Barbara Gordon is tough to swallow, especially since the senseless violence doesn’t do anything but make Batman more angsty. Even Moore has gone back and noted that he shouldn’t have treated her this way, and turned on the book in general. I’m not going to argue that point, but I do think the backstory of the Joker and how Batman finds and takes down his foe is compelling enough to still warrant a read. Very few enemies have struck Batman as closely as the Joker has, and this book details one of his most devastating attacks in a compelling, disturbing and unfortunately problematic way.

Joker (By Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo)

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Set outside the regular DCU, this graphic novel follows a thug named Jonny Frost, who has the misfortune of becoming the chauffeur of the Joker across a few crazy days. While carting his boss around, Frost sees all the sides of the Joker, and Azzarello’s script uses that to give the audience a new insight into this character. It’s a dark, gritty crime tale, and Brian Azzarello is the perfect writer for this, given his work on his instant classic crime series 100 Bullets. He and Lee Bermejo had already teamed to tell a similar story about Lex Luthor, but their partnership goes to new heights in this twisted and haunting story.

Bermejo’s art is more realistic than most on this list, adding a shocking value to the violence while also making the Joker just seem more macabre and disturbing than he already is. He also just has a great handle on Gotham, accentuating the gothic elements you’d expect to see in Batman’s stomping grounds, while also highlighting its strange sense of dark beauty. That, paired with a truly excellent script that carries us from a prison escape to a gang war to the inevitable duel with Batman, makes this a must-read for anyone trying to understand the Joker, if that’s even possible.

Batman: A Death in the Family (By Jim Starlin & Jim Aparo) 

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Throughout his history, it’s been proven that the best way to hurt Batman is to go after his children. Dick Grayson has been felled by the orders of Bane, Damian Wayne (Batman’s biological son) was killed by his mother Talia al Ghul, but the Joker has not only hurt the family once, but twice. Detailing the infamous fan-voted storyline that saw the death of Jason Todd, writer Jim Starlin (who would go on to do The Infinity Gauntletdelivered one of the darkest and most tragic stories in Batman’s history, and one that showed the true evil of the Joker.

After being dismissed for his reckless behavior, Jason Todd goes on a quest to find his real mother, and both he and Batman find a plot by the Joker to spread chaos in Ethiopia. While Batman races to rescue his partner, the Joker sadistically beats the young boy with a crowbar, before leaving him and his mother to die. Batman was too late to save Jason, and while he has since returned to life, Batman’s failure still haunts him to this day. Starlin, backed by the impressive art of Jim Aparo, gives us a heartbreaking glimpse into one of Batman’s rare defeats, as well as a true look into how evil his arch-nemesis truly is. Anyone trying to understand the relationship between the two rivals must pick this up.

The Dark Knight Returns (By Frank Miller) 

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Frank Miller’s game-changing story may not feature much of the Joker, but it redefined the relationship between he and the Joker for generations to come. Set in the future, where Bruce Wayne retired after the death of Jason Todd (note that this came out before Death in the Family), the story explores the return of Batman as he seeks to bring order back to Gotham City. And as Batman returns, the Joker awakens from a coma, as if the two are connected on a deeper level. While paraded on a talk show as being cured, the Joker launches an attack that draws Batman in for one final confrontation.

Miller wrote the Joker as being sort of in love with the Dark Knight, viewing him more as a soul mate of sorts who he was destined to dance with forever. This is, of course, the view of a twisted maniac, but the logic does surprisingly work. Like two people in a romantic comedy, Batman and Joker are destined to come into contact with each other forever, as if drawn together by fate. No matter how many times Batman locks Joker up, he escapes, and even when he tries to retire Batman always returns to face his nemesis. Batman may not love Joker, but there’s something about this conflict that makes the Joker feel a certain way about Batman, a theme Scott Snyder and Tom King would later carry through to their runs. While the Joker movie seems to be setting up an attack on a talk show like in this comic, it’s my hope that the later films featuring the Joker really hone in on this bizarre connection between him and Batman, as it is truly one of the most unique relationships in all of comics.

Batman: RIP (By Grant Morrison & Tony Daniel) 

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And I’m ending with another controversial choice! Grant Morrison’s trippy, at times obtuse and just plain strange Batman epic features the Joker in a key role, despite relatively little panel time. An evil organization called The Black Glove has targeted Batman for death, with its rich and powerful backers tearing at his life and psyche until he completely cracks. And he definitely breaks, losing his mind and donning a strange costume (complete with Bat-Mite as a buddy) to continue his fight. And it is in this guise that he faces off against the Joker in Arkham Asylum, with the fate of his girlfriend, family, and Gotham on the line. It’s an… interesting story, but definitely worth your time… if you can stomach the weirdness!

Morrison gets a lot of credit for how he truly makes Batman the ultimate human, but his Joker is also written as the ultimate villain. Morrison’s Joker is not a man, he’s chaos and evil personified, an inevitable consequence of Batman’s very existence. His Joker is fiercely insane but also intelligent, possibly as smart as Batman, which just makes him even scarier and more dangerous. What’s also interesting is just how much the Joker understands Batman, whether its through his taunts in their battle or in his statement to the Black Glove that the Dark Knight always wins and that he will inevitably defeat them. He also notes at one point that he himself has been driven insane by Batman because of his attempts to understand and trap the Dark Knight, when usually we think it’s Batman driven mad by the Joker! It’s such a fascinating dynamic. 

Tony Daniel deserves a lot of credit here, as his brilliant artwork hides clues and symbolism that the Joker mentions in his rants, daring the reader to go back and find them. His Joker is also a gangly, rail thin creature that truly looks like a monster, especially when he slices his tongue to make it look like a snake’s. It’s all just so disturbing and perfect for the Joker, and that interpretation more or less has continued even to this day, showing how influential it was. Do I think they’re gonna go this way for the movie? No, of course not, but for me personally this is the definitive Joker.

Go out and read some comics!

Joker hits theaters October 4.