Since the Joker’s been around for 70 years, it’s kind of hard to debate whether or not a portrayal is ‘true’. Like most characters with a long history, he’s been touched by so many creators in so many eras that it’s safe to say that it’s almost all been done before. The Joker’s been a bank robber, a sniper, the guy who interrupts the broadcast to announce his latest threat, and even an emperor. All of these portrayals are true. But what are the pieces that are essential to the literary value he brings to the stories of the Batman? Why is it that, since 1940s, most of the best Batman stories involve going toe-to-toe with a killer clown?
I believe that what separates the Joker from the pack is that he can be simultaneously similar and different to his ultimate foil. On the surface, the Joker is nothing like our Dark Knight. He seeks neither vengeance, nor retribution, nor justice. His reward is the anarchy, the existential terror he brings down on the people of
The Joker is a lot like Batman. He’s always in control and always a step ahead. How many times have we seen him be arrested, only to wreak havoc from the inside? The best Joker stories are the ones where we discover that finding his hideout or defusing the bomb was really all part of his plan. The Joker doesn’t just know information. He knows you. He knows how you will react, and his best laid plans hinge on using that reaction to his advantage.
But most importantly, the thing that Batman and the Joker have in common is that they seek to impose their will on the world. In fact, Batman has this in common with most of his important villains. Batman’s desire is justice, and he seeks to bring justice to the world. The Penguin is corrupt, thus he sews corruption. Two-Face has surrendered his morality to chance, and thus the lives of those in his path are granted or taken by the flip of a coin.
And the Joker? Well, the Joker is, at his core, a nihilist. Where we see structure and institutions, he sees chaos clouded by the constructs of the collective imaginations of the supposedly sane. There’s no such thing as justice or law. We invented those ideas so we could sleep soundly in a dangerous world. The Joker sees it. And his only true motive is to make us see it too. He and Batman both see a world that is insane, corrupted, and lawless. Where Batman seeks to extinguish those fires, the Joker says ‘let the motherfucker burn’.
In that sense, though they may be sides of the same coin, it’s easier to believe that the Joker could exist than it is to believe that there could ever be a Batman. And that scares me shitless.