Love That Joker: A Few of My Favorite Joker Styles
Over the weekend, David Ayer, director of the upcoming Suicide Squad film, debuted the first image of Jared Leto as the Joker. The look garnered a great deal of response – both passionate hatred and accepting optimism. But the vocal and emotional reaction is unsurprising. The Joker has been around for 75 years, and he means a lot of things to a lot of people. With this new Joker in our midst, it has inspired me to reminisce about some of my favorite looks of the Clown Prince of Crime.
The purple suit with fedora and trench coat is classic. Artists have put their own spin on it over the years, the basics remain the same because it’s a timeless and iconic look. In the above panel, the Joker strutted into the offices of Gotham’s Copyright Commission, where he was hoping to copyright the mutated “Joker fish” that bore his likeness, so–in his words–he’d “get a cut of every fish-sale in America” (after continuing to poison bodies of water chemicals that transformed the harmless fish into smiling monstrosities). The wardrobe matched his confidence, as it would have to when attempting a swindle like this one. Read the whole story here.
The Joker’s penchant for formal wear predated his white skin and green hair, as shown in his 1952 origin story, The Man Behind the Red Hood. More of a red helmet than hood, his headgear left a lot to the imagination. Falling into that vat of chemicals pretty much did him a favor.
The Joker wore a vacation outfit when he surprised Barbara Gordon at her father’s apartment, shooting her in the spine and then proceeding to take photographs of her bleeding body in The Killing Joke. The brutality of this crime was heightened by the Joker’s choice in clothing, giving the impression that the assault was a leisurely activity for him, something he did for fun.
1988 continued to be a violent year for the Joker, as he famously killed Jason Todd (the current Robin of the time) in the storyline, A Death in the Family. Much attention has been paid to the sequence in which the Joker beats Jason with a crowbar and then leaves him in a warehouse containing a bomb set to explode, and that tends to overshadow another of my favorite Joker looks from later in the story. A grieving Batman sought to apprehend his arch-foe only to discover the Joker had been appointed the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations and received diplomatic immunity along with the position. The keffiyeh was a wonderful twist on his classic appearance.
Grant Morrison first wrote the Joker in the acclaimed Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, as both the court jester and twisted king of the loony bin. Artist Dave McKean depicted him as a wild-haired, red-eyed creature in a trench coat, with long and sharpened green fingers nails. The crazed, red lettering of his dialogue by Gaspar Saladino was maddening to read and frightening to imagine how it sounded.
I bring up this take on the Joker to also highlight what could have been because Grant Morrison initially had something else entirely in mind, as he described in the annotated script published in anniversary editions of the book. If given his way, the Joker would have been dressed like Madonna in her Open Your Heart video, a sight for which even the more mature comic readers in 1989 might not have been ready.
Morrison noted much inspiration for the story came from discussions with his friend Jim Clements, though Clements’s “idea of a bearded Joker, as a grotesque visual allusion to the vagina dentata notion from Freudian theory, was left of the drawing board for the sake of all right-thinking folk.” I’d like to think in some parallel universe, this Joker, as envisioned by Morrison and Clements, has been tormenting Batman and readers for decades.
The Joker showed off his winter look in No Man’s Land, the storyline in which he kidnapped a few dozen infants from the earthquake-ravaged Gotham City and then murdered Commissioner Gordon’s new wife, fellow police office Sarah Essen. Gordon nearly killed the Joker in retaliation, but instead shot him in the leg. Despite the pain, the Joker laughed, recalling how he crippled Gordon’s daughter. Merry Christmas???
Morrison returned to the Joker decades later, disfiguring him in multiple ways. First the Joker was shot in the face by an impostor Batman, leaving a permanent dent and scar in his forehead (see Batman & Son). Later, the Joker split his own tongue with a razor to take on a serpent-like appearance (see Batman: R.I.P.). But neither of those changes were as surprising as the reveal that the Joker had been posing as British mystery writer and amateur sleuth Oberon Sexton, also known as the masked Gravedigger throughout the series Batman & Robin. Naturally, the Joker had killed the real Sexton before taking his place. He claimed to be tracking a criminal known as the Domino Killer, who Batman was also investigating. Of course, the Joker was actually the Domino Killer, because–well–everything’s a joke.
Another “horror show” take on the Joker came with his revolting return to comics in 2012 after a year’s hiatus. The last readers knew about the Joker was that he allowed fellow villain, the Dollmaker, to remove his face. Upon his return, the Joker fashioned his rotting skin as a mask he wore while orchestrating an assault on all of Batman’s associates in Death of the Family (not to be confused with the previously discussed A Death in the Family).
A collection of the storyline is available, but I recommend checking out the individual issues. Within the big showdown, the Joker’s dialogue was disappointingly toned down, removing romantic innuendo from the banter. It’s not necessarily missed, but certainly added to the creepiness of this portrayal.
Of course this article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the live action portrayals of the Joker–Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger. While I grew up with Nicholson and Ledger’s performance was remarkable, Romero might just be my favorite. The actor had refused to shave his mustache for the role, so it was just caked over in make-up, which created a delightfully unhinged effect that always brings a smile to my face.