On December 1st, 2014, someone – who has since deleted their Reddit account – asked the following on /r/DCcomics:
What is The Joker’s real identity? (I bet DC can’t even answer this one.)
“Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
~ Joker, Batman: The Killing Joke, 1988.
While that certainly holds true – and his identity has never been concretely revealed – there’s a bunch of stuff we can talk about with this though! Firstly, there’s some staples that appear in most versions:
Most origins end with him falling into chemicals which bleach his skin, make his hair green, and give him a permanent red smile. Sometimes the chemicals are also blamed for his mental state, and the combination of chemical exposures, and possible brain damage due to oxygen deprivation have been cited as factors in his insanity.
With that said, let’s look a the candidates! It’s important to note that all the ones below are not the best versions or incarnations of the Jokers – as every writer brings their own take on the character – but simply the ones that gives us insight into his past and therefore his ‘real’ identity.
Presented in chronological order:
[Note: This covers both the Earth-One and Earth-Two versions, and the confusion between them.]
The Joker technically first appeared in Batman #1 (1940), but as we’re talking about the origins of a man without firm origins let’s go back a little further to look at some inspiration for his origin – Batman’s first ever appearance as story in Detective Comics #27 (1939)!
The first ever Batman story was The Case of the Chemical Syndicate and is notable for a few things in relation to the Joker. Batman was called Bat-Man and you can read the breakdown of the whole story here, but the following is the most relevant part. Batman is dealing with some criminals and plot involving the Apex Chemical Corporation which ends thusly at a laboratory:
The Bat-Man explains to Rogers that they were all partners in the Apex Chemical Corporation. Stryker had made secret contracts with all of them to pay them a sum of money each year until he owned the business. He grew tired of waiting and decided to kill them so he wouldn’t have to pay. Stryker breaks out of the Bat-Man’s grip and pulls a gun on him. The Bat-Man punches Stryker so hard in the face that Stryker breaks through a railing and falls into a tank of acid. The Bat-Man remarks that this is a fitting end for his kind, and leaves…
So, yeah. Now, Stryker isn’t meant to be the Joker and that character had yet to even appear but it’s pretty clear that this, the first ever Batman story, shares some elements with the Joker mythos – certainly the idea of Batman being directly or indirectly responsible for criminals falling into acid is familiar. This story has been reprinted and retold a bunch of times over the years, the most recently in the new Detective Comics #27 for the 75th Anniversary making the connection with the Joker origin even more concrete although this version of the story isn’t necessarily canon.
Here’s another fun fact: in 1988 when Alan Moore wrote The Killing Joke, which I’ll cover below in detail, he included this shot of Jim Gordon’s scrapbook. The picture at the top is a direct reference to the cover of Detective Comics #27 I posted above, clearly, and the context implies the criminal who fell into the acid was in fact the man who’d become the Joker. As The Killing Joke – a book that at the time wasn’t even meant to be a canon Batman story – then offers a new version of his origin that’s different from the Detective Comics #27 tale it’s still fairly ambiguous. As Gordon says, “now what year was that?”
Anyway, the next year we got Batman #1 (1940) and the first actual Joker story. However, no origin for the Clown Prince of Crime is given at the time – the first telling of how the Joker came to be wouldn’t appear until over a decade later in Detective Comics #168 (1951) in a tale called The Man Behind the Red Hood!
Important Note: Now, there is a discrepancy here. In the 1960’s DC came up with the idea that all the Golden Age stories had happened on Earth-Two, and that the current (Silver Age) stories were happening on Earth-One. This is how Batman could have been fighting in the 1940s against Nazis and still kicking butt in the 60s: there were parallel worlds and the older stories had taken place on world where Batman debuted decades earlier. However, there was never a clear date or info given to sort old books to one Earth or the other. It’s easy to place some stories when characters only appeared in one reality – if the Flash was Jay Garrick it was Earth-Two, if it was Barry Allen it was Earth-One.
However there was a Joker on each parallel world and as Detective Comics #168 takes place 1951, and this was pretty transitional time for this split, it’s possible it’s the origin story of Earth-One Joker, although it’s never been confirmed either way. As far as I know there is no concrete mention of the Earth-Two Joker ever adopting the Red Hood identity – even though this origin is usually attributed to both versions – and that Joker’s history could have been similar, identical or completely different. Or it could have been Earth-Two Joker and the Earth-One Joker’s just played out the same. It’s all a bit fuzzy and messy but regardless was all erased when Crisis on Infinite Earths erased/merged the multiverse in 1985.
Anyway, back to the story! In Detective Comics #168 Batman is teaching criminology at a University and uses a ten year old case he never solved for the lesson:
The case was about a master criminal by the name of the Red Hood who escaped Batman and Robin by diving into a vat of chemicals from the Ace Playing Card Company and disappeared before he was ever caught.
Anyway, after some rather classic Golden Age twists and turns and shenanigans (which you can read about here, it’s pretty hilariously ridiculous) it’s revealed that the Red Hood all those years ago was the man who became the Joker!
Very little is known about the Joker’s history prior to choosing a life of crime, other than he was a poor man [and lab worker]. His real name and place of birth has never been revealed.
Finding honest work unfulfilling of his personal ambitions, he turned to crime to amass a personal fortune for himself. He first gained attention in early 1940 when he was operating as a masked professional criminal leader known as the Red Hood. The Red Hood and his men attempted to rob a profitable manufacturing business adjacent to a chemical processing plant. Batman and Robin arrived on the scene and the Red Hood abandoned his henchmen, seeking to escape by running through the chemical plant. Batman and Robin cornered him on a catwalk and the Red Hood was left with little choice but to dive off the catwalk into a large vat of steaming chemicals. According on one printing of the Joker’s origin, the chemicals were the inks used to make playing cards. The chemical factory was listed as the “Monarch Card company”, which would prove to be prophetic in the criminal’s own development.
Batman and Robin naturally assumed that their adversary died being exposed to the heated toxic chemicals. The Red Hood actually survived the chemical bath and managed to escape through a drainage pipe that emptied out into the river. However when he emerged from the waste pipes, he discovered that the chemicals turned his hair green, his skin chalk-white and his lips rouge red. Driven partially insane from the experience, the criminal decided to pattern himself after the playing cards Joker character that the chemicals were used to create.
Finally, here’s one fun difference between Jokers:
Unlike the Earth-One and later incarnations the Joker, the Earth-Two Joker’s face muscles and nerves were not damaged into a contortion that makes him looking like he was smiling at all times.
In keeping with this version of Batman’s campy tone, not a lot of plot or backstory for villains was often given and this is certainly true for the Joker. It does seem from one of the details given that Batman knew who the Joker really was, though:
Not much is known about the Joker’s early life. On one occasion, he was implied to have been a high school dropout. In addition, Batman once noted that he was a well-known hypnotist before he turned to a life of crime.
Those pesky high school dropouts!
Anyway, here’s the part that relates to his origin:
It depicts him as originally being an engineer at a chemical plant who quit his job to pursue his dream of being a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, Jeannie, the man agrees to help two criminals break into the plant where he was formerly employed. In this version of the story, the Red Hood persona is given to the inside man of every job (thus it is never the same man twice); this makes the inside man appear to be the leader, allowing the two ring-leaders to escape. During the planning, police contact him and inform him that his wife and unborn child have died in a household accident.
Stricken with grief, he attempts to back out of the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his promise. As soon as they enter the plant, however, they are immediately caught by security and a fatal shoot-out ensues, in which the two criminals are killed. As he tries to escape, he is confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance. Terrified, the engineer leaps over a rail and plummets into a vat of chemicals. When he surfaces in the nearby reservoir, he removes the hood and sees his reflection: bleached chalk-white skin, ruby-red lips, and emerald green hair. These events, coupled with his other misfortunes that day, drive the engineer through the massive personality shift that results in the birth of the Joker.
This origin was actually revisited:
The story Pushback (Batman: Gotham Knights #50-55 (2004)), supports part of this version of the Joker’s origin story. In it, a witness (who coincidentally turns out to be Edward Nigma, The Riddler) recounts that the Joker’s wife was kidnapped and murdered by the criminals in order to force the engineer into performing the crime. In this version, the Joker was called Jack.
Another movie, another Joker:
Mob boss Carl Grissom … discovers his mistress is involved with his second-in-command, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). With the help of corrupt policeman, Max Eckhardt, Grissom sets up Napier to be murdered during a raid at the Axis Chemicals plant.
During the ensuing shootout, Napier kills Eckhardt, after which Batman suddenly appears. The two struggle, and Napier is accidentally knocked into a vat of chemical waste. Batman flees, and Napier is thought to be dead…
…but of course becomes the Joker because that’s how this goes. In true Joker fashion he then trashes an art gallery, dances to Prince and leads a parade. Truly a master criminal :)
OK, this is one is a story from a anthology novel of non-canonical Joker stories called On A Beautiful Summers Day, He Was. It is super dark and features Joker as a disturbed boy living in an abusive home who is only ever identified as Junior Napier. I’ve got excerpts below but you can actually read the whole short story on the author’s website if you want to.
His father works for a chemical factory – one presumes the same place where the Joker himself will one day be reborn – as a traveling salesman. He’s had a nervous breakdown before, is abusive and obsessed with jokes, always imploring Junior to smile.
It starts off dark with him getting harassed by bullies, playing with the bones of a bird and wrecking the bullies car but gets worse when his father returns home from the road:
“He’s coming home!” Mom said, and her eyes were wild in her pallid face. “He called! He’ll be home by six o’clock!”
Two hours. Junior knew the routine. There was no time to be lost. He shoved down the terror that threatened to rise up within him, and he caged it. Then he hurried past his mother into his small dark room, and he began to straighten his shelves of books and put them all in alphabetical order. If there was one thing his father demanded, it was order in this chaotic world.
Oh, and we’re treated to Junior’s ‘skeleton factory’ in the basement:
The ants were swarming. They’d done a good job. The chipmunk was almost down to the bones, and most of the kitten’s bones were showing now, too. It wouldn’t be too much longer. But Junior was impatient for his toys. The basement was very damp, the walls mildewed. He wondered if he’d have skeletons faster if he put the dead things in a dryer place. He lifted a second box, looking at his newest acquisitions. He’d found the dead bat in the abandoned house near the church three blocks away, and the robin had been snatched from a cat’s jaws just yesterday. They weren’t going to smell very good soon. The smell would rise into the house, as the beautiful summer days got hotter. Junior had been wanting to kill a full-grown dog or cat and watch its skeleton come out, but that smell would get up into the house for sure and his mother might come down here and find everything. His father he didn’t worry much about; nothing pulled his father away from the comedies and the yellow joke pad.
His father is abusive and at night he lies awake listening to him abuse his mother:
In the morning, he could pretend he had had a particularly terrible nightmare. He could pretend he had not heard, as the clock’s hands crept past midnight, the muffled noise of his father’s voice beyond the wall, speaking stridently—commanding—and his mother’s weak begging. He could pretend he had not heard his father shouting for her to laugh, to laugh, to fill the house with laughter. To laugh and laugh until she screamed. And there was the slapping noise of the belt and a lamp going over and the bed creaking savagely and his mother’s sobbing in the silence that followed afterward.
Eventually we’re taken to Junior’s special place, an old water tower where he keeps the ‘toy’s he makes:
Wires dangled from pipes overhead, and from those wires hung the bones.
There were over a hundred. Constructions of wire and small skeletons—birds, kittens, puppies, chipmunks, squirrels, lizards, mice, snakes and rats. Junior had not killed all of them himself; most of the carcasses he’d found, on his long solitary treks. He’d only killed maybe forty of them, the kittens, puppies, and some birds with broken wings. But the skeletons had been reformed, with wire and patience, into bizarre new shapes that did not resemble anything that had ever lived. There were birds with the skulls of kittens, and kittens with wings. There were comminglings of rats and puppies, squirrels with beaks, and other things with eight legs and three heads and ribcages melded together like strange Siamese twins. There were things freakish and hellish, constructed from Junior’s imagination. And here, on these wires, was the result of the only thing that excited Junior and made him truly smile: Death.
His special hideout is discovered by another kid and… things don’t go well. So yeah, this is a thing. While it’s not canon it is at least endorsed by DC.
Oh, and apparently someone made a short fan film based on it too:
So, after the fallout from A Death in the Family – including the death of Jason Todd and the supposed death of the Joker – Batman #450 actually introduced a new character taking on the name and persona on. It didn’t last long, and the wiki for the character sums it up well:
Corrupt businessman Curtis Base had decided to turn to a full life of crime and replace whom he believed to be one of the best and most recognizable villains — The Joker. Believing the original Joker dead – after the events described in “A Death in the Family”- he began a crime wave with a series of gag-based murders.
Unfortunately for Base, the original Joker was merely injured and traumatized, not dead. Base and the original Joker ended up battling for the exclusive right to be called the Joker. The fight between the two ended as Batman intervened and Base attempted to replicate the accident that created the Joker by leaping into a vat with corrosive chemicals.
Unfortunately for him, the acids in the mixture were far more concentrated than those that originally bleached the Joker’s skin and turned his hair green – and simply dissolved him altogether. Unsurprisingly, nothing has been heard from him since.
The DCAU, which includes such classic TV series as Batman: The Animated Series, New Batman Adventures, Batman Beyond, Superman, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited and Static Shock, kept it pretty standard for their Joker’s origin:
An unknown crook started out as a young enforcer working for the mob triad of Sal Valestra, Buzz Bronski, and Chuckie Sol. At one point early on, before his future accident, he and Bruce Wayne caught a glimpse of each other. One of his last jobs took place in Europe on the Mediterranean Coast. His target was Carl Beaumont, a businessman who had fled the states after the mob bosses discovered he had embezzled a fortune.
Years later, the man formed his own gang and staged their first robbery at the Ace Chemical Plant. It was during this heist that he first encountered Batman. It is unknown whether the crook was pushed or simply fell, but he did fall off a catwalk and into a drainage vat of chemical waste that washed him out into the river. The chemicals had an adverse effect on him: it dyed his hair green, bleached his skin white, and his lips were permanently stained red. All this snapped the crook’s already twisted mind and sadistic nature, giving birth to the Joker. Vowing to show the world the triumph of his comic genius, the career of one of history’s most dangerous and intelligent psychopaths began.
A couple of times in the DCAU it can be seen that his real name is given as Jack Napier – a doctor refers to him as such and it can be seen on a file at one point – like it was in the 1989 film. However, it was later explained that this was just one of many aliases he’d used over the years and not, necessarily, his actual name.
The pre-transformation version of the Joker appeared twice in the DCAU. Once in the animated Batman spin-off movie, Batman: Mask of The Phantasm, and then again in a flashback in The New Batman Adventures episode Mad Love. You can see what he looked like in the screenshots below – the second one is actually him falling into the chemicals!
Flash Fact! The DCAU also saw the birthplace and original origin story of Harley Quinn, but that's for another post...
This story,Images,is a retelling of the first encounter between Batman and the Joker, from Batman #1, with elements from Year One added as part of the retelling. It also tried to add other elements to the mythos, like changing the nature of the Joker before his transformation from the version seen in The Killing Joke and having his cousin as the creator of Joker Venom.
Along with a new origin we also get a hint at the first two letters of his name when we meet his cousin, Melvin. You might also notice that Melvin’s last name, Reipan, is Napier in reverse…
The Joker’s first name is revealed by his cousin Melvin Reipan as beginning “Ja–“. However, just as Melvin is about to mention the name, the Joker shushes him, saying “We don’t use that name anymore, remember? I’m Cousin Joker now.”
As for the story, you can read the basic plot of the story here, but most interesting of note is that the simple man who appears to be the Joker’s cousin used to work for Wayne Enterprises as “the area of expertise is chemistry and the reason he was fired is because of his childish mentality.” Joker manipulates Melvin by playing up to the idea that he’s ugly like Melvin’s mother always says he was and that Joker will pay to fix him. The Joker also tests the venom Melvin invents on Melvin’s cat, which kills it. Later still he kills Melvin and uses him to fake his own death.
Later on when Batman confronts him he says he recognised the Joker’s voice from when he was the Red Hood, so this story is really a way to combine an updated version of Batman #1 with the post crisis origin. Batman: The Man Who Laughs (2005) was – along with being a ‘sequel’ to Batman: Year One (1987) that covered Batman’s first meeting with the Joker in post-Crisis continuity – also “another, alternate take on the same story.” This version makes this list though as it at least adds a few new details to the Joker’s origin.
Note: Even at the time it was questionable as to whether this story was in-canon as all of the Legends of the Dark Knight stories were a bit complicated when it came to continuity.
Specifically we’re talking about the story Case Study, an original story written for the collection by Paul Dini, with art by the wonderful Alex Ross. Not only does it offer a new idea on the Joker’s mental health we also see a bunch of him before he fell in the vat of acid:
When the Joker is once again captured and sent to Arkham Asylum, a doctor laments that all of his work has not pierced the Clown Prince of Crime’s insanity. Another doctor offers up a report written years ago, which suggests that the reason the Joker cannot be cured is because he is not insane. The report outlines the Joker’s history before his accident, and suggests that his “revenge” against Gotham for ruining him is to commit perfectly sane crimes under the guise of madness.
Here’s a couple of pages from the issue. I was only going to chose one but the art of Alex Ross is just too gorgeous and seeing his style in full black and white only makes me love it more:
However, as great short stories often do, there’s a twist:
The doctors are convinced, but Harleen Quinzel is then escorted past, commenting that she was the one who wrote the report prior to her personal sessions with the Joker. The doctors wearily put the document away, realizing that though it is plausible, its origin renders it worthless – it is just another one of the Joker’s sadistic pranks, left where it would someday be found, examined, and ultimately dismissed; a spot of hope crushed just as it shines brightest.
The story is cute and certainly the idea that the Joker was already a criminal and that being crazy was just an act is a nice addition to the mythology around the character. You can also watch the motion comic version below:
Like previous tales, it’s implies he fell into a vat of chemicals and this is what transformed him into the Joker. There are no other details given of his past before this or whether he was fighting Batman at the time and the closest thing to an origin story given is in the episode Strange Minds where Batman and Dr Hugo Strange go inside the Joker’s mind using a device, travelling through a dream like world of his thoughts and memories:
On the search in Joker’s mind, Batman finds Joker’s Idea Factory. When he arrives inside, he is met by Joker’s former self. His former self says that Batman is looking in the wrong area. The hero should look in the ‘Current Schemes’ section. Joker’s voice is heard over the intercom, chastising his former self for giving away “family secrets.” The floor gives out under the man and he falls into a vat of acid. He pops out of the acid as the Joker we know today.
This series also saw the origin of a virtual Joker 2.0 created when his mind was uploaded to a computer.
This was actually a vague attempt, starting in late 2007, to give a new origin that would tied in more closely with The Dark Knight film, at least with having the Joker scarred. The story was called Lovers and Madmen and it’s worth noting that, like Legends of the Dark Knight series, the stories in Batman Confidential were not bound by strict continuity even at the time of writing.
On with the story! I’m going to skip a bunch so that it’s not completely ruined if you want to read it, this is just the highlights reel as it relates to the Joker’s origin:
…a man named Jack drowns his sorrows out at a local pub where he strikes up a conversation with a barmaid named Leena [who it seems is Harleen Quinzel, as she’s blonde, likes him calls him Mr J and mentions being pre-med]. He is depressed that his current line of work doesn’t yield him the amount of excitement that he feels it should. He tells Leena that he’s a Securities broker, but in reality, Jack is a bank robber.
Apparently the Joker is depressed because he’s too good at his job and he’s no longer inspired. Lucky for him, he’ll soon meet his inspiration…
That night, Jack and his crew break into a bank, killing several guards. The Batman bursts into the room and begins assaulting the criminals. Jack smiles at the sight, and suddenly feels excited about himself once again.
Batman finds the body of a dead guard. A note is pinned to his chest, thanking Batman for “making his day”. Batman grows increasingly more frustrated with this strange new foe that has come to Gotham. This new enemy has been cutting a bloody swathe across the city, and all of the work that Batman has done all these months is slowly unraveling. Batman begins hitting all of the underworld hot spots looking for information. He pressures Maletesta’s gang into yielding any information that they have. Maletesta tells him that he met “Jack” when he was a shooter for the Berlanti crime family.
Maletesta wants Jack gone as much as Batman and offers to help Batman finish the job, which Batman doesn’t take him up on.
Jack gathers his thugs together and goes over their next big robbery. He gives them all masks to disguise their features and tells them make a lot of noise and shoot a lot of bullets. He wants to attract as much attention as possible. The gang then proceeds to raid a costume charity ball. Jack succeeds in meeting his objective – attracting the attention of the Batman. Batman takes down Jack’s goons with his experimental weaponry, but in the chaos Jack grabs partier [and Bruce Wayne’s then girlfriend] Lorna Shore as a hostage.
With little recourse, Batman picks up a discarded pistol and uses it to disarm Jack. Jack counters by viciously stabbing Lorna Shore. Batman rushes to Lorna’s fallen body as Jack runs away. To let him know that their business is far from over, Batman hurls a batarang that slices across Jack’s face, splitting his mouth. Jack still manages to escape however. Batman takes Lorna to the hospital where he keeps a silent vigil over her.
Lorna’s condition is worsening and the hospital doesn’t expect her to survive the night. Batman is desperate and calls Maletesta, telling him where to find Jack and instructs him to “do what you will.”
Maletesta, his assistant Tubby, and several other henchmen take the bound Jack to the old Green Pharmaceutical plant. They sit him in a chair and beat him mercilessly with pipes and brass knuckles. Maletesta thinks that Jack is unconscious, but in truth, he is merely sifting through the various sensations. He finally speaks up, telling them that they are using ineffective methods for sound torture. Maletesta gets tired of Jack’s prattling and suspends him by a chain over a vat of chemicals. Jack tells the goons that he is going to kill them, but affords Tubby the chance to get away, as he was the only one who offered Jack a quick and relatively painless death. As the chain is released, the Joker swings his body up to a scaffold and frees himself. He wraps the chain around one thug’s neck, killing him. He then tackles Maletesta and the two fall over the scaffolding. They both land hard, but Jack is the first to rise. Maletesta squeezes off a shot, and a bullet nicks Jack’s ear. The bullet also strikes a control switch on the wall that activates a mixing vat above their heads.
Batman meanwhile, regrets calling upon Maletesta’s resources and races down to the pharmaceutical plant. He enters the facility just as a chemical mixing vat dumps its contents of antidepressant chemicals all over Jack. The current sweeps Jack away into the underbelly of the plant. He holds his breath, but he knows that death is coming. His luck improves however, as he discovers a drainage pipe that leads outside the plant. When Jack finally emerges, he finds that the chemicals have turned his hair green and his skin white.
Batman, filled with regret, sees the transformed Jack running away into the night and, though he searches for him, can’t find him in the woods. The next day, while Lorna looks like she may pull through, the Joker blows up a blimp over Gotham raining Joker Gas over the city, leaving people falling to the ground with rictus smiles.
Naturally Batman goes and confronts the Joker. The Joker stabs him with a poisoned knife so Batman starts tripping, and Joker is loving the whole thing. He eventually throws himself off a roof because he knows Batman will catch him…
…which of course he does. After a lot of this back and forth, which I won’t spoil further in case you want to read it yourself, Joker goes off with the police. Interestingly, rather than the Joker naming himself in this version Gordon says it’s what the papers are calling him.
Later on, Bruce breaks up with Lorna (for the usual reason of Batman coming first) and then funds the restoration of Arkham Asylum to house the Joker…
To the crime lord Gambol:
“You wanna know how I got these scars? My father, was a drinker, and a fiend. And one night, he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not. One. Bit.”
“So, me watching, he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it. He turns to me and says, ‘Why so serious?’ Comes at me with the knife. ‘WHY SO SERIOUS?’ He sticks the blade in my mouth… ‘Let’s put a smile on that face…'”
Later, to Rachel Dawes:
“Oh, you look nervous. Is it the scars? You want to know how I got ’em?”
“Come here. Hey! Look at me. So I had a wife. She was beautiful, like you. Who tells me I worry too much. Who tells me I ought to smile more. Who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. One day, they carve her face. And we have no money for surgeries. She can’t take it. I just want to see her smile again. I just want her to know that I don’t care about the scars. So… I stick a razor in my mouth and do this…”
[the Joker mimics slicing his mouth open with his tongue]
“…to myself. And you know what? She can’t stand the sight of me! She leaves. Now I see the funny side. Now I’m always smiling!”
Later he starts to tell a third, no doubt different again, version of the story to Batman but the latter incapacitates him before he has the opportunity to say much.
However, the best answer is possibly that he was inspired by Batman himself as he defines himself in relation to the hero a number of times, regardless of whatever had gone before:
“You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you, because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”
So, two years after The Dark Knight film we get another version of the Joker’s origin that ties in, kinda, with that film. This time we get no falling into the acid bath though, and we see a lot more of his childhood – which seems to in part be similar to On A Beautiful Summers Day, He Was, the story featured in the Joker anthology book I mentioned above.
The story sees the Joker dying from some neurological problem and the doctors at Arkham Asylum decide to get the Atom in as he’ll be able to shrink down and enter the Joker’s mind. I’ll ignore the way the Atom is unwilling to help the Joker, but eventually he agrees.
Somehow the Atom gets swamped by the firing synapses of the Joker’s brain and sees visions of his life. He sees this childhood and his time as a teenager:
- The Joker beats a child and puts him in hospital
- He locks his parents in his house and sets it on fire because they found his collection of animal skeletons
- He joins a gang of thieves and kills a shopkeeper
- He kills one the gang for challenging him about killing the shopkeeper
Finally, while we don’t see him fall into the acid, we do get to see a few pages of the Joker as he looks today being crazy – and homages to The Dark Knight like this first panel:
During Batman #0 and the later Zero Year arc (which was a flashback story to Batman’s early days) we met a new version of the Red Hood mythos – where it’s now the Red Hood Gang, made up of blackmailed Gotham citizens and lead by Red Hood One. The big story is really more about Batman and his battle with the Riddler, though, with the Red Hood stuff being mostly side plot.
While never confirmed it is heavily implied that Red Hood One is in fact the man who will become the Joker, especially with how the character’s story ends at ACE Chemicals:
There were also the dramatic developments in early issues regarding his face and some interesting stuff regarding the history of his relationship with Batman during the (excellent) Death of the Family arc, so far the only other thing we’ve got about what made him the Joker is the following:
Due to his nature, the Joker suggested many possible origins for how he came to be. Even before becoming the Joker, his DNA was not available on any records. One of his favorites was that he lived with his murderous Aunt Eunice. An abusive guardian, she washed his skin with bleach, resulting in irreparable brain damage as well as the drainage of all pigmentation from his skin.
We saw the Aunt Eunice scenes as flashbacks in a story told by the Joker, the king of unreliable narrators, in Batman #23.1 – The Joker (as part of the Villains Month event), interspersed with him raising his ape, Jackanapes. Joker’s childhood does not look very happy:
We then see Aunt Eunice really mistreat him:
Massive Spoilers follow
Read At your own risk
As I mentioned above the Joker had his face cut off early on in the New 52 and wore his old face as a mask in the Death of the Family – yes, it was as gruesome as it sounds. Anyway, at the end of that story he falls off a waterfall and is, like so many times in the past, presumed dead.
Anyway, he recently reappeared with a newly repaired face, was recently revealed to have been hiding in plain site as an orderly named Eric Border at Arkham Asylum, and later at Wayne Manor (see the comic series Arkham Manor) which was used as a replacement after Arkham was destroyed during Batman: Eternal. There’s a great run down of all Eric Border’s appearances here – there’s been more since as Arkham Manor is set before Endgame but that’s a good example of how Snyder seeded him over time.
However, it is not the Joker taking yet another disguise and alias that is the most interesting part of Endgame – it’s that it give us a whole new Joker origin! :D
Batman visits the Joker’s former cell at the abandoned Arkham Asylum, where he meets with Eric Border, an orderly at the new Arkham Manor. Border states that he has only tried to help the city and Batman since arriving there, but he sees now that Batman cannot be helped. Batman is locked in Joker’s cell, while Border removes his makeup to reveal himself as the Joker, having been using muscle relaxants and drugs to mask his appearance. The Joker confesses he now finds Batman boring following their final encounter, and now intends to bring their relationship to a permanent end. Batman is incapacitated by a paralytic gas, as the Joker announces that he will be left helpless as his plan truly begins.Batman eventually recovers from his paralysis to find that the Joker has released an incurable airborne pathogen throughout Gotham, transmitted by laughter, that makes the victim look like the Joker, and turns feelings of love into violent hatred, triggering mass chaos. Batman travels to Gotham Presbyterian hospital to research the first recorded infection, but finds an infected Joe Chill, the man who murdered his parents, and a recreation of the night Batman’s parents died, revealing the Joker knows his identity. Meanwhile, Gordon researches the hospital and finds images appearing to be the Joker, taken decades before the Joker’s first encounter with Batman. The Joker attacks Gordon, who responds by shooting the Joker dead. While Gordon phones Batman to relay the news, the Joker rises up and incapacitates Gordon. As Batman screams for Gordon, the Joker picks up the phone and responds “Hello, Bruce.”
Batman finds Gordon dying, with an axe lodged in his chest. Gordon is revealed to be infected, and he suddenly attacks Batman, but is subdued by Alfred’s daughter, Julia. With Nightwing’s aid, Batman deduces that the Joker is using a serum capable of healing him from fatal damage, and that the virus contains the serum’s complete inverse. They also discover that Paul Dekker, a crazed genius in regenerative technologies, was released into Border’s custody a year earlier. Batman confronts Dekker, who reveals that he was only able to develop the healing serum and virus using a rare, natural component found in the Joker’s spine; Dekker believes the Joker is immortal. He injects himself with a serum given to him by the Joker, believing it will make him immortal, but it kills him. Julia informs Batman that a search has revealed images of the Joker tracing back through centuries of Gotham’s history, and that if a cure to the virus is not found, the infected will die within 24 hours. Desperate, Batman turns to the Court of Owls for aid.
Two pages from Batman’s confrontation with Dekker:
Yes, that’s Paul Dekker as in the New 52 version of Crazy Quilt. Joker might be immortal? Is that how he always survives?! Dekker seems to think that the Joker encountered a chemical that made him immortal before Gotham was even a city – and that his powers are linked to those of Vandal Savage and the Lazarus Pits used by Ra’s al Ghul.
Batman certainly isn’t buying it yet but this story is amazing so far and I’ll update this as we learn more! I know there’s been another issue since I wrote this but I figure I’ll wait until Endgame is over now and do a proper update – which will also feature all the details from the origins given in the backup story too!
spoilers over – you’re safe now
The New 52 also pretty heavily implies Red Hood One involved in the Batman #0 and the later Zero Year arc was the man who would become the Joker too, with his final chronological appearance seeing him fall in the classic vat of chemicals.
He’s also gone by a bunch of various identities, some confirmed like Oberon Sexton, Joe Kerr and Dr. J Reko, and others implied like the various ways he ties in with the Red Hood gang. Yes, Jack turns up a lot, with Jack Napier (a play on “jackanape” or the Jack in a pack of cards) being used the 1989 movie and the subsequent animated series (where it was, in a later episode, retconned as one of 100 aliases) but there’s really no solid answer and Jack is implied to be an alias just as often as not.
Hell, all of these are just from the main DC Universe(s), if you include all the different versions from the Multiverse and alternate timelines, with all their different names and origins, it gets even more busy:
- Edit: Thanks to /u/rgmotamayor: the amazing, alternative origin from the Joker that appeared in the one-shot Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Alfred is the Joker!
- Martha Wayne as the Joker! In Flashpoint the Joker turned out to be Martha Wayne, driven mad by the death of Bruce.
- The Joker from the most recently seen Earth 3 from Forever Evil: On Earth 3, the Joker had much of the same origin, but was instead forcefully dropped into the pit by Owlman.
- The psychopath serial killer Joker from Earth-31, the setting of Batman: Year One, All-Star Batman and Robin, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again – basically the Millerverse.
- Batman Joker? “Joker was the greatest enemy of the original Batman, and killed him in a climactic battle. Many years later when Batman’s mantle has been taken up by a tyrannical despot known as The Bruce, Joker’s last descendant Joe Collins fights back. Collins is deformed and brainwashed into the clown’s image by Doctor Klibon, then becomes a new grinning Batman to take back the city.”
- Vampire gang leading Joker? “At one point, Gotham City was attacked by a group of vampires led by Dracula. However, the vampires were defeated by Batman who had become part vampire in the struggle. The Joker later lured the surviving vampires out of their underground lair, and convinced them to allow him to be their new leader.”
- Pirate Joker? “The Laughing Man was a sadistic white-faced grinning pirate who brought his ship to combat with the Captain Leatherwing, in hopes of ruining him, slaying him and stealing his treasures.”
- An older, different Earth-3 version, this one called Jackie and a hero of sorts: “Bullied and abused for much of his life, Jackie found happiness with the beautiful, loving Evelyn Dent, only to lose her when her split personalities developed”
Anyway, I’m sure you get the point. If you want to learn more, this disambiguation page from the DC Wiki is a good jumping off point!
There’s lots of pieces here and there but for each one that somebody likes to think of as definitive there’s other tales that contradict it, so you’re right we can’t answer it – but I think I gave it a good college try.
Looking for truth in the Joker is futile. It is a funhouse of differing tales, lies, unreliable narrators and the mad, terrifying darkness of the unknowable that lurks in all our souls. It is… the Joker! ;)