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A brief history of the Joker

By Patrick Kevin Day, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Where did the Joker come from?

Christopher Nolan’s film, “The Dark Knight,” certainly doesn’t give us any clues. But though the character has many versions of his origin in the fictional world, his actual history is a multimedia mash-up of drawing, voice-overs and visual performance. He’s gone from evil clown to annoying clown, to dark, evil, murderous clown that gives you nightmares. And if the buzz continues into the spring, the latest man in the makeup, Heath Ledger, may win a posthumous Oscar for his Joker performance.

But to understand where Ledger came from in his acting, you have to go back to see the characters development over the last 68 years. (Brian Bolland / DC Comics)
‘The Man Who Laughs’ (1928)

Conrad Veidt starred in this semi-silent film based on Victor Hugo’s novel in which the son of a lord is punished for his father’s disrespect to the king by having his face carved into a permanent grin. Stills of Veidt were used as inspiration by the Joker’s creators, artist Bob Kane, writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson -- the creators have long disputed who actually came up with the character. ()
‘Batman’ #1 (1940)

The Joker’s first appearance came in the Batman’s first solo comic book (the Dark Knight had been appearing for a year in the pages of Detective Comics). His origin wasn’t explained and his criminal style was nowhere near as elaborate as it later became. At the end of his first clash with Batman, he ended up behind bars.

He was originally supposed to die with his second appearance, but he was spared by en editor at the last minute. He continued to threaten Batman into the 1950s, when the Comic Code Authority watered down the murderous character to become simply an impish thorn in Batman’s side. (DC Comics)
‘Batman’ (TV series) (1966-1968)

Cesar Romero -- the mustached Joker.

Romero appeared in 18 episodes of the campy 1960s series that removed all of Joker’s homicidal streak and turned him into a cackling prankster. This was a reflection of the way the character was portrayed in the comics at the time, where superheroes were treated with little seriousness.

Romero refused to shave his mustache for the role, and it can still be seen beneath his white makeup in close-ups. ()
Batman’ / ‘Detective Comics’ (1973-78)

Throughout the 1970s, a variety of artists and writers, including Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, Marshall Rogers and Steve Englehart, sought to return the Joker to his murderous roots. In particular, the story “The Laughing Fish” in Detective Comics #475, in which he creates fish in his own smiling image and seeks to patent them, helped define the character for the next decade, placing a great and greater emphasis on his lethal insanity. (Marshall Rogers / DC Comics)
‘The Killing Joke’ (1986)

Cited by many as the single most influential Joker story, this standalone graphic novel by Alan Moore told the Joker’s origin, showing him as a failed stand-up comedian who turns to crime and becomes deformed when he jumps into a vat of chemicals during a factory break-in. The book drew a particularly bleak vision of Batman and his arch-nemesis, with a story that involves the Joker paralyzing Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, Barbara (aka Batgirl), then torturing the policeman with nude photos of her.

Both Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton have cited “The Killing Joke” as a primary influence on how they portrayed the villain in their films. (DC Comics)
‘A Death in the Family’ (1988)

The same year “The Killing Joke” was released, DC Comics featured a four-part storyline in the regular Bat-comics in which the Joker savagely beat Robin and blew him up with a bomb. In a one-time-only gimmick, editors gave out two phone numbers to readers: one for those who wanted to see Robin live, the other for those who wanted to see Robin die.

Robin died.

The killing scarred Batman for years, making the Dark Knight even darker and the Joker even more menacing. (DC Comics)
‘Batman’ (1989)

Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top performance in Tim Burton’s summer blockbuster combined the star’s own crazed persona with the sociopathic monster who had developed in the comic books. The result helped turn the movie into a monster box office hit to the tune of $411 million worldwide. But this interpretation was not without some criticism: Many felt this Joker was so wild that he overshadowed Batman, the ostensible hero of the film. Even so, the role became one of the actor’s defining performances. (Warner Bros.)
Batman: The Animated Series’ (1992-95)

Inspired by the success of Burton’s big-screen “Batman,” this version took care to preserve the darker tone of the comics while making the stories acceptable for children. Mark Hamill, better known as Luke Skywalker, took over the voice of Joker for the series. His performance was so well-received that the actor was able to redefine himself as a voice performer, appearing in numerous animated productions. (Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times)
‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)

Heath Ledger already had buzz for his performance in Christopher Nolan’s grittier follow-up to " Batman Begins” before his untimely death in January. His version of the Joker -- sloppier, grimier and not as comic as Nicholson’s -- has already become a polarizing benchmark for those who want to debate which actor had the best Joker performance. (Warner Bros.)