If there’s one trope that superhero stories love the most, it has to be the origin story. Whether it’s in the movies, on television, or in the comic books themselves, if somebody’s wearing a costume and either committing or stopping crime, there’s a reason for it. There’s an event that made them what they were. Sometimes the reliance on the origin story can feel monotonous for long-time fans, given that any franchise reboot involves a repetition of it, but it helps to get new fans invested in the characters (and there are always new fans).
Of course, not every character has an origin story. There are some characters — mostly villains from the golden or silver ages of comics — whose origin has never been explored. And there are a few more whose origin has been examined but never firmly established, with more than one possibility flitting about. Mostly they’re minor villains, characters that neither the writers nor fans care to spend a huge amount of time on. And then there’s the Joker.
The Joker made his debut in Batman #1 (which wasn’t the first Batman story, just the first comic named after the character), back in 1940. He was the leader of a criminal gang and the reason why he wore clown makeup and had a comic outlook was never examined; back then the villain’s origin often wasn’t. But unlike so many other villains, the origins of the Joker have only been hinted upon over the years. While certain adaptations give him a concrete origin, the comics themselves and other adaptations are not in agreement. The first season of Gotham seems to play with this notion, providing one episode that features a young psychopath at a circus, and another that shows the origin of the “Red Hood” character that is commonly associated with the Joker’s pre-clown past — two conflicting origin stories.
The question, of course, is does he need one? Or better yet, does an origin story benefit the character? Or does the character work better without one?
“You wanna know how I got these scars?”
It is my opinion that the Joker works best without an origin story — or at least, without one that can be trusted. Part of what makes the Joker a dynamic villain is that he’s unpredictable. Looking at things from a character in the story’s standpoint for a moment, you know where you stand with the Penguin; if you’re not a business rival or an obstacle, you’re probably safe around him. Two-Face may kill you or not, but you know it’s always a coin-flip, always a 50-50 chance; he’s consistent in his arbitrariness. Killer Croc is extremely violent, but he’s always that way; although dangerous, you still know what he’s going to do. But if you saw the Joker coming down the street, you wouldn’t know if he was going to kill you or give you a flower — and he usually doesn’t know either. Though he occasionally builds plans, the cause behind them is as capricious as any of his whims. And it’s always funny to him.
This is why in The Dark Knight — where he does quite a bit of planning in the name of mayhem — he keeps changing his story about how he got his scars. It plays into his belief that people normalize terrible things, as long as it sounds rational. “Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying!” If the Joker has a concrete back story, there’s a reason why he is the way he is. On some level he makes sense, and people can cope with that.
But if he keeps changing his story, if people who are there to witness it or who talk to each other about him notice that he’s not consistent… then his history isn’t just uncertain, it’s as if it doesn’t matter at all. He simply is the way he is, for no particular reason at all. He’s not pursuing some abstract vendetta against whatever agency harmed him, the way Batman is. He’s just a monster. Just malevolent chaos.
The Joker doesn’t need an origin story. He needs not to have one, so he can be an out-of-context villain in any story, inscrutable and unpredictable.
But while we’re at it, let’s take a look at the best known origin of the character.
The above panels are from Batman: The Killing Joke, perhaps the most famous comic book to attach an origin story to the Joker, and certainly the most accepted one. In flashbacks, the Joker is shown to have been a failed stand-up comedian who accepts an offer to help a gang of criminals break into a chemical factory where used to work. He dons a mask as “the Red Hood” at their behest, and during a fight with Batman he is exposed to toxic chemicals and disfigured. Combined with losing his wife earlier the same day, the strain causes him to snap and become the Joker. Minus a few elements, the ordinary criminal-to-Joker-via-chemicals story is the most used origin in adaptations, including Tim Burton’s Batman. As a narrative device, it has some poetry in making the Joker ultimately a creation of the Batman — his villainy is a direct response and counterpoint to Batman’s heroism.
But as the Joker notes above… sometimes he remembers it a different way. The origin story he is given in The Killing Joke may not actually be what happened. That element of uncertainty remains. And Batman certainly doesn’t seem to remember accidentally knocking anybody into water laced with toxic waste, and it’s hard to imagine Batman not going downriver to find where the man was flushed out.
And there’s a much bigger hole in the story, which — given the Joker’s unreliability — may be deliberate. To whit, why were they burglarizing a chemical plant?
In the story, the explanation given is that they need access there to break into the playing card factory next door (tying in nicely with the Joker’s main motif). But besides the fact that none of the burglars are ever shown to have equipment that would allow them to get through the walls of one factory into another, this is an explanation that explains nothing. They say the chemical plant has minimal security, but is a playing card factory really going to have higher security?
More importantly… there’s nothing there to steal. These aren’t banks; they aren’t keeping large sums of cash around. Payroll won’t be in cash. The story is set after World War II; I don’t know when paychecks were first made commonplace, but I’m certain they were established well before even Batman #1 was published. Larger business transactions would also be by check or by representatives of both companies going directly to the bank. Petty cash might be on hand… but petty cash is a pretty small amount by definition (and that’s assuming it’s not returned to the bank each night, as some companies do). It’s a little difficult to picture experienced criminals such as the Joker’s recruiters deciding to target a lump sum that, split among the group, amounts to less than an honest day’s work. The risk doesn’t match the reward. There won’t be any precious metals or jewels at a playing card factory either, and no corporate secrets to sell to the highest bidder. Virtually anything else there could be gained legitimately far more easily.
The chemical plant and playing card factory put together have one, and only one, item that might be worth stealing: the chemicals. But ordinary criminals would have no use for them. Motive is still lacking, unless we factor in that there’s a criminal who is known to use chemical agents in his attacks (and is brilliant enough with them to create concoctions that nobody else has seen) and who is known for the same sense of theatrics that would put a single member in a red hood, and is capricious in his motives, and who, rather importantly, was active immediately after and not before the incident. And who was, of course, there.
The heist depicted in flashback in The Killing Joke only makes sense if we assume the Joker was behind the heist to begin with.
This naturally gives the lie to the “innocent failed stand-up comedian” aspect of the story. But taking for granted that the Joker is insane and admits his memories aren’t reliable, his scarring by the toxic chemicals could have led to him fabricating those memories out of a persecution complex — a complex that would be consistent with both his “the world is a horrible joke” attitude and his fixation on Batman. Taking this standpoint, the flashback in The Killing Joke is only the origin story of the Joker’s current motif. The true origin of the Joker — the monster of a man who presumably had some illegal and dangerous purpose in mind for those chemicals — is still shrouded in mystery.
And that’s as it should be. If he’s going to have a past, it should be one as inscrutable as he is.