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Why The Joker Doesn’t Need a ‘True Origin’ (and Never Will)

Why The Joker Doesn’t Need a ‘True Origin’ (and Never Will)


  • The Joker’s origin story remains open to interpretation, with various iconic versions like The Killing Joke and Batman ’89.
  • The character’s legacy thrives on ambiguity, showcasing his chaos and unpredictability as Batman’s ultimate foe.
  • While some prefer a defined origin, the Joker’s strength lies in his enigmatic nature, allowing for endless creative exploration.

Since his first appearance in the ’40s, the Joker has become Batman’s most recognizable and feared villain in comics, movies, and cartoons. With such a long legacy, it is unsurprising that many would try to give the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ an origin story. Many of these have gone on to success and accolades, but others have been pushed to the wayside or considered outside the canon. Regardless, this ambiguity has served the character well and has allowed many to tackle the chaotic criminal in their own unique style.

The truth is that the Joker does not need a ‘true origin’ or ever will, but we will look at the most popular ones and break down how being open for interpretation has only helped the legacy of the iconic villain.

The Joker’s First Appearance and Evolution

Created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane, with input from artist Jerry Robinson, The Joker made his first appearance during DC’s Golden Age in the Batman series (1940). The design was, famously, modeled after actor Conrad Veidt’s “Gwynplaine, Lord Clancharlie” in the 1928 movie The Man Who Laughs and the Joker card design on the playing decks made by Robinson.

The debut depicted the Joker as a maniacal killer who used “Joker Venom” to leave his victims with a permanent grin. The Joker returned shortly after his debut in Batman #1: The Joker Returns and would be a consistent villain to Batman, evolving into a more charismatic psychopath who used various tools to torment ‘the bat.’ However, he would rise to prominence in the 1980s as Batman’s main arch-nemesis thanks to story arcs like The Killing Joke and A Death in the Family.

In the modern era, The Joker has countless interpretations and stories to his name There has been no shortage of comic icons that have added their own take on the Joker, including Denny O’Neil, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Geoff Johns. In addition, actors Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamil, Heath Ledger, and Joaquin Phoenix have all brought the Joker alive on the screen. With abundant talent and a vast history, the origin story of the Joker has been explored in comics, as many have attempted to give a background to Batman’s most recognizable enemy.

The Joker Has Had Many Origin Stories

To many, the Joker already has an origin story, or rather, a direct explanation of how he got his white skin. Three of the most prominent origin stories for the ‘Harlequin of Hate’ all revolve around falling in a vat of some chemicals;

  • The Killing Joke (1980) Written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke is widely regarded as the most canonical and definitive version of the character’s origins. Here, the Joker was a once-failed comedian who, in an attempt to support his wife, turned to crime and was forced to take the moniker of the ‘Red Hood.’ A run-in with Batman after a botched robbery resulted in him being thrust into a Vat of acid, turning him mad. This storyline was also included in The Killing Joke’s 2016 animated film adaptation.
  • Batman (1989) Directed by Tim Burton, the origin of Joker was once again tied to falling in a vat of acid and transforming his body. The important difference is giving him the persona of Jack Napier, a vain sociopath who is also responsible for the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents.
  • Detective Comics #168 (1951) — While the idea of the Joker gaining his visage is the definitive origin, this was previously established in 1951 in Detective Comics, albeit in a slightly smaller manner more fitting to the era. Again, we see a Red Hood version of the Joker confronted by Batman, but in this case, his escape causes deformity and breakdown into madness.


How Frank Sinatra Missed His Chance to Play The Joker in Batman ‘66

Closer examination of the character and his history on screen illustrates how The Joker gig became the most coveted piece of Oscar bait.

“I was a lab worker, until I decided to steal $1,000,000 and retire! So I became The Red Hood! Finally, I reached my goal – by stealing from the Monarch Playing Card Company. My hood’s oxygen tube enabled me to escape by swimming under the surface of the pool of chemical wastes.” Joker in Detective Comics #168

There have been other origin stories within the comics, with notable series creating non-canon stories or trying to offer a drastically different take, such as Batman Confidential, Batman: Streets of Gotham, “Batman: Zero Year” arc in the main Batman run, and more recently the 2020 divisive story arc Batman: Three Jokers. The most recent rendition of Joker, Todd Phillips’s 2019s Joker, presented the origin as a mentally ill man, Arthur Fleck, living with his ailing mother and feeling the pressures of a failing career as a comedian. Here, he becomes a sort of champion of the people, a celebrated anarchist who dives into his persona to deal with mistreatment.

The Joker Does Not Need a True Origin Story and Never Will

The closest Joker has come to an origin will rest with The Killing Joke, which is often stated as the definitive beginning of the character. However, there has always been a willingness to rewrite or re-image this scenario or throw it out and start something new. This can be both the characters’ strength and weakness, as not all creators manage to add context or enrich the characters’ backstory; the recent Batman: Three Jokers is exemplary of splitting the fan base over trying to define the villain; not everyone liked the idea of three personas within one man.

Despite this, the origin of the Joker is rather inconsequential to the character’s legacy and what he represents to Batman. Joker embodies the chaos and uncertainty of the world, which acts as the antithesis of The Dark Knight’s values and beliefs. They are mirror opposites, and the idea of them both coming from tragic backgrounds is presented to make that particular storyline work and not as important to a canonical establishment of the character. Comparatively, Batman’s loss is almost always present in everything he does, while Joker’s mania and extremely violent tendencies only point to a broken mind that has lost direction.


What Exactly Made Heath Ledger’s Joker So Good?

Heath Ledger’s acclaimed performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight epitomizes the gritty realism of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy.

Creatives can certainly give Joker an origin story and be successful at doing so. You can look at the 2019 film Joker, which grossed over $1 billion at the global box office, to state that exploring the origin of the ‘Ace of Knaves’ has proven fruitful both creatively and commercially. Still, the character will always be at his best when indulging in his own delusions, acting as the ultimate foil to Batman.

You can see the Joker in Joker: Folie à Deux on Oct 4, 2024

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