The Joker: Origins from the pages of DC Comics to mine for a movie

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Lucas Siegel
Aug 23, 2017

Warner Bros. and DC Films dropped a bomb full of laughing toxin with the news that Todd Phillips would co-write and direct a new standalone Joker movie, telling the origin of the deadly villainous counterpart to Batman. The film has no release timeline yet, but it’s still all any DC Comics fan can think about. While reactions have varied, the conversation is there, with nearly every question being asked: Why? How? Who? When? And of course ... WHAT?

That last question is the biggest, yes, even more so than who will play the character. What origin story are they going to tell? Jerry Robinson, creator of the Joker, once said, “How he came to be ... doesn’t seem to matter – just how he is now. I never intended to give a reason for his appearance. We discussed that, and Bill [Finger] and I never wanted to change it at that time. I thought, and he agreed, that it takes away some of his essential mystery.”

Indeed, comic book creators have honored Robinson’s wishes, and rather than give Joker one definitive origin, have offered up many over the years. Alan Moore even put the words right in The Joker’s mouth with the quote “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another ... if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” Christopher Nolan (and team) echoed this in his take on The Joker, who told several stories of “how he got those scars” in The Dark Knight.

Hopefully, that’s the tactic Phillips and company will take, giving us multiple “origins” of The Joker in one film, never telling us which one is “true.” Whether it’s minor shifts, a la Rashomon, where the same story is told from multiple points of view (and with details eschewed each time), or more drastic with completely different stories in each “chapter” of the film, the hope of fans is that we don’t get a definitive version – it’s not what his creator wanted after all.

With that in mind, here are some of the origin stories of the Joker we’ve had in the pages of DC Comics, which we wouldn’t mind seeing brought to the big screen.

The Red Hood

Commonly at least a portion of The Joker’s origin is “The Red Hood,” a previous identity used by The Joker when he was just a small-time crook. This was the first sort-of-origin offered up for Joker, in 1951’s Detective Comics #168. It has been revisited and altered many times, turning him from a small-time crook who becomes a master thief to a lab assistant and former stand-up comedian, to a sadistic gangster -- sometimes having him keep the Hood and identity for later use, while having Batman’s involvement in his transformation change to varying degrees. Still, we need to see the Red Hood moment at least briefly in any Joker origin film.

Jack the Gangster

One thing we do not need in a Joker movie is a definitive first name for the character. However, the “Jack the gangster” story, used primarily in comics in Batman Confidential, but also on-screen in 1989’s Batman, is something that almost certainly will be included. Again, they could wind up covering every angle, but most likely Jack, a gangster or mafia henchman long before he takes up the Red Hood, is gonna happen.

The Stand-up Comic

Referenced above, multiple origins, since Alan Moore established him as such in The Killing Joke, have given Joker a background in stand-up comedy. 2004’s Pushback storyline built off the failed comedian angle and called him Jack, again showing us how Joker’s origin probably has a little bit of truth sprinkled into each version.

The Tortured Child

Several versions of Joker have been sadistic either because of or since childhood. The Joker as portrayed by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, as noted in the intro, repeatedly tells altered stories of “how he got those scars," which include child abuse. A 2013 one-shot showed the young boy who’d grow up to be the Joker as being tortured by his aunt. He’s been an orphan runaway, and in some versions he’s an orphan because he burned his own parents to their death. He’s also been kidnapped or taken into the custody of a mobster named Sallie Guzzo, who molests and beats him, or alternately tries to fold him into the mob (where he rats them out). Yeah, some kind of childhood trauma will probably be explored here, hopefully not too graphically.

Joker the Immortal?

One of the stranger origins is also the most recent. In 2015’s Batman #38, the Joker reveals himself as immortal, having been exposed to Electrum, an alien chemical that was also in the meteorite that gave Vandal Savage his immortality, and fuels the Lazarus Pits that keep Ra’s Al Ghul young. It’s the same used for the Court of Owls and their Talons, and even some corrupted, leaked version in the swamps of Gotham affected the zombie Solomon Grundy. It’s a unifying element (tying into writer Scott Snyder’s Metal storyline going on now). BUT, this is the Joker talking, so he may not have been entirely forthcoming when he said he was “older than Gotham.” Still, adding in a mythological component, and making the Joker something more than just Batman’s mirror image in this life could be interesting. Show some kind of legacy or role that he’s filling, from a larger mythological standpoint, much as Batman, Superman, and the rest of the heroes fall under archetypes.