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Why so serious? Joker cosplayers at NYCC comment on controversy and origin stories

By Emily Gaudette
Jokers at NYCC

The Joker is Batman's arch-nemesis, but unlike most villains, he does not exist only as a foil to some more noble hero. In many ways, he's more dynamic than the caped crusader, the subject of endless iterations on both the page and screen over the last 70 years. The Joker means different things to different people, the name triggering different memories and impressions. Especially now. With the new Joker movie hitting theaters the same weekend as New York Comic Con, fans cosplaying as the Clown Prince of Crime were bound to have an opinion on the renewed interest — and controversy — surrounding the character.

Boiled down to his simplest parts, The Joker is a green head of hair, some white face make-up, and a wide, red mouth. He is the crown jewel of Batman’s rogues' gallery, created in 1940 by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson. The global union library WorldCat estimates that Joker has appeared in 250 discrete media projects across film, TV, comic books, games, and more. Sometimes he’s in a purple three piece-suit, sometimes a hospital gown, and sometimes he’s sporting a gold grill. But he’s always evil, and he’s (almost) always after Batman.

All this to say, I felt somewhat on edge as I walked around New York Comic Con for hours with the express goal of interviewing every single Joker I saw. There’s something about an adult in clown make-up that has always felt creepy to me, and these were adults in very specific and purposely unnerving clown make-up. Furthermore, they were adults in specific clown make-up on the very weekend that their fictional clown was plastered all over the news, linked to keywords like “incel” and “mass shooting.” As it turns out, Joker cosplayers at NYCC were fully aware of the worries surrounding Todd Philips’ new movie, a gritty period piece that gives the character a more definitive origin story. By Saturday, most of them had already seen it, though none of the Jokers named Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker as their favorite version.

Joker NYCC

Joker — directed by Todd Phillips — is the first movie to tell the character’s story with nary a mention of Batman (though it does include a young Bruce Wayne), and that fact has wigged out a lot of people. Based on recent headlines, you could almost imagine the supervillain himself was a real threat. Around the country on October 4, Joker premiered to cineplexes with increased police presence. The LAPD and NYPD referenced public concerns over “the historical significance” of the Clown Prince of Crime when explaining their bicoastal cop rollout, and leadership on an Army base in Oklahoma allegedly briefed soldiers on “disturbing and very specific chatter in the dark web” regarding the character.

Fandom can be sometimes impervious to current events, and Joker stans go on worshipping their favorite version of the supervillain regardless of whatever is currently en vogue. (For this reason, no matter how big Margot Robbie’s different Harley Quinns get, you will always be able to spot a classic red and black version walking around Hall H.) At NYCC, I spoke to Jokers of different ethnicities, body types, cosplay price points, and gender presentations, and if there was any factor uniting them, it was the Jokers’ collective excitement for Todd Phillips’ movie and skepticism that it could inspire violence in real life, even among emotionally vulnerable viewers.

One Joker named Denny, whom I found resting near some anime plushies with a bottle of water and two of his pals in street clothes, says he really enjoyed the new film, though he prefers a classic, sophisticated, gangster Joker. This version of the character is always dressed in purple tails, and he appears in the 1970s and 1980s comic books and was played by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).

“Gangster Joker has his own sense of style,” Denny says. “I love when he asks Batman, ‘You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?’ because that's a sophisticated use of metaphor. His relationship with Batman is sort of a dance, after all.”

Joker cosplay 7

More popular among the Jokers at NYCC 2019 were Heath Ledger’s bedraggled, smeared version from 2008’s The Dark Knight and the figure from Alan Moore’s seminal 1988 graphic novel, The Killing Joke. In fact, that Joker was far and away, the version I heard mentioned the most at NYCC. Cosplayers called him “the most menacing,” “the scariest,” and “the most daunting match for Batman.” One Joker named Matt wore a replica of the tourist get-up Joker sports in the comic.

“It’s the exact camera and the Hawaiian shirt,” Matt told me, “the ones he’s wearing in the scene where he shows up at Batgirl’s apartment and shoots her in the spine.”

When I asked why that particular moment in Joker’s history felt like the most fun to cosplay, Matt said it was the scariest version of the character he could recall. “I’m not a big fan of when they flesh out his backstory, because what you can come up with in your mind as you read is always going to be scarier than, say, a comedian subplot.”

Phillips’s Joker has been accused of trying to humanize the evil character by making him into a protagonist, but Matt-Joker says any derision coming from people who haven’t seen the movie shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. “I think people need to see it before they reach a conclusion. The story it’s telling about mental illness, and about people who need help and have nowhere to go, is way more important than whatever people are assigning to it.”

Joker cosplay 6

Many, many Jokers echoed similar sentiments, stressing the importance of actually seeing the film before deciding whether it’ll be harmful to society. Though none of the Jokers I spoke with saw any plausible connection between a supervillain solo film and inspiring incel viewers, a few did worry about giving the character too much of a backstory. Not because it’s dangerous, but because they think it’s lame.

One Joker referenced a line in The Killing Joke when Joker mutters to himself, “‘If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” Two more Jokers said they found Heath Ledger’s version the most exciting — that character constantly asks victims, “Do you want to know how I got these scars?” before giving each person a completely different explanation.

For these fans of a chaotic evil Joker, the villain is at his most memorable when he’s written as a complete lunatic. One Joker named Adam, dressed as the Clown Prince if he were in The Purge, said he’s always loved “the dark unknowns of the character.” He’ll enjoy a new twist on Joker, but he doesn’t want DC to land on any singular origin story as canon. “This way,” he says, “your Joker can be as dark or silly as you want it to be.”

Julio, one of the few 2019-style Jokers I met, said the character must remain “an agent of chaos. He just wants to see the world burn, and many of us have that urge living inside of us.” This, of course, was the only other idea that united most of the Jokers walking around the Javitz Center on Saturday: many alluded to the character appealing to a dark, dangerous desire to wreak havoc that they say is universal.

“Deep down,” said one Joker named T.J., “Joker’s the sanest person in Gotham.”

Even Denny, the sophisticated gangster, Joker had to agree. He sighed as he adjusted his neon green cravat, looking out over hundreds of cosplayers. “If you’re a big fan of a character like Joker, you need to be really careful with where he takes you. You need to really watch yourself with a story like his. It can push you to the edge.”

With additional reporting by Al Mannarino