The Joker: The insanity and pessimism of Batman's nemesis — the most enduring villain in comics

It is rare to find a villain that is so fully defined solely by their opposition to a hero, but the Joker has turned what should be a flimsy premise into one of the strongest and most enduring double acts in comic book history.

Vinay Viswanath October 02, 2019 10:17:32 IST
The Joker: The insanity and pessimism of Batman's nemesis — the most enduring villain in comics

Editor's note: The characters — and story-lines — that inhabit popular comic books can be expansive, multidimensional, and often, just plain bewildering. Firstpost's #HeroesAndVillains is a one-stop definitive guide to understanding (and keeping track of) comic book characters. From the iconic to the little-known, the old and the new, superheroes and their villainous nemeses — this is the deep dive you need, and deserve.

[This article originally appeared in April, 2019. It is being reproduced here in light of Todd Phillips' feature film release, Joker.]


The people of Gotham are a hard-willed bunch. When your city is frequently listed as one of the most crime-ridden places on the planet with a police force that plays second fiddle to a man who unironically wears a cape, it takes nerves of steel to not turn to your family and say… “Should we maybe just move to Central City?”

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

An average afternoon in downtown Gotham | Warner Brothers

But there is one thing that strikes fear into the hearts of even these tough-as-nails Gothamites: a man wearing clown make-up dressed in a purple suit. Not only because clowns of any kind are an abomination (It’s a fact!), but because that man, owing to the chronically compromised security of Arkham Asylum, is probably none other than The Joker.

“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos.” – The Joker

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

*Maniacal Laughter* | Warner Brothers animation studios

Making his debut in Batman #1 (1940), the Joker is one of Batman’s oldest villains. While that may be expected, given that he’s the long-standing arch-rival of the caped crusader, the truth is actually the opposite. At the time, the concept of well-developed recurring villains was not just rare but actively avoided since publishers, in their infinite wisdom, didn’t want anything or anyone upstaging their heroes and sharing the limelight.

Even the Joker was originally slated to die on his second appearance after accidentally stabbing himself — a move which allowed Batman to keep his hands bloodless while also dealing with the Joker permanently and preventing the Dark Knight from appearing impotent to stop an evil clown. However, the character proved so popular with readers that he was spared from death, kicking off the most iconic rivalry in comic book history.

Origin and background

For a villain who has been in publication for almost 80 years, much of the Joker’s true origins are shrouded in mystery. Even the Joker himself appears unsure about what truly happened to make him the way he is, claiming that he remembers events differently at different times. Is he telling the truth or just messing with his foes to keep them off balance? Does it really matter one way or the other?

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

It was probably too much to hope that a crazy man would remember his past coherently | DC comics

Even his real-world origin is a bit of a whodunit. Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson are all jointly credited with creating the Joker as we know him today, but each of them maintained wildly different accounts of how events transpired when it came to the character's creation and just what and how much each man contributed. With all of them now deceased, there’s likely no definitive proof out there that will ever set the record straight, once and for all.

There’s a lot we don’t know when it comes to the Joker's early life, and much of it will likely remain intentionally apocryphal forever, but here’s what we do know.

In Batman: The Killing Joke, the story that contains what most writers and readers currently consider the ‘True’ origin of the character, the man who would be Joker was a dissatisfied chemical engineer turned failed stand-up comedian who fell in with criminals in order to provide for his wife and unborn child.

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

Back then his plans extended no further than affordable housing in a decent suburb | DC comics

Using his insider knowledge to aid a heist on a chemical plant owned by his former employer, the engineer gets the thieves in successfully, but things start to go south soon after. Batman, who happened to be nearby, investigates the break-in and while trying to escape from him, the unnamed, would-be criminal accidentally falls into a vat of chemicals and is believed to have died. While the engineer survived, his hair had been dyed green, his skin was bleached white and his mind, likely already addled from chemical exposure, apparently broke completely when he learned that his pregnant wife has died in an unrelated household accident (although it is hinted that his criminal associates may have killed her and planned to kill him after the job to silence the couple permanently). The engineer, disfigured and bereaved, gives in to insanity and begins referring to himself as the Joker shortly thereafter.

Over his publication lifetime, the Joker has undergone several shifts in his personality. In his first incarnation, he was a homicidal maniac who, while he did enjoy taunting Batman, was more focused on actually committing crimes for material gain.

But by 1954, the United States was gripped in a moral panic, blaming comic books for the corrupting the minds of the nation’s youth — a baton that would be passed to television and several genres of music before finally being handed to its current champion, video games.

After several mass comic book burnings and hate mail from hysterical parents, the Comics Code Authority was set up as an industry-backed censor to ensure that no comics containing objectionable material like gore and excessive violence were published. During this time, the Joker was reduced to a harmless trickster, more of a nuisance than a real villain.

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

This…this image needs no caption | DC comics

However, by the 80s, the Comics Code Authority was starting to loosen its restrictions and publishers were ready to back more daring storylines that would have previously been considered taboo. In 1988, the comic A death in the family involved the Joker kidnapping the second Robin, Jason Todd, whom he proceeded to beat to death (He’d be back later, but that’s not the point). An audience vote was held to determine whether Robin died or if he would be spared… they voted that he should die.

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

Technically, we killed Jason… and he knows it | DC comics

Since this return to his sociopathic roots, the Joker has made it his mission to be Batman’s personal tormenter, seemingly living only to undermine the caped crusader at every turn. This new and improved Joker is not even content to be a simple mass murderer and has turned to domestic terrorism to get the Bat’s attention, frequently unleashing an array of deadly biological agents on the denizens of Gotham.

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

Also, he had a cruise missile launcher, because this is America! | DC comics

According to the Gotham Police, the Joker has killed over 2000 people and yet, in what is a clear failing of the justice system in the DC universe, he is able to avoid the death penalty every time thanks an insanity plea and a team of the best lawyers money can buy… although what he pays them with is a complete mystery. This abuse of the justice system is a hallmark of more recent stories involving the Joker, possibly implemented in an attempt to explain why such a dangerous criminal seems to consistently evade any repercussions for his actions.

Recently, during the Darkside War, Batman discovers that there are actually three Jokers. This revelation is undercut by the fact that this information somehow evaded the notice of ‘the world’s greatest detective’, which makes him look a bit useless. What this implies for the future of the character is unclear, as since then we have yet to get the face-to-face meeting between two or more Jokers that fans have been anticipating. Apparently, a story titled Three Jokers will be out later this year. We can only hope that when it comes, the payoff will be worth the wait.

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

Then again, some versions of Joker are better avoided entirely | Warner Brothers

Abilities and powers

Apart from having the good fortune to survive events and injuries that should have killed him several dozen times over at this point, the Joker does not appear to have any overt superpowers. But, much like his muse Batman, he’s never let something as trivial as having no powers whatsoever stop him from becoming infamous and widely feared.

By far, the Joker’s strongest attribute is his twisted mind, which, while damaged seemingly beyond repair, still potentially boasts a genius-level intellect. He is adept at developing advanced nerve-toxins like the lethal ‘Joker Gas’ and other biological agents which can turn those exposed to it into violently insane ‘Joker-ised’ versions of themselves. This ability lends some credence to his possible past as a chemical engineer.

He’s also a talented interrogator and a master manipulator, able to intimidate or even trick others into revealing information that he requires. Famously, he was able to seduce his psychotherapist at Arkham Asylum, Dr Harleen Quinzel (who really should know better considering where she works) convincing her into not only helping him escape but to join him as his loyal henchwoman, Harley Quinn.

Physically, the Joker is considered a competent combatant, compensating with agility what he lacks in brute strength. However, his fighting ability varies wildly between specific stories. In some he can hold his own against the Dark Knight himself, while in others he has the proverbial glass jaw, being almost knocked out by a single well-placed punch.

Finally, we need to talk about the Joker’s uncanny resilience. It’s one thing to be lucky, and it’s quite another to have been able to live through as many shootings, explosions, poisonings, drownings and electrocutions as the Joker has. Is it simply narrative imperative? Or is there more going on here?

From the events of Batman: Endgame, we also know that he has been around for at least a hundred years and looks no worse for wear. So how does he do it? Have there just been eerily similar and equally crazy people throughout history and it’s all just an unlikely coincidence? Is he an immortal like Vandal Savage, Immortal man or Ras Al Ghul who through various methods, all tap into the restorative properties of a particular meteor that hit pre-historic Earth? Is he an avatar of the god of laughter Gelos that Wonder Woman appears to hint at? Something more sinister? A little of all of the above?

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

Perhaps he comes from a long line of vicious lunatics? | DC comics

Sadly, this story thread appears to have been left to dangle and, for the time being at least, there’s no definitive answer as to how the Joker always seems to beat the odds when it comes to survival. Like so much of his origin and back story, I guess the best approach is to pick your favourite explanation and stick with it.

Allies and adversaries

The Joker only has one real adversary, and that’s the Batman. Sure, he’s widely loathed and he’s tangled with many heroes over the years, particularly members of the ‘Bat-family’ and the Justice League, but for the Joker, they are merely obstacles. An impediment that keeps him from focusing on the only one of those ‘costumed freaks’ to ever really get his attention.

Also, just for the sake of honesty, if the Joker had chosen practically any other major hero to be his arch-nemesis, they would have killed him many, many, many years ago.

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

The Joker, one minute after picking a fight with Superman | DC comics

You see, unlike most villains, the Joker, in his modern form, isn’t motivated by wealth or power (though both are welcome naturally). He’s an agent of chaos and as long as somewhere in Gotham, people are running in fear of their lives, he’s happy.

At least, that’s how things used to be. He has always held a grudge against Batman whom he blames, at least partly, for his disfigurement. However, over the years, the Joker’s grudge has grown into a total obsession with Batman, to the point that his once random killing sprees are now often targeted directly towards the stone-faced vigilante in the hopes of getting a rise out of him. To prove that he’s as flawed and as human and as weak as the rest of us, although he’s not had much luck so far.

There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to analysing the unique relationship between the Joker and his arch-nemesis, which is why we’re going to pick this up again when we get to the philosophy section.

As you’d expect, being a murderous, crazed sociopath, Joker doesn’t have many friends and honestly, he doesn’t really care to make any, although he does find lackeys useful from time to time. Whether it’s through intimidation or bribery, the Joker doesn’t seem to have trouble mustering up a gang of goons. That’s despite his reputation for sometimes killing his own men ‘just for a laugh’. They’re mostly incompetent (if you’re joining up with the Joker, stupidity is probably mandatory), but they make up for it somewhat with sheer numbers.

For slightly more competent assistance, Joker also has his sidekick Harley Quinn. To Quinn, the Joker is the love of her life, whom she often refers to as ‘Mister J’ or ‘Puddin’. She idolises the man and follows him without question in all but the most dire of circumstances. Unfortunately for her, this love is largely unrequited as the Joker, while claiming to have some affection for her, treats her as an easily replaceable means to an end.

What you have here is perhaps one of the most transparently abusive relationships in comics. For Joker, Harley Quinn is little more than a plaything who will be disposed of the minute she ceases to amuse. A fact that he doesn’t even seem to hide from her, although she is often too infatuated to believe him until it actually happens. And just in case I was unclear about context when I used the term ‘disposed of’, allow the following image to clarify.

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

Yup, that’s a lot of dead ‘Harleys’

I should note that not all Harleys stay until the Joker replaces them. Some, like the original, grew disillusioned and walked away. Also, it appears that when the Joker experiences bouts of sanity, such as during the White Knight storyline, he does appear to have genuine affection for his former sidekick and intended to marry her until his madness returned.

Even among the criminal community, the Joker is hated and feared. Most villains cannot tolerate his antics and are unwilling to work with a man with such obscure motivations. However, he has been involved in some supervillain team-ups, such a Luthor’s Injustice League, where his ruthless cunning and in-depth knowledge of Batman proved to be a valuable asset. Although it’s also true that he invited himself to that group and no one else was happy about it.

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

Even villains hate clowns

Character and philosophy

The Joker in his current incarnation (or at least the one that we are most familiar with) is firmly at the far end of chaotic-evil when it comes to character alignment. He’s a narcissistic nihilist acting out of no motivation beyond his own self-interest and is a psychopath in the purest sense of the word, killing thousands indiscriminately, including children and infants while showing no remorse for his actions.

He takes a great deal of pride in his attacks, always gleefully admitting to crimes that he has committed, while being equally vocal about not taking credit for crimes he didn’t commit, stating that he hates the idea of being judged by the ‘amateur’ plots of lesser villains.

It has been argued within the comics that the Joker is not necessarily insane, but may be experiencing a form of ‘super sanity’ a condition that forces him into a hyper-aware state that to other observers, would seem like madness. This theory seems to borrow from Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the übermensch, an enlightened man whose superior motivations and morality would be deemed unacceptable by those who are accustomed to current moral standards.

While this is an interesting theory, the Joker has, on numerous occasions, been rendered at least temporarily sane. During these times, he has often expressed deep regret and self-loathing for the pain he has caused and the lives he has taken, which would seemingly dismiss any theories about both super sanity or superior morality. Despite it rarely showing, it appears that deep down the Joker might retain his self-loathing even in madness as in one story line, when he gains the power to warp reality, he begins plotting to destroy the universe, stating that any universe that would allow something like him to exist was clearly broken beyond repair.

The Joker has a deeply pessimistic view of society and the world in general. He has stated on multiple occasions that no matter who you are, you’re always just one bad day away from losing your mind. This appears to be a reference to his own purported origin story where he was disfigured and lost his wife, child and finally his sanity in the space of a single night.

By murdering Jason Todd and crippling Barbara Gordon (Batgirl), he appears to be attempting to prove this theory right by driving Batman and Commissioner Gordon insane with his attacks. While both are permanently scarred by their experiences, neither man gives in to insanity — a fact that caused the Joker to become extremely agitated when he realised that these men have stronger wills than he did; a rare break in his detached, cackling facade.

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

He was a good sport about Gordon blowing off his kneecap in retaliation though | DC comics

It is rare to find a villain that is so fully defined solely by their opposition to a hero, but the Joker has turned what should be a flimsy premise into one of the strongest and most enduring double acts in comic book history.

While the Joker does want to eventually kill Batman, it seems that he simply cannot figure out a fitting send-off for his old nemesis. For the time being, he appears content to simply to be a constant thorn in Batman’s side, trying to crush his spirit by convincing him of the pointlessness of his actions. We have seen Joker avoid killing the Batman several times, simply because such a simple ending, such as being gunned down, would be too anti-climactic. It has even been revealed that the Joker is aware that Bruce Wayne is Batman, but has no interest in fighting with the wealthy industrialist, only his alter-ego.

The Joker has even attacked or threatened other villains that go after Batman, directly such as Hush or Gotham mob boss Rupert Thorne, stating that he is the one who is destined to defeat the Bat and is the only villain that is entitled to end him. Even though he’s crazy, the Joker is sane enough to know that he is completely defined by his enmity with Batman, stating “I don’t hate you because I’m crazy, I’m crazy because I hate you!”

That may sound like nonsense, but it really isn’t. In the Going Sane story line, the Joker believes that Batman has finally been killed by one of his traps. His apparent death causes the Joker to regain his sanity, prompting him to use cosmetic surgery to restore his appearance and start leading a normal life under the assumed name Joseph Kerr. However, when he learns that Batman is still alive, he immediately relapses, mutilating himself and donning his classic Joker attire as he sets off once again to face off against the Dark Knight.

Without a Batman, there can be no Joker, but so long as the Joker remains a threat, there will always be a Batman. That’s what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

The Joker The insanity and pessimism of Batmans nemesis  the most enduring villain in comics

At least they’ll always have Paris | DC comics

Also featured in this series: The Flash, Lex Luthor, Iron Man, Aquaman, Mandrake the Magician and Moon Knight. Read more from this series here.

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