Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Who’s Laughing Now? Different Depictions of the Joker, Part 1

To commemorate his seventy-fifth anniversary, the United States Postal Service recently released a sheet of stamps featuring an illustration of Batman from each of the four culturally designated periods of comic-book history:  Golden Age; Silver Age; Bronze Age; Modern Age.  In light of Entertainment Weekly’s recent observation that we seemed to have reached peak Batman saturation, I can’t help but feel a nostalgic longing for the Batman of my youth.  My Batman.  You know the one I mean:  The Batman that hopped behind the bubbled windshield of the Batmobile, an earnest Robin riding shotgun, fiery thrust of the afterburner blasting my heroes from the Batcave…

Hmm.  That could’ve been several different Batmans—even in those more innocent times (for him and me)—now that I’m thinking it over.  My first exposure to the Caped Crusader came in the form of syndicated afternoon reruns of the old Adam West series (which had ended its run over a decade earlier); at some point, my not-yet-literate mind recognized a correlation between the show’s splashy opening logo and repetitive choral chant that accompanied it, and “Batman,” to my mother’s surprise and delight, became the first word I could read and write.  (She was, mercifully, apparently either unaware of or unconcerned with the admonitions of Fredric Wertham a quarter century prior.)  Batman also had a strong animated presence at the time, appearing concurrently in a Filmation series that served as a de facto sequel to the ‘60s live-action show, as well as the long-running Super Friends franchise from Hanna-Barbera.  (That these aired on competing networks, something that would never happen today, only serves to illustrate how comic-book characters have gone, in my lifetime, from licensed-property afterthoughts to tightly leashed, billion-dollar corporate assets.  But, that’s a topic for another article…)

Once TV had turned me into a bona fide reader (go figure), I was introduced to the superhero source material—the comics—and was surprised to find a more brooding Batman than the one I’d known, with a Robin at his side who wasn’t Dick Grayson!  (When did this happen?!)  From that point forward, I devoured the monthly adventures of the Dynamic Duo:  Writer Jim Starlin neatly reconciled the multiple-Robins issue for me in Batman #416, demonstrating in the process that superhero stories could be just as compelling for their soap-operatic Sturm und Drang as their slam-bang skirmishes; also at this time, artist Jim Aparo’s Bronze Age realism and Norm Breyfogle’s dynamic renditions became the definitive visual representations of the Caped Crusader to my receptive imagination.  (Those interested in further reading on Breyfogle’s contributions, in collaboration with writer Alan Grant, are referred to this in-depth blog post.)


The first Batman comic I ever owned

By the late eighties, I’d matured to the more somber visions of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, and, of course, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)—all of them defining incarnations of the character; all of them unique unto themselves; all of them recognizably Batman.  Miller and Moore’s depictions may be more sophisticated than that of Adam West and Super Friends, but not more legitimate; for all of his permutations, Batman is Batman.  Which begs the question:  Where is the line drawn between a reinterpretation and an entirely new character?  It has to be more than a name and countenance?

In my analysis of Rambo, I illustrated how the same character—co-written and portrayed by the same scribe/actor, no less—was subject to three distinct interpretations over four movies by way of tweaking (or outright swapping) some, but not all, of his core characteristics; judicious modifications from film to film allowed for Rambo’s periodic reinvention to better reflect the sociopolitical culture of the day, or merely the needs of the particular narrative, while still remaining identifiably Rambo (and, bear in mind, this was all under the artistic auspices of the same screenwriter and star, unlike, say, the 007 franchise, which is more akin to an ongoing comic-book series in that numerous artists, over several decades, have had a hand at shaping—and reshaping—Bond’s hagiography).  Now, I could fill a book studying the ways in which Batman has been reinterpreted across multiple media forms over seven decades and counting, and perhaps someday I might, but in the interest of keeping the word count—and esoterica quotient—to a relative minimum (if it isn’t already tragically too late), let’s look instead at a character as crucial to the Batman mythos as the Dark Knight himself, the Joker, and focus on two incarnations with which even the most casual viewers are familiar:  Jack Nicholson’s turn in the ’89 Batman, and Heath Ledger’s Academy Award–winning portrayal from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008).



The mere mention of those scene-stealing performances elicits vivid, unforgettable imagery—and likely a silly grin akin to a Smylex victim.  They were, each of them, groundbreaking portrayals:  Nicholson’s murderously psychopathic Joker came as quite a surprise to audiences that only knew the fiend as Cesar Romero’s cackling trickster.  This was a darker Joker for a darker take on Batman.

In retrospect—and certainly in light of Ledger’s chilling performance—Nicholson’s Joker now seems almost as campy and relatively harmless as Romero’s.  The deliciously Gothic aesthetic Burton conjured was miles from the pop-art parody of the Adam West series, but no more grounded—it existed in its own alternate fantasy world that bears little resemblance to reality—and Nicholson’s take is reflective of that.  (Not a criticism—merely an observation.)  Nicholson’s Joker was more dangerous and malevolent than Romero’s, but he wasn’t any more realistic—insofar as we perceive reality here in 2014.

“Anyone who tried telling stories after 9/11 noticed that the real world became horribly fictional—so all of our fictions seemed to aspire toward realism.”—Grant Morrison from Rolling Stone #1162, August 2, 2012

Realism was the approach Nolan opted for in his Dark Knight trilogy (2005–2012), devising a Gotham that not only felt believable, but contemporary; his depiction of the Joker, in kind, reflects the grandiose and unpredictable dread that chokes the air of twenty-first-century cities like some pervasive, perennial smog.  There was no rhyme or reason to the Ledger Joker’s evil—he just wanted, as Alfred (Michael Caine) keenly observed, to watch the world burn.  Like Nicholson’s Jack Napier before him, this was a new Joker for a new generation; unlike Jack, this one had no discernible motivation, reliable backstory, or even civilian identity to lend a scintilla of method to the madness—only an indefatigable willingness to disrupt the social order.  Nicholson’s Joker was merely racking up a body count; for Ledger’s Joker, corpses were but a means to a much grander end:  the self-destruction of civilized society.

Yet they are both identifiably Joker!  Even countenance doesn’t count for much here:  Nicholson’s exaggerated rictus grin and chemically bleached skin, true to the character’s comic-book origins, are reconceived as Ledger’s Glasgow smile–scarred cheeks, disguised (or emphasized?) with haphazardly applied clown makeup.  So, even their appearances, though evocative of one another (and their four-color forebear), are far from a perfect match (Michael Keaton and Christian Bale’s initial Batsuits bear closer aesthetic resemblance).  Let’s deconstruct each Joker, trait by trait—they have five apiece—and, in doing so, we can mathematically quantify their concordance.  We’ll start with Jack.

Jack Nicholson Joker



“And now comes the part where I relieve you, the little people, of the burden of your failed and useless lives.”—the Joker, moments before he unleashes a torrent of lethal toxin on a parade crowd

That’s a no-brainer, and true to most of the Golden, Bronze, and Modern Age depictions of the antagonist (the Joker was neutered by the Comics Code Authority during the Silver Age of the late fifties and sixties as a consequence of the hysteria stoked by Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent).  In Romero’s portrayal, the criminal sociopathy was greatly diminished:  The Joker was more merry trickster than homicidal maniac, which was probably what caught general audiences (those familiar with the TV series but not the Bronze and Modern Age comic-book reinventions that followed) so off guard in 1989—they simply weren’t expecting such a gleefully and casually homicidal Clown Prince of Crime:  He shoots colleagues in cold-blooded revenge or on plain whimsy, disfigures his lover (Jerry Hall), and poisons untold scores of Gothamites through direct and indirect exposure to his “Joker venom.”  This Joker, unlike Romero’s, was less about mayhem than murder—and he murdered in a manner consistent with his next four characteristics.



“Your pals, uh… they’re not bad people.  Maybe we, uh… ought to give them a couple of days to think it over?  No?  (shocked reaction)  Grease ‘em now?!  Hmm—okay.  You are a vicious bastard, Rotelli, and, uh… (adjusts Rotelli’s necktie) I’m glad you’re dead!”—Joker to the charred corpse of a fellow gangster he’s just murdered

This trait is probably consistent across all depictions of the Joker.  Though played for camp in the sixties, it served here as a much-needed dose of black comedy to contrast with and complement the movie’s grim, Gothic tone.  Nicholson’s scenery-chewing, though still entertaining, seems a little over-the-top now (shades of Romero’s unbridled glee), but for audiences in ‘89, it stood in stark and unsettling incongruity with the aforementioned characteristic, criminally sociopathic, and helped rehabilitate the Clown Prince’s public image from the merry trickster of psychotropic sixties television to the dangerous, psychopathic adversary of eighties comic books like The Killing Joke (whereby he cripples Batgirl) and A Death in the Family (the controversial storyline in which he savagely bludgeons Robin lifeless).  And the humor in Burton’s Batman isn’t predicated on corny, criminally thematic one-liners (like Two-Face and Mr. Freeze in the Schumacher installments), but rather gets its juice from situational juxtaposition and Nicholson’s delicious delivery.



“Tell me something, my friend:  You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?  I always ask that of all my prey—I just like the sound of it.”—the Joker as he holds Bruce Wayne at gunpoint

This trait, like the last one, is pretty much par for the course in most incarnations of the character, especially considering how effectively it contrasts with Batman’s low-key, in-the-shadows style.  In Batman, the Joker stabs a rival gangster at a public press conference—with a quill pen to the throat, no less; he blithely vandalizes the museum of art (after dispatching everyone within) in a showy song-and-dance routine; he taints the city’s cosmetics supply with his venomous concoction, Smylex; his genocidal pièce de résistance unfolds at the city’s 200th-anniversary gala.  Subtlety isn’t the Joker’s style.

Played for kitschy laughs in the sixties and dark comedy in the Burton film, we’ll discuss in the next post how—and if—this trait has any place in the “realistic” approach of the Nolan films.



“I now do what other people only dream:  I make art—until someone dies.  See?  I am the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.”

Okay—now we’re onto something truly different, whether you know the Joker from Romero’s personification, and even those familiar with the varied comic-book incarnations.  Though the above citation probably reflects the Joker’s criminal sociopathy as much as, if not more so than, his dubious sense of aesthetics, Nicholson’s Joker puts a premium on beauty—as he deems it—even going so far as to disparage a reporter’s taste in fashion.  He fancies his forced pairing with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) as an instance of “beauty and the beast” (“Of course, if anyone else calls you ‘beast,’ I’ll rip their lungs out”), and is attracted as much to her photojournalist’s eye as her physical allure.  Even his crimes are about remaking his victims in his ghastly image, a philosophy he regards as “the avant-garde of the new aesthetic.”

This idiosyncratic trait—Nicholson clearly had a ball with it—has “Burton” written all over it.  Most of Tim Burton’s movies—certainly the best ones—are about freaks and outcasts who express themselves creatively (and very often that creative expression is either misguided or misconstrued); since the director has been widely criticized for identifying with Batman’s antagonist far more intimately than its hero, I suspect the Joker’s lurid artistic sensibilities, with respect to the contributions of screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, is directly attributable to Burton.



“Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?”

The Joker’s ego and inflated sense of self (“I was in the bath one day when I realized why I was destined for greatness”) is reflected in nearly every scene in which he appears.  It manifests as supreme (over)confidence—that singular Jack Nicholson cool—in the scenes before Napier is driven mad by his chemically induced disfigurement, only to be blown up to batshit proportions once his inner crazed clown is let loose.  Taken by itself, this might be his least interesting facet, if only because it is such standard-issue supervillainy, but it stands in effective disparity with artistic/aesthetic, since we generally expect artists to be more sensitive to the human condition, and not, as the Joker takes such joy in being, murderous psychopaths.



So, there you have the Joker as portrayed by Jack Nicholson—his five characteristics deconstructed.  Heath Ledger’s Joker bears five traits, as well—though not all the same.  How many do they share in common?  Exactly how similar—because I promised precise mathematical quantification—are they?  Find out next week—same Bat-time, same Bat-website!  (Apologies if that rather obvious yet irresistible outro leaves you with a Neal Hefti earworm…)


  1. Nicholson’s Joker was not someone I could ever take seriously — that movie isn’t quite my cup of tea, so maybe that’s part of the problem. Ledger’s Joker was downright scary. Not sure how much of that is the movie’s aesthetic and how much is any difference in the characters themselves, so looking forward to the next installation. This was interesting to read.

    • Nicholson and Burton’s contributions to the Bat-mythos in general and the Joker in particular are, in my estimation, as important as those of Robinson/Finger/Kane, O’Neil/Adams, Moore/Bolland, and Bruce Timm/Mark Hamill, to name a select sampling. Not all of those interpretations are to everyone’s taste, or even culturally resonant to different generations, but the enduring versatility of mythic characters like Batman and the Joker lies in the fact that they are bigger than any given pair of creative hands that touches them. Longtime Batman writer/editor Dennis O’Neil once soberly assessed his professional responsibilities as more than those of a creator of fiction, but rather a “custodian of folklore.”

  2. I came here from, and I just wanted to tell you that this “five traits” bit is genius. By which I mean, I suppose, that it resonates with me, and I believe I can use it. 🙂

    I’m really just now beginning to take my writing seriously after having talked around it for a few years and avoided it for several years prior, so I feel I’ve got a long way to go before I can meet my first big goal, which is to complete a commercially viable novel. (Big goal 2: find an agent. Big goal 3: Publish. Big goal 4: Write more novels. Big goal 5: Sign a copy that looks like it’s been through hell and back and is held together only by love and clear tape.) But … I’m writing daily, mostly bits of fiction, on my blog. Basically practicing out loud. I don’t KNOW that this approach will work for me, but I suspect it will.

    Thanks for the assist. This is good stuffs.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Evelyn! So grateful you chimed in!

      It was screenwriter/story guru David Freeman who first propounded that all fictional characters are composed of anywhere between three to five traits (on average four) — I learn at Dave’s feet — and that became the basis for his brilliant Beyond Structure workshop, the best crash course on characterization you’ll find! (And that’s not a paid endorsement, I should add.) Dave’s Emotioneering™ techniques aren’t available in published format, alas — only via the weekend-long seminar he conducts a few times per year — but it is well worth your time and money, I promise. (As I understand it, the class may soon be available online.)

      Sifting through the vast library of instructionals out there — and figuring out which ones are worth your time, and which are pure snake oil — can be daunting, but, as someone who’s read them all, I recommend learning structure from Christopher Vogler, genre from the late Blake Snyder, and characterization from David Freeman. All you need to know about the craft of fiction writing can be learned from those three gentleman. (And for a primer on writing for novels, you can’t beat David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist.) Truly: Don’t waste your time on anything else — just read, study, and practice Vogler/Snyder/Freeman. For more on this topic, see my first post, “The Case for Craft.”

      I think it’s wonderful that you’ve decided to get serious about writing your first novel! My advice would be to focus exclusively on Big Goal #1 at present, and put the other steps out of your mind until the manuscript’s done — no need to overwhelm yourself. This is a wonderful stage of the process — the time to wear your creative hat; you can worry about putting on your business hat later…

      Please come back again, Evelyn!


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