He’s the Clown Prince of Crime, the Harlequin of Hate, the Ace of Knaves, or more simply: the Joker. With a new solo film for the villain starring Joaquin Phoenix, many are talking about his vilest crimes and deadliest victories, but we decided to do something different.
Here is a look at some of the Joker’s most memorably strange, wild, wacky, and just plain fun stories in comic book history. Because nobody loves a good laugh more than the Joker.
Joker Steals Batman’s Thunder
Batman Vol. 1 #37
Much like Moriarty in the original Sherlock Holmes stories, the Joker decides to hire himself out to criminals in this early tale, providing them with schemes, resources, and escape plans. Knowing the value of strong branding, the Clown Prince of Crime equips himself as an Anti-Batman, with a Jokermobile and Jokergyro (as in the flying machine, not the sandwich). To summon his help, criminals are given personal Joker signals, because there’s nothing that better ensures a discreet getaway from the authorities than projecting the image of an evil clown face in the sky that leads to your location.
This story involves memorable scenes such as the Joker somehow causing the Batplane to slow down by attaching parachutes to its wings, and the Dark Knight escaping a death trap with nothing but a piece of wood and string. Although there is a later classic story where the Joker copies Batman’s utility belt, this story gets points for coming out first, having the villain copy more than one bat-item, and in general is definitely wackier.
Gamble with Doom
Batman Vol. 1 #44
After a successful night at an underground casino, the Joker decides he likes gambling so much that he’s going to use it as his next death-trap theme. Luring the Dynamic Duo into a specially made casino, he challenges Batman to win three games, each one involving the Boy Wonder as a game piece. Robin is the ball in an electrified pinball machine, then tied to a post on a playing board where giant dice may crush him, and is finally trapped in a gas chamber where he will only be freed if his mentor picks the right card (just how much trauma can one kid take in one night?). Despite this rather disturbing scenario, Batman’s major complaint is, “But I told you, I hate all gambling!”
This story is also a great example of how much Golden Age comics loved oversized props and death traps that even James Bond would consider a bit much.
The Case of the 48 Jokers
Batman Vol. 1 #55
Comics have featured groups such as the Batmen of All Nations, and its later incarnation Batman, Incorporated. But years before that, the Joker hit on a similar franchising scheme by setting up a crime clown college — so that he could profit from simultaneous crimes in 48 states (Hawaii and Alaska wouldn’t become states until the 1950s).
After recruiting a small army of criminals trained to act and dress like him, the chaos begins. Bruce Wayne hilariously attempts to infiltrate the organization by wearing a Joker mask over his Batman mask. After he’s discovered, the villains dress him up in a clown version of his own suit (did they already have that on hand?) and force him to awkwardly perform stunts for their amusement. This is a weird one, folks.
Joker’s Crime Costumes
Batman Vol. 1 #63
This one is another story where the Joker’s inspiration is his hated enemy. After visiting an exhibit of specialized costumes that Batman wore on particular missions, the Joker decides that crime is better with cosplay. Like a good literature nerd, he commits crimes as Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Dickins’ Mr. Pickwick, and Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, before resorting to nursery rhyme figures like Simple Simon and King Cole.
Batman and Robin are able to turn the tables at last by setting a trap. The two dress up as Santa and Little Jack Horner, laugh as they pelt the Joker with plums, and trap him in a giant pie. Why has this never been adapted for a live-action film? Pie trap! Genius!
The Joker’s Comedy of Errors
Batman Vol. 1 #66
This story has become infamous over the last several years for its repeated use of a now archaic definition of a slang term, and its subsequent discovery by internet forums. After his own scheme backfires on him, the Joker sees newspaper articles laughing at his “boner.” You see, in 1951, the word “boner” meant a blunder or laughable mistake.
Knowing that doesn’t make the story any less hilarious.
Humiliated, the Joker vows that he will turn this around by basing crimes on historical mishaps and boners. This blunder-inspired crime spree leads to amazing lines of dialogue that include: “I’ll show them how many boners the Joker can make!” “Confound that Batman! It is well that I am ready to trick him into his boner!” “You were so busy forcing me into a boner, you forgot you were committing one yourself!”
The Man Who Wrote the Joker’s Jokes!
Batman Vol. 1 #67
The Ace of Knaves is running out of ideas. But rather than taking some time off to recharge, he hires writers to come up with new joke-based crimes for him to commit. After trapping Batman and Robin in a fiery blaze, the Joker allows them to escape by throwing them fireproof donkey costumes.
The Dynamic Duo escape in the embarrassing outfits, and have to suffer seeing newspaper coverage of them running to safety in jackass masks. Robin is then captured and held hostage so that Batman will work as Joker’s newest comedy crime writer. And that’s what truly makes this one of the Joker’s odder, sillier schemes. He wants Batman, the grim guardian of Gotham, as a comedy writer. That’s delightful.
The Crazy Crime Clown
Batman Vol. 1 #74
During the Golden Age of Comics the Joker was portrayed mainly as a vicious trickster rather than a madman, and Gotham’s courts repeatedly sent him to prison rather than an asylum. At least until this story.
A patient at a Gotham City psychiatric hospital might know the hidden location of a small fortune. So to get access to him, the Joker goes on a crime spree stealing worthless items, then has his lawyer argue that for years he’s been suffering from increasingly severe disorganized schizophrenia. The Clown Prince of Crime is sent to the hospital and Batman, realizing the scheme, infiltrates as a patient named “Minos.” But the Joker realizes the trick, ties up the Caped Crusader, and leaves him in a death trap.
Before the Joker can escape, Batman comes up with a morally questionable scheme: Make the villain doubt his sanity. Thanks to trickery and a patient dressed up in the Batsuit, the Joker becomes so confused that he fears he’s losing his grip on reality and surrenders to Robin. The final panel shows the villain is still in the hospital, wondering if he himself may actually be the Dark Knight. So when you wonder why the modern-day Joker is insane, point to this story and blame it on Batman!
Batman — Clown of Crime!
Batman Vol. 1 #85
It has been said (maybe by me) that many stories would be improved if they were more like the John Woo movie Face/Off, and this comic is strong evidence. During a daring pursuit, Batman chases the Joker into the lab of Dr. Tom Rayburn and they are both exposed to an experimental “epsilon ray” machine that switches their minds.
What makes this story weirder than your average body-switch tale is the reactions of the two people. Batman shrugs off the change, says there’s “no use crying over spilled milk” and proceeds to fight crime in the Joker’s body. He doesn’t even get a new Batsuit from home, he just fights crime as the Joker as if this is no big deal. Meanwhile, the real villain decides to hold an auction where criminals can bid for him to remove his cowl and reveal the Dark Knight’s true identity.
After getting his money, the Joker decides to reveal Batman’s identity to most of Gotham City at once by ... standing on a rooftop behind the lens of a giant magnifying glass that makes his face look enormous. But our hero disrupts the plan by covering the glass with, of all things, spilled milk. Taken aback by just how strange this all is, the Joker trips and is then easily apprehended. Then Batman uses Rayburn’s machine to undo the damage. An odd climax to an oddball tale.
The Great Clayface Joker Feud
Batman Vol. 1 #159
Petty rivalries can be wildly entertaining, especially when they occur between outsize personalities. Hearing that the Joker has derided him, the shape-shifting villain Clayface pretends to be the Harlequin of Hate during a crime, before revealing his true nature. The Joker is so furious at the idea that he can be imitated and outdone that he decides to even the score. Soon afterward, he commits crimes in shape-shifting high-tech costumes to prove that his mind is more impressive than Clayface’s powers.
It’s a short-lived feud but a fun one to see, exemplifying the Joker’s creativity, zany tactical mind, and his habit of occasionally needing to show up other villains.
The Joker’s Millions
Detective Comics Vol. 1 #180
Racketeer “King” Barlowe has died, leaving behind a will that surprisingly gives a fortune to his old enemy the Joker. Recently released from prison after serving time for his last scheme, the criminal clown decides to play at going straight as a new wealthy socialite of Gotham. Of course, it’s all a trick, but not in the way you might think.
After spending a small portion of Barlowe’s fortune, the Joker realizes the rest is fake. He’s broke after becoming used to his new lifestyle, and now the IRS is also demanding a $2 million inheritance tax.
The Joker wants to explain the truth to avoid the large tax, but he also doesn’t want the public knowing he fell victim to a prank. So he returns to crime to pay the IRS, acting discreetly despite his deep desire for the spotlight. Frustrated by the secrecy, his vanity later gets the best of him, and his boasts wind up recorded as evidence that will return him to prison. As if all this wasn’t humiliating enough, the Joker makes one last escape attempt only to realize he is not holding a glass-cutting diamond but another of Barlowe’s fake gems.
The Last Ha Ha!
With his haunting laugh, strange sense of humor, and green hair, the vigilante known as the Creeper sure seems similar to the Joker at times. The two finally met in this story that involves a fictional cartoonist based on Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts.
After stealing a jeweled clown mask, the Joker winds up tangling with the Creeper and knocking the guy out so hard that he is struck with partial amnesia. Seeking inspiration from the newspaper comics, the Joker decides to enlist the Creeper’s aid in kidnapping and ransoming Sandy Saturn, wealthy cartoonist of Cashews. It’s a pretty straightforward crime, but the tale has several odd twists. There’s the fact that Saturn enjoys his time as a hostage because the villain asks him to draw scenes of violence against the Cashews characters, and that the villain’s defeat is made possible by the fact that he impulsively decided to hug himself.
Sherlock Stalks the Joker
The Joker’s rivalry with Batman has inspired him to humiliate any and all great detectives when he has the opportunity. Learning that a local theater is rehearsing a play about Sherlock Holmes, the Joker dresses up as the character’s rival Professor Moriarty and attacks. It’s a strange crime with a stranger result: After being knocked out by the Joker, lead actor Clive Sigerson wakes up thinking he actually is Sherlock Holmes.
The Joker decides he isn’t done humiliating the fictional detective of Arthur Conan Doyle, so he embarks on a Holmes inspired crime spree. At each step though, Sigerson is there to foil him, repeatedly employing the methods of Holmes. It’s a complicated story that almost overflows with nerdy Easter eggs for any Doyle fans.
Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker
Batman Vol. 1 #321
The Joker decides he’s having a birthday party and wants to invite his frequent enemies. After dressing up in drag and capturing Robin by pretending to be a lady with a flat tire, he rounds up Jim Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, and Catwoman for times they’ve interfered in his schemes. To make the day special, the Clown Prince of Killers sets up a fake bakery show that attracts thousands of Gothamites.
The gathered crowd winds up witnessing one of the more memorable sights in Batman comics: The Joker on stage in front of an enormous cake with his enemies tied to giant, explosive candles. Batman arrives, a battle ensues, one of the candles becomes a rocket, and at one point the Joker evades capture thanks to one of his hands being fake. It’s a high-octane adventure showing a Joker who strikes a balance between the coldblooded killer and chaos bringer he often appears to be today and his earlier campiness.
‘Power Beyond’ and ‘Clash Against Chaos’
Super Powers #1-2
This Super Powers mini-series revolved around several super-villains being given new powers by the forces of Darkseid, a cosmic baddie and ruler of the planet Apokolips. During the first issue, the Joker is panicked to realize that one of the therapists at Arkham Asylum is actually getting through to him. But the therapy sessions stops when Joker becomes the latest recipient of Darkseid-granted cosmic power (not the first or last time this would happen), gaining the ability to create a pocket dimension where his thoughts become reality.
The Joker has a grand old time torturing Batman and others, but Superman realizes that part of the pocket dimension is dedicated to keeping the Joker’s therapist away from him. The Man of Steel frees the unnamed therapist so she can continue her work, and literally bends the Joker’s arm until he listens to her. Despite his best efforts, the Joker can’t help but open up to the woman, which leads to him confronting memories of childhood abuse and trauma.
Overwhelmed by being “driven sane,” the Ace of Knaves gives up and returns the heroes and therapist to Earth before declaring that he needs to become a “productive member of society” (although he takes this back moments later after being snatched away by Darkseid’s forces). It’s great to see a comic display the positive power of a competent therapist, but Superman’s forced therapy tactics might require some examination.
Detective Comics Vol. 1 #826
When Robin (Tim Drake) is looking for an escape from criminals during Gotham’s busy holiday season, he leaps into a car when the driver offers him a ride to safety. The driver turns out to be the Joker, who was — entirely coincidentally — cruising past.
When Robin wakes up from being knocked out, he has been tied to the passenger seat, and is forced to watch as the Joker talks very pleasantly while running down pedestrians.
The Joker here is a mixture of hilarious dialogue and terrible violence. He switches from seeming sweet and silly to deciding murder is the only way to respond to poor fast-food service. But what makes this story odder still is Robin’s strategy. He’s able to save himself and stop the Joker by referencing the Marx Brothers.
Alan Kistler is a sci-fi/comic book historian and transmedia personality who moonlights as a consulting nerd, actor, and narrative writer. He is a contributor to Wonder Woman Psychology and author of the New York Times Best Seller Doctor Who: A History. He is a lifelong Joker fan and wants to see the Joker signal in a movie one day.