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The creator of Batman: The Animated Series had the perfect take on using the Joker

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To Paul Dini, the Joker is an artistic gift — but only to a point

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The Joker, in Dark Night: A True Batman Story, DC Comics (2016). Paul Dini, Eduardo Risso/DC Comics

Dark Night: A True Batman Story is the 2016 memoir of Paul Dini, co-creator of Batman: The Animated Series, and architect of the DC Animated Universe. In it, he and artist Eduardo Risso make one of the most powerful commentaries on the Joker I’ve ever read.

And they do it in less than two pages.

Dark Night is characterized (literally) with Dini’s life-long habit of using fictional characters to process his thoughts, and specifically how it helped him while he was writing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and the second season of Batman: The Animated Series simultaneously, while also recovering from being severely beaten in a random mugging.

In other words, he spends much of the book in dialogue with various cartoon characters, including most of the cast of Batman: The Animated Series.

In the form of a conversation with a parade of Batman characters, in Dark Night’s final pages find Dini reflecting on turning a terrifying story from his life into a book. And the voice of his darkest inklings and insecurities is, of course, the Joker.

The villain criticizes his sense of emotional progress as boring, unoriginal. What’s compelling about Batman writer gets mugged, recovers? Now if it was “Batman writer, fatality of street crime” — that would be funny. “Fairly dripping with gut-busting irony!”

And what if he’d survived, but his trauma had consumed him?

“What if you had snapped?” says the Joker. “Then you’d be interesting?” Paul Dini replies “It’s fun to think like a joyful nihilist for a while. A character like you, well, you’re a gift.” in Dark Night: A True Batman Story, DC Comics (2016). Paul Dini, Eduardo Risso/DC Comics

This flatters the Joker’s ego, naturally.

“You give permission to artists, writers, and actors to go to their darkest places,” Paul Dini says. “I have always been a generous muse,” the Joker replies, in Dark Night: A True Batman Story, DC Comics (2016). Paul Dini, Eduardo Risso/DC Comics

While the role of the Joker in film has not risen to the level of “cursed” as, say, the Crow, there’s certainly an aura to it.

Rumors swirled after Heath Ledger’s untimely death that his accidental overdose was related to the emotional cost of portraying such a psychopathic character. Jared Leto seemed to buy into the myth that actors have to go someplace to bring the Joker to life, with all the live rats and dead pigs he reportedly sent to his coworkers. It’s no wonder that Joaquin Phoenix, method actor, jumped at a chance to play the role, and as the protagonist, no less.

(On the other hand, we have the ever-cheerful, fan-embracing uncle of the internet, Mark Hamill, who’s voiced the Joker for 30 years.)

But after Dini says that the Joker is a window to the darkest parts of an artist’s soul, he draws a hard line.

“But to go beyond fiction, to embrace anger and cruelty, and try to use them to feel powerful, a person can’t wind up as anything but lost and unbearably sad,” says Paul Dini to the Joker in Dark Night: A True Batman Story, DC Comics (2016). Paul Dini, Eduardo Risso/DC Comics

The Joker, naturally, has the perfect reply:

“Ha ha! And that’s the joke, ol’ son!” the Joker says, in Dark Night: A True Batman Story, DC Comics (2016). Paul Dini, Eduardo Risso/DC Comics

But so does Dini:

“Oh, I know, which is why you don’t get to win,” Paul Dini tells the Joker, “Not in this story, anyway,” In Dark Night: A True Batman Story, DC Comics (2016). Paul Dini, Eduardo Risso/DC Comics

The statement cuts right to the heart of why some fear that Joker screenings might spark violence, and the debate over whether that fear is valid. The Joker only works — as a character, as a metaphor — when he isn’t aspirational. A great villain requires a great hero, and a great defeat.