You’ve probably seen panels from Batman #66, even if you don’t know it: It’s the one where Joker says the word “boner” a lot. And while it might be extra funny now because of semantic drift, it’s emblematic of Joker stories of its time. The Clown Prince of Crime used to be a lot more about clowning than crime.
So how did he become the murderous mastermind of modern day comics? How did he come twisted?
The answer is nostalgia, changing cultural standards, and the 1970s. But to fully grasp the transition, let’s first go back to the 1940s.
The Joker started out as a menacing murderer
Trickster Joker — a guy who once hired a bunch of comedy writers to come up with his heists because he was tired of doing it himself — is actually an evolution of the character’s original form. When Joker debuted in 1940’s Batman #1, he was a stone cold killer with his own gang.
Golden Age Joker liked to steal and kill, and he liked his victims to know that he was coming so they could stew in their fear. He liked Batman to know it, too, so that it would be all the more crushing when the Caped Crusader failed to protect the Joker’s intended target.
One of the only things that the Joker’s co-creators, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson, agreed on about the character’s creation was that visual inspiration was drawn from actor Conrad Veidt’s appearance in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs, playing a character with a permanent rictus grin. That sort of creepy menace was exactly what they wanted in an arch-nemesis for the World’s Greatest Detective.
“I wanted somebody that would make an indelible impression, would be bizarre, would be memorable like the Hunchback of Notre Dame or any other villains that had unique physical characters,” Robinson said in a 2009 interview.
The Joker transitioned from being a thrilling villain with a twisted smile to a laughing villain with an arsenal of tricks in the late 1950s, as the Comics Code forced publishers to cut any depictions of explicit violence. Golden Age Joker had used deadly laughing gas from the get go, but this sillier era expanded that arsenal in corresponding ways — squirting lapel flowers, trick guns, and other weapons disguised as toys or harmless pranks.
This is the Joker who pulled “boners” and drove a purple car with his own face on it. Cesar Romero cemented that portrayal in the public consciousness with 1966’s Batman, which kept the Joker prominent in comics (as it did for relatively one-note villains like Mr. Freeze and the Riddler).
But when the popularity of the television series waned, so did the popularity of Batman comics. By 1973, the Joker hadn’t appeared in a Batman comics story in five years — but the Comics Code had also been significantly weakened.
You could argue that the moment the Joker became “twisted” was with Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ very first Joker story, 1973’s “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge.” It follows Batman over the course of a single dark night as he hunts the Joker, who himself is hunting five former henchmen who he believes have wronged him. The climax of the story is no-holds brawl between hero and villain.
As one of a new, younger generation (read: hippies) in American comics, O’Neil had already made a name for himself by stripping Green Arrow of upper-class clout to transform him into a hero of the inner city. But he’s best known for using strong character work and a flair for crime drama to slowly shift the tone of Batman stories from the Adam West/Comics Code era to the character we’re more familiar with today.
In his Batman comics, O’Neil conjured an aura of predestination to Batman’s battle with the Joker for the first time, and he was also the first comics creator to establish that the villain was “criminally insane.” By the 1980s, other comics creators were picking up the new tone he’d set down. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke became the ur-story of how Batman and the Joker are locked in eternal conflict. 1988’s Batman: A Death In the Family, written by Jim Starlin and drawn by Jim Aparo, further enshrined the idea that their rivalry wasn’t merely fated, but deeply personal, when the Joker brutally murdered Robin.
Those Jokers were the ones that influenced the production of Batman (1989) and from there, Batman: The Animated Series, closing the feedback loop between screen versions and comics versions. But every time the Joker fires a trick gun, squirts acid from a flower, or cooks up a scheme involving an oversized version of a mundane object, that’s the indelible influence of silly 1960s Joker, bonering it up to this day.
The Joker isn’t alone in his evolution. Batman has proven to be an infinitely versatile character in his 80 years of existence, having been everything from a stone-faced vigilante who would freely shoot a man in self defense, to an infallibly cheerful father figure, to an almost psychedelic sci-fi adventurer, to a technology-assisted dark urban legend, to the emotionally compromised father of a complicated brood of equally emotionally compromised younger proteges.
As Batman adjusted to meet our cultural needs, so did the Joker. No boners about it.