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The 5 Most Messed Up Versions Of The Joker


The 5 Most Messed Up Versions Of The Joker

1. The “Reborn” Joker of The Dark Knight Strikes Again

The Dark Knight Strikes Again is a disaster of a comic. It has about as much subtlety and nuance of… Well, any other latter day Frank Miller comic. Pick your poison. Like a lot of dumpster-grade creative works, however, what it has in spades are the kernels of good ideas. Take its interpretation of the Joker, for instance.

Now, if you’ve read the book’s precursor — the seminal The Dark Knight Returns — and nothing else you might be wondering how there even is a Joker.

The clown that doesn’t frown offed himself at the end of the previous story, leaving his longtime nemesis/best friend Batman in a bit of a pickle. What with framing him for his murder and all, after the decrepit Bruce Wayne chose one final time not to kill him.

Yet he returns, amid a cavalcade of unrelated baddies and under the veneer of Miller’s slapdash art. Except this Joker isn’t the one Bruce fought for all those years and decades beforehand. Instead, it’s one of the Dark Knight’s oldest and only friends. One Dick Grayson, a.k.a. the first Robin.

It seems in this continuity Bats gave Dick the boot for being too incompetent. This being after the boy in black drafted young Robin into his war on crime, questioned his mental faculties, and admitted even to himself that the kid was too traumatized by the death of his parents to be drawn into the dynamic duo. The Batman of Earth-31 (Miller’s universe) is pretty awful, if you hadn’t noticed.

And so Dick rightly developed a dislike for his former boss. So much so that he opted into an experiment that made him a nigh immortal shape-shifter.

The trade-off supposedly being that it also unbalanced him psychologically, though we’d guess that Batman’s abuse had a part to play in that long beforehand. These issues drove him to torture Bruce right back by becoming the second Joker, then murdering several superheroes to draw his old mentor out.

What’s really tragic about this version of the villain is what it says about Dick. In most other comics, Grayson is just about the most well-adjusted individual within Batman’s pull — second only maybe to Barbara Gordon. Batgirl, for the uninitiated. He’s kind, funny, likeable, and on the rare occasions that he had to don the ears and cape just as capable of pulling off the Batman gig as his mentor. For him to wind up this bad his world and so-called father figure must have really, truly done a number on him.


2. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker’s “Kid Stuff”

The Joker of Batman: The Animated Series and its subsequent spin-offs was typically pretty tame. Despite some rather upsetting imagery from time to time, this iteration of the clown prince was intended for children, after all. As time went on, however, the animated universe began to edge closer and closer to the edge of “family friendly.”

One such step forward was Batman Beyond. Set 30-some years after the original series we got ourselves a new Batman, a cantankerous Bruce Wayne, and a lot of weirdly effective cyberpunk plotlines. Not to mention one very messed up conclusion to the otherwise mostly amicable Joker.

In this version of events, Joker pulls A Death in the Family on third Robin Tim Drake (instead of Jason Todd). By which we mean he tortured, disfigured, and otherwise tormented the kid until he snapped.

At this point Drake snitched on his boss, and joined forces with the Joker. Though not exactly in a stable frame of mind. In fact, when Batman comes to his sidekick’s aid, Tim snaps out of his brainwashing just long enough to blow Mr. J away. With a spear gun.

Though unfortunately it didn’t even end there.

Jump cut to those 30-ish years later. The Joker is back, and he’s still using Tim Drake for his not-so-funny antics. If abusing the young Robin psychologically wasn’t enough the Joker literally got inside his head. This time with a microchip that implanted his thoughts, memories, and personality. The Joker being the Joker, he made sure that even after Tim escaped his abuser — and the memories thereof — he wouldn’t be safe forever.

This was far from the first time the animated Joker pulled some dark shit (check out Mask of the Phantasm for more on that). It did, however, lead to some of the most overtly horrific scenes in the cartoon’s existence. Not to mention one of the Joker’s more altogether twisted moments in the DC multiverse.

3. Dr. Joker and Mr. Wayne

joker batman

It was a Batman story that kicked off the concept of Elseworlds — those DC tales set in parallel universes, with new takes on familiar characters. It’s only fitting that there have subsequently been scads of alternate reality retellings of the Dark Knight, his allies, and antagonists. And wherever there’s a Batman story, the Joker is nearly always shortly behind.

One such story is Batman: Two Faces. Like Gotham by Gaslight (the aforementioned debut Elseworld story) this offshoot is set in the 1880s. Don’t let the name confuse you, however. This isn’t about Harvey Dent getting chased down by a penny-farthing Batmobile over child labor.

Whereas Gaslight only mentions its interpretation of the Joker in passing, here Bruce Wayne’s arch-nemesis is very much front and center. In fact, the dueling souls are more inextricable than ever before. That’s because Two Faces is a retelling of the equally Victorian Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

batman two faces

Yep. In this story Batman and the Joker are one in the same. After drinking a cockamamie concoction Bruce Wayne finds himself with super strength (which he uses to fight crime, of course) and a split personality with a thing for carving smiles into corpses. Corpses made by him. Because he’s the Joker.

The story itself — penned by Guardians of the Galaxy scribes Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning — is just a bit questionable. There’s the rather worrying issue of every woman in Bruce Wayne’s life being recast as a prostitute, a victim of murder and mutilation, or both. Not to mention that the whole climax hinges on Batman turning himself in to the authorities, only to commit suicide seconds later. But there is the grain of a good idea here.

joker batman

That grain being the Joker. We’re often told that Batman is responsible for his own worst enemy, but here it’s patently true. Bruce goes too far in trying to take the law in his own hands. Not only does it backfire, it twists his one steadfast tennet (no killing) back against him. Here he isn’t just responsible for the Joker’s actions by inaction. The killer is literally a manifestation of his own physiology. Were the real Batman to ever find out, we doubt he’d be too pleased with the cosmic irony.


4. Batman and Judge Dredd team up to fight an immortal Joker

batman joker

It’s plain for anyone with a working pair of eyes, and a basic knowledge of the character that Batman’s greatest dilemma is crystallized within the Joker. To kill or not to kill, that is the question abused by the Clown Prince of crime over, and over again. And often to great effect. From The Killing Joke to The Dark Knight Returns the Joker repeatedly prey’s on his foe’s unwillingness to kill in some truly twisted ways.

However you feel about that ongoing moral debate, there is at least one version of reality where the point is moot. That is the one found in Batman/Judge Dredd: Die Laughing. Yes, that’s a crossover between the Caped Crusader — non-lethal defender of Gotham — and a guy that makes The Punisher look like Condiment Man.

joker batman judge dredd

Despite their differences, however, the pair have more in common than a penchant for exposed jawlines. They both obsess about bringing criminals to their own versions of justice, for one. Which came in handy in the duo’s surprisingly frequent crossovers throughout the 90s. Not the least of which occurred whenthe Joker transported himself to the ridiculous, grimdark future of Mega-City One.

joker batman judge dredd

Here the giggling gutter “teamed up” with Judge Dredd’s own arch-villains: the Dark Judges. The scare quotes are there to remind you that lead bad guy Judge Death first tried to possess the Joker, but found him too hopelessly messed up to control. So, instead, the somewhat ironically named scion of undead justice taught the Joker to jump bodies as well. Not only did this give Mr. J supernatural powers — like a laugh so terrible it exploded bystanders’ heads — it made him effectively immortal.

batman joker

So, here we have a Joker who’s not only limited to conventional means of murder, but also can’t be killed. That’s a tough break for all the death penalty pushing cops, heroes, and villains that might otherwise off the serial slaughterer without the Bat’s permission. Not to mention the glimmer of hope that is old age or wear and tear removing him from the equation.

Were it not for Batman dragging his worse half back to the DC universe (thereby nullifying his new powers) that would have been a grim reality indeed.

5. A Joker too real to be funny

You know the best thing about the Joker? He isn’t real. Sure, we here on Earth Prime have more than our fair share of psychological tortures and tragedies to deal with on a daily basis. That’s just all the more reason that an honest-to-goodness killer clown would be a real drag should he ever enter the equation.

Yet enter he did. Well, not really. But Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s graphic novel simply titled “Joker” tried to give us a much more realistic take on the comedy themed killer in 2008. Though there’s nothing funny about this particular, hyper-gritty imagining of the vindictive villain.

Here we have a Joker fueled not by an ill-explained chemical bath, but mixing booze, pills, and crushing depression. His criminal empire is just that: legitimate business fronts hiding crimes both violent and otherwise. He’s aided by allies who love and fear him, but few of which actually understand him. In fact, the entire story is told from the perspective of one such low-rent henchman who sees himself one day entering the Joker’s warped inner circle.

He’s wrong, of course, and events unfold just as badly as his understanding of the situation. Along the way we meet a Harley Quinn who skins people alive, a Killer Croc that eats people to destroy evidence, and a bevy of other high-profile rogues who have survived this long only because they understand the Joker is more dangerous than they are.

When everything shakes out we’re left with exactly the same status quo as every other, less believable Joker story. The murder clown gets found out by the bat, and the two go at it. The damage that’s been left in their wake, however, feels unreasonably sickening. That’s thanks in part to Bermejo’s absolutely stellar (and gruesome) art.

Mostly, though, it’s because the Joker’s comic book-style mayhem coming from a place that feels just the slightest bit believable is tough to swallow. The way his charisma and imbalance blend to make people demonize or idolize his mental issues isn’t too far off from the way we handle such problems today. In that way, this version of the Joker is just as worrisome is reality as fiction.


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