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My Fear of the Joker

I hate clowns. Not in an acceptable I find them creepy type of hatred. Rather I am profoundly disturbed by clowns. As my mother tells it when I was approached by a clown at a birthday party as a kid I nut punched the guy and climbed a tree to hide out until the party was over. It still feels like a rational decision in my mind. I don’t know where the vitriol comes from. Maybe I read Stephen King’s It at too young of age or maybe I was exposed to stories of John Wayne Gacy in my formative years. It could simply be that my brother made me watch the Bozo Show every morning before we left for school and Bozo and Cookie creeped me the fuck out. But in reality, my hatred of clowns probably is linked to the archnemesis of my favorite vigilante, the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker.

The 1970s & the Return on the True Clown Prince of Crime

I started to read Batman comics when the character had fully emerged from his campy years brought about because of the popular ‘60s television show. It was the early ‘80s, still a few years before Frank Miller would get a stranglehold on the characters direction and make the hero dark…. so very dark. While the Joker would also become darker under Miller, he was already pretty scary when I first started picking up Batman. Gone was the Caesar Romero interpretation from the television show and entered a deranged supervillain whose madness was infectious and his body count was high. I remember reading old and very worn copies of ‘70s Batman comics when the Dark Knight still had a bit of smirk and his costume was heavily blue and gray. Dennis O’Neil had firmly imprinted his version of the Batman and had also restored the Joker to his homicidal roots. So, when I began reading the new issues off the spinner rack my young mind was exposed to that grim white face, piercing green hair, and that maniacal smile. Always in a purple suit with a flower on the lapel that shot acid on countless victims. His disregard for life was staggering and my mind was warped to the idea that all clowns are psychopathic killers and I still feel comfortable in that belief.

I loved reading Batman in the ‘80s. There just seemed to be so much happening with the character and I felt like I was on the ground floor for a rebirth, especially as it all built into the fantastic 1989 Tim Burton masterpiece Batman. There were great monthly comics. Of course, Batman and Detective Comics were wonderful reads but there was also Batman and the Outsiders which was born out of the Brave and the Bold. World’s Finest was a must for me until it ended in the buildup to the Crisis on Infinite Earths and then he became the only one of the big three DC allowed to be in Justice League International. Finding Batman comics was not hard to do and it became easier as DC discovered the prestige format mini- series. The Dark Knight Returns set the standard and was followed by Jim Starlin’s Batman: the Cult. Luckily for comic fans DC quickly packaged these into trades and flooded the bookstores with them and it helped darken the Dark Knight. Yet big things weren’t just happening in mini-series as the Batman and Detective monthlies were home to Year One, Year Two, the Many Deaths of Batman, Ten Nights of the Beast and maybe the most tragic of them all, A Death in the Family. It’s this last comic that may have solidified my fear of clowns and specifically the Joker.

The Decision was Ours….

I have a secret. I don’t know if it is a dark secret but it is a secret that has haunted me for some time. I remember reading Batman #427 and was shocked that I could help decide the fate of Robin. DC was putting the choice in our hands. It was a 1-900 number, which meant you’d be charged for the call but I didn’t care, my parents did, but I did not. I remember picking up the receiver and dialing the number to have Robin killed. I hated Jason Todd. I missed Dick Grayson as Robin. Even though Dick had become Nightwing and was fully entrenched in the New Teen Titans I wished for him to return as Robin so maybe, just maybe if Jason was dead then Dick would feel compelled to return. Right? Plus, Jason was a whiny punk who caused more problems than he solved so why not do away with him. Little did I know how DC was going to end Jason’s life. Of course, it was going to be by the Joker but I never imagined a frenzied Joker taking a crowbar to Robin over and over and over again. That Jim Aparo page traumatized me then and still haunts me today. When I made that call, I never could have imagined the brutality that would be the end of Robin and how evil the Joker would look as he slammed that crowbar into Jason again and again and again. That’s the image of the Joker that plays over in my mind whenever the character is discussed.

The Joker became more twisted and demented as the 80’s wound down and the ‘90s era hit. First came Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s the Killing Joke. I know that many people love this book and grovel at the feet of Alan Moore that he deemed us worthy of reading his Batman work. While I’ll say I loved Bolland’s artwork I hated the book. I despised the treatment of Barbara Gordon. At the time it was simply because of the senseless shooting of her and the torture the Joker used on her to break her father. Later as an adult I also realized that it was implied that Barbara was raped as well. Then Batman ends up sharing a laugh with the Joker at the end like old friends, no thank you. As some have theorized, I would have no problem with Batman breaking his cardinal rule and snapping the clown’s neck. But DC adopted this book as canon so we know that isn’t the ending, making the shared joke even more upsetting. A year later Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s horrific Arkham Asylum: Serious House on Serious Earth was released and it reinforced how truly evil the Clown Prince of crime truly was. Where I disliked the Killing Joke, I loved Arkham Asylum as it was incredibly written, beautifully drawn, and it scared the living crap out of me. McKean’s artwork is downright scary and can still send shivers down my back. I had true fear for Batman as I read that hardcover as Batman went from room to room to defeat his rogue’s gallery as they play a twisted game of hide and seek. I found the story compelling and the twists and turns were perfect. You could tell that it was written by both a very talented writer but also a writer who was a fan of the Batman.

The Joker was lost in the shuffle of the Batman hell that was the ‘90s and ‘00s. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great comics in there and truly incredible runs but the books got bogged down in events with the breaking of the bat, a plague, an earthquake, and Bruce Wayne as a fugitive to name just a few. The Joker was always around, now joined by his popular sidekick Harley Quinn but the Joker wasn’t very scary. He was more of a prop, a boogie man who writers and artists would roll out when they needed a big bad or someone to do something truly awful but my childhood fears weren’t there. Yes, I still hated clowns but the Joker didn’t feel threatening like he once had. It would take the return of Grant Morrison to make me feel the intense threat the Joker really is and he did it with his Batman RIP storyline, where the Joker is once again seen as a deranged threat to all of humanity. As the Black Glove tries to break and eventually kill the Batman a subservient Joker slowly shows his true colors, his evil intelligence, and why at the end of the day he is Batman’s true arch-enemy. Since Batman RIP the Joker has returned to his scary form and once again his grinning face can make me break out in a cold sweat. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo made him the centerpiece for their modern masterpiece run on Batman during the New 52. Although not in every arc his lurking presence was a constant and the reader never knew when the Clown Prince of Crime was going to close in for a kill. Snyder’s horror roots were very evident with his writing on Batman and his use of the Joker restored the fear I once had for the Joker. Tom King has used the Joker very sparingly in his current one-hundred issue opus and more as a side character but the Clown has been restored to his fearful image and I have no doubt he will once again haunt the comics page soon and then probably my dreams.

Heath Ledger & the Modern Interpretation of the Joker!

Yet the Joker has become more than just a demented homicidal clown from the Batman comic books. Sadly, the Joker has become a symbol of chaos. A more realistic fear as people with true ill intent have gravitated toward the character and have sadly lived their anger and hatred through the mask of the Joker. Caesar Romero’s Joker was never scary. None of the villains in the ‘60s Batman show were scary. They were live action cartoons with entertaining and comedic traits and very tame. No one watched the Romero Joker and felt fearful or afraid. We laughed and smiled at watching a one-time Hollywood hearthrob sink to wearing white face paint while refusing to shave off his mustache. I loved it all and enjoy watching it with my children today. I feel the same way about Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989. Nicholson didn’t scare me. Hell, he didn’t even convince me that he was the Joker. He was Jack Nicholson who happened to look like a very well-dressed clown. Then Christopher Nolan’s the Dark Knight hit theaters in the summer of 2008 and Heath Ledger birthed the modern Joker for the American public. An agent of chaos, a rabid dog let loose on the citizens of Gotham, the counter to Batman in every way and he scared not only me but America. Ledger’s Joker was brilliance and well deserving of the Academy Award he won for his portrayal but sadly it spawned copycats, mentally unhinged people in society who wanted to be the Joker. This phenomenon is probably best exemplified by James Holmes, who dressed as the Joker as he carried out his mass shooting in Aurora Colorado on opening weekend of the Dark Knight Rises, the sequel to the Dark Knight. It was a traumatic event for not only the victims and their families but for our society as a whole as once again a man who should be receiving help was instead able to purchase firearms and ammunition to carry out his deranged dark fantasy. But don’t worry, our politicians’ thoughts and prayers are with us. This incident also hit comic fans as once again someone coopted our wonderful pastime into an excuse to kill innocent victims. It also made us fearful to do what we love to do, read comics and watch them on them on the big screen.

DC and Warner Brothers took pause for almost a decade before bringing the Joker back to the big screen, this time with Jared Leto’s interesting take on the Clown Prince of Crime in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Suicide Squad is a guilty pleasure of mine, I enjoy it more than a lot of other people. What I was not a fan of was Leto’s Joker and if you removed his scenes from the film it changes nothing about the film. Leto’s performance of the Joker was twisted but not overtly scary but it perpetuated a current Joker theme and one that is fitting but also concerning in the current world we live in and that is the fact that the Joker is abusive. His twisted narcissism and depraved morality have birthed a sadistic misogynist who’s abuse spawned Harley Quinn and since her creation he seems to take out all his frustrations upon his female counterpart. I understand this direction and if it brings about discussion on abuse then I’m all for it. I also think it is an accurate character trait for the Joker and it completes his character bible of being a completely unredeemable character, one that no writer or artist should ever try to justify. Now it seems like Warner Brothers and DC want to do just that, justify the Joker’s actions, his misogyny, his demented hatred for society, and order.

Joaquin Phoenix & the Latest Incarnation of the Joker

Todd Phillips highly anticipated Joker will reach theatres this week and my trepidation is high. First of all, I don’t believe the Joker should have an origin story. I don’t think that there should be one redeemable trait for the Joker for nothing, absolutely nothing, can justify his actions. Yet it appears that Phillips wants to do just that. To give the Joker a sympathetic background, to give a reason for his madness. From the very first trailer I became fearful of what was to come, and not my fear of clowns, rather my fear that Phillips was going to give the Joker justification, a reason for his homicidal actions. We live in troubled times. We live in a time where we as a people have the ability to move forward into a society of true equality yet antiquated beliefs and those fearful of change hang on to their idiotic ideas of race and gender norms. We have deep seated issues in our country today that are sadly amplified by social media and elected leaders who perpetuate the myth that the white race is under attack. We also have a group of citizens in our country who want to keep a firm grasp on their perceived way of how the world should be, how relationships should be. How men and women and the interaction between the two should be. We live in a society of bullies, people who want to justify their hurtful actions based on the actions of others. We live in a world where mass violence is too easy to carry out and I worry that we are going to see a movie that gives the disenfranchised white man the belief that violence is their only option, that their actions are justified and the Joker becomes their avenue for action. This may be an unfair viewpoint I have. Nor do I think that Todd Phillips set out with this is mind as I think he is a gifted filmmaker whose movies I have enjoyed time and time again, especially Old School which is a personal favorite of mine. Nor am I against violence in film, as anyone who would peruse my video library could see. I just don’t think now is the time for a new Taxi Driver, an examination of the disfranchised white man who turns to violence as their only means of action. Sadly, that’s not a movie for this time.

…..Then I saw the Joker and my fears are founded. It’s sad state of affairs when a theater in a medium sized college town in Iowa needs a security guard on a Friday morning, yet this is the world we live in now where this movie appeals to the crazy present in our society. I’ll say that the movie is visually beautiful, Gotham has never looked more like the gritty and grimy  Gotham I remember from my youth then it does in the Joker. I would have loved for this to have been a Batman film set in the ’70s but rather we have a dark psychological drama that saw every one of my fears realized. A mentally unstable white man with women and mother issues who only feels good when he is violent. A movie where a man feels justified in killing innocents because they dared not to realize his feelings mattered while they dealt with their own chaotic lives. A movie where women are props that exist in the script only to serve the plot rather than feel like realized characters. I will give the movie some credit, it does make an excellent point about how little we fund and take care of the mentally ill in our country. Yet even  this fine point can’t save what is incredibly inappropriate about this movie at this time. Say what you will about my opinion but I really must say that DC’s choice to do the Joker at this time shows their disconnect with the society around them and at end of the day that may be more fearful to me then the Joker himself.

John Burkle holds a BA in Political Science and a MA in Education. He spends his day teaching Politics and Government as well passing on a love of comics to the next generation. When not teaching he reads as many comics as he can, both current and…

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