origin stories

Don’t Get It Twisted: The Ultimate Guide to the Joker’s Origin Stories

“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” Photo: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

“Fool you once, shame on you, fool you twice, joker’s trick … ” Such are the immortal words of the parody account @jokers_trick, which tweets utterly fake, chaotic evil Joker-isms with the unhinged zeal of a freshman Dark Knight fan. The account, with its quotes from scenes that never really existed in any film or TV show, is as good an introduction as any into the self-consciously *~*twisted*~* world of the Joker — or, ahem, Joker. As with any enduring comic-book character, Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime has gone through so many rebirths and reiterations over the decades (between his original DC run, the iconic Adam West TV series, the animated shows, the video games, and the live-action films), that’s it’s hard to believe a line like the above hasn’t already been written. Has it?

Joker’s whole shtick — no matter the medium — is that the character is a loopy, confused liar with an ever-shifting backstory. As he quips in the 1988 Alan Moore comic Batman: The Killing Joke, “I mean, what is it with you? What made you what you are? Girlfriend killed by the mob, maybe? Brother carved up by some mugger? Something like that, I bet. Something like that … Something like that happened to me, you know. I … I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” Indeed, keeping all of the character’s origin stories straight can be enough to drive even the most ardent Batstan into Arkham Asylum or the depths of @jokers_trick. So allow us to lay out the deck for you. Turn up the Steve Miller Band, put on your Boo Boo the Fool nose, and dive in to the chemical waste below, because we took this job extremely why-so-seriously.

Batman #1 (1940)

Like yin and yang, or clowns and flying rodents, the Joker has been around for nearly as long as his archrival, having been introduced in the very first issue of Batman #1. He arrived without an origin story, already a psychopath and killing for fun with his special toxin dubbed “Joker’s venom,” which somehow left his victims with a permanent grin on their faces. The DC artists (Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson are credited with creating the character) initially intended to kill off Joker in order to make Batman appear more competent, but an editor allegedly reneged at the last minute, prompting the artists to hastily add a frame showing that the Joker had survived the issue, living to trick another day. By 1942, the writers had transformed him from a psychotic mass murderer into more of a goofy prankster, to better market the comics to kiddos. Because yeah, stuff like this isn’t disturbing at all. 

Detective Comics #168, “The Man Behind the Red Hood!” (1951)

This issue, penned by the character’s co-creator Bill Finger, was the first to demystify the Joker’s origins. According to Finger, the Joker was already committing crimes under a different alias — the Red Hood — when, one night as he was trying to rob a factory and evade Batman, he dove into a pool of chemical water. When he emerged, he was sporting the white skin, green hair, and general Billie Eilish look we’ve come to associate with the Joker.

Batman TV Series (1966)

What Adam West’s live-action Batman series lacked in things like three-dimensional characterization and story complexity, it more than made up for in panache. Among the series’ many cultural contributions is Cesar Romero’s performance as a fun, over-the-top Joker. He only appeared in a handful of episodes per season, and, seemingly preoccupied with his metal hand buzzers and gag flowers, he never really divulged a full backstory. What we do know from this version of the Joker is that he was a high-school dropout, hypnotist, and “master of disguise” who turned to crime. One episode featured a mugshot of him without the clown makeup, suggesting that it was a put-on, but Romero personally subscribed to the “chemicals turned Joker’s hair green” backstory.

The Killing Joke (1988)

Hot off the release of his acclaimed Watchmen graphic novels, DC’s golden boy of the post-Bronze Age, Alan Moore, adapted the 1951 Red Hood story for his own take on the Joker mythos in a one-off graphic novel The Killing Joke. In Moore’s seminal version, the Joker was a mild-mannered engineer who quit his job at a chemical plant to pursue his dream of stand-up comedy. After failing miserably at comedy, he decides to help some criminals break into the chemical plant so that he can make some money for his pregnant wife, Jeannie. While planning the crime, Jeannie and their unborn child die in an unspecified accident, and later, at the chemical plant, Batman scares the engineer (now the Red Hood — keeping up?) into the plant’s chemical waste catch basin. A pipe sweeps him outside, where he finds his appearance altered by the chemicals. That transformation and the grief over his wife’s death drive him to become the Joker.

Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)

In Tim Burton’s Batman, Jack Nicholson plays Jack Napier, a Gotham City mobster responsible for mugging and killing Bruce Wayne’s parents. Years later, he gets set up by a mob boss who plans to have him killed by a crooked cop at a chemical plant. Batman stops the accident, but Napier falls into a vat of chemicals (is that a motif I smell, or is it just that noxious vat of chemicals?) altering his visage and driving him, well, batty. In a delightfully 1980s touch, the Joker’s smile is due to a botched plastic surgery job following the accident.

Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

In this theatrically released adaptation of Batman: The Animated Series, the Mark Hamill–voiced Joker got his start as a hit man and chauffeur for Gotham City mob boss Salvatore Valestra. After carrying out a hit for him, the Man Who Would Be Joker started his own crime outfit, and endured a, yup, chemical plant accident that turned him extra Joker-y.

Batman Confidential , “Lovers and Madmen” (2007-2008)

In this limited series that let different writers get creative with the Bat-canon, the erstwhile Joker is introduced as Jack, a former hit man for a Gotham City crime family called the Berlantis. In this version, Batman is the one who actually causes the Jack’s smile-shaped scar, during a showdown between the two. It’s all very Harry and Voldemort, entwining their two fates. And then — because this ain’t your grand-dad’s origin story — instead of falling into chemicals at the chemical plant, the chemicals fall onto Jack, completing his transformation into the Joker.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Christopher Nolan intended to leave his iteration of the Joker intentionally vague, making him all the more elemental a force of nature. As with comic-book versions of the Joker, this one’s an unreliable narrator who gives differing accounts for his Glasgow grin and penchant for chaos. In one, he carves the smile into his own face leading his wife to leave him; in another, the disfigurement was an abusive parent’s doing. And there are no chemical vats here; Joker goes incognito in one scene, makeup off and the swamp green seemingly washed out of his hair, insinuating that the discoloring is a choice. Those dark under-eye bags are all real, though.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)

In Batman: Arkham Asylum, we get a chance to read the Joker’s patient file, which lacks a “precise psychological diagnosis” and adds that, “His past is unknown; conflicting, unconfirmed reports state that he was a failed comedian, a petty thief, and a broken family man.” In recorded patient interviews, a doctor mentions a past “multiple personality disorder” diagnosis, a reference to the Joker’s “super-sanity” diagnosis in Grant Morrison’s original Arkham Asylum graphic novel, which offered an explanation for why his personality flits between goofy and sinister depending on the interpretation. The Joker (Mark Hamill) then lies about his childhood, claiming, “I was born in a small fishing village. I always wanted to join the circus, but my father wouldn’t really let me.” Later, when he says, “I hate small confined spaces, reminds me of my childhood,” well, that might have some merit, actually. Asked if he’s lying, he says, “Who knows? I certainly don’t.” Us neither!

Batman: Streets of Gotham, “The House of Hush” (2010–2011)

In Paul Dini’s story, we meet a foster child named Sonny, who is treated at a clinic by Martha Kane, a kind, matronly figure and Batman’s actual future mother. Sonny is eventually the victim of a chemical laughing gas attack by gangster Salvatore Guzzo, who firebombs the clinic and kidnaps Sonny. The mobsters abuse and molest Sonny, and his broken jaw incorrectly re-aligns into what would become his Jokerish grimace. Sonny-turned-Joker gets his revenge in adulthood, sicking hyenas on Guzzo to eat him alive.

Batman: Zero Year (2013–2014)

This year-long run puts the “Joker” or “THE Joker” thing to rest, because there’s no real Joker to speak of, at all. Instead, in this chronicle of Batman’s, um, zero-eth year, the caped crusader faces off against a Red Hood, called Red Hood One. If you’ve been reading through this whole piece, you’ll remember the Red Hood backstory as one of the Joker’s first. Then again, this arc never explicitly ties Red Hood One to the Joker. So what tips this over the edge into Probably Joker Origin Story territory? Why, because Red Hood One escapes a Batman face off by jumping into a vat of chemicals, of course!

Batman: Endgame (2014–2015)

In Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman: Endgame run of comics, the two reimagine the Joker as an immortal evil entity, potentially Beelzebub incarnate, haunting Gotham City throughout centuries of its history. He’s revealed to be hiding in the shadows in old newspaper photographs, and the like. We have to give Snyder and Capullo props for coming up with a backstory devoid of the words “mobster” and “vat,” but the whole immortal ancient evil clown haunting an American town thing does seem to owe a lot to Pennywise.

Suicide Squad (2016)

Mercifully little time is spent on Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad, although it does mean Viola Davis had to put up with his on-set B.S. for nothing. All we know about the flashy criminal juggalo’s backstory is that he was a mental patient at Arkham Asylum who converted his psychiatrist to a life of lovesick wrongdoing. (Hi, Harley Quinn!)

The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)

In my personal favorite Batman property, we don’t get the Joker’s entire origin story, but we do know that he’s shared some pretty good memories with Batman over the years. Now, he just wants his arch-rival to acknowledge that what the two of them share is special. If Heath Ledger’s Joker is relatable to incels and flight risks, LEGO Joker is a true anti-hero for the rest of us.

Gotham (2014–2019)

From the very beginning of its run, Gotham teased the idea of a Joker origin story with the Arkham-bound circus member, Jerome Valeska (Cameron Monaghan). Described by showrunners as a “proto-Joker,” in the show’s fourth season, he died, was resurrected, and died again — but not before he was able to stage an attack against his twin brother Jeremiah, using laughing gas to infect him with the Joker’s mania (and spark his skin to turn a clownish complexion). If Jerome represented the Joker’s anarchic side, Jeremiah was a calculating schemer. In the same way that the Arkham Asylum arc used multiple personalities/super-sanity to explain away decades of extreme tonal shifts in the character, Gotham used the time-honored TV drama tactic of “because twins!” The mythos all came together in the 2019 episode “Ace of Chemicals,” in which Bruce Wayne chases Jeremiah into a — say it with me! — vat of chemicals! When he resurfaces in a later episode with a hyena laugh and purple suit, he’s in full J mode.

Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019)

Which brings us to Arthur Fleck, the latest sad clown take on the character, out this week in Todd Phillips’ Joker. Much has been made of the dropped “The,” but Jack Nicholson’s version also went by the Cher-like one-word Joker moniker. This one seems to have ditched some of the more supernatural, heightened elements of the backstory (sorry, vats of chemical waste purists!) in favor of a gritty, realistic take, incorporating elements from The Killing Joke’s failed comedian story and what appears to be a more grounded look at the character’s psychosis. Arthur is a clown and aspiring stand-up, who lives with and cares for his aging single mother, Penny Fleck, and regularly visits a social worker assigned to him after a stay in a hospital for mental illness. Arthur’s mom, we learn, is a former employee of Thomas Wayne, who believes the man to be a savior for Gotham. We won’t spoil the details of Arthur’s complete backstory here; all in all, we’re meant to believe that a combination of trauma, mental-health issues and continued marginalization pushed him to become the Joker.

The Ultimate Guide to Joker’s Many Twisted Backstories