It’s sadly predictable, but let’s talk about the Joker.
Even before the contemporary rush of superhero movies, and his own recent serious solo film, the Joker had a brand recognition that was reserved for only the most iconic of comic book characters: alongside his nemesis Batman, Superman and Spider-Man (and perhaps the Fantastic Four, Hulk and Captain America, Wonder Woman and Dr Doom), the Joker had a presence in popular culture. It’s notable that this generation of superheroes who managed to claim space in public discourse are predominantly white, male and morally good, with only Wonder Woman and the Invisible Girl representing female heroism and the Joker and Dr Doom appearing on the side of evil. However, that’s a wider discussion for another time.
More relevant to this discussion is that the Joker is part of the Golden Age of comic book superheroes, one of the characters emerging from the DC stable, generated by an aesthetic that deliberately emphasised uncomplicated notions of good and evil, and found himself popularised in the 1960s’ TV show of Batman, appeared in the early superhero films of the 1980s and has become an inevitable choice as a featured villain within the Batman franchise. Tim Burton made him the antagonist of the first modern Batman film, and subsequent cinematic versions have been the subject of considerable debate. Even Lex Luthor, the antagonist to Superman who also appeared in the 1980s cinematic adaptations of comic book stories, has less presence and perceived importance. It is only in the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that villains have become as central as the heroes, with Magneto for The X-Men and Thanos for The Avengers that an antagonist has been awarded similar attention.
And that recent film of The Joker has reiterated the character’s potential and depth. But this essay is about where the Joker came from, what influences were adopted and how, over seventy-odd years, the character has evolved into its current identity.
The starting point for this study is a look at AS Jurgens’ 2014 Batman’s Joker, a neo-modern clown of violence, which explore the character’s roots in the pantomime of the nineteenth century. Ready?
In order to set the scene, Jurgens creates a dichotomy between a popular image of the circus clown – ‘picaresque, blithe and droll’ – and the clowns ‘detached from their original context’ who embody ‘malice, deformation and above all violence’. While acknowledging that ‘the clown is an anthropological constant that exists in all cultures’ who has been filtered through the commedia dell’arte, and that ‘it is very difficult to define the clown’s essential nature’, Jurgens ignores large swathes of clowns’ manifestations (fromHopi clownswho ritually menace their communities to Lecoq’s mimes). The raw dualism between the ‘happy clown’ and the ‘evil violent clown’ finds its origins for Jurgens in the pantomime of the nineteenth century. Baudelaire’s description of a severed head in a pantomime, explicit and gory is selected as the Joker’s Ur-text, revealing the brutal content of the French grotesque pantomime.
The Théâtre des Funambules, which emerged in the boulevard theatre of Paris in the early nineteenth century, is further referenced as the origin of this kind of pantomime, specifically through the career of Gaspard Deburau (between 1819 and 1846). As Edward Nye (2016) observes, it is in the pantomimes-arlequinades that the theatre gained its notoriety, and the specific context of the French Revolutions, and their attitudes towards performance, gave birth to what Jurgens recognises as its singular identity: ‘the reinterpretation and intensification of the potential for violence in the commedia dell’arte and French melodrama’ in which ‘bodies were used as weapons, mutilated and entirely dismembered… deformation is art’.
It is easy to see how this kind of theatre – although it fell out of fashion after the 1830 revolution and disappeared with the destruction of the venue in 1862 – led to the Grand Guignol at the end of the nineteenth century and why Baudelaire, with his fascination for the subversive and grotesque, would become intrigued by its particular violence. There’s also a parallel to the increasing secularism of French thought, the rejection of the human as a spiritual being to mere object, and the possible reduction of the individual to a mere meat-machine, although this fits more neatly with theological discourse.
Anyway, the work of Deburau was given a nastier edge by the Hanlon Lee brothers – where Deburae was a harlequin Pierrot who an elegant ‘scoundrel’, their version took on extended and grotesque physicality, which Baudelaire described in terms of the beast or bird, not the human. Jurgens pays attention to the enlarged mouth (Baudelaire: ‘his cakehole seemed to run to his ears’), which will become a characteristic of the Joker). Death was explicitly represented, and the plots were located not in the fairy-land of the Funambules but recognisable reality. The parallels with the evolution of the melodrama are obvious: its early manifestations were magical, filled with supernatural atmospheres and activities. Now, the scenarios were culled from mundane life – the retreat of the holy again, for a more material reality – and in their plots presaged the Grand Guignol more exactly (a coffin maker turns to murder to enhance his business, a dentist cures a toothache with the help of a grenade).
After all I have said about Baudelaire’s interest in the extreme, he wasn’t that keen on this new, English clown. He saw the laughter at cruelty as excessive and the aesthetic too violent.
In the Hanlon Lee version of Pierrot, Jurgens notices that Baudelaire is moving towards a description of a peculiarly ‘modern aesthetic of violence’. The humour comes from the absurdist extension of the mundane and violence generates not fear and pity but laughter. Like Baudelaire, I regard this as repulsive, a dehumanisation of the audience, invited to revel in suffering. It is a dark, gallows humour and a reflection of a society coming to terms with the rejection of the holy, discovering that the human is not a reflection of the divine but merely an object. It is not only reflective of the chaos of the revolutionary era, but ideal for the capitalist denial of human worth.
Jurgens moves into the twentieth century with some Adorno. Bearing in mind that Adorno’s attitude to jazz suggests that he was, as well as a Marxist, a big fucking racist, it’s worth doubting his every word, but he says ‘a genuine and new art manifests itself explicitly in the alien, the dissonant, and the ugly’ (1970, 41,42). While Adorno was too busy listening to Xenakis or whatever, comic books do emerge in this period. God alone knows what this angel of history would make of the Golden Age, let alone the EC Horror range.
Actually, I do know. He would have hated it because it was popular and anti-intellectual, but might have recognised its continuity with the aesthetic he’s imagining here.
Adorno sees how the modern world encourages a certain cruelty in art, an art which is turn further ‘mutilates’ ‘the living’. Laughter is cruelty, a strategy for distancing the viewer from the human, another act of alienation. He also has a crack at circus, acrobatics, the music hall and variety. For a Marxist, he sure hated the pleasures of the working class, regarding it as spectacle, absent of any ontological substance.
At this point, Jurgens gets into literary predecessors of the Joker. While these are vital and intriguing (there’s a Hugo novel featuring a displaced heir to the throne who becomes an entertainer because of his facial peculiarities, and Lautreamont’s Maldoror who can’t laugh but slashes his lips to make himself look like one of those clowns), that might be another bit to set aside. So that’s the historical, political and theological and literary that I am ignoring just now.
Unfortunately for me, Jurgens’s first example of the Joker’s identity comes from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and I have little interest in the cinematic Joker of Heath Ledger. Not that it is unworthy or total rubbish (although it is too long and too dark, too self-consciously adult and all that stuff about Two-Face does my head in). but that the specific ontologies of cinema are fundamentally different to that of the comic book. I’m interested in the way that the ontology of the comic book expresses itself in the superhero narrative, and how that manifestation has elements of theatricality or dramaturgy driving its characteristics. Apart from all the other stuff in film studies (which is very cool and everything), the superhero film borrows from the comic book, and I am pretty sure that it is possible to find an example of the Joker telling Batman that they are basically the same in a comic book, so the content doesn’t need to be from Nolan’s script.
If someone fancies it, though, there is an interesting essay on how Nolan’s depiction of the Joker as ‘a nobody’ with his ‘foundational myths (that) are fluid, constantly morphing’ (Sanyal 2011, 74) relates to the latest Joker who remains a nobody even with a very precise origin story.
When Jurgens gets to the comic books, it is Death of the Family (Snyder/Capullo), an example of the Joker as ‘a brutish pyscho killer ‘jokerizing’ his world like a disease’ and even wearing a skin mask. Jurgens concludes that ‘the Joker embodies a staged type of violence, an aggressive distortion and deformation… of bodies by means of violence’ (Adorno, 1970, 75) and ‘enters everyday life as a virtual explosion’.