Any memorable story requires a perfect pairing of a hero and his nemesis, as Moriarty is to Sherlock Holmes, and the whale is to Ahab, and of course, as the Joker is to Batman. For The Arkham Files: Joker, Bruce Timm noted that “I don’t really know why he’s a perfect yin to Batman’s yang … there’s nothing, you know, historical about clowns and bats.” Seeing that Batman turns 75 this year (and today’s Batman Day), what better time to look into the relationship between Batman and the Joker? So let’s dive into one of the most famed hero-villain pairing in history and find out what it is about clowns and bats that makes Joker the perfect antithesis of Batman.
While the mediums and continuities I will use to study this relationship are different, they all reflect the fundamental relationship between Batman and the Joker. A word of warning, there will be possible spoilers for Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: Arkham City, Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Brian Azzarello’s Joker, Grant Morrison’s Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Ed Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs, Kevin Smith’s Batman: Cacophony, Jeph Loeb’s Batman: Hush and Haunted Knight, Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke and Scott Snyder’s Batman: Death of the Family.
First of all, Batman takes up the mantle of darkness to fight for the light, whereas the Joker takes up the appearance of the light and joy to fight for darkness. They are both dealing with the hand that fate has dealt them, as Batman learns that he needs fear to fight the “superstitious and cowardly lot” out of necessity in Miller’s Year One. The Joker, on the other hand, has no choice in the matter of his appearance, as a dip in a vat of chemicals leaves him permanently disfigured into a clown, of all things.
While the basic superhero-villain imagery and method is obviously there, there is a much greater depth to their relationship which begins, quite fittingly, with their respective origins. Batman’s origin is fairly well-known: a young Bruce Wayne has his parents killed in front of him by a mugger who wanted his mother’s pearls. With a police force unwilling to enforce the law properly, he takes it upon himself to act outside the law and become Batman. Ironically enough, while Batman works outside the law, he only does so to uphold its ideals and spirit. He takes upon himself never to kill his opponents, no matter how despicable their crimes become; the criminally insane he delivers to Arkham Asylum.
Moore’s The Killing Joke exposes the Joker’s past to a degree, revealing that he is as much a result of a bad day as Batman is. The Joker reminisces on his his previous life as a chemical engineer who becomes a failed comedian with a pregnant wife. He is press-ganged by criminals into taking up the mantle of the Red Hood to break into the chemical plant he used to work in, even as his wife dies on the day of the heist. Their plan goes awry as Batman and the police arrive and the criminals dies in the ensuing crossfire. The engineer tries to flee but fall into a vat of chemicals, washing up ashore some distance away with chalk-white skin, green hair and red lips perpetually grinning. The Joker is born the moment his mind snaps and he sees the funny side of the thread of events that have befallen him; life has played a cruel joke on him, his life is a joke, so life itself is a joke.
Both men and there mission are thus shaped by their tragedy. Batman takes it upon himself to ensure that no one suffer his own fate, while the Joker takes it upon himself to ensure that everyone shares his own fate and comes to the same realisation. Both are thus fundamentally two sides of the same coin. The personas of both Batman and the Joker are born out a human reaction to their personal tragedies, even if the Joker himself doesn’t hide the fact that neither one is healthy in Morrison’s Arkham Asylum.
Till Death Do Us Part – A Reflection of Life
While both Batman and the Joker are defined by that tragic moment in their life, their attitude towards their respective pasts could not be more different. Batman remains defined by the past prior to that night in the alley. An adult Bruce Wayne remains affected by and somewhat afraid to read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in Loeb’s Haunted Knight; as a child he bonded with his mother over reading the book, and asked her to wear the pearl to make the night ‘special’ on that fateful day. During the course of Trinity War (Trinity of Sin: Phantom Stranger #11), we get to see that Batman’s version of Heaven – his ultimate prize – is his childhood spent with his parents, reading a story by the fireplace.
In the Justice League episode A Better World, Batman confronts his Justice Lord counterpart, who tries to rationalise taking complete control over his society. After going through issues such as the lack of effectiveness of striking from the shadows, changing the system, the lack of choice, the virtues of democracy, the Justice Lord actually wins the argument:
Our Batman only manages to win later one when he brings up how his parents would think of the world the Justice Lords have created.
The Joker’s life, on the other hand, is such a joke for him that his past is of no real consequence and remains fluid. In The Killing Joke, he famously states that “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” The character Dr Ruth Adams actually posits that the Joker has “some kind of super-sanity”, re-creating his own identity every day in Morrison’s Asylum:
It’s quite possible we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here […] That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day. He see himself as the Lord of Misrule and the world as a Theatre of the Absurd.
The Joker’s point of creation and his feelings at the time remain sure, but whatever and whoever came before are thus also up to interpretation, depending on the version of himself the Joker has decided upon for that day. While Batman remains defined by his past as the happy boy Bruce Wayne, the Joker has nothing more than his present; the past only serves to lead up to the punch-line of the day, so it can be changed to suit the audience and the situation.
In fact, it has to be said that, true to character, the Joker even manages to find his death funny in Arkham City. He doesn’t trust Batman will save him given the chance, and in trying to take an antidote from him gets it beyond his reach. Realising the irony of the situation, he manages to shrug it off and die laughing:
The Legend Builds Up
With their respective missions clear, both men prepare for their journeys. Bruce Wayne takes it upon himself to improve himself physically and mentally to become a precise force to be reckoned with. Brubaker has the Joker likewise practising his craft before his public debut in The Man Who Laughs (interestingly, the only author to do so). As both Batman and the Joker set out to fulfil their respective missions, they inevitably clash time and time again.
While Joker sets out to show everyone just how much of a joke life is, he has a fixation with Batman in particular. As elaborated upon in Arkham City, whatever origin he decides upon, Batman’s role in his fall, both literal and figurative, remains one of the major constants:
In Cacophony, the Joker is put in a singular position as he is given a semblance of sanity. Batman takes the opportunity to try and find out what drives the Joker’s fixation with him, and he informs him that “I don’t hate you ’cause I’m crazy … I’m crazy ’cause I hate you”. The Joker’s link to Batman evolves into a love-hate relationship and is cemented as Batman and the Joker build up a certain rhythm to their encounters, forming a kind of status quo. Even after the Joker manages to shift this balance for Batman from time to time, Batman’s dedication to life is such that he can never let his patience with the Joker slip. The Joker cripples Barbara, kills Jason Todd, and after the urge for vengeance comes to the surface when Tommy Elliot is apparently killed in Hush, Batman only comes close to beating him to a pulp. Jim Gordon intervenes and reminds Batman that there is a line that cannot be crossed.
The relationship thus becomes so routine and familiar between the two that the animated Joker actually expresses regret at the fact that Batman will not be there, even if it does result in his plans being foiled:
It has to be said that the Joker’s love for Batman isn’t for the person (ie Bruce Wayne), but the idea of Batman, the Dark Knight. Snyder has the Joker find out Batman’s identity soon after their first encounter, but actually remain uninterested in Bruce Wayne. Morrison’s Asylum has Black Mask demand that Batman take off his mask to show his real face, only for the Joker to reply “You fool, that is he’s real face.”
In his main appearance in Joker, the eponymous villain asks Batman why he has that hole in his costume, why he lets “it” be seen. Batman’s answer is a simple one:
Batman’s small window into his humanity mocks the Joker’s own conception of Batman as this eternal nemesis and mythic monster; it shows that there is, in fact, a man behind the mask.
Death of the Family – The Legend Becomes Self-Aware
Snyder’s story has the Joker come to the realisation that he loves the idea of Batman beyond the person and takes it to its logical extreme. While the Joker talks in romantic terms when conversing with Batman, it is not in erotic terms, but Romantic ones. He is in love with the idea of himself and Batman being locked in an eternal struggle of mythic proportions as imagined by the Romantics of old. He realises that both he and Batman are mere agents and embodiments of greater ideas of good and evil, order and chaos. When the man behind Batman showed his weakness and reliance on the Bat Family when facing the Court of Owls, the Joker feels an obligation to sharpen him up by removing the object of his dependence, his Family.
He thus takes it upon himself to snuff out the man behind the cowl and show him their place in the grand order of the universe. In what is essentially a response to the sentiment expressed by Batman in Joker, the Joker has his own face cut off. As he explains to Batman, he is the Joker through and through and thus does not have a mask to wear. [A tip of the hat is also owed to Snyder here, who manages to turn what is a bizarre way of taking the Joker off the table during Tony Daniel’s Detective Comics run and turning it into a compelling piece of story-telling which says volumes about the character.]
As one reviewer points out, in becoming aware of his and Batman’s intertwined legend, the Joker becomes enlightened and plays the part of the Shakespearean fool:
There’s also a theme of Batman as the king and the Joker and others as King Batman’s subjects — Scarecrow as the physician, Penguin as the bishop, and the Joker as the court jester. This is more than just a reference to the Joker’s clown appearance, but rather a deeper insight into the Joker as the historical fool, the character often on the outskirts of a work that sees the plot more keenly than everyone else (despite that he’s a “fool”). For those who believe the Joker may not be insane but rather super-sane, saner than the rest of us, Snyder offers more fodder there.
In addressing one of his king’s court, for instance, the Joker deconstructs Two-Face and points out that there really is no other personality, just a different expression of Harvey Dent’s inner demons; two sides of his iconic coin still remain of the same coin. Moreover, the Joker is actually vindicated in his belief that Batman does claim some sort of ownership over their periodic bouts, which he does not want to share with his Family. Perhaps Batman thinks that his experience with the Joker and the death of Jason by his hand mean that he is the only man qualified to take him on, for everyone’s safety. The fact however remains that in accepting this burden, Batman does not disclose something as basic as the fact that the Joker learned his true identity long ago. The Joker lets the truth run wild by playing two jokes on the Family, implying that his tiny black book is filled with their secrets, and that he has disfigured them like he has himself. While the Joker is denied the final explosive punch-line, as the members of the Family learn the truth behind his jokes, they do still somewhat distance themselves from Batman.
Batman retaliates by threatening to take away the mystery of the Joker, to make him remember that he was a particular person who simply went insane, rather than this mythic force of nature. He tells his ‘darling’ that he has finally figured out his identity, with the Joker obviously unwilling to hear. Ironically enough, Batman ultimately takes the Joker’s same route, wielding a false ‘truth’ through theatricality against his victim akin to the Joker’s little black book. The Joker, though, unlike the Bat Family, does not want to confirm the veracity of Batman’s claims and takes extreme measures to flee the truth. Personally, I’d say that if the Joker were to have a ‘final’ death, pushing himself over a cliff to avoid becoming more ordinary and lose his mystique is an excellent way to go about it.
The Joker, of course, will return to haunt Batman once more. He remains the perfect yin to his yang, so similar in many respects and yet so opposite in appearance, attitude, philosophy and method. His deadly dance with his foe has, after all, helped both endure for 75 years. There can be no better way for Batman’s story to go on further than bringing in his match to test him once in a while and remind us why he is such a compelling character surrounded by compelling villains.
- Diametrically Opposed: Batman / The Joker (modernmythologies.com)
- Perfect Chaos: Why the Joker is the Greatest Comic-Book Villain (sequart.org)
- Are Batman’s Villains Insane? Unsound Minds – Part 2 (psychologytoday.com)
- Joking Matter: Adam West and Colleagues Analyze the Joker (psychologytoday.com)
- Batman at 75: The Psychology of Why the Dark Knight Endures (psychologytoday.com)
- What are Your Favorite Batman Memories? (ign.com)