Doing Batman Right 6: The Joker

By Bob Case Posted Wednesday Dec 6, 2017

Filed under: Batman 98 comments

I’ve mentioned earlier in this series that I don’t necessarily care for the practice of elevating the Joker so far above the other members of the Rogue’s Gallery in focus and importance. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a top-shelf villain – in fact, to me, the Joker is not only one of the best comic book villains, but one of the best villains period.

One thing the animated series could do, and often did, to good effect, was to make the Joker physically large. Very often Batman, usually the burliest mook in the room, could seem like he was at a disadvantage.
One thing the animated series could do, and often did, to good effect, was to make the Joker physically large. Very often Batman, usually the burliest mook in the room, could seem like he was at a disadvantage.

There are two “tricks,” so to speak, that his various writers and performers have used to pull this off, one minor and one major.

The minor one is to take advantage of the Joker’s time in grade as a villain. He’s been such a big name for so long that the usual genre rules don’t always apply to him. Some second-string antagonist is probably not going to beat Robin to death with a crowbar, or shoot and paralyze Barbara Gordon, because that’s not the sort of thing that happens. But the Joker might, which means that his mere presence on page or screen puts the audience in a heightened state of danger.

I’d even say that the only person in the entire Batman universe who could be considered safe when the Joker is around is Batman himself. Alfred? Gordon? Anyone else? All of them are potential victims. Whenever the Joker is present, everything seems a little wilder, a little more unpredictable. That’s the minor trick.

I actually didn't hate Jared Leto's Joker, though I did think Suicide Squad was bad overall.
I actually didn't hate Jared Leto's Joker, though I did think Suicide Squad was bad overall.

The major trick, which can’t be achieved through mere seniority and requires clever writing instead, is that the Joker is persuasive. Persuasive villains are the ones that frighten me most, because their villainy seems like it could leak out of the fictional world and into the real one.

It’s difficult to explain what I mean by this, so I’ll use examples instead. Three of my personal top-ranked persuasive villains are Lucifer from Paradise Lost, Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson’s character, of “you can’t handle the truth!” fame) from A Few Good Men, and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, of “greed is good” fame) from Wall Street. Hopefully you’re familiar with at least one of these three characters by reputation – familiar enough to know that at times, audiences have thought that they aren’t even villains at all, but misunderstood heroes.

This opinion can persist even when directly contradicted by the author. Milton’s Lucifer may be the ur-example by virtue of being chronologically first. Here’s Milton, speaking of Lucifer, in book two of Paradise Lost:

But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue
Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low;
To vice industrious, but to Nobler deeds
Timorous and slothful: yet he pleas’d the ear,
And with perswasive accent thus began.

Despite all this, William Blake famously said that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”A quote whose interpretation is more complex than I’m making it sound. Nathan Jessep and Gordon Gekko found similar fans among authoritarian jingoists and self-interested cowboy capitalists, respectively. These are the villains that came close enough the pure flame to bring some of its heat from fiction to reality – the ones that are almost too good.

To me, the Joker at his best is one of these – his is a pure and persuasive embodiment of cynicism.

I know I used this one earlier, but I'm using it again because it's that good.
I know I used this one earlier, but I'm using it again because it's that good.

If you want to understand as much of the Joker as possible by reading a single page, the page shown above is as good as any. Special attention should be paid to the final panel, and the expression of startling vulnerability on the Joker’s face.

The character is often described as nihilistic, but I think cynical is a more accurate description. It’s only fair to warn you that we are now entering the territory of one of my personal hobby-horses: I see cynicism as a form of sloth. The cynic believes that the world is fallen and irredeemable; this belief is deliberate, as it relieves them of any obligation to improve it, or even engage with it honestly.

Think how relaxing that must be! To no longer have to deal with the world’s frustrating obtuseness, and its habit of tangling up new snarls of injustice every time you turn your head for more than a few seconds. If it’s all just a big joke, then all it asks of you is to laugh.

This is why I believe that the Joker remains the best foil for Batman in the end. One of Batman’s most heroic attributes is his persistent refusal to fall for the Joker’s bullshit. Many in the fandom have come to the ambiguously canonical conclusion that the Joker’s ultimate goal is get Batman to kill him, which in his twisted worldview would constitute a victory. I don’t necessarily dispute this conclusion, but I do consider it an incomplete understanding of the relationship between the two.

Batman spends his time in an environment (Gotham, which is fallen) that encourages and rewards cynicism, and yet he never quite succumbs to it. The Joker is the character that most eloquently describes its temptations. For Batman to see the hidden self-interest in the description speaks to his moral alertness – and the chance that he might miss it this time is the most alarming thing a writer can do with the character.

We’re closing in on the end! Next week, what you’ve all been waiting for: my unsolicited advice on what all the various high muck-a-mucks in charge of Batman should do.



[1] A quote whose interpretation is more complex than I’m making it sound.

From The Archives:

98 thoughts on “Doing Batman Right 6: The Joker

  1. Droid says:

    AAaahhh!!! Code Red, CODE RED! The last image does not have a title text; I say again: of the four images shown, only the last one does not have a title text!

    1. Aevylmar says:

      But if it had one, it would have to give his opinion on whether he thinks the Joker survives the page, wouldn’t it? And that would just turn this into another argument about that.

      1. Syal says:

        On the contrary, it could be about how weird the three-panel close-up of water is.

        Like, the second panel is clearly a closer version of the first one, moved down a few inches, but… is the third one the same location after more rain, or is it a tight close-up of the left quarter of the second panel? The ripple sizes suggest the former, but maybe these are fractal ripples, you know?

        1. Erik says:

          Or is it showing time passing, as the puddle gets deeper and the small clots of earth remaining above it get slowly overcome?

          1. Syal says:

            Or maybe the cops have just turned their lights off and it only looks like the ground disappeared because we’re seeing in Sonar Vision. The possibilities are weirdly endless!

            1. MichaelGC says:

              I'd always assumed that the light was no longer shining through between them because Batman's giving Joker a hug? 🦇🃏🤗

              1. Phill says:

                I take it as more literal (and figurative). Batman joins Joker in laughing and they both genuinely collapse into hysterics. Then the final three panels reprise this is a sense focussing on the very literal line between them vanishing. By joining in the laughter Batman has removed some of the moral distinction between them.

                1. Matt Downie says:

                  Since this comic was in continuity (it put Batgirl in a wheelchair) and the Joker was still alive, the ‘Batman strangled the Joker to death’ interpretation doesn’t make much sense.

                  1. Daemian Lucifer says:

                    Wasnt joker killed a bunch of times in the main continuity but then came back due to some wacky shenanigans?Whats a little strangling on top of that?

                    Also,arent there canonically three jokers now?Who is to say that there werent always multiple ones.

                  2. SYABM says:

                    IIRC, Moore never meant for it to be canon.


                    No quotes from Alan, but it does say it’s an “imaginary story”. Which are non-canon.

      2. Decius says:

        It’s clear that “The Joker” is changed by the scene. The person who exits in clown makup is not the person who entered in clown makeup.

        The question is, does Batman survive the scene? Is the person who exits, dressed like a bat, anything like the person who entered, dressed like a bat?

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      I don't necessarily care for the practice of elevating the Joker so far above the other members of the Rogue's Gallery in focus and importance.

      And yet,by not having a caption for that last picture Bob did exactly that.Was that deliberate?A case of joker seeping to the real world to troll everyone?

  2. Soldierhawk says:

    I see cynicism as a form of sloth. The cynic believes that the world is fallen and irredeemable; this belief is deliberate, as it relieves them of any obligation to improve it, or even engage with it honestly.

    Think how relaxing that must be! To no longer have to deal with the world's frustrating obtuseness, and its habit of tangling up new snarls of injustice every time you turn your head for more than a few seconds. If it's all just a big joke, then all it asks of you is to laugh.

    A favorite hobby horse of mine as well. One of the reasons I have to take long and frequent vacations from the internet.

    I do wonder what it is about the current culture, or maybe the net itself, that seems to be a breeding ground for that kind of thinking. I dunno.

    I’ll add here that I love this series so much. Thank you for taking the time to write it, and to share it with us! Really looking forward to the conclusion.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      The net does not breed anything,it merely allows people from all over the world to congeal.So instead of one person having an opinion differing from everyone in their social circle we have millions of such people communicating with each other.

      1. MichaelGC says:

        Absolutely. And I think the word “˜congeal' was exceptionally well-chosen! 😆

    2. Kylroy says:

      It’s also that society is now so broadly prosperous that millions of people can have no investment in their lives and still get food, shelter, and even a little leisure. A medieval peasant or Victorian factory worker who thought their life had no meaning wouldn’t be willing to face a lifetime of backbreaking labor, so cynicism was confined to aristocrats and suicides.

    3. TMC_Sherpa says:

      Hey Hawk, I didn’t expect to see you here. How’s Emmitt?

    4. DungeonHamster says:

      The temporal world is fleeting and full of sorrows. And we have forgotten Eternity.

      Cynicism is to be expected

    5. Geebs says:

      To the person who expects the worst, there are only pleasant surprises.

    6. DaveMc says:

      I’m 100% on board with this sentiment about cynicism. Drives me nuts when I meet some “cynical” nineteen-year-old who’s decided that nothing can be done, so they have no obligation to do anything. Relaxing, indeed. “You are not old enough to be world-weary, you embryonic jerk!” (is what I restrain myself from saying)

  3. Richard says:

    Your description of the Joker, Mr Case, reminds me a bit of Henry Rollins. Although I don’t remember when he said this–he writes so much–Henry Rollins once said that “apathy is cowardice”, with apathy being synonymous with cynicism, and that it’s a form of sloth because it robs one of their obligation to improve the world or look at it honestly.

    I have no idea if you’re a fan of Henry Rollins or not, but time and again it seems like–while the two of you talk about wildly different topics–your analysis and perspectives some many similar qualities. In my view, this is a positive thing.

    Keep writing, Mr Case. Always a downright pleasure.

    1. Erik says:

      It’s on theme with one of my favorite quotes: “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist,” by the late great George Carlin.

  4. MikhailBorg says:

    That final page you posted is almost certainly the single contribution to the Batman Mythos I despise the most.

    Joker just physically and mentally raped plus maimed Barbara Gordon, and did his utmost to humiliate and break James Gordon. There is nothing for the Bat to laugh about right now.

    And the joke he’s just told isn’t worthy of much more than a smirk to begin with.

    1. Joe Informatico says:

      I prefer the interpretation that TKJ was never intended to fit into the main DC continuity, and is instead a possible ending to Batman’s story that would never happen in Batman comics proper. (Outside of line-wide reboots, Big Two superhero stories never end–they’re an origin story and then an unending second act.) The alternate (original?) colouring of that panel has the puddle turning red after the laughter cuts off, strongly suggesting that Batman has killed the Joker. (To give proper credit, I think it was Paul Dini who offered this interpretation to Kevin Smith on the latter’s podcast.)

      Otherwise, what does TKJ offer to the Batman mythos as a whole? It gave us Oracle, who admittedly is my favourite incarnation of Barbara Gordon (my favourite Big Two character), but it’s also no longer necessary. There’s a far broader fanbase that knows and prefers Barbara as Batgirl, and based on the newer Batgirl comics I think I agree. The other thing TKJ did, at least in comics continuity, is take The Joker so far over the evil event horizon that he can never go back to being a clown with crazy plots to rob banks again (admittedly, A Death in the Family and the ’89 film probably share the blame here). It’s not the end of the world, I just lament that a formerly versatile villain has been constrained somewhat. But I’m perfectly happy letting TKJ exist as a standalone “what if?” apart from the mainline Batman mythos.

      1. galacticplumber says:

        I take issue with the statement that Joker can never go back. He has no less access to reboots than anyone else and this actually opens up the narrative possibility of being one of the most terrifying assholes in history.

        1. Locke says:

          Considering Joe asserted that he was fine with the The Killing Joke as a what if, I’m pretty sure what he means is that the Joker is forever constrained within that continuity. Sure, the Joker can be (and at this stage, has been) rebooted, but until he is, something as extreme as the Killing Joke locks the character permanently into a very dark tone.

    2. Supah Ewok says:

      Well, the point of the laughing wasn’t that the joke was funny. It seems more likely that the joke was intentionally tepid, which is a clue that when Batman starts laughing, it’s not because of the joke. This means that his laughter isn’t necessarily mirthful. People can laugh ruefully, hysterically, insanely. The bad joke is a clue that something else is at play here. It’s left ambiguous what the real source of the laughter is. Maybe he’s come around to seeing the Joker’s side? Maybe he’s come to a realization that all of the work and suffering he goes through to keep the Joker at bay is ultimately meaningless? Maybe this cycle of a rich man in a bat costume chasing a murderous clown and the world suffering all the while is so absurd and it’s come down crashing on him after the people closest to him have paid the price of going through hell just to keep his own hands clean? And maybe the funniest thing of all is that even after all of that he’s not going to kill the Joker, that the cycle will continue on and on no matter how much Batman and his friends suffer. Or maybe Batman has finally broken and is going to snap the Joker’s neck.

      It’s a pretty good moment. Makes you really examine the characters and their arguments across the whole story to see what you think that laugh means.

    3. JBC31187 says:

      It’s part of “Batman is just as crazy as the Joker.” It’s also yet another Bad Day for Batman, where two loved ones are maimed and tortured for no reason. So, this is Batman’s breaking point.

      For the longest time, I never realized that this was supposed to be a one-shot. I never understood what the fuss was a bout. “What do you mean, Batman may have killed the Joker? Barbara’s in a wheelchair and the Joker’s running around!” But I think that Batman really did snap and kill the Joker, and this is the end of Batman just like “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is the end of Superman.

      1. FluffySquirrel says:

        I never knew it wasn’t intended to be in continuity and just be a one-shot.

        Yeah, knowing that now, it’s kinda changed my feel of it as well.. and it absolutely is a story about ‘this is what it took to get Batman to kill’. Very much fits the name of it too. That was the joke that finally got him to kill.

    4. Daemian Lucifer says:

      There is nothing for the Bat to laugh about right now.

      Quite the opposite actually.When faced with the most horrible thing ever in your life,there is nothing left for a person to do BUT laugh.Either laugh,or go completely insane.Laughter is our defensive mechanism against the bleakness and harshness of life.

      1. Decius says:

        Batman is already insane, and The Joker already laughs. That scene was Batman laughing and Joker finally going insane.

      2. Tizzy says:

        One possible point of comparison would be the Theater of the Absurd of the late 1940s early 1950s. European playwrights attempting to process the horrors of WW2 by writing funny plays that don't contain any actual jokes and revel in uncomfortable moments. And sometimes violence.

        That's the kind of laughter I see on this page.

    5. SYABM says:

      Joker did not rape Barbara. Severely traumatized her, yes, and her father, and one could argue stripping both of them was a form of sexual assault. But the rape interpretation is entirely fanon.

      1. Viktor says:

        It’s ambiguous, much like the rest of the book. Joker stripped a woman naked and took photos. It’s unclear if anything more than that happened*, but saying he raped her seems like a reasonable shorthand for the sequence of events.

        *I tend to say no actual “rape” occurred, because I honestly don’t think the Joker would think of it. It’s too banal for him to even consider the possibility.

        1. FluffySquirrel says:

          The only reason I go with the fact that there was no rape involved is cause the doctor really would’ve reported that to the police. Like, it’s literally his job to inform them of that, surely

          1. Daemian Lucifer says:

            Does it really matter?She was shot,paralyzed and tortured.What difference does it make HOW that torture was carried out?Its not like the method has any bearing on the rest of the story.

  5. Risven says:

    I don’t often see William Blake referenced, nor do I see such a succinctly accurate footnote attached! Thank you – it was a pleasure!

    1. MichaelGC says:

      Joker, Joker, grinning white
      In the Gotham of the Knight
      What chiropteric orphaned guy
      Could foil thy cackling lunacy?

  6. RJT says:

    So, what’s going on in those last two panels?* Were they beamed up shortly before water fully engulfed the earth? Did they finally come into contact and as two opposites, mutually destroy each other with a quiet *pop* unheard over the quiet patter of the storm? What is the picture even zooming in on?

    *Feel free not to read this. I have been increasingly frustrated over the course of my life by my seeming inability to understand comics. They just don’t come together to convey cohesive story information like books do for me. I have no idea what my problem is.

    1. Supah Ewok says:

      Those lights behind them in the middle panels are in the configuration of police car lights, so that carries the implication that the law has arrived. The comic deliberately pans down to the characters’ feet so that we can’t see most of their actions: the only thing we can tell definitively is that the both of them have left.

      The last three panels have a clear sequence:

      1) Batman and Joker are standing where they were.

      2) Batman and Joker are no longer standing where they were: they’ve moved.

      3) The water level has risen from the rain, a visual cue that time has passed; whatever moved Batman and Joker has kept them away. The story is finished.

      This is a deliberate choice to be ambiguous: it’s left as an exercise to the reader how Batman and Joker leave the scene. Did Batman hand Joker over to the police? Did Batman snap Joker’s neck? The point is to give the audience something to think about. Making the audience review their perception of the story in order to arrive at their own conclusion to it gives them a greater appreciation of the story’s message and themes. In theory anyway.

      Ambiguity is a fairly common plot device over all media, not just comics. It’s just that comics, unlike books, have a visual element, like TV and movies, so when using ambiguity they have to leverage the visual aspect as well. You may just not be geared toward gathering information visually, or perhaps you simply aren’t experienced enough with visual information to recognize visual storytelling tools. Ambiguity is a little higher concept, and takes some experience to learn to appreciate. Or perhaps you recognize ambiguity, but reject it for various reasons, such as wanting to be told the [i]right[/i] story instead of trying to “guess” it yourself. That’s nothing wrong with you. But it’s also nothing wrong with comics in particular either.

      1. Zalabar says:

        Don’t forget the joke itself. The two crazy guys were talking about walking on a beam of light to freedom, and the reason one didn’t follow the other was how he knew the other guy would turn the light off.

      2. KarmaTheAlligator says:

        See, I’m not sure we can tell they moved in the second to last panel, because the panel is too low to show their feet anymore (if this is indeed the same patch of grass).

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          It is the same patch,but lower.If you compare the third last panels lower left portion and the second to last panel you see that the “camera” is going down and zooming.

      3. Alrenous says:

        For me, it’s the fact I don’t read fiction to find out what I think would happen. I already know what I think would happen: Batman would not exist, and neither would the Joker. If they did, through some fluke, begin to exist, then they would quickly cease to exist. Batman would start killing and Joker would offend some mob boss at the wrong time and get capped by some flunky.

        When they leave a story ambiguous, for me it’s just bad writing. If they give me an ending I can see their model of the world, and see where they’re coming from, perhaps find a new perspective on themes in my own life. I can see, to oversimplify, either how Batman could exist or how someone could think he would. If they don’t, I can’t reliably do any of that.

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          Batman would start killing

          The cops would get him long before that.

          But if they didnt,batman would never have the need to start killing in the real world.The most egregious criminals that keep escaping from prison would either be dealt with by the state sentencing them to death,or by a disgruntled civilian/cop/inmate doing the deed on their own.

        2. Kathryn says:

          I agree that ambiguity is often bad writing. I read a thriller a while back that was about a plague, and the book ended when the two main characters had started showing symptoms but before we learned whether the cure they’d developed would work. And the end of Eschalon Book III (you have to pick a side, and the two sides are telling different stories about the end of the world, and the game ends with “You wait to see who’s right. Thanks for playing!”) was so disappointing I would have asked for my money back if it weren’t such a small studio.

          I think ambiguity can be OK when it’s the purpose of the work – classic example is “The Lady and the Tiger” – but if you are writing a thriller, not telling the audience how the story ends is just cheap.

          1. Daemian Lucifer says:

            Just because a story has batman in it does not automatically make it a thriller.The point of the killing joke was never “So what will happen to these people” but “Is one event enough to make any man snap?”

      4. Jabrwock says:

        From the shape of the puddle it looks like the “camera” moves down and to the left. If the light is a reflection not a shadow, then it would move as well, as the angle to the source changes as the camera moves (assuming the camera is moving and not just panning).

    2. Zekiel says:

      If it is any consolation, I often find myself re-“reading” pages of comic books trying to work out what action actually happened since I couldn’t pick it up the first time.

      1. Syal says:

        Just remember, it’s not you, it’s Art.

        (Wiki Warning)

    3. Droid says:

      It might seem kinda out of the blue, but have you watched early Disney movies, or just generally animated movies with talented artists, but without (all-engulfing) CGI? There are some very comic-like elements in there that I think helped me a lot to understand what a single comic image is supposed to represent, and how it relates to the surrounding images in the book.

  7. BlueHorus says:

    I’m not sold.
    I’d say the Joker is nihilistic – but the nihilism serves his purposes. If everything’s so meaningless, then why doens’t he just kill himself, or lie there staring at the ceiling? Why bother getting up, putting on that clown costume, and terrorising Gotham? Or obsessing over Batman? That’s a lot of effort, which I don’t think a truly lazy person would go to.

    Like so many other people, he’s taken a philosophical concept and interpreted it in a way that justifies…himself, doing what he wanted to do anyway. He says he’s trying to prove some grand point about the world, but actually he just likes the attention and blowing stuff up while in fancy dress.
    (I also think the difference between definitions of ‘nihilistic’ and ‘cynical’ is probably semantic after too much thought, though)

    That – at least for me – is the enduring appeal of the Joker: everyone has thoughts like that, weird impulses or ideas they wound’t seriously act on. Joker embodies and expresses that ‘just do what you want and not think about the consequences’ impluse, with his nihilism as the excuse.
    If life is meaningless, why don’t you just kill a random stranger for the kicks, or quit your job and go skydiving while naked, or take ALL the drugs to see what happens, any of the other random impulses that might occur to you?

    1. MichaelGC says:

      that's a lot of effort

      Aye right:

      Sam men … just waant ta watch da wurld burrn the elephants. 🐘 🐘 🐘

    2. Alrenous says:

      Nihilism and cynicism are very different.

      Cynicism is properly the philosophy of great public-masturbator Diogenes. He said – by demonstration – that Athenians had no idea why you shouldn’t deface society. They have a bunch of rules, but they respect the rules with no regard to whether they are good rules or bad. Yes we can (now) come up with good reasons to avoid public indecency and to keep the currency intact, but our society can still be completely deconstructed by cynicism. Our society is still full of things we cannot justify, and science has repeatedly shown that at least some of them will be unjustifiable. However, we can certainly imagine a society which is cynical in the sense that it commits no sins against cynical philosophy – which stands up wholly because it cannot be deconstructed.

      Nihilism is real-life Lovecraftianism. It is best summarized by, of all people, Hume.
      “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. `Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.”

      There is no reason to value anything, except in that you already value it. Which means, if Hume and the nihilists are correct, there is no such thing as the wrong values. There is e.g. nothing wrong with a society that legalizes slavery. Maybe the slaves would prefer not to be slaves. But so what? So, nothing.

      Nihilism is the technical philosophical sense is exactly what the Joker is expressing in the above panels. The joke is: humans think their values are important. But, not only are they not important, humans can’t even follow the values. “I value peace, prosperity, and also not dying. So let’s engulf Europe in an immensely destructive war.” Humans themselves are constantly proving their values are not important, even to themselves. Yet will never give up the claim. Hysterical.

      Cynicism, which ultimately imagines a rational society which knows why it values things, seems to be the opposite of nihilism. Chris’ version of cynicism is more like ennui and anomie. This conflation is not his fault – the behaviour of the cynic in a deconstructable society is similar to someone suffering from ennui and anomie. However, as per Diogenes, a good cynic still engages with society, and attempts to troll it into finding itself. The Joker, by contrast, wants society to fall into a laughing kind of despair.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        There is no reason to value anything

        A slight correction.There is no OBJECTIVE reason.You can still say “I (dis)like it” or “It makes me (un)happy”,and you wouldnt be wrong.Being a nihilist does not change the fact that one is still human,and thus is a slave to their emotions or instincts.And those can make you into a dick just as much as they can make you into a saint.

      2. Syal says:

        There is no reason to value anything, except in that you already value it. Which means, if Hume and the nihilists are correct, there is no such thing as the wrong values.

        Just going from the quote; that’s only true if you assume right things are always reasonable and wrong things are always unreasonable.

        1. Alrenous says:

          “Right” is itself a pre-rational value. It’s something that some people enjoy, and some others don’t. Just like chocolate ice cream.

          1. Daemian Lucifer says:

            It's something that some people enjoy, and some others don't. Just like chocolate ice cream.

            But thats a contradiction.Everyone loves chocolate ice cream.

              1. Daemian Lucifer says:

                Ah,but batman is not a real person.


      3. BlueHorus says:

        While you’re probably right about Diogenes and the origin of Cynicism, is that what cynicism means now? Is that what Bob meant by cynicism? Is that what everyone eles means, and do they all mean the same thing?

        Terms change meaning & evolve, and that’s before clever people start twisting words to fit their own ends. Go onto the right website and define ‘feminism’, or ‘liberal’; it’s a surefire way to start an argument.
        Finding a ‘true’ meaning for a complex idea is – to me – asking for a hiding to nothing. Far better to find out what that one specific person means.

        Which may or may not be a somewhat cynical way to look at meaning. ;P

  8. Olivier FAURE says:


    I think The Killing Joke, and the Joker as any kind of philosophical entity in general, is overrated. He’s a guy who looks like a clown and kills people, and magically never gets stopped because he has comic book immunity. There’s not much deep meaning to be found there.

    I like the Joker as a character in general, mind you. I’m just annoyed when the writers look too deep into the character and try to imagine an intricate meaningful philosophy that just isn’t there.

    My favorite Joker scene is the one at the end of Batman Beyond, that starts with “I suppose I should salute you as a ‘Worthy opponent’ and all that, but the truth is, I really did hate your guts” and ends with “I thought the Joker always wanted to make Batman laugh” “YOU’RE NOT BATMAN!“.

    1. Aevylmar says:

      I agree with you that that’s a good scene, and I agree with you that the Joker murdering and getting away with it shatters the plausibility of the setting, but I think I disagree about the premise.

      I think there really is a philosophical background behind almost *any* character that’s had any thought put into them. Not that the Joker is especially philosophical; just that any character more than an inch thick will have a philosophy somewhere behind them, and that there’s something interesting in analyzing it and figuring out where it comes from and how it works.

    2. ehlijen says:

      The Joker gets stopped all the time. How many stories end with his arrest? A lot, by my recollection.

      Sure, he will always escape and need to be caught again, but that’s the kind of reset button you get if you want a neverending franchise. The trick is to read each story as its own thing, and then the Joker almost always gets stopped.

    3. Viktor says:

      I kind of agree and kind of don't. Is the Joker as a concept any more of a worthy philosophical opponent for Batman than Ra's, Catwoman, Freeze, or Ivy? No. But Joker was chosen as the key Batman opponent. Because of that(or causing it, depending on your opinion on chickens and eggs), we have Killing Joke, Batman Beyond:RotJ, Heath Ledger, Mark Hamil, Jack Nicholson, Death in the Family, and a bunch of really good stories about Joker and discussing him. All of that thought and all of those quality stories elevate the Joker above the other Batman villains, giving writers more to work with and almost begging every new Batman writer to make a statement on how they see Joker and Batman. I agree that, in general, the rest of the mythos needs to get some of that attention, but I can't blame writers who grew up with some of the best Batman stories being Joker stories deciding they want to take their own shot at it.

    4. MichaelGC says:

      I tend to think meaning is a relational property of the interaction between a mind and an item, rather than an intrinsic property an item itself. Thus, it's difficult to tell someone no meaning exists where they perceive it.

      It's a bit like that dress. I can say “it's actually blue and brown,” but I can't really say “you don't see it as gold and white.”

      However the reason I can say “it's actually blue and brown,” is that we can physically test the wavelengths. There's no such possibility when it comes to meaning, so the possibility to say “it's actually like so,” falls away.

      1. Decius says:

        The color of the dress in the picture is not the same as the color, in the picture, of the dress. It’s also not the same as the color of the same dress in a different picture.

        1. Bubble181 says:


          We can objectively say the dress has color A, and the picture has color B. Some people’s brains “automatically” correct for changed lighting and such, other people’s don’t, or to a lesser degree, so they perceive things differently,which causes the discussion.

          1. MichaelGC says:

            Right, and so my point is that in the case of colour, there's a way of settling the argument, but folks will still perceive the colours differently. However, when it comes to meaning, folks will also perceive things differently, but there's no equivalent way of settling the matter. (And I guess my related point is that we should be careful saying “˜there's no meaning here' if someone else is saying that there is.)

          2. Nimas says:

            That was the weirdest thing. I initially saw it as the ‘right’ colour (colour of the original), but when I came back to it months later (something was mentioned and I got curious again) I saw it as the other colour. I had to actually look through a few things to get my brain to re-recognise what colour it was.

            Stuff like this is scary cause it shows how easy our ‘reality’ can change which no actual input from us.

      2. Olivier FAURE says:

        I dunno.

        You definitely have a point, but I don’t think we should refrain from philosophical debates just because people may have their own perspective.

        I mean, obviously it’s all impossible to prove, but I’m thinking that people who see a lot of meaning in Joker’s stories tend to see it because of pareidolia and other bad reasons, and it should be pointed out?

        1. MichaelGC says:

          That seems fair – certainly as there is no scientific-type test available then probably the only way to progress the matter would be via debate!

          And that might go either way: those not seeing any particular profundity might be persuaded by hearing more from those who do, or those convinced they see great depth might find that actually their own mental baggage is doing more of the heavy lifting than they at first realised. Or both positions may shift – it's not an either/or situation (hardly ever is when it comes to human minds, which must be the most complex things we ever come into contact with).

          Anyway, I would certainly not want to rule out debate! (I think I was assuming that your original comment meant that you'd perhaps not countenance one, so apologies on that score.) As I say, once other ways of deciding matters are ruled out, debate is all that's left, and I think that's definitely not a bug but a feature.

  9. Daemian Lucifer says:

    The character is often described as nihilistic, but I think cynical is a more accurate description. It's only fair to warn you that we are now entering the territory of one of my personal hobby-horses: I see cynicism as a form of sloth. The cynic believes that the world is fallen and irredeemable; this belief is deliberate, as it relieves them of any obligation to improve it, or even engage with it honestly.

    Think how relaxing that must be! To no longer have to deal with the world's frustrating obtuseness, and its habit of tangling up new snarls of injustice every time you turn your head for more than a few seconds. If it's all just a big joke, then all it asks of you is to laugh.

    Heres the thing about cynicism*:people often forget that it goes the other way as well.Yes,its liberating to finally grasp that you cant make the world any better,so you dont ever have to try.BUT,you also cant make it any worse.So why are so many cynics portrayed as actively trying to do that as well?Instead of constantly trying to spread chaos,why doesnt joker just off himself?Or turn into a hedonistic asshole that just does hookers and blow until he dies from heart attack at the age of 30?Or just sit on his couch watching netflix until his muscles atrophy?

    Its not jokers cynicism that makes him into a villain,its his arrogance and desire to leave a mark,ANY mark,on the world.To have his name and image be recognizable everywhere.Its his fear that makes him not want to just fall into obscurity like millions,billions of people all over the world.Joker has the desire for his actions to be recognized.

    But,at the same time,joker is lazy.Sowing more chaos in a chaotic world is easy.Trying to bring more order in your little bubble,thats hard.However,this is a part where he is exactly LIKE batman,not opposite him.Batman is ALSO spreading more chaos.Batmans rules are just BATMANS rules,they arent GOTHAMS rules.Batman does not try to improve the rules of GOTHAM,he actively disregards them.He isnt using his money to try and influence the politicians and the police of gotham,he isnt using his fame and reputation to even completely overthrow the ruling authority and replace it with a better one.He is just dealing with a crook here,a bad guy there.Thus,ultimately,batman is just another chaotic entity doing the exact same selfish,lazy thing as the joker.

    *And nihilism for that matter.But thats a discussion about rick,not joker.

    1. Nessus says:

      I’m of the opinion that modern pop culture conflates cynicism with pessimism. When people cite “cynicism” as a motivation, or describe themselves or someone else as a “cynic”, they’re usually actually talking about pessimism, not cynicism. Bob’s whole discussion of cynicism in the article is an example of this: he’s not describing cynicism, he’s describing what other people have come to reffer to as cynicism, which is actually not.

      Cynicism isn’t the opposite of idealism. It’s the opposite of naà¯veté. The opposite of idealism is apathy. The concepts are on different axis. You can be an idealist and a cynic at the same time, because idealism informs your goals, while cynicism informs your strategy. Batman himself is a cynical idealist: he carries powerful ideals about the unacceptability of the crime in Gotham, but is cynical about the legal system’s ability to do this, so he feels driven to do it himself.

      Similarly, pop culture conflates idealism with optimism and naà¯veté. Idealism doesn’t mean you assume the best, regardless or reason. It means you think the best can and should be aspired to (even if you don’t think you’ll suceed).

      But also you’re correct about nihilsm cutting both ways. This also means it’s possible to be a nihilistic idealist: you don’t believe your ideals objectively matter, but you consider them worthwhile because they satisfy or fulfill you in some way regardless. The Joker is a nihilistic idealist, and depending on the writer, so is Batman. You know that thing atheists like to say to the effect of “life has no intrinsic meaning, but that just means it’s for us to create our own meaning”? That’s nihilistic idealism. When someone who’s suicidal decides “fuck it: if I’ve got so little to lose that killing myself is on the table, might as well go the other way and just start doing all the awesome stuff I’ve always been too worried to do”, that’s nihilistic idealism.

      The thing about nihilistic idealism is it can encourage who you are in the dark to spill over into the light by invalidating inhibitions. The Joker’s problem isn’t that he’s a nihilist, it’s that who he is in the dark is a sadistic sociopath. And his problem isn’t that he’s a cynic, it’s that he’s a pessimist.

      1. Olivier FAURE says:

        I think mentioning suicide at all is basically off-topic (and kind of in poor taste). People commit suicide because of depression, which is almost all biology and no philosophy. People can be completely nihilistic, certain that there is no meaning to be found or created, and still have a strong desire to live that means they’d never even contemplate suicide.

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          Not all suicide comes due to depression.Some do it due to enormous sense of loyalty(caught spies),or because of fear or anger,and some indeed do do it because of a bleak outlook on the world.Its a complex issue with no single simple answer.

          But yes,people can be utterly nihilistic,and yet full of life and happiness,despite of it.Or even precisely because of it.

          1. Syal says:

            And some people commit suicide because they’re thrillseekers who accidentally brought a 300 foot bungee cord to a 250-foot jump.

            1. Daemian Lucifer says:

              Darwin award winners dont deliberately want to off themselves though,they are just morons.

        2. nessus says:

          Thank you for mansplaining this to me. As a person with lifelong chemical depression who has dipped into suicidal ideation in some of my darker times, I was naturally unaware of the nuances.

          For the record, the kind of logic I described is one of the things that kept me going in some of those darker times. Chemical depression likes to trick you by amplifying your perception of your problems into insurmountabilty. Learning to spot this and find abstract ways to argue with it is a real tool in the survival toolbox. It’s a ledge you can get your fingertips on to keep yourself alive for another day while you work on finding more substantial solutions.

          A such, If someone similarly struggling saw what wrote, I believe and hope, from actual personal experience, that they would find it useful. And I would urge any armchair pop psychologists in the crowd to be rigorous with themselves about how much they understand before posting “corrections” like this, lest they do more harm than good to the people they’re trying to protect.

          I’ll give you a free heuristic tip to that end:
          People suffering from depression already struggle with irrational pessimistic biases by definition. So the last thing you want to do is tell them (or even imply) “that won’t work”. Unless the strategy being discussed is likely to be directly, actively harmful, all you are doing is helping them dig their perceived hole deeper. For them, “this doesn’t work, that won’t work” will add up to “nothing works” lightning fast and in scarily few steps. Always try to talk about what can or will work and how, not what won’t or shouldn’t and how.

          If the strategy being discussed is not actively harmful, encourage them to try, even if you don’t believe it will work. For starters, this reduces the chances of false negatives due to incomplete or flawed intel. But furthermore, this sort of internal mental chewing actually operates on placebo logic: whether or not a line of thought truly makes sense is secondary to how much the subject thinks it does. So throw your weight behind the idea that it might work, and hope you have enough sway to open a crack they can get their fingertips in.

    2. Mousazz says:

      As an unrelated sidenote, I’ve only just noticed that Daemian Lucifer never puts any spaces after punctuations. I guess up until now my mind would automatically correct it when reading. At first I thought Daemian’s writing was off in this post compared to the other’s, or perhaps in this article’s comment section due to technical limitations, until I went back to check some of the previous posts. Huh.

      Now I’m feeling the Mandela effect…

  10. Christopher says:

    That’s a solid take on him.

  11. John says:

    By strange coincidence, I have just finished reading reprints of the first two years of Batman comics, including Joker’s first four appearances. There are a lot of differences between the earliest Batman comics and those that came later, but the Joker has changed surprisingly little. In his first four appearances, the Joker (a) sometimes announces his crimes over the radio before he commits them, (b) often kills his victims by means that leave their corpses with terrifying grins, (c) wins almost as many fights with Batman as he loses, (d) seems to die but doesn’t, and (e) regularly betrays his henchmen. There are, however, a few differences between early Joker and later versions. The first is that Joker doesn’t seem to be crazy. He kills people and steals things–jewels, mostly–but he isn’t planning to blow up the city for no reason. The second is that Joker never tries to be funny. There’s an element of performance to what he does–he definitely wants people to be terrified of him–but there’s no element of wackiness. The final difference is that Joker doesn’t have any particular feelings about Batman except that he sure wishes Batman would stop interfering in his crimes. As popular versions of the Joker go, early Joker most closely reminds me of Ledger’s Joker with the distinction that early Joker is just an odd-looking criminal and isn’t trying to prove anything about human nature.

    1. Hamilcar says:

      That’s actually very interesting, because I was wondering how the Joker was originally conceived. I just can’t imagine someone thinking, “Hey, for this kid’s comic let’s make a clown that kills people!” It’s going to be psychotic no matter how you do it.

      So what’s the tone like for the first Batman issues? Is it grim-dark? Is it noir? Is it Adam Westy? Campy? Kids’ action comic?

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        The comics were that kid friendly initially.Its when the comics code sprang up that they all became clean and silly,and also when joker was getting boners all around.After the comics code stopped being so restrictive,the joker merged the two ideas into what we have today.

      2. John says:

        It’s sort of everything you said except for grim-dark. It started out semi-noirish. Very early Batman is barely distinguishable from any of dozens of other pulp crime-fighters of that era. Robin was introduced about six months in, and from that point the comic gets slightly more Adam West-ish. It was (or became) a kid’s action comic in the sense that it had action and was definitely intended for kids, as evidenced by occasional end-of-issue notes and a couple of instances where Batman breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader. But boy are there ever a lot of on-panel murders. There’s never much in the way of blood, but a whole lot of people get shot, stabbed, and poisoned.

  12. methermeneus says:

    As someone who studied classics in college (yes, thank you, I know precisely how useful that is: I’m a mechanic now), I feel like I have to point out the difference between the philosophy of cynicism, what is often called cynicism, and what self-described cynics often are. Not to say Bob is wrong—I also studied linguistics (yeah, yeah, I know), and I know that common usage is the definition, after all— but is like to help prevent the knee-jerk insult that I automatically and wrongly felt from affecting others.

    The original cynics were pretty cheerful folks. Their (literally) philosophy was, “We can’t change the way the world works, so why worry?” Cynic actually means something like “porch people,” because they’d just hang around on the cunos (porch thing by the agora) and shoot the breeze.

    The “can’t change the world” part is all that made it into the modern usage. Now, when someone says, “The world sucks, but we can’t change it, so why bother trying,” that’s what we usually call cynical, and that’s what Bob is taking about. On the other hand, most people I know who refer to themselves as cynics (including myself) look for and point out the bad things in the world in hopes of effecting some kind of improvement. Yes, I might say, “Oh, x charitable sale is just a corporate cash grab,” but I don’t mean to say that corporations can never change. I mean to say that you should maybe but from that company if you’re buying anyway, but find a better place to donate if you’re not.

    Basically, if someone calls themselves a cynic, they probably just seek out the negative to shed light on it. If you’d call someone else a cynic, they’d probably call themselves a realist. Actually, now that I think of it, I think the Joker has called himself a realist on occasion.

    1. methermeneus says:

      Wow, did anyone catch that I was so tired I was talking about the Stoics instead of the Cynics? I even explained where the name comes from, but used the Greek word for dog instead of porch. (It’s “stoa,” in case you’re interested.) Others in the comments have explained then properly; I’ll just add that their main philosophy was basically a rejection of conspicuous consumption, which is not really related to today’s use of the term at all.

      1. Philadelphus says:

        Oo! Oo! I noticed! I had a moment of self-doubt where I was like “Wait, so was that thing I read about how ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek word for dog (cynos) wrong?”

  13. Sannom says:

    I see cynicism as a form of sloth

    Going to play the know-it-all here, but the original cynic was a bum who lived in a barrel, died of food poisoning from a spoiled calamari and who held the belief that all of humanity were dogs and ought to live like one (hence the cynic name), so of course it is a form of sloth.

  14. Dreadjaws says:

    The major trick, which can't be achieved through mere seniority and requires clever writing instead, is that the Joker is persuasive.

    As much as I love Breaking Bad (mild spoiler alert), large part of the fanbase irritates me because they seem unable to understand this. Walter White is the protagonist of the story, but he’s not the hero. He’s not right, he’s not a badass, he’s not a misunderstood person who made a mistake and deserves redemption. He’s an arrogant, petty coward who let his pride run his life and got a fitting ending in which he lost everything that he had ever hold dear.

    Yet everywhere you get people hating his wife for daring not understanding how “everything he was doing was for his family”, despite it being clear from the very first episode that such thing was bullshit. White is an excellent character, but an absolutely horrible person.

    The Dark Knight suffers from a bit of the same misaimed fandom, but fortunately not as large. People seem to understand perfectly that the Joker is a villain. Many do seem to believe he’s right most of the time, though, when he most certainly isn’t. He is, as you say, persuasive. Nowhere is this made more obvious than in Harley Quinn’s story.

    Something that you seem to miss from your analysis is that the Joker is a showman. He lives and dies for his “audience” (whether they’re willing or not). His major motivation is to make an impression, and nothing scares him more than being forgotten. As much as I didn’t care for Arkham Knight’s story, I think they did a good job with that part.

    1. Hector says:

      I agree with this, and would go even further with the Joker. The thing is that he can be whatever the plot requires, even if that’s not altogether consistent. This is probably why almost everybody has a favorite Joker character. Personally, I prefer a more lighthearted take on the character (*and Batman in general), where the Joker is a madcap, destructive clown but not actually a psychotic mass-murdering nutter, but everybody’s interpretation is as canon as you like it.

      I did mention it in a previous post, but the one thing which IS necessary is that the Joker should embody Gotham City in whatever continuity you show him. If your Gotham is a dingy but fairly mundane city with realistic technology and a broken, corrupt political system – then you get Heath Ledger’s Joker. If your Gotham is an overbuilt gothic nightmare just this side of plausible, you get Jack Nicholson’s instead.

      The reason the Joker can’t die in the story – and why Batman can never kill him – is that he functionally represents the city, even if it’s often the city at its worst. So “The Joker” can cause Harvey Dent’s downfall, because The Joker isn’t a man. He can do terrible things and yet he’s ultimately the one person Batman can’t give up on, period. He can die a thousand times and always come back. It’s why he’ll break your heart if you love him, Miss Quinn, and yet you can never entirely escape him. Sure, it’s all abstracted symbolism for why the character sticks around, but that’s juts it: he was used in that way, which is exactly why he stuck around. Lex Luthor followed the same path for a different hero/city combination. Sure, there characters were built up as the Archnemesis – but it was precisely because the characters were flexible enough to be used in a variety of contexts to make that work.

      1. Aevylmar says:

        The thing you said you mentioned in a previous post, I managed to miss. I find it very insightful, and I appreciate you saying it.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Pretty much every audience has members like that.Back when he was making the start of darkness,Rich Burlew stated how he deliberately wants to show that xykon is a bad guy through and through,because of how so many people were wanting him to win.And still,after showing him as a really despicable guy from the very start of his life,some people root for him.Its understandable though,because xykon is a badass and a great showman.

      And everywhere you look,if your villain is cool,people will like them more than hate them.How many people were saying that light should have won because his world wouldve been so much better,so much safer?

      1. BlueHorus says:

        Yeah. It’s always annoyed/upset/depressed me how people – from the Joker to Walther White to others – can get away with all sorts of horrible crap, just because they do it in a funny or slightly sympathetic or charming way.
        Just because you get them like them,, uderstad or whatever, it doesn’t acutally make what they do okay, capiche?

  15. Lena Graham says:

    I loved it when this May’s issue of “Batman” featured a guest appearance by Swamp Thing, and DC had the smarts to subtitle the comic “The Brave and the Mold”.

    just a writer

  16. Vermander says:

    Personally, I’ve always like that the Joker is one of the few characters that works as an irredeemably evil bad guy who we don’t need to feel sorry for, or even understand. Plenty of Batman’s other enemies deserve sympathy, whether they’re good people broken by tragedy, arrogant idealists, or simply mentally-ill. But the Joker is just evil. Even the other villains think he’s awful.

    On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of the “darker” Joker stories where he kills and maims large numbers of innocent or sympathetic characters. The Joker is iconic enough that I don’t need him to rack up a body count to know he’s evil.

    For me, super hero stories stop being fun if the hero doesn’t actually save anyone. I’m sick of Batman (or any heroes for that matter) standing over dead sidekicks and loved ones saying “I was too late…”

    1. Syal says:

      I want to see Batman standing over live sidekicks saying, “I was too early.”

  17. On the image I clicked on to get to this website and Paige, the image of batman on top of joker but joker looks physically larger than batman. on the side of the image, it talks about how the animated series made the joker appear physically large and I wanted to hear more about it so I clicked the image and went to the Paige and I cant find the rest of that dialog were it talks about jokers size. I looked all over please someone help me find it.

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