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The Joker by Jordan Ferguson

This may meander a bit. Stay with me.

In 1989 I was in the seventh grade. The town of Amherstburg, Ontario, where I grew up, didn't have much by way of programmed entertainment for an eleven-year-old, but it did have a two-cinema movie theatre in the local mall, which is where I saw Tim Burton's first Batman movie. While the whole thing was a revelation to my pre-teen brain, the one element that fascinated me like none else was Jack Nicholson's depiction of The Joker, the one part that still holds up in a movie that feels tragically dated now.

In the mania that followed the movie's release I took my allowance money and bought some commemorative magazine at my town's only book store, flipping through it with my best friend in what passed for the mall's food court. It had some cast and crew interviews, lots of pull-out posters and such, but what I latched onto was what was probably an editorial afterthought, a small feature on notable Batman comics. It was my first exposure to the world outside the newsstand, away from the spinner racks in hobby shops and quickie marts, cloistered away behind the postered-over windows of specialty comic shops, something I didn't even know existed. This was The Dark Knight Returns. The Killing Joke. Death in the Family. And a few panels of a work that wasn't out yet, something called Arkham Asylum. I committed all the titles to memory and when I made good grades that year, pleaded with my parents to buy it and The Dark Knight Returns for me at a Detroit-area bookstore during a cross-border shopping jaunt.

I read TDKR first, waiting in the car as my parents did some shopping at a grocery store for Combos, Cherry 7-Up and other delights you could only find in the States. It's a dense, monster of a book, as we all know, so I didn't get around to cracking the spine on Arkham until I was huddled under the covers before going to sleep.

Yeah, bad idea.

There's a two-page spread, early in the book, as Batman approaches the hostage situation at the Asylum, and you first see The Joker's face [heretofore he's only been heard on the telephone, signified by letterer Gaspar Saladino's genius use of a sloppy red scrawl]. All the requisite parts are there: white skin, green hair, long face, harlequin smile; but they've been run through a funhouse mirror. Dave McKean's take on The Joker in Arkham looks like Neal Adams and H.R. Giger went through a meat grinder. And I was enraptured. Terrified and fascinated in that way that only seems to happen to adolescent boys. That book in and of itself was the story that would define my comics fandom, the story that allowed me to understand, "Okay, this is the sort of stuff you like, look for more of this." And it's also the book that made me first realize what I've long argued in the decades since.

Batman and The Joker are the greatest hero/villain pairing ever.

Any media. Film, literature, television. Ever. Screw Lex Luthor, screw Moriarty, screw Darth Vader. The Joker trumps all of them. Why? Because he is completely fluid as a character.

It's my belief that what fascinates us about Batman has less to do with that notion of 'Oh, he has no powers, any of us could be Batman!' No, we couldn't. He's a fictional character with an infinite bankroll and a career lifespan of probably fifteen years tops. No, what makes Batman fascinating is how many types of character he's been since his creation. From the noir of his early days, through the campy 60's, pulpy 70's, dark 80's and 90's to his current role as emotionally stable CEO and baddest man on the planet, he can be written a million different ways in a way no other character can [remember how well it went over when Superman walked for a year?]. And he needs a villain that can keep up with him in similar fashion.

The best villain in any hero's rogues gallery is his anti-version: Bizarro. Sinestro. Zoom. Dr. Doom. The Joker has always been the chaos to Batman's order, in however that chaos needs to be expressed, whether that's a giant birthday present with a bomb tied to a replica of his head inside it, or a gunshot through the spine of Barbara Gordon. He is completely malleable, undergoing a constant state of reinvention whenever story or popular tastes dictate it, something Grant Morrison, the writer of Arkham and architect of more than a few Joker reinventions, explicitly mentions in one of the better passages of his book Supergods. What's more, these changes to character always feel natural. When The Joker changes his character, ditches the bolo ties and double-breasted suits for a surgical smock, it's never to boost sales, or connected to some new #1 issue. It's just a part of the chaos that forms his being.

But we haven't seen him in awhile, apart from a brief appearance at the start of the New 52 age that saw him getting his face sliced off and vanishing. Before that, he was a minor player in other villains' schemes in stories like Batman R.I.P. and the Batman and Robin storyline. Where's The Joker that can terrify me like the flamboyant ringmaster of Arkham Asylum or Heath Ledger's maniacal glam genius of The Dark Knight?

Putting on his game face, it would appear.

Last month Scott Snyder's latest Bat-epic, Death of the Family, brought the Clown Prince back to prominence in Batman's life, not as a supporting character, not as some consultant of evil, but as the Big Bad, the primary threat and mastermind. And it already feels like Snyder's going all out. The Batman of the New 52 is the most emotionally stable I've seen him in years. He's getting along with the extended Bat-family and the JLA, and despite some brief difficulties with the Court of Owls, he almost seems... happy. Which, for Snyder's Joker, is a slap in the face.

This Joker, in a mechanic's scrubs, wearing his own skinned face as a particularly sick bit of grotesquerie, feels more like Jigsaw from the Saw movies than any sort of Clown Prince. This isn't about theatrics, or making a statement, or injecting chaos. This is personal. The Joker needs Batman, and if he thinks Batman's going soft or losing his focus [as a line in the last issue of Batman would suggest], then The Joker needs to toughen him up. Hence the blue-collar approach. This is The Joker at his most workmanlike, and most terrifying. This is nothing but a job for him, a favour he's doing for Batman, and he'll kill everyone Batman cares about to get it done.

I've made no secret of my admiration for Snyder, for his willingness to embrace horror and inject it back into the DCU. Some fanboys *ahem* critics have been mistaking this for lazy or shock storytelling, of just turning The Joker into a one-note serial killer type, which misses the point spectacularly. Because he's never not supposed to be a murderous psychopath. As much as we all do, we aren't supposed to love The Joker. For whatever reason, the character's become much more charismatic in recent years and less dangerous. Maybe Ledger's performance changed the public's perception of the character in such a way that it's now okay for to smack someone in the face with a monkeywrench and laugh while he does it, but whatever the reason, I'm thankful for it. Because for the first time in years, I can't wait for the trade, I have to read the issues as they come out, and that's more of an accomplishment than anyone involved in this project could possibly realize.

Welcome home, Mister J.

Jordan Ferguson wonders if anyone remembers that bizarre moment when The Joker meets the Ayatollah Khomeini and represents Iran at the United Nations. Comics be weird, yo.

He places bets on Tim Drake making it out of DotF alive at poetryforgravediggers.wordpress.com.