The recent passing of Jerry Robinson deprives the comics reading community of yet another of our giants. There are few – too few – left.
There isn’t much of value that I can add to the tributes and obituaries that have been written since the great man’s passing, so instead I’ll concentrate on the character the co-creation of which must surely be his most enduring legacy. Jerry Robinson was, after all, part of the three man creative team* responsible for bringing the Joker into being. One of the most iconic villains in the vast rogues’ gallery of comics heroes’ arch enemies.
There can be little doubt of the influence the character has had on generations of readers. He’s not in any way the most powerful of the villains in the DCU, but there’s just something about him that elevates him above the rest. After all, he’s been around since almost the beginning, and he’s just as integral to the mythos as Robin or even Alfred**. I’ve said it before, and I’d argue the point quite strongly, that the existence of the Joker has been one of the reasons for the endurance of the bat himself.
Why the Joker, of all the outlandish foes to challenge the Caped Crusader over the years? What makes him so special?
His role needed to be filled by something of course – to survive a character must not only be a strong archetype, there must be an equally strong foil to play against. Without Lex Luthor, Superman is a mere musclebound ubermensch. Without the Joker, Batman is just a very clever rich bloke in a cape. But what is it about a scarred psychopath that makes him so compelling.
Well, for a start, there is perhaps the powerful visual image. With his bright white skin, vibrant green hair and gaudy red lips, he’s the visual as well as moral opposite of the darker, blacker bat. His visage is in fact so striking that you can alter it slightly and yet it still remains recognisably him. If you don’t believe me, consider the role as played on screen by Ceasar Romero and Heath Ledger***. They didn’t look in any way similar, and yet they were.
Besides, as a character he’s dancing along a very strange psychological line. Aesthetically he’s a clown. We like clowns. Clowns are fun. But the Joker isn’t fun, except in his own head. From the perspective of anyone who is not the Joker he’s utterly utterly terrifying. That’s a strange juxtaposition of feelings. It’s unnerving.
Which is perfectly understandable, because, let’s face it – he’s a damn clown! That juxtaposition of feelings is inherent in the very concept of clowns – clowns are terrifying! We know they’re supposed to be fun. We even believe they’re fun. The older we get the more fun we think they are, but deep down, we remember how we felt about clowns when we were five. Be honest. When you were five, clowns scared the shit out of you – in many ways the character of the Joker is tapping into some of your deepest childhood fears – just as the Batman does. Maybe that’s why they work so well together…
I have no idea whether Robinson did that on purpose or not, but if it was an accident, it was a very happy one.
Of course this isn’t the only reason that the Joker has endured – we’ve touched on one of the other reasons already. Just like the Batman, he’s very adaptable. The Joker who pranced around stealing statues from the Gotham City Museum back during the Wertham days in the fifties is still the Joker, but nothing like the unpredictable maniac who terrorised the pages of Morrison and McKean’s Arkham Asylum, who is different again from the Hawaiian shirted prankster who shot out Barbara Gordon’s spine in Moore and Bolland’s The Killing Joke. To name but three of the many faces this maniac of mirth, this Clown Prince of Crime has worn over the last decades.
All different, all recognisably the Joker. This chameleon quality of his personality allows the character to be adapted to fit the changing public mood, but also the dramatic requirements of the story. He really can be a clown, if that’s what is required, or he can be viciously sadistic killer. His intrinsic irrationality makes him the most versatile character at the Bat-Writer’s disposal – you can literally do anything with him. The kind of freedom this gives to a writer is bound to foster creativity, which I would contend is why there are so many excellent Joker stories****.
But this also adds a certain frisson to the reading experience too. As a reader you know what to expect from most long running characters. With the Joker you genuinely have no idea what might happen or where the story might go. There are no certainties, no assumptions are safe. If you’re reading a Joker story the only thing you can safely expect is the unexpected. Such stories may not always be fabulous, but they are never, ever dull.
I can’t think of another character – in comics or elsewhere – who delivers quite that mix of intrigue and mayhem. That’s the reason why the Joker has stood the test of time. That’s why he continues to fascinate and horrify in equal measure. And that’s a legacy.
Creating the Joker may not have been the best thing that Robinson ever did. His campaigning for creator rights and his teaching may have been worthier of merit. But the Clown Prince of time might well have touched more lives and will probably be remembered for longer – and every time I see him, I’ll give a silent thanks to Jerry Robinson – a true creative giant.
*The other two being Bob Kane and Bill Finger .
**It should be noted here that Alfred is much much more important to the Batman than Robin is.
***Much as I love the Tim Burton movies, we shall not talk of Jack Nicholson here. Suffice to say that I’ve never been in any doubt why Batman Returns was better than Batman. It isn’t the presence of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman (even if I do still have her picture in my wallet), it’s the absence of Nicholson’s Joker.
****It’s probably also the reason for the number of absolute stinkers too – The Joker does feature rather strongly in A Death in the Family after all, a worthless piece of crap that to my mind still ranks as the worst Batman story I have ever read. I hated it so much I really didn’t mind when they utterly undermined it by bringing Jason Todd back to life…