I will start this off with a bit of personal insight. You know what the fundamental difference between a villain and a bad guy is? I say, a hero. It’s a rather unbecoming sort of dichotomy if you ask me, but let’s try to look at it within the confines of what this writeup is about: comic books. Do you remember a single popular hero or villain that has existed in isolation, without the presence of the other? Nemesis, arch-enemy, antagonist, whatever you may choose to call it is an important part of a hero’s journey and story, and while we prefer to tell stories and lores of heroes, I also think that but we’d not have much to talk about if not for the villains.
I do not for one second tend to glorify the acts or the concept of villainy, but I think you’ll agree what I say holds a lot more merit when we narrow down on whose fictional history this article is about: the Joker, and his nemesis Batman, with that order being completely intentional.
When it comes to nemeses, they really don’t come in better form than the Joker and the Batman: the perfect foils to each other, the perfect antithesis, the yin to the other’s yang. Now the yin-yang is another interesting insight: it doesn’t just simply mean that they are opposites. It also implies that the two are complementary, and that one may not survive without the presence of the other and vice versa. This also feeds directly into Batman quite literally being responsible for the creation of the Joker during the Ace chemicals incident in Gotham, now part of legend. However, this is just one of many accepted and debated over theories on the Joker’s origins, and with multiple origin stories, come multiple possibilities of the Joker’s real name.
Part of the enigma (no pun intended) and intrigue around the Joker comes from his relatively unknown or obscured over origins, sometimes deliberately by the Joker to throw someone off, adding to the ever-increasing popularity of the villain. He said it himself in ‘The Killing Joke’: “I’m not exactly sure what happened. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another. If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” Why we are here is to explore those “multiple choices” of who the man behind the bleached skin and green hair once was, and what was his real name. Read on.
The Red Hood Origin Story
The thing about ambiguity is that it won’t stop leading to speculation, especially when the fandom is as eager and dedicated as the Batverse’s. While most Joker origin stories make sure they don’t provide a definitive look at his fictional history, resorting to merely hinting toward it, Alan Moore went on to write what is now considered far and wide to be the accepted norm when it comes to an origin of the psychopathic villain in his superb one shot graphic novel ‘The Killing Joke’. The same story (albeit with minor adjustments) also features in ‘Batman: Under the Red Hood’ and the ‘Batman: Arkham Origins’ video game as well.
Working once at a lab with a pregnant wife to support, the Joker as a young, down-on-his-luck guy is shown switching to comedy full time, something he’s not very good at. His jokes are unfunny and his acts fail miserably. Desperate to make ends meet, he agrees to steal something from his former workplace for two thugs, who insist that he don the red hood alias while committing the robbery, secretly intending to frame him as the same.
Tragedy strikes and his life is turned upside down as he receives news of his wife’s and unborn child’s demise due to an accident back home, upon hearing which he decides to back down from the job. He is anyway coerced into it, and is confronted by the Batman as the job gets botched up. Startled, he stumbles and falls into a vat of chemicals, and is later swept out in the discharge line. He is terrified to see his skin and lips bleached permanently, and grief stricken from losing everything he cared for, he is driven to madness as the Joker rises, maniacally laughing. This was his one bad day.
Moore’s origin story is also broadly based on and an expansion of the first Joker origin story ever published in 1951, as the eponymous red hood and is now widely considered canon. The story has seen a number of variations ever since it was published, wherein the Joker was not coerced into taking the job, but was a criminal to begin with, with him not falling in the vat accidentally but leaping into it to save his life, and some other such variations along the same lines. The basis for these stories, even with the variations has always been a failed comedian, trauma, a red hood, and a vat of bleaching chemicals that completes his transformation into the madman. Funnily enough, Alan Moore’s backstory doesn’t have a name for who he was in the past. Feeling deceived? Well, I can imagine.
The DCAU and Burton-verse Theory: Jack Napier
Eventhough Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ films have been claimed to be the most definitive Batman films before Christopher Nolan stepped in and changed the game altogether with his trilogy of films, I will claim as have a number of other fans: they are far from the comics. What they do get right though, even definitively and unprecedentedly as well, is an unmistakably neo-gothic vibe for Gotham through exceptional production design, and a deliciously twisted Joker in Jack Nicholson. The film too draws from the same origin story, albeit without the red hood, and shows Nicholson as Jack Napier, a professional gangster operating in Gotham and the second in command to an influential mob-boss.
Jack is set up in a botched stint at ‘Axis Chemicals’ where he encounters the Batman and the cops in a setup raid, and struggling with the Batman, topples into the vat of chemicals. Although completely fictional and a new origin story with respect to other comic books, this version brings together Batman and Joker as directly responsible for the creation of each other, with Jack Napier earlier shown to have slain Bruce’s parents in the alleyway that fateful night. I can also state this version to be the only one out there that adds a proper history and a surname to the Joker as Jack Napier who adopts the alias of the clown prince of crime after his life in organised crime in mafia is botched up following the incident.
So, there you have it: the first theory for the name of the Joker, Jack Napier. What only adds to this scenario’s credibility is that the same name was later adopted for the best Joker adaptation in history in my opinion, in ‘Batman: The Animated Series’, where the Joker was voiced by the legendary Mark Hamill. The writers of the film have stated the name to be a homage to actors Jack Nicholson and Alan Napier, although, they were not the first ones to use the first name “Jack” for the Joker’s history before it became canon. A title from DC comics titled ‘Payback’ is where the Joker’s first name is revealed for the first time. More on that in the next section.
The Origin of ‘Jack’
Considering the timeline of the Joker’s appearances, we seem to be moving forward subsequently studying the development of his story, if ever it was alluded to, but with this one, I am going to dial it back a bit and go back to when Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane created the character. While the sources are conflicted over the credits, we all know that a Joker playing card and the actor Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in ‘The Man Who Laughs’ are major inspirations for the concept and design of the Joker. While Gwynplaine and his rictus grin surely helped fine-tune the physical attributes of the Joker and his face, the card has more significance than merely lending the aesthetic of a clown to the character.
Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime edited by R.M. Peaslee and R.G. Weiner (yes, there is a book!) details the significance of the ‘J’ card. In the games of Euchre and Poker, a fifth Jack card (the Joker Card) was added to replace any other card, meaning that the card has no real meaning and can assume the identity of the card as the user or situation deems. In a deck of 53 cards, the 53rd one is consequentially the most useful and utility bound card at the same time. That is also the genesis of where ‘Jack’ comes from in the first place, also detailing how its identity is rather a mystery and perfectly malleable: it is what you want it to be.
The upcoming DC film titled ‘Joker’ starring Joaquin Phoenix as the clown prince of crime will look at the origins of the Joker as a failed comedian in Gotham City who is driven insane and turns to a life of crime. The film will feature Phoenix as Arthur Fleck before his transformation into the Joker, and while the name currently seems to have no association to any previous entry in the DC universe, including comics, movies, shows or games, we cannot disregard the possibility of it becoming canon as at least one of the many choices. After all, we all know what happened with Jack Napier after BTAS adopted it! From the looks of it too, ‘Joker’ looks extremely, extremely promising.
Also Read: Best Joker Portrayals
Zero Month: William Distal
In the New 52 continuity, Batman writer Scott Snyder further explored the Red Hood gang set up by Alan Moore in the Zero month issue that explored the origins of several famous DC properties. In that, Bruce has recently returned to Gotham city and has barely begun fighting crime as the caped crusader. He infiltrates the then notorious Red Hood gang but is quickly caught by their leader, William Distal. Fortunately for Bruce, he manages to escape through the sewers when the police shows up, but their leader accidentally falls into the vat of acid, completing his transformation.
Telltale: John Doe
Well, this is really as vague as it gets. The character of the Joker was named ‘John Doe’ in the telltale videogame: ‘Batman: The Telltale Series’ and ‘Batman: The Enemy Within’, wherein John Doe becomes an ally of the Batman while both of them are incarcerated at the Arkham Asylum. This name too is inkeeping with the long running theory that the Joker doesn’t have a real, definite name or history, since John Doe really is used as an alias itself in the English language when the name of the character is unknown or is intentionally held back.
Mobius Chair Theory
I deliberately chose to keep this one as the in-closing theory. For fans, the Mobius Chair won’t be a completely strange object, so I am going to jump straight into it. In Justice League #42, Batman sat on the all knowing all telling Mobius Chair in order to settle it once and for all: with a curious desire to know the real name of the Joker. The chair at the close of the issue replied something that put the Batman in disbelief, something that he thought “was not possible”, ending in a cliffhanger. In the #50 issue, we get back to finding answers for the same, wherein Batman finally reveals to Green Lanterns (and to the audience) what the Mobius Chair said. It said: “There were Three”.
To sum it up, that is really I think the closest we can actually get to knowing the Joker’s real name. On that note, I wish you a good day ahead.
[All Comic Book Images Courtesy: Detective Comics]
Read More: All Upcoming DC Movies