In the world of comic books, there is villainy, and then there is supervillainy – and surely, such evil was first truly defined by The Joker of DC Comics. Created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, the criminal mastermind first appeared in the debut issue of Batman in 1940 and, though he has appeared in the stories of other characters, he’s remained synonymous with the Dark Knight ever since. The two are arch-enemies, with many regarding one to be the antithesis of the other. In truth, they are separated only by warped morality.
Neither has super powers and instead relies on augmented and specially designed props in order to achieve dominance in conflict situations. They are both highly intelligent and are shaped by past traumas and deep, psychological pain. Batman is a driven and relentless vigilante, while The Joker is an anarchic psychopath but, though the end goal for the Bat is his own brand of justice, it could be argued that The Joker aims for the same thing. The only difference is that their individual sense of justice is informed by their own sense of morality. Batman has a sense of right and wrong, and so falls – largely – on the right side of the law, while The Joker does not. When Batman kills people, he does so feeling it is justified by the greater good. The Joker kills people because he feels it is justified by his own sadism.
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The Clown Prince Of Crime has no definitive origin story, and he himself regards his past as being more of a “multiple choice” situation. However, of the range of tales covering his evolution into The Joker, the aspect that endures is his transformation from average citizen – possibly a failed comedian – into a man manipulated by organized crime. There is the loss of his wife and unborn child at the hands of mob members, and the suggestion that he fell into a vat of chemicals while being chased by Batman. These chemicals caused his disfigurement, insanity, and led to his comic book tendency to use various chemicals as weapons and poisons.
Over the years, the comic book appearances of The Joker have led to a deeper exploration of the relationship he enjoys with Batman. Through seven decades of hounding each other, it is acknowledged that neither would be anything without their nemesis. It’s often been highlighted by fans that Batman could very easily kill The Joker, and be justified in doing so – and the fact that he repeatedly chooses not to, essentially makes him complicit in every subsequent murder spree of the supervillain.
But, it is through his treatment of The Joker – above all other villainous characters – that we see the central moral conflict that defines Batman. If he killed The Joker, he essentially could kill any villain in pre-meditated fashion, and then where would he stop? This is Batman’s acute awareness of the line that separates him from a descent into the same level of sadism as his enemy – taking lives with impunity, as he sees fit.