If you want to know how the Joker got his scars, the one person you shouldn’t believe is the Joker. An unreliable witness at the best of times (and the worst), his origins are shrouded in mystery. Over the eighty years since his first appearance, comics, movies, and television series have thrown up multiple and revised histories for the Clown Prince of Crime.
Attempts to demystify the Joker and provide an origin, which began with co-creator Bill Finger in 1951, have only served to confuse things even more. It’s become a crucial part of his character. As the Joker says during Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s one-shot comic The Killing Joke, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
Sometimes he’s been a failed stand-up comedian who fell to crime in desperation. Other times he’s been scheming gang leader Red Hood, with various levels of success. Both comics and series have explored the idea that the Joker is not a persona but an idea shared by multiple identities. During DC’s New 52 era, Geoff Johns hinted at more than one Joker during his Justice League run to explain the character’s changeable personalities during different periods of Detective Comics. That idea came to fruition in 2020’s chilling mini-series The Three Jokers.
Despite the Joker’s blurred origins, the most consistent fact is that a fall into a vat of chemicals transformed him into the playing card character.
Those chemical effects vary, from bleaching his skin and greening his hair to the impact on his mind. One thing that’s remained a little more mysterious is the effect on his grin. Is it fixed or not? Why do some versions of the Joker carry noticeable scars and others don’t? Let’s break it all down.
The Comic Jokers
For the majority of his 80-year career, the Joker hasn’t displayed any visible scars. His rictus grin hasn’t isn’t even been fixed. His exaggerated features, as drawn by Bob Kane on his first appearance, have often been as menacing when stretched into a grin as when they’re in a deep frown.
That changed during the New 52 when the Joker lost his face. On their first Joker arc, writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo steered the character through the horror-tinged Death of the Family storyline. Referencing the tragic events of 1988’s Death in the Family, one of the Joker’s darkest moments in the comics, this Harlequin of Hate was desperate to prove his closeness to Batman.
As part of his plan to destroy the broader Bat-family, he had villain Dollmaker surgically remove his face to demonstrate the depth of his relationship with the Caped Crusader. He wanted to show that the identities and meaning of the Robins, Nightwing, and Batgirl were only mask-deep. The Joker left his detached face on a cell wall for Batman to find, one of his most graphic calling cards.
His face would go on an adventure of its own, including time in the fridges of GCPD before the Clown stole it back and gruesomely fixed it back using straps and pins. The Joker in a Joker mask, his tendons visible underneath, is one of his most hideous looks. After a fight deep in the Batcave, the Bat-family intact, Batman dislodged the Joker’s face. It was lost until it was found by Duela Dent, who wore it, assuming the name Joker’s Daughter.
By the time of his next storyline, Endgame, the Joker’s face had regrown thanks to a pool of a restorative substance called dionesium under the Batcave. Snyder and Capullo’s third major storyline with the Joker would be the alternative timeline Last Knight on Earth, where they didn’t so much give Joker scars as remove his body and stick his head in a lamp.
The Live-Action Jokers
The Joker’s scars are a more significant part of the villain’s live-action appearances, as creators have found different ways to capture his distinctive appearance.
In 1989’s Batman, we see the transformation of Jack Napier into Joker. His face is lacerated by shattered glass when a deflected bullet hits a dial in the Axis Chemical’s facility. It causes him to plunge over a railing into a vat of chemicals below.
The backstreet surgeon who tries to fix Napier’s face does a rather neat job, but that doesn’t save his life. Jack Nicholson’s Joker’s mouth is set in an upturned smile. It’s a brilliant piece of make-up that captures the exaggerated expressions of his early comic book appearances, particularly when his mood fails.
Heath Ledger’s iconic performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight made far more of the character’s scars. They’re part of his arsenal of terror and chaos. When it comes to their origin, he’s not so much an unreliable witness as an unpredictable one.
This Joker reveals two possible origins for his scars during the film: facial cuts covered by his makeshift makeup. The first he relates while intimidating mob boss Gambol, recalling his childhood and the night his drunken father went “crazier than usual.” When his mother, who his father regularly beat, tried to defend herself with a knife, his father turned the weapon on their son. As he stuck the knife in his mouth, he threatened to “put a smile on that face.”
That’s chilling, but the second is haunting. As the Joker explains to Rachel Dawes, he had once wanted to help his wife after his gambling led sharks to “carve her face.” Lacking any money for surgery, the Joker disfigured himself in sympathy, hoping it would make his wife smile again. Instead, horrified at the sight of him, she left. Although, as he says, he’s now able to see the funny side.
Neither story is confirmed, but they certainly added to his fear factor. It’s more likely that they reflected what the Joker saw in his victims during those scenes than his background. Perhaps the most telling moment is when he later taunts Detective Stephens in a GCPD interrogation room, explaining why he prefers to use knives.
“Guns are too quick. You can’t savor all the little emotions. In, you see, in their last moments, people show you who they really are. So in a way, I know your friends better than you ever did. Would you like to know which of them were cowards?”
The Dark Knight was hard to top, and movie Jokers have avoided scars ever since. Jared Leto’s Joker was more about tattoos in 2016’s Suicide Squad. By his last cameo in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, he was a wraith-like character, with random scars and missing teeth reflecting his survival post-apocalypse.
In 2019’s hugely successful Joker solo film, the scars of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker are internalized, and his facepaint a mask.
The only character to go through anything close to his comic equivalent is the Joker-analog Jerome Valeska in Fox’s Gotham (2014-2019). When the character died, and after a failed attempt to revive him, a cult removed his face. The cult leader wore it as a mask until a revived Jerome⏤his face in bandages⏤stole it back. Jerome’s twin brother, Jeremiah, became a more demented version of the Joker when exposed to his brother’s laughing toxin. He was later disfigured and brain-damaged after a fall into a vat of chemicals. This most facially scarred version of the Joker was left with nothing but to wait for the day Bruce Wayne fully assumed the alter-ego of Batman.