What is the Joker’s real name?
When it comes to the world of Batman comics, movies, and TV shows, no villain is more profound to the lore than the infamous Joker.
In case you’re not already familiar, Batman is the masked vigilante who protects the streets of his home city of Gotham from crime and mayhem, including from a rogues’ gallery of colorful villains. This all stems from an early traumatic experience the character had when his parents were shot in cold blood in front of him as a child.
Unlike Batman’s well-known alter-ego ⏤ the wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne ⏤ the Joker’s real identity is notoriously cryptic. His mysteriousness does serve a purpose, however, since our lack of knowledge about the character’s background only adds to his frightening persona.
The question still remains: is there an in-canon identity to the supervillain? The answer, as it turns out, is a bit complicated and depends on what piece of media you’re looking at.
Joker’s origins and Red Hood
In terms of the comic books, the first-ever appearance by the Joker actually stretches back to the very first issue, Batman #1, in 1940, about a year after Batman’s debut in Detective Comics #27. In that initial outing, the character was portrayed as a remorseless serial killer and thief.
It wasn’t until Detective Comics #168 in 1951 that comic writer Bill Finger first attempted to scratch the surface of the character’s origin by portraying him as the former Red Hood, a masked master criminal who dodged apprehension by Batman and his sidekick, Robin, by diving into a vat of chemicals at the Ace Playing Card Company. While his red hood helped him survive the vat, the chemicals disfigured him to the point that his skin turned white, his lips red, and his hair green, like an evil clown. Rather than retiring on his planned $1 million heist, the former lab worker decided to start terrifying people with his new persona and calling himself the Joker, partly in homage to the company that had a part in his transformation.
The darkly tragic Joker origin from Batman: The Killing Joke
While the Joker character transformed from chilling to campy, then back to chilling again over the decades ⏤ which coincided with the rise and fall of the cheesy 1960s Batman TV show where Joker was portrayed by actor Cesar Romero ⏤ it wasn’t until the iconic 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, at the height of the more mature “Dark Age” of comics, that writer Alan Moore finally took another shot at explaining the character’s backstory.
Though the character still isn’t given a name, it’s revealed through flashbacks that he started out as a regular man, a lab assistant who quits his job at a chemical plant to pursue his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. A failure at his newfound calling and desperate to support his pregnant wife, the man agrees to a couple of criminals’ proposal of robbing the plant where he used to work.
Immediately prior to the heist, he is informed by police that his wife has tragically died in an accident in their home involving an electric baby bottle heater. The grief-stricken comedian attempts to pull out of the plan, but his criminal employers strong-arm him into going through with it. He’s also given the costume of the infamous aforementioned Red Hood as part of the criminals’ attempt to pin the comedian as a fall guy in case things go south.
The heist goes awry, resulting in the criminals engaging in a shoot-out with security, while the red-hooded comedian is left to confront Batman alone. Not knowing what to do, the man purposefully jumps into the vat of chemicals to escape, only to emerge disfigured and with the compounding tragedies in a single day leaving him completely insane.
Extended lore following Killing Joke
A number of other subsequent comic books have either referenced or expanded on Moore’s Killing Joke, making it the closest thing to canon, but it still varies quite a bit from title to title. For instance, Batman: Three Jokers asserts that his wife wasn’t killed, but rather ran away with the help of police, in order to escape the man whom she thought would be an abusive father to her child, with the police later telling Joker that she tragically died. In Pushback, it’s suggested that Joker’s wife was murdered by a corrupt cop, while Payback claims that Jack is the villain’s real name.
Due to the Joker himself being an unreliable narrator, there is no monolithic origin story to the character. A number of other versions of his origins have subsequently followed since Killing Joke that almost entirely reimagine the character’s backstory, including him as a criminal mastermind who invented the Red Hood persona (Paul Dini and Alex Ross’ Case Study), and another who established the Red Hoods as a gang, pre-disfigurement (Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Zero Year).
In addition, there are a number of alternative universes in DC and thus a number of differing versions of the Joker, including 2011’s Flashpoint, that depict Martha Wayne, Bruce’s mother, as the Joker following his son’s murder, and Lex Luther becoming the Joker in a world where Superman is Batman in the 1993 comic Superman: Speeding Bullets.
Movies and TV shows
In Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman, in which the Joker is portrayed by Jack Nicholson, the character is depicted as a gangster named Jack Napier. This origin diverts from Red Hood lore, with Batman inadvertently causing the gangster to fall into the vat of chemicals this time around at Axis Chemical plant, disfiguring him. It’s revealed later in the film that Napier is the one who killed Bruce’s parents as a child, making Jack responsible for having created Batman.
Jack Napier is also the name of the Joker in Bruce Timm’s excellent Batman: The Animated Series, and he is similarly depicted as a career gangster prior to the chemical vat disfigurement, though the subsequent continuation The New Batman Adventures later presents the character as having multiple aliases, making his origins murkier than initially established. Mark Hamill gives one of his best roles voicing the character.
In the Fox live-action TV show Gotham, the twin brothers Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska, as portrayed by Cameron Monaghan, are meant to be a kind of spiritual stand-in for the Joker. While both characters are professional criminals and carry different aspects of the traditional Joker character, they are described as “proto-Jokers” by showrunner Bruno Heller. This is due to both intellectual property restrictions from Warner Bros. and the showrunner not wanting to introduce costumed villains before the then-adolescent Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, since it is a prequel series.
Arthur Fleck is the character’s real name in Todd Phillips’ Joker, a 2019 origin-story take on the villain that portrays him as a down-and-out, struggling stand-up comedian who has trouble holding a job as a clown-for-hire. A number of compounding anguishes, including caring for his mentally-ill mother, being the subject of bullying and ridicule, struggling with mental illness and not being able to afford psychiatric medicine or care, having a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and being publicly humiliated by his talk show idol ⏤ Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin ⏤ sets the character down the path of becoming a deranged serial killer.
However, the film also establishes Fleck as an unreliable narrator, as his romantic relationship with Zazie Beetz’s Sophie Dumond was revealed near the end of the film to be a machination of Fleck’s delusions. Hence, it’s unclear if other aspects of the narrative ⏤ including the character’s name ⏤ can be relied on as being factual within the universe of the film.
Neither Heath Ledger nor Jared Leto’s interpretation of the Joker offers up the character’s real name; however, Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad did show a backstory of his tumultuous and toxic relationship with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, a woman who was once Joker’s psychiatrist but is eventually seduced by him. Quinn then ritualistically throws herself into the same vat of Ace Chemicals that created Joker ⏤ upon his insistence ⏤ to prove her love and loyalty to him.