Mar 30 • 13M

Newsletter #61: The Joke of It All (Part 1)

Part one of a two-part retrospective on my relationship with the Clown Prince of Crime

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Hey guys, it's Scott.

I am back and completely jet lagged from my trip with Jack, our 15 year old, out to Colorado. I'm not going to get too into it because I want to talk Joker, but it was it was amazing. With a teenager, a lot of our interactions are “come on Dad, get off my back!” and me being like “if you just apply yourself…” and all of those things. We're close, but it's hard with a 15 year old, I get it. But getting away, seeing massive mountains, feeling how small your problems are, for some reason opens up a portal where you're allowed to connect in different ways. And we had a great time, he shared a lot about his friends, about his music, about things that he's read, even stories he's working on, which he never shows me because he's always very private, but he's a great writer. I'm sure he’ll be better than I am by far. And so it was a great time, and that part of the country, if you ever get a chance to go, the four corners in that area—just to see these majestic dwarfing structures, the mountains that live in geological time and make you feel minuscule and are just gorgeous. There’s these tunnels blasted through them for you to drive through and walk through and it's just really transformational, honestly.

Anyway, the Joker. So I wanted to do a post—I feel like Joker is a character that I used a lot, and I love dearly. He's my favorite villain in literature. But it wasn't always that way, and one of the things that struck me watching that extended or deleted scene from Matt Reeves' The Batman with the new interpretation of the Joker, which I really liked, was that my take on the Joker is particular and I've always wanted to see a horror-based Joker on screen and we haven't yet, we haven't really.

I mean, I know there are aspects of the Joker that have been scary, especially in Heath Ledger's Joker, I think there are moments in Jack Nicholson's Joker that are scary. And I posit that the scariest version of The Joker that we've seen, honestly is, to me, at least, The Return of the Joker, the Batman Beyond animated series on screen.

That said, I just wanted to walk through almost like a case in defensive why a horror Joker would be really resonant right now and why I think it's a great time to see a horror Joker on screen. But for me, when I was a kid, Joker was a villain I liked, but when I was very young, I think the Riddler probably caught my attention more because I enjoyed the head to head with Batman. It felt like he was the villain that posed the greatest threat to Batman in terms of what Batman was supposed to be, as the World's Greatest Detective and here are these empirical puzzles to figure out. But then around 1986 when Dark Knight Returns came out, and that version of The Joker was so stunning where he kind of wakes up out of his catatonic state when Batman wakes up—it caught my attention. That book for me was much more about the mutants and Superman and bigger aspects that were reflective of the times in the 80s. But it definitely pinged me, that version of the Joker, that he was a corollary to Batman in an interesting way that went beyond just being this kind of Clown Prince of Crime, that there was a deeper psychological connection. And then what really hit me was in, I think, 1989 when Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth came out and there was this Dave McKean visual of the Joker that was terrifying.

To this day I remember it, with those ringed eyes. And it was Dave McKean at the height of his powers and Grant Morrison just telling a very, very dark, horrific story about the history of Arkham. If you haven't read it, I mean, it’s one of the handful of best Batman stories ever. And it's gorgeous. And it essentially has a pretty horrific version of The Joker as a sort of tour guide, or as a face of Arkham Asylum in a bigger mystery that's going on about the history of it, and what Batman's relationship is to the house and to sanity and all of that. So he's pretty scary in that one, but visually he's terrifying. And then the weirdest thing is this book came out called The Further Adventures of The Joker.

People probably have not read this, and I don't even know if it's in print anymore, but it was from 1990 and I just picked it up and I loved it. It had this great Kyle Baker cover. He also did the cover of The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told. Fantastic one of him in the purple suit, smiling with a gun on the spring coming out of his pocket.

And I remember, vividly, the first three stories taking me by the throat and expanding my whole concept of the Joker. And a lot of the stories in the book did, and there's some great writers in it—Dan Simmons of Carrion Comfort, one of the greatest vampire stories ever. And then The Terror, which was just made into a TV show, isn't it?

And Joey Cavalieri… There's a whole bunch of people you'll recognize and be like, oh, wow, but the first story in it was by a guy named Joe Lansdale. And he also happened to write Bubba Ho-Tep, which obviously was not out at that time, but looking back and realizing that he had done that…

Still thinkin’ with sand 20 years later…

And he wrote a couple of my very favorite episodes of the Batman: The Animated Series, which, again, was not out at that time.

But I'm just saying, like, going back and discovering this was like, of course, this is like my twin! And the way he wrote Perchance to Dream, and he wrote Showdown, the episode with Jonah Hex and Ra's al Ghul in the past. Anyway, the first story, it's called Belly Laugh.

And it's essentially about the Joker escaping Arkham and planning to kill five people with Batman being the last one. So it has a typical framework, but the level of darkness and violence that the Joker enacts where he dissolves people with acid with this trick where he combines these different things to make them physically dissolve, and the descriptions of the pain and horror there were really stunning to me at 13 years old. And then, on top of that, the whole net that he casts around Batman to draw him back into the theater where his parents were killed, whether or not he knows who he is, was psychologically very terrifying. The level of psychological darkness in that shocked me, and it was an adult story, it was not for kids.

And then the second story, which was told at first in medical reports, that was about a doctor who is assigned to the Joker. I think it's called Definitive Therapy and it's by F. Paul Wilson.

And it's about a doctor who's assigned to the Joker and essentially decides he's not going to be taken advantage of by Joker, he's there to help him. And the Joker is very scary in it. He's kind of tall and gaunt and his teeth are yellow beneath the white, rictus face. And it was the first time his face had been described as ‘rictus’ to me, which really caught me. And I remember he sits down with him and Joker immediately starts talking about how great he is and how he can escape at any moments and how he can get whatever he wants in here. And the doctor doesn't really believe him, and slowly but surely, the Joker starts bringing things in that surprise the doctor that he's able to get them. And then he starts asking the doctor about his private life, which he clearly knows about. “How's the girlfriend? How's Dina doing?” “How do you know about that?” “Oh, well, I have people on the outside. I know everything, Doc. I'm the Joker.” And one day the doctor goes to get his car and here's a new Mercedes there, and the Joker gave it to him. And then one day his girlfriend calls him and she just got an engagement ring from him, but the Joker sent it.

And so he's starting to manipulate his life, and eventually the doctor decides to get the Joker a lobotomy and the board of directors of the hospital agrees. But the Joker is in there for having killed an artist named Whittier or something like that, like a young up and coming artist that the doctor loved and hates the fact that Joker murdered him. And suddenly, he finds, as his wedding or engagement gift, one of the paintings by this dead painter in his house. The Joker says, “well, I have a whole stack of them for you as a wedding gift for treating me!” And so the doctor essentially tries to put off the lobotomy so that he can find out where these things are so that he can get them. And in doing so, of course, the Joker springs out of a seat one day, injects the guy, and when he wakes up (it's a little corny, but it was terrifying to me at 13), the guy wakes up and he's been paralyzed and he's disguised as the Joker. And the Joker has now put on prosthetics to look like him to walk right out of the hospital. And so the lobotomy he ordered for the Joker is now going to come to him. And all of it is the Joker saying “see, you're just as bad as everybody else.” And again, the level of psychological darkness of that story…

And the next one, which was about Joker as a young boy… Just as a trigger warning, it's an extremely dark R-rated story like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer-type story where it's about a young boy who looks out over Gotham and sits on this water tower a lot because his home life is terrible. His father is extremely abusive and is in and out of a mental institution and the boy’s a burgeoning serial killer, just killed all these animals and made things with their bodies. And he starts preying on this kid that idolizes him, and it's just really dark.

Again, taking away from those sort of three initial stories plus the rest of the book, plus the visual of Joker the year before in Arkham Asylum began to form my idea, I think, of if I ever got the chance to write Joker, what I would want him to be. I wanted him to be a psychological extension of whomever he was up against. And that really formed this idea—which seems really simple and was maybe sort of obvious, and I don't even know if it was done before, but I think it was crystallized in our stuff—that the Joker is the Joker card. He is any qualitative or quantitative value that he needs to be to create and to transform himself into your worst fear. He is the card on the table whose value is exactly your worst nightmare, and that's it. And he's laughing at you to think that you could ever overcome it. So whatever Batman fears most, that's what Joker appears as. And for me, I've said it before, but horror is kind of the purest, burned down form of conflict. If a monster is done right, a monster is an extension of your worst fears—fears about yourself fears, about the world, about the future. That's what a good monster is, and the Joker is a great monster in that way. He's perfect. He's malleable, he's the extension of absolute fear.

So anyway, in retrospect, that's where my thinking came from about what the Joker would be if I ever got to work on him. And so then when the movies came out and Jack Nicholson sort of became the face of the Joker for a long time and it was a little campy, there are moments of scariness, and I always loved those movies, but it got cornier and cornier, and then I thought Heath Ledger played it fantastically, but it's still more of a mob and psychological battle of wits with Batman than it is pure horror. I'm talking about horror. I'm talking about you looking under your bed, afraid that he snuck in, and Joker crawling out from under. And out of the darkness you see that pale, ghostly face looking back at you, and then it smiles. And the teeth. And the eyes with the pupils that don't dilate because they let in no light, just pinpoints, predator eyes, looking at you. Joker who knows more about yourself than you know about you because you don't want to admit it, but he knows and he's there laughing at you, being that thing and presenting you your worst fear and laughing at you while you burn. That's Joker to me.

So I wanted Joker to be that in our run. And I had this idea for him being almost the double helix DNA structure to Batman. And he would always represent Batman's worst fear and he would be present, in some way or other, in almost everything that I did. So in Death of the Family, he first comes in big—

My whole run honestly, our whole run really deals with my biggest fear, which is the meaninglessness of things. That no matter what you do or try, ultimately, to affect things, to be someone who does any good in the world, that ultimately, there are forces that are far too powerful and that it's meaningless and that the mechanism at the center of the universe is dark,and evil. And human nature is evil, human nature is dark, goodness is a fallacy. It's like a blip, an aberration. And that to me is something when I'm feeling really depressed or when I get really go through dark periods I worry about. It's like a voice in my head that just goes round and round. That there's no point that anything you do is just washed away and doesn't matter. The forces at work—cosmic, human, all of it, are dark and then it's not worth it. And obviously, I don't believe that at all. That’s why I love Batman, because he stands against those all the time, the incident that should prove that to him proves the opposite and becomes the fuel for him to say that every action has meaning, everything you do has meaning, everything is a triumph. Every time you overcome your own nature necessarily, or the nature of the universe and do something good. So Joker would be the opposite. Joker would be the voice that's always telling you it's not worth it, The voice that’s always telling you you're wrong, that you're going to fail, that everything is dark, and he would take whatever devil form or chameleon-esque form would prove that the most…

To be covered in the second part tomorrow—How I applied this psychology behind The Joker to my own work on the Caped Crusader!

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