What’s the deal with Batman and the Joker? On a surface level their relationship is simple. You could ask any preschooler who has ever watched a Batman cartoon and they’ll tell you simply that Batman is the hero and Joker is the villain. But anybody who has taken a deeper look at their relationship knows that the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime share one of the most complex relationships in comics. Sure, they’re enemies, but there is a unmistakable codependency to their conflict. As we head into this year’s Batman Day, I thought it might be fun to examine the rivalry between the Caped Crusader and his greatest enemy.

First Smiles

Their first meeting in 1940’s Batman #1 was intense and action-packed, but it didn’t give any suggestion of the pathos their modern relationship would go on to have. Or any of the Joker’s now-expected dark humor. Have you ever wondered what the first words Batman and Joker ever said to one another were? Joker says, “You! Prepare to die.” To which Batman replies, “I’d rather live if you don’t mind.”

Needless to say, their banter would get a lot better.

It's interesting to note that Batman and the Joker’s rivalry almost ended before it had the chance to get off the ground. The final story in Batman #1 was originally supposed to end with the Joker accidentally stabbing himself to death. DC Comics editor Whitney Ellsworth saw value in the character and reworked the dialogue in the final panels to show readers that the Joker had survived. If Ellsworth hadn’t done that, it’s hard to imagine how different the past eighty years would have been. Jason Todd wouldn’t be afraid of crowbars and Joaquin Phoenix would’ve had a lot more free time in 2019.

Interestingly, the Joker’s second appearance (1940’s Batman #2) found the Dark Knight attempting to reform the Clown Prince. Batman planned to kidnap the Joker from his hospital bed and take him to a brain surgeon who would lobotomize the villain until he was no longer felt the desire to commit crimes. Obviously, this plan was super unethical, but knowing what would come in subsequent decades, we can’t say we blame Batman for considering it.

Basically, in the early days there just wasn’t much to say about Batman and the Joker’s relationship. A Batman versus Joker story wasn’t much different than a Batman versus random crook story. The Joker was a fan favorite, but the stakes weren’t terribly high. In fact, after 1942’s Detective Comics #62, the Joker would not be seen committing murder for over thirty years. It was all thievery and petty crime.

Send in the Clown

That’s not to say that confrontations between the two were basic. 1942’s Batman #12 introduced a new angle to their relationship, the Joker’s inability to kill Batman. Early in the story, the Joker stops one of his men from fatally shooting an immobilized Batman.

“Anyone can kill with a gun,” he explains. “But I’m not anyone! I’m the Joker! When I kill it must be with some imagination!” This story also introduced the Joker’s death traps, which would become more elaborate in subsequent stories and famously make their way into the 1966 Batman television series.

The Joker’s reluctance to kill Batman is hard to make sense of. Sometimes the Clown Prince seems eager to end the Dark Knight for good, while other times he wants him alive so they can fight another day. I suppose it’s silly to look for consistency in the Joker’s actions. The guy’s an unpredictable agent of chaos.

1951’s Detective Comics #168 gave us our first Joker origin story. According to a flashback, the Joker had once been a petty crook known as the Red Hood. After tangling with Batman, Red Hood escaped by diving into a chemical basin. The toxins in the basin transformed the Red Hood’s skin and hair, giving him the appearance of a clown.

Elements from this story were used in The Killing Joke, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film and Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Zero Year.” This revelation also added a new layer to Batman and the Joker’s rivalry. Now Batman was tied to the Joker’s birth, which strengthens the unusual bond between them. Some retellings of the origin story shift things a bit, making Batman directly responsible for the Joker’s chemical bath.

The Clown Prince of Crime

In 1973’s Batman #251, the Joker returned after a four-year absence from comics in a story that set the tone for his relationship with Batman for years to come. And while “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” also saw the Clown Prince kill on panel for the first time since 1942, he remained reluctant to murder his nemesis. At one point in the story, the Joker has the chance to kill Batman, but he’s reluctant.

“Without the game that Batman and I have played for so many years, winning is nothing,” the Joker tells himself. Later stories would frame this reluctance as codependence. The Joker needs Batman, and the Clown Prince likes to believe that the Dark Knight needs him as well.

In 1988, DC Comics published Batman: The Killing Joke, a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. The prestige comic had Batman take a more introspective look at his relationship with the Joker. The story begins with Batman visiting Arkham, hoping he and his longtime adversary can work through their differences before their rivalry kills them both. As the Dark Knight speaks, you can almost sense alarm in his words. He can’t make sense of his relationship with the Joker, and it scares him.

“I’ve been thinking lately,” Batman begins. “About you and me. About what’s going to happen to us. In the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?” There is something frightening about the Dark Knight’s relationship with the Joker, and it scares even Batman. Of course, the Joker is a few steps ahead of him and has swapped places with an imposter. Batman infamously spends the first scene of the story pouring his heart out to the Joker, and it isn’t even the right person.

The Joker escapes, shoots and disables Barbara Gordon and kidnaps Jim Gordon. It’s all to prove a point about the fragility of sanity by driving Gordon mad, but Jim stands firm. In the end, Batman confronts his greatest enemy and tries to put their relationship on a different path.

“We could work together,” he pleads. “I could rehabilitate you. You needn’t be out there on the edge any more. You needn’t be alone. We don’t have to kill each other.” The Joker almost looks like he’s considering the offer, but after a beat he says it’s too late. Depending on how you read the story, you might sense sincere regret in the Joker’s voice.

The comic ends on a controversial note as Batman and the Joker stand in the rain laughing together. For decades fans have debated the ambiguity of the ending, where the panels shift away from Batman and the Joker as the laughter stops. It’s fitting that the ending is so ambiguous, since that reflects the state of Batman and the Joker’s relationship.

There was one last thing that The Killing Joke really helped make clear about Batman’s relationship with the Joker. At one point, Batman says during a conversation with Alfred, “I don’t know him, Alfred. All these years and I don’t know who he is any more than he knows who I am.” Batman knows everything he needs to about the Penguin or Riddler, but the Joker is chaos and contradiction. Batman is drawn to mystery, so perhaps that’s why he’s drawn to the Joker.

Playing for Keeps

In addition to adding new depth to their relationship, The Killing Joke also raised the stakes by having the Joker permanently disable Barbara Gordon. The Joker had done some pretty horrible things prior to Moore and Bolland’s book, but this was the first time one of his crimes had lasting consequences in Batman’s world. It wouldn’t be the last.  

In “A Death in the Family,” which also was released in 1988, the Joker murdered Jason Todd, the second Robin. Now there was no turning back. He and Batman would no longer be having conversations about rehabilitation as they laugh in the rain. Things had gotten so personal that Superman had to personally step in to make sure Batman doesn’t kill the Joker in anger.

When the Joker returned in Batman #450-451, the Dark Knight was afraid of facing him again. The death of Robin changed everything and even Jason’s eventual resurrection couldn’t reset their relationship. This type of self-doubt or fear isn’t something Batman typically feels when he confronts his other enemies. The Joker is the only one who has this hold on him.

Their rivalry would be explored further during Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Death of the Family.” In this story, the title of which is an homage to the earlier “A Death in the Family,” the Joker kidnaps Batman’s allies, telling the Dark Knight that deep down he knows Batman loves him more than his partners. He speaks of their unique connection and asks Batman some difficult questions about why he hasn’t killed him once and for all. The Joker might be a madman, but these words are strong enough to drive a rift between Batman and his allies. Although the Dark Knight prevails, the story makes it clear that there is a part of Batman that will always belong to the Joker and will never be shared by anyone else.

I could write a whole other article on Batman and the Joker’s relationship in other media, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the first episode of HBO Max’s Harley Quinn. In many ways, it plays much like “Death of the Family” in reverse. Here it’s Harley who realizes that the Joker’s true love will always be Batman. The two of them share a special relationship that nobody, whether it’s Harley or Alfred, will ever be able to pierce.

It's hard to make sense of their relationship because we’re usually seeing it from Batman’s point of view. The Joker’s perspective is murkier and his contradictory actions only add to the confusion. He claims Batman couldn’t exist without him and compares their rivalry to a marriage. For his part, Batman just wants the Joker behind bars, but there is no denying the strange hold they have one another. What is the deal with Batman and the Joker? Perhaps we’ll never truly know. After all, if the World’s Greatest Detective can’t make sense of their relationship, then I’m not sure anyone can. 

Batman Day 2022 is on Saturday, September 17th. For more information, along with exclusive videos, features, articles and more celebrating the Dark Knight, visit our official Batman Day page.

Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.

NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.