This month, a three-part tale in Batman #142-144 promises a story 83 years in the making. Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli showed us what a Gotham City exposed to Batman for the first time was like in the groundbreaking Batman: Year One. Now, Chip Zdarsky, Giuseppe Camuncoli and the rest of the Batman team will attempt to deliver the same for his most infamous counterpart. This February, it’s time to see The Joker: Year One.
When we first met the Joker in 1940’s Batman #1, his true origin was a mystery. From his first confrontation with Batman, he was already fully formed, a grim comedian with no past, no civilian identity, who deals in death with every punchline.
As a clown, the Joker is always changing up his routine in severity, delivery and persona. His only consistent feature over all these years has been his pathological obsession with Batman—two sides of an ideological coin minted with chaos and order. The difference is that we’ve always known Bruce Wayne’s story. Who was the Joker, before he made Batman the center of his life?
Maybe that’s the wrong question. Perhaps what we should be asking is: do we really want to know? After all this time, would conclusively solving the riddle of the Joker’s identity not merely put limiters on the most versatile super-villain in fiction? Is the price of that history worth the death of the Joker’s mystique?
The Joker: Year One is far from the first story to offer an answer to the Joker’s identity. Batman co-creator Bill Finger offered the most staunchly canonical account of the Joker’s former life in 1951’s Detective Comics #168, “The Man Behind the Red Hood.” It’s here that we first learn of the Joker’s original criminal persona, before he plunged into a vat of chemicals and lost his grip on reality. This account has gone on to inform most incarnations of the Joker we’ve seen since, from Batman: The Killing Joke to Batman: The Man Who Laughs. Some stories, like Batman: Zero Year, bring even that historical point into question—maybe the Red Hood and the Joker were never the same man. Maybe he was always a criminal, as we see him as Jack Napier in Tim Burton’s Batman, or as mobster Sal Valestra’s sadistic enforcer in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Or maybe, as suggested in The Killing Joke, or Batman: Three Jokers, the man who would become the Joker was a desperate soul looking for a quick cash-out to provide for his family.
Ask the Joker himself and he’ll give you a different account every time. In Batman: Mad Love, the Joker first captured Dr. Quinzel’s heart with a tragic story of his one happy memory of being taken to the circus by an abusive father. In that same comic, Batman told Harley that the Joker gave him a different story about ice skating. In 2010’s The Brave and the Bold #31, the Atom enters Joker’s mind and witnesses the youth of a disturbed child who sets his boarding school ablaze. DC Black Label’s Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity paints the Joker as a vigilante serial killer who targets abusive parents, radicalized only by the appearance of Batman. There’s the sob story of his horrible Aunt Eunice that Joker provides in 2013’s Batman #23.1, the hopeless romantic of Batman Confidential’s “Lovers and Madmen,” and the poor young victim subjected to a virus that poisons his mind in Batman: Streets of Gotham’s “The House of Hush.” Catch him in a certain mood, and he’ll conjure up a new one for you about how he got these scars.
The most famous quote about the Joker’s origins comes from The Killing Joke: “If I’m going to have a past,” the Joker says, “I prefer it to be multiple choice!” Batman: Endgame shows us that swapping stories of the Joker’s true origins is a favorite dark pastime of Gotham citizens themselves. Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok’s Batman: Three Jokers expands on this idea by suggesting that there’s not just room for multiple answers, but multiple correct ones. After all, if we’ve never really learned the Joker’s identity, who’s to say there’s only ever been one Joker?
Three Jokers, TV’s Gotham, the 2019 Joker film, and even Chip Zdarsky’s own ongoing run on Batman up to this point all play with the concept of the Joker not as a person, but as a dangerous meme. Just as Batman has inspired a family of vigilantes, once a single Joker arises in the world, imitators follow. Everyone who wears the greasepaint and shares their stagecraft in the medium of blood and crime, everyone who burns the world with a smile on their face—they’re no less the Joker than any individual named Jack Napier or Arthur Fleck. Three Jokers? That’s thinking much too small. There are thousands of different ways to tell a Batman story, but they all radiate from the same central point of the tragedy of Bruce Wayne. There are just as many ways to tell a Joker story, but here’s the difference: they’ve always been centered around an idea first, and never a man.
So, if you really want to know who the Joker is, we’ll tell you. The Joker’s true identity is evil itself. The mocking laughter that accompanies true, remorseless cruelty. Not greed, not anger, but pure malice for its own sake. The kind that a man like Bruce Wayne, rich and powerful as he is, could never fix on a social level. The Joker is the reason why there must be a Batman.
Or, maybe Chip’s about to prove me completely wrong. I have a feeling he won’t.
Batman #142, featuring the first chapter of “The Joker: Year One,” is now available in print and as a digital comic book. Look for Batman #143 in stores next Tuesday and Batman #144 hitting shops on February 20.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about games, movies, TV, comics and superhero history for DC.com. Follow him on Bluesky at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC or Warner Bros. Discovery, nor should they be read as confirmation or denial of future DC plans.