“Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another. If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha!”
–The Joker, Batman: The Killing Joke
Underpaid lab assistant at Ace Chemical Processing Jack struggles against this life, the obedient clockwork of it. Day after day: hardhat, white coat, barbed wire fencing, skyscraper chemical tanks interlocked by piping.
Danger: Hazardous Atmosphere.
Danger: Combustible Liquids.
Smoke a billowing grey overhead, stairs a blunted grey underfoot. Up and up to level two, the silver-slick lab where Jack observes chemical reactions behind polycarbonate goggles. Some days he’ll catch himself gazing out the window at the concrete blockades. The view is no better here than at home, a second floor rental whose wide paneled windows open to crumbling brick and mortar. Yet Jack manages to see through it all – the concrete, the brick – to his glossy dream-future at the comedy club. It’s the thing that keeps him going. His unplayed hand.
The thought stretches his face into smile.
Imprisoned behind glass in New York City’s Jewish Museum: a sinister grin in graphite. Too big-teeth and hairy brows crowned with a jester’s coxcomb. “I wanted something visually exciting,” Jerry Robinson said of his concept sketch of The Joker. “I wanted something that would make an indelible impression, would be bizarre, would be memorable.”
English major at Columbia University, 17-year-old Jerry aimed to be a writer. Sure, he worked part-time for artist Bob Kane, first lettering and then inking “the Bat-Man” comics at Bob’s makeshift studio down the street from his apartment. But comics were just a means for paying rent, same as peddling that ice cream cart the summer before. If anything, it was Bill Finger’s job he wanted, ghostwriting Batman scripts. Back in Jersey where he grew up, Jerry wrote short stories, a black humor set.
When, after a year’s dues, an overwhelmed Bob took Jerry up on his offer to ghostwrite a Batman story, he was thrilled. “I thought, ‘This is great. I’ll hand in the story for my creative writing class and also get paid.’”
This was 1940, when good guy spelled New Deal reformer, bad guy crooked businessman. “To set the scene,” Jerry explained, “the villains at the time, they were the Dillingers, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machinegun Kelly. They were small time bank robbers, embezzlers. Well, I had a different view.” In an era enshrined by The Man of Tomorrow – Superman was three years young, then – Jerry gave himself over to the dark side. “I always felt that heroes were essentially dull. Villains were exotic, they could do more interesting things.”
In the span of an evening, he set out to sketch Batman’s equal, the menacing villain supreme.
“With a lot of writers, you draw upon your life experiences for inspiration. In my family, playing cards played a big role. I remember searching frantically that night for a deck of cards in my little room in the Bronx where I holed up. That was the marriage. That’s how The Joker came into being.”
Jack had a bad day. That’s what he thinks as he climbs into bed, “What a bad day,” but he doesn’t know the half of it, doesn’t know that 24 hours from now his gentle wife Jeannie, long blond hair and crescent smile, will die from electrocution. Her heart and lungs will brake then terminate, just as the heart and lungs of the fetus inside of her, three months short of birth, will brake then terminate.
For the moment, it’s pride that Jack mourns.
He keeps flashing back to earlier that evening, his Friday night gig at the comedy club, a one shot audition. Hands slick on the microphone, he slouched, stuttered. Fumbled a punchline to silence. Bitter bright lights. And then it was over. The club said they might call him. That was it.
Now, a naked mass in his wife’s arms, he regrets ever quitting his job at Ace Chemical. He was so sure. Wasn’t comedy his dream deferred, day after day after day at the chemical plant?
“Oh God, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry you’re married to a loser,” he moans.
She shushes him, “Oh baby, no, honey.”
“How are we going to feed the baby?” Jack says. “I can’t support you. I can’t even set us up in a decent neighborhood.”
Police sirens wail red in the distance.
“I guess the upside is that it’ll cut my commute. You know, if I sell myself on the street.”
“Have you seen the competition?”
“My husband,” Jeannie sighs. “Always the joker.”
“Jerry Robinson had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Bob Kane said of The Joker’s conception. “He’ll always say he created it until the day he dies. All he did was bring in some playing card, which I used for a couple of issues, for The Joker’s calling card. But I had already created The Joker.”
Known as Robert Kahn to his family in the Bronx, Bob always loved drawing. There was a stint at Cooper Union School of Art, but he dropped out to freelance. Churned out humor features like PETER PUPP and GINGER SNAP. It wasn’t until 1939, around his 21st birthday, around the time those Superman comics hit it big, that he turned professional cartoonist.
DC Comics, scrambling to ride Superman’s red cape to the bank, gave Bob one shot to pencil America’s next Herculean hero. “I didn’t want to imitate Superman because I thought maybe they wouldn’t want that. Plus, I felt like every person that doesn’t have superpowers could relate to Batman. You don’t have to come from another planet to be a superhero. All you have to do is have the urge to go out and fight crime.”
And so was born the Caped Crusader, Bob’s fear of bats personified: part Zorro, part Sherlock Holmes. Despite his publisher’s cautioning that the creature was too ominous for popular consumption, the public, they devoured Batman. Bob received his own solo series almost immediately.
On the title page of each story, costumed in black seriffed typeface: Bob Kane. Weekly compensation checks, Pay To The Order Of: Bob Kane. TV, movie credits: Bob Kane. Whitewashed to gutter: Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger.
“In the Golden Age of Batman, I penciled, inked, and lettered my strip by myself,” Bob wrote in a 1965 letter to fans. “Although [others] may have literally typed the scripts in the early days, the stories were from my own imagination.”
Saturday, The Boon Docks Bar and Grill is packed. Jack sits near the back, a shadowy four top, whiskey in hand. He never drinks mid-day. Never lies to Jeannie, either. “I’ve got an engagement,” he said, “at a club.” Her eyes were amber sparks, hopeful that this might be it, their meal ticket. And in a way, it is.
“Always had a soft spot for funny guys,” the man in pinstripe says. He sits across from Jack, close enough for him to make out a slim cigarette, pencil moustache, bowler hat. The rest is reputation: how Billy the Butcher lost his right hand in a card game, how First Financial lost its cash deposits in a morning raid.
“I’ve had my eye on you for some time now, Jackie boy. I’m gonna take care of you.” He lowers his voice to crushed limestone: “But first, me and my associate need a favor. Just a little help getting through that chemical plant, you know, to the joint next door. Midnight tonight. You in?”
Jack massages his eyes with unsteady fingers. When everything goes black he sees a different, better, version of himself. Not slurred speech and pounding heart, but Good Husband Jack, the one with money enough for a proper life. That’s what Jeannie deserves, a real nice place that doesn’t stink like landlady Burkiss and her too-fat tabby.
“It’s just this once, right?” he says through webbed fingers.
“Yes, yes,” hisses the man in pinstripe.
“Why not make him look more like a bat?” Bill Finger suggested, voice small beneath the brim of his blue baseball cap.
An unorthodox pair, Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Two Jewish kids from the Bronx, Bill quiet, smart, unassuming, Bob a loaded magnum, charisma and confidence at ready discharge. They first crossed paths at DeWitt Clinton High School. A couple of years later, after reuniting at a party, they teamed up as freelancers, collaborating on strips like RUSTY AND HIS PALS. So when Bob asked Bill to scope out a sketch of his new superhero character, Bill obliged.
Blond-haired, brown-eyed Batman, gliding Gotham City skies in a shiny red unitard. Red tights, yellow belt. Petite black domino mask. Black mole on his right cheek. A splay of stiff wing fixed to each shoulder.
“He had drawn a character who looked very much like Superman,” Bill remembered. “The costume was too bright. I told him to color it dark gray to make it look more ominous.”
Bill instructed Bob on other changes, too. Put a hood on him, he said. Loose the domino mask and add a cowl, he said. Take the eyeballs out and put in slits for eyes to make him look more mysterious. Change the wings into a cape. Add gloves so that he won’t leave any fingerprints. And change his name to Bruce Wayne.
From golden-locked superhero to vigilante of the night, the revised Batman was primed for paneling. Bill ghostwrote the script of Batman’s debut, and then went on to write the majority of the Golden Age series, masterminding Gotham City slums and iconic arsenal like the Batmobile and the Batsignal and the Batcave. He also dreamt up a slew of villains like The Penguin, Catwoman, Two-Face, The Riddler. Not to mention, The Clown Prince of Crime.
“I know, I was there,” Jerry Robinson conceded. “The Joker may have been my creation, but Bill wrote The Joker stories from my concept. He was very innovative. It was all Bill Finger. Unfortunately, Bob did not feel that way. He should have credited Bill as co-creator.”
In memory of Batman’s “unsung hero,” Comic Con International established The Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing back in 2005. “Each year, we select two writers who favored us with important, inspirational work that has not received its rightful recognition,” explained Mark Evanier, Committee Chair. “Because no one was more deserving than Bill Finger, for the legacy he left behind.”
Saturday night, the chemical plant is a hulking steel skeleton. The mouth of it, chain link hatch, chatters like wind-up teeth.
Tonight’s the night.
Jack is early, pacing the sidewalk in black Oxfords. Thinking, weren’t these the days? Back when time ticked steady. Job-wife-job-wife. Why was it that he quit, exactly? Was it for something as petty as passion?
“I can’t go through with it,” Jack had said to the man in pinstripe hours before on the phone. His voice cracked, severed into sob. “There’s no reason anymore. My wife… Jeannie’s dead.”
When he’d returned home from The Boon Docks Bar and Grill, two cops in trench coats and grimace informed Jack of his double loss. Electrical shortage, they said. A million to one accident. Just like that, their words laid out like cards on green felt.
“Tomorrow you bury your old lady,” the man in pinstripe replied through phone static. “Tonight, you’re with me at the plant. Back out now and it’ll be your funeral, get the picture?”
And so here Jack is, Ace Chemical, his old haunt, thinking this might be his best comedy routine yet. Dead dream. Dead wife. Dead baby. And now he’s a criminal? That’s slapstick, not his style but the audience seems to love it. The wind whips his lapel into imaginary applause: Jack, Jack, Jack! Beneath him, the sidewalk stretches, morphs into stage. Jack, Jack, Jack! Sure enough, there’s Jeannie front row in the audience; he could always sense her gaze. She stares and stares, eyes searing sockets, burning into him, branding his chest a blistered crimson.
It starts to rain, extinguishing Jack’s delirium. He is alone, red-rimed eyes and wrinkled black suit, head hung to bowtie.
Through the mist, Pinstripe and his partner approach. Jack will lead them up the stairs, past the chemical tanks, beyond the concrete partition, to the business next door. Less than one hundred yards and he’s rich. That used to mean something, though he can’t remember what.
“I haven’t the slightest idea what it was that they saw in me,” Cesar Romero confessed. “I had never done anything like it before.” Before landing the role of The Joker in the 1960’s Batman television series, Cesar made over 60 film and television appearances, all small character bits: Latin lover, Italian gangster, East Indian prince.
It took an hour’s worth of make-up to transform the nightclub-dancer-turned-actor into The Joker. Cesar refused to shave for the part, so on Saturday mornings a powdered-face clown in bright red suit and bristled upper-lip romped rowdy through Gotham City streets.
To the public viewership, Cesar’s Joker was less Harlequin of Hate, more harmless prankster. The city’s water supply? He turned it into jelly! Bank heist? He turned it into standup comedy! Then there was that time he challenged Batman to a surfing contest. As one fan writes, “I remember nothing better than going downstairs each Saturday morning in my pajamas to watch Batman. It was so light and fluffy. The Joker, he was supposed to be silly and lighthearted. Cesar Romero’s Joker, the real Joker, would never kill anyone.”
In truth, DC Comics palliated their then 14-year-old mass-murdering clown into comic dandy after having been knuckle-sandwiched by the 1954 Comics Code Authority, a national organization that regulated “appropriate” comic book content for American youth.
“Criminals shall not be presented as glamorous,” the CCA stipulated, “or occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.” The Joker as whimsical maniac, whose victims – men, women, children – sport post-mortem smiles? Red flagged. Rejected.
“Criminal activity shall never promote distrust of the forces of law and justice.” The Joker’s henchmen, corrupt cops who kidnap and kill? Red flagged. Rejected
“Criminal activity shall be sordid and unpleasant.” Razor-sharp playing cards? Acid-squirting flowers? Cyanide pies? Red flagged. Rejected.
“In every instance,” the CCA demanded, “good shall triumph over evil.”
Hence, Cesar’s campy clown. High-pitched giggle and wholesome pun. To an actor who owned 30 tuxedos, 200 sports jackets, and 500 suits, such flamboyancy might have seemed tailor-made.
In 1966, less than a year into the hit television show, Batman graced the big screen, immortalizing Cesar as the first actor to ever portray The Joker in a motion picture. “It’s the best superhero movie ever made,” wrote critic Kevin Laforest of the Montreal Film Journal. “Why try to revamp Batman when they got it so right decades ago?”
Something’s wrong. Jack senses it immediately.
There’s the cling-clang of heel to toe on catwalk, hear that? And the sprite of light, dim in the distance and then closer, closer, see?
“No!” Jack pleads, sprinting back to the entrance of the chemical plant, his eyes wild with flight.
Then the barrel, gun-black.
“Freeze!” yells the security guard, the manifestation of panic made real. Bullets thrill the air, dissect the man in pinstripe, his associate. Their bodies red pools on the pavement.
Jack, unharmed, dodges right, scurries up a metal ladder toward the chemical tanks. Behind him, more gunfire. He races for cover, unaware that the building’s shadows shift with him, blackness trailing in pursuit.
Jack searches the horizon. Everywhere rain, ticking and ticking and ticking down.
And then he sees him. The rain-slick man-shadow. Black cape. Silver slit eyes. Batman.
“Oh dear God,” Jack cries, “what have you sent to punish me?”
Smashed against the railing, he screams, “Don’t come any closer! Don’t come any closer, I said!”
When he thinks he hears his wife’s shrill laughter, sharp enough to splinter ear to bud, that’s when he hurls himself into the chemical tank below.
“It was like he was busting blood vessels in his head, he was so intense,” cinematographer Wally Pfister said of Heath Ledger’s Joker. “It was like a séance, where the medium takes on another person and then is so completely drained.”
For 30 days, Heath locked himself in a London hotel room. Wrote a daily diary in madcap scrawl. Scotch taped nightmare images to loose leaf. Conducted vocal experiments. Blood-cold laughter. “It was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice,” Heath told the press. “I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath.”
Australian-born, Heath was long accustomed to intricate voice work; since his inception into the U.S. film industry in 1998, he’d sampled a spectrum of dialects, shape-shifting for the silver screen. “People always feel compelled to sum you up,” a 28-year-old Heath said, months before his death. “But there are many stories inside of me.”
In preparation for writer-director Christopher Nolan’s 2008 thriller, Heath fashioned a deranged self-reflection in The Joker. “There’s a bit of everything in him,” Heath said. “There’s nothing consistent.”
Heath’s schizophrenic clown resurrects Golden Age Batman #1, Spring 1940. Sadistic, mass-murdering, primordial Joker. Jerry Robinson even consulted on the character’s portrayal.
A schism from Jack Nicholson’s Joker of the decade previous – that homicidal artist driven insane by a botched plastic surgery – Christopher Nolan purposefully omitted The Joker’s origin story, alluding “that anyone can become like [The Joker], given the right circumstances. He’s unbelievably dark.”
In all that darkness, Heath couldn’t sleep. One, maybe two hours rest per night, a trend that spanned post-production. November. December. January. “My body was exhausted,” Heath said. And so he took a sleeping aid: Doxylamine. “But my mind was still going.” Anti-anxiety medications: Diazepam, Alprazolam, Temazepam. “Still racing, turning, turning, turning.” Narcotics: Oxycodone, Hydrocodone. And then on January 21st, 2008, Heath, who never much liked comics as a kid, who preferred chess instead, fell asleep and never woke up.
“Well, I warned him,” Jack Nicholson told reporters.
Eleven months later, the Associated Press announced Heath Ledger’s death as “2008’s top entertainment story.” His legacy continues, the article states, “in a roundly acclaimed performance as The Joker.” An immortal performance. Fer Barbella, team leader of fanzine The Ultimate Joker, went so far as to launch a petition calling for studios to withdraw the character from any future Batman movies. “We want to forever keep Ledger’s Joker as the one,” Fer said.
First, the burning. A wildfire flanking of the flesh. Jack’s body swings quick tight circles like a rodeo bull, but the caustic eating away of his skin, it doesn’t stop. The burning buffets his face and hands, chest and legs. Then the itching starts, so much he can’t breathe.
Blood choked gasps.
His whole body one gnashing crawl.
At last, he ejects from the chemical tank, spit by piping into the reservoir. Jack heaves himself onto the grass. Onto his knees. Head forced forward onto the ground. With each strained intake of breath he drools out red, teeth bloodstained stubs in a blistered mouth. When the force of air to lungs steadies, he hears them.
They all laugh. One sidesplitting stitch. A manic grating, lawnmower loud. Jeannie the worst. Or is that Junior? Yes, the baby, too. All of them laughing, laughing at the fool blanched to chalk. Jack joins in, a sloppy unhinging of his jaw, half laugh, half scream, blood tearing from his eyes, hair a brittle mop of green.
Finally, he thinks. Finally. The punchline, they get it!
“Embrace the hatred,” James Holmes scrawled in his spiral bound notebook, a diary on madness. “Destroy the mind and be free.”
The 24-year-old neuroscience doctoral student knew a thing or two about the brain. In his computation book, he grappled to diagnose his own broken mind. Was it generalized anxiety disorder that he suffered from? Psychosis? Dysphoric mania? “Have you heard of dysphoric mania?” James texted a University of Colorado classmate. When she replied yes, he cautioned her to stay away from him, that he was “bad news.”
Some days he couldn’t move for five hours at time (was it catatonia?), some days his actions cranked to hyper-speed (invincibility?). Being around others wore him out, so outside of class he kept to himself, isolated in his Aurora apartment playing World of Warcraft or listening to techno (isolationism? extreme introversion?). Over and over, he’d revisit the bathroom mirror: his hair, his teeth, his nose, his ears, his eyes, his cock, they all seemed wrong (obsessive compulsive personality disorder?). He was especially concerned with his odd sense of self, an internal battle between the biological James and the real James (schizophrenia?).
Then there was that unrelenting obsession to kill (evil?).
“I tried to fix it,” James wrote. “I made it my sole conviction, but using something broken to fix itself proved insurmountable.”
And so, with “love gone, and motivation directed to hate,” James, whose classmates described as whip smart yet awkward, always armed with a goofy joke, quit his PhD program. He bought red hair dye, because red suggests bravery. He bought fuses, wiring, and chemicals enough to outfit his place with 20 homemade bombs. He bought bulletproof body armor, a gas mask, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and two gas grenades. He bought a shotgun, a semiautomatic rifle, and two Glock handguns. Then he bought a Century Theater ticket to the July 20th midnight premier of The Dark Knight.
James walked through the emergency exit of a sold-out screening and fired 240 times, killing 12 people and attempting to kill 70 others.
He surrendered outside of the movie theater. According to Ray Kelly, the NYPD Police Commissioner, a calm and detached James told arresting officers that he was The Joker.
“It is not true,” said George Brauchler, the District Attorney who prosecuted the case. “It is ridiculous. Completely unfounded. Some of this stuff, it gets repeated by so many sources that it just becomes real.” Ray Kelly’s comment, cited in an ABC News report and reprinted by The New York Times, appears to serve as the origin of the myth, despite the fact that the he was some 2,000 miles removed from the crime scene. James never called himself The Joker. His movie choice was nothing more than coincidence, the District Attorney argued. “If it had been ‘The Avengers,’ he would have been there. If it were ‘Jurassic World,’ he would have been there. It had nothing to do that we can find with Batman.”
Still, the public wasn’t convinced. There was that jokey-jokey “Jimmy James” persona, silly chemist comedian like The Killing Joke‘s Jack. That mess of dyed hair, bizarre and menacing, like Jerry Robinson’s Joker. That booby-trapped apartment, triggered by fish wire and, down in the alley, a toy remote control car, meant to entice playful passersby into detonating an explosion, like Cesar Romero’s Joker. Not to mention James’ insistence that the mass murder was not an act of terrorism. “The message is, there is no message,” he told law enforcement, echoing Heath Ledger’s Joker: “Do I look like a guy with a plan? I’m a dog chasing cars.”
James or The Joker?
And how, and why?
Was it his California childhood?
A misdiagnosed mental illness?
Why that night?
Why that movie theater?
Why him, and why us, asked the victims, the court, the press, the country?
The inmates at the Arapahoe County Jail, every time they passed James’ cell, they called him The Joker. James was so surprised by the nickname that he told Dr. William Reed, his court-appointed psychiatrist, “They kind of turned me into a supervillain.” After some thought he added, “At least I’m remembered for doing something.”
Quotations and graphics are from Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland.
Felicia Rose Chavez is a digital storyteller with an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa. An award-winning educator, Felicia is currently at work on her debut book, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom, forthcoming from Haymarket Books in fall 2020. Find her in The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, The Normal School, and Brevity, among others.