Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
While he has a certain sartorial flare for purple and orange clothing, the truly iconic elements of the Joker are his terrifyingly broad grin outlined in bright read lips, his green hair, and his ghoulish, white pallor. The look puts the clown in the Clown Prince of Crime. Like many other elements of the Joker, this distinctive look has shifted and changed over time. In fact, this fluidity is driving our culture’s unsettled reaction to the character’s upcoming movie.
In comics, Joker’s visage has changed based upon the artists who drew him. There is some academic and fan debate over the influences that led to that look, from the disturbing face of the protagonist in the 1928 expressionist film The Man Who Laughs to the imagery found in a deck of playing cards. Each artist renders the Joker differently. A list of personal favorites could fill this whole article, but Jim Aparo’s thin and wiry Joker has always been on the top of the list.
Tracking this variety becomes more challenging when the Joker’s appearances in other media are brought in. Outlining the bewildering variety of live-action design, animated imagery, and CGI wizardry would be a truly complex task.
While the details of the Joker’s look are important, the look’s fictional origins are the issue here. Origins are never easy when it comes to the Joker. Unlike other members of the supervillain elite, Joker has never really had a truly definitive origin. We know little about Batman’s archenemy. Even more terrifying is the Joker’s habit of changing his origin story to justify his crimes and horrific acts.
Broadly speaking though, the Joker’s look is explained in two ways. His visage is the result of a chemical accident or it is an actual disguise.
In the comics, the former has always been the most popular explanation. One of the relatively stable parts of the Joker’s origin is that before he became the Ace of Knaves, Joker had another supervillain career. As the Red Hood, he operated as a gimmicky supervillain. Over a stylish tuxedo, he wore a red dome with special one-way glass that allowed him to see out but prevented others from seeing him. He also had a bright red cape, because why not?
As things always go in Gotham, the Red Hood eventually ran up against Batman. During their battle, the Hood fell into a vat at a chemical plant. This toxic chemical mix fractured the Hood’s mind and permanently and grotesquely changed his appearance.
The latter explanation for the Joker’s look comes more from live-action media. In pop hit TV show Batman (1966-1968), for example, the Joker was obviously a guy with circus makeup on. This look was caused by actor Cesar Romero’s unwillingness to shave off his distinctive mustache to play the part. This idea has continued on into other appearances. Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) has a scarred mouth, but he is clearly wearing makeup. One wonders why the Gotham Police didn’t wipe it off upon arrest. They were probably afraid to get near him.
The trailers for the new Joker film show Joaquin Phoenix putting on his clown makeup. When we see that, we are given a more worrisome possibility. Chemically disfigured baddies are easy to spot in the daylight. They have to hide. The disguised are anonymous. Without the makeup, the Joker could be anyone around us. That is chilling to the core.