Joker is having a moment. With a hit new film in cinemas, the Clown Prince of Crime is now meeting a Master of Horror. The result: Joker: Year of the Villain, a new comic book written by the dynamic duo of scary-movie icon John Carpenter and Anthony Burch.
Their one-shot Joker story — available in comic-book stores and online retailers on 9 October — is part of an ongoing DC Comics crossover event, Year of the Villain, where a newly super-powered Lex Luthor takes it upon himself to make sure that evil reigns supreme across the DC Universe. That’s not difficult in a crime-plagued metropolis like Gotham City, where villainy is already rampant.
As you might imagine, though, Batman’s longtime nemesis is none too pleased by the sudden influx of fresh competition for his crown. So when they go low, the Joker goes lower, embarking on a crazed crime spree all while wearing the cape and cowl of Gotham’s champion. He even has his own Boy Blunder: an unlucky kid named Jeremy that becomes a participant in the not-so-merry mayhem.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, Carpenter says that the decision to pen his first Joker story was an easy one. “He's one of the greatest villains there is,” the director raves. “I mean, he's just nuts. He can't do anything too much.”
Burch — who previously collaborated with Carpenter on a Big Trouble in Little China limited series — echoes that thought. “The way he’s been written over the years is so diabolically charming. And then there are clear parallels to Batman: Bruce Wayne is a trauma survivor who feels he’s barely hanging onto his sanity. There’s something to the idea that the Joker is maybe what Batman would be if Bruce could let loose of his moral inhibitions and just enjoy his insanity.”
The Joker is hardly the first supervillain on Carpenter’s résumé, of course. Four decades ago, he created one of movie history’s most famous boogeymen, Michael Myers, in the original Halloween. Armed with his signature featureless mask and butcher knife, Michael continues to carve up victims, even as he repeatedly dodges death himself.
“I didn’t intend for there to be 11 movies after the first one,” Carpenter protests, when asked whether Myers is his version of a comic-book villain, complete with an immediately identifiable costume. “The first movie took place on Halloween, so he had to wear a mask! And Joker is a verbal villain, whereas Michael Myers is mute. So that’s a big difference.”
When it comes to live action interpretations of the Joker, Carpenter points to Cesar Romero from the classic ’60s TV show and Jack Nicholson from Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster as two of his favourites. “I remember Romero’s face — just this bizarre look with his makeup on over his moustache,” he remembers. “And you’ll notice in our comic that we’ve got a panel of the Joker [and Jeremy] walking up the side of a building like in the TV show. That’s one of my favourite moments.”
When we spoke with them, neither Carpenter nor Burch had seen the latest cinematic Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’s controversial new movie. In the run-up to its release some expressed concern that the film would turn the character into a hero, which is something that certainly doesn’t happen in their ultra-violent Year of the Villain yarn.
“I don’t know about the new movie, but I don’t think we’ve elevated the Joker to a hero,” Carpenter says. “The comic is pretty sick and weird. I love the ending — it’s so nuts. There’s a hallucinogenic quality to the art by Philip Tan. It's really cool; he's the perfect artist for it.”
In addition to being “sick and weird,” Burch says that the comic is also an exploration of the Joker’s peculiar mystique. As our point of view character, Jeremy is a stand-in for every person who sees something compelling in a chaos agent that clowns around with society’s rules.
“There’s something ineffably sexy about somebody being really evil and feeling like they’re completely unrestrained by norms. That might be what appears about the Joker in the first place. For our book, the intent was not to make him even a little bit sympathetic … but how we could reflect on [Jeremy], who is the kind of person susceptible to finding the Joker romantic. The idea that the Joker would grab somebody like that and radicalise him is something we were interested in exploring.”
Where Carpenter’s formative Jokers were Romero and Nicholson, Burch says that he grew up on Mark Hamill’s cartoon crook from Batman: The Animated Series. “Mark Hamill does [a version of] the Joker that's having a lot of fun, so despite yourself, you kind of root for him. I think he did an impeccable version of that,” he says now.
“Whereas Nicholson is just an inherently intimidating dude, and Heath Ledger is a guy who just gets in your brain and eats his way out. It’s hard to do a definitive [onscreen] Joker, because there are so many facets of him.”
Asked which actor he’d most want to play the facets of the character that he and Carpenter explore in Year of the Villain, Burch doesn’t hesitate: “Phoebe Waller-Bridge! Not even her — just the character she plays on Fleabag. Fleabag is the Joker.”
Joker: Year of the Villain hits stands on 9 October.