He’s the Dark Knight’s arch-nemesis and has frightened Batman fans for decades. But the inspiration for the Joker, a character so complex and interesting one of the performers who played him won an Oscar, comes from a unexpected place.
Whether your favourite is Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, TV’s Cesar Romero or Jared Leto in ‘Suicide Squad’, the Joker continues to be a fascinating and terrifying supervillain, a dark and abusive psychopath bent on destroying Gotham City.
So did the inspiration for the character come from a famous serial killer? Or a World War I torturer? Er, no. While there remains some controversy over the origins of all Batman characters due to various people claiming credit for their inception, the Joker and his famous grin comes from a more unlikely source.
“[Batman co-creator] Bill Finger showed the others an image of Conrad Veidt in ‘The Man Who Laughs’,” says Batman expert Professor Will Brooker of Kingston University, author of ‘Hunting the Dark Knight’.
A 1928 silent film, ‘The Man Who Laughs’ was directed by German expressionist Paul Leni and starred Veidt, an actor from Berlin best known for appearing in now-classic horror film ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’.
Adapted from a novel by ‘Les Miserables’ author Victor Hugo, it tells the story of a young boy called Gwynplaine in 1690 England whose face is deliberately disfigured into a permanent smile as punishment for his father’s transgressions against King James II. So, the king says, the child will “laugh forever at his fool of a father”.
Years later and grown-up, Gwynplaine travels as part of a carnival show only to end up in Queen Anne’s court where it’s discovered he has noble lineage. Despite being urged into a marriage of convenience with a duchess, Gwynplaine runs away to join the woman he loves and they sail away to exile. Rather than a baddie, he’s actually a tragic hero. At the end of the novel (though not the film), his lady love dies suddenly and he commits suicide by throwing himself into the ocean.
Looking for a good villain for ‘Batman #1’, which was to be published in April 1940, the idea of an evil court jester came up.
Early Batman artist Jerry Robinson has claimed he showed Bill Finger and co-creator Bob Kane a picture of joker playing card, but Kane remembered it differently.
“[The Joker] looks like Conrad Veidt – you know, the actor in ‘The Man Who Laughs’,” he said. “Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, ‘here’s the Joker’.”
Kane’s account has gained traction as the ‘official’ one and in 2005, DC released a one-shot comic entitled ‘Batman: The Man Who Laughs’ by Ed Brubaker, set just after ‘Batman: Year One’ and based on the Joker’s first appearance in 1940.
But do any of the big-screen Jokers echo Kane and Finger’s Veidt-inspired concept?
“I don’t think that really matters, as the original Joker was a comic book character from 1940,” says Professor Brooker. “He is crudely drawn and simply written. If the Joker is a fascinating character then it’s because of all the versions we have seen – all the different variants, by different creators, in different media forms, over so many decades. Like Batman, he is rich and complex because he’s changed so much.”
‘The Man Who Laughs’ was remade in 2012, with Hugo’s original French title ‘L’homme qui rit’, starring Marc-André Grondin as Gwynplaine alongside Gérard Depardieu.
Meanwhile, Jared Leto takes over the Hollywood mantle in ‘Suicide Squad’.
“I think it’s a Joker for its time – a Joker of Twitter and Tumblr,” admits Professor Brooker.
“I’m sure it will appeal to modern teenage audiences, just as Ledger’s Joker was perfect for a culture still recovering from the events of 9/11. Personally I am wary of the idea that Leto describes Joker as a misunderstood sweetheart, because I think we know Joker is an abusive, violent character…But I accept that there are different Jokers for different audiences, different times and different stories.”
Image credits: OutNow, DC Comics, Getty