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Who Really Created the JOKER?

By Tom Mason

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!Obviously one of comic-dom's most famous villains is Batman's arch enemy the JOKER.
He is the foremost in a long line of villains that Bob Kane and Bill Finger were inspired to introduce. After seeing the success such outlandish characters had brought to Chester Gould's Dick Tracy newspaper strip. If spectacular villains worked for Tracy, then why not for the Batman?

Just who created Joker has become quite a heated topic over the years. There are two camps in this controversy. 

First and foremost, we have Bob Kane who claims he came up with the idea of a clownish villain who was a cold-blooded killer. Kane made a quick drawing and showed it to Bill Finger who thought he looked a little too 'clownish' he also remembered Conrad Veidt's ghoulish-white makeup in the silent film "The Man Who Laughs." Within a week, Finger brought in a picture from the movie - both agreed that the depiction of a permanent grin etched on his face lent a lot to the look and dubbed the new bat-villain, The JOKER.

Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine - SMILE!
Conrad Veidt as Gywnplaine from 'The Man Who Laughs' (1928)

Jerry Robinson JOKER CARD sketch.Conversely, Jerry Robinson, who Kane refers to as "an assistant," makes a claim that it was he who thought up the Joker when he was inspired by the Joker in a deck of cards. He drew that picture and brought it in to Kane and Finger.  At the time, Jerry Robinson was an 18 year old boy just out of high school.  The picture was pretty much that of a straight depiction of the Joker in a deck of cards. On this drawing he makes his case for his "creation" of the Joker mystique. Kane always has denied this and has what he believes is proof of his claim.

Kane said that in, actuality, Jerry drew the card after he and Bill Finger had already created the Joker.  Kane further maintains that his creation of the Joker involved many elements. Part of the idea came from his seeing a Joker card and from his memories of playing practical jokes on his friends as a youth. Kane in his autobiography says that "he did not doubt that his ex-assistant was sincere in believing that he did, in fact, create the Joker, but feels that time has eroded his memory." This is the politest that Kane gets. The card illustration that Robinson brought to them was used in several stories as a sort of "calling card" that the Joker would leave at the scene of his crimes, but eventually that was abandoned.

DC editor E. Nelson Birdwell's memory seems to give proof to Kane's story as he remembers a conversation he had with Bill Finger: "It seems that Bill Finger got a call from Bob Kane. He had an idea for a villain that Bill could use in the comics. He was a clownish-looking man, but a killer. However, when Bill saw Bob's sketch, he decided that it looked too clownish. He happened to have a movie edition magazine of "The Man Who Laughs," with stills from the 1928 film starring Conrad Veidt. the make-up was perfect and this inspired the Joker's grinning countenance." This statement by Birdwell, would seem to bear out what both Kane and Finger have always claimed, that they had their idea first.

In a 1992 commercial video interview with Marvel's Stan Lee in his series "The Comic Book Greats," Stan queries Kane about the creation of the Joker. Kane makes a point of refuting Robinson's claim but Lee prods him, and makes him more agitated about Robinson and his claims to the Joker.   Kane lets out his feelings about Robinson's claims.  He makes a point of showing the first drawing of the Joker that appeared and how much he looks like Conrad Veidt.  He points out that if Robinson had approached him first with his drawing of the infamous card, then the Joker would have looked like that card and not Veidt. Kane then draws a great sketch of the Joker for Stan the Man, saying that even though "some people say he cannot draw" (another barb at Robinson,) that he can put his ideas to paper. He becomes more agitated each time that Lee pushes him more about Robinson. Lee evidently was a friend of Robinson and tries to maintain some sort of middle ground and tries to smooth over things, but he only succeeds in agitating Kane even more.  Kane finally makes clear his negative feelings about Robinson's claim to the creation of the Joker in no uncertain terms.  Lee finally has the smarts to drop the subject.  At the end of the interview, over the credits, we hear Stan talking with Kane saying that "this interview may have killed the series."  Nuff said.

The controversy on who actually created the Joker continues to this day, long after Kane's death, and no proof has ever surfaced from DC to support Robinson's calim. I tend to believe Kane's account as he even brings Bill Finger in for partial credit, something that is pretty generous considering Kane's admitted ego.

All these various feuds over the Joker's creation would mean nothing but for the intervention of Editor Whitney Ellsworth at DC.  The Joker was originally killed off by Bill Finger in the second script he wrote for the Joker. This was natural for Finger, as Batman had no recurring villains at the time and it would have set a precedent to have the Joker return. In "The Joker Returns" in Batman #1 spring of 1940, Joker attacks Batman with a knife. At the last second, Batman sidesteps the attack and the killer-clown stumbled into a wall driving his knife into his chest and collapses apparently dead. Ellsworth recognized Joker as too good a character to kill off and he had Kane redraw the last panel to show an ambulance taking the Joker away with some new dialog inserted. In the added panel, the following dialog ensues between a policeman and a doctor: "What's the matter Doc? You look as if you had seen a ghost!" "I might have. I just examined this man - he isn't dead - he's still alive and he's going to LIVE!" Thus a lot of credit goes to Ellsworth for having Kane make that small change so that the Joker survived and lived on to become one of comic's greatest villains. 

Jack as the JOKER - Batman 1989
Jack Nicholson as the Joker 1989

To this day the Joker still manages to plague Batman in all forms of media, comics from DC, films (with Jack Nicholson's marvelous 1989 portrayal of him in Tim Burton's Batman film,) and in the 1960's campy television series with Cesar Romero (pasting white makeup over his mustache that he refused to shave off,)  and in recent years in the various excellent Batman animated series' from Warners with the inspired vocal talent of Mark (Star Wars' Luke Skywalker) Hamil, many fans claim the animated Joker by Hamil & WB Animation to be by far the best.

Cesar as The Joker - "What mustache?" "Hands up ol' Batsy-boy!"
Cesar Romero as the Joker 1966. The animated Joker featuring Mark Hamil.

So kudos to whoever created him. We can all look forward to him escaping Arkham Asylum periodically and wreaking havoc on Gotham City, trying to make Batman's life miserable. 

By Tom 'The Crimson Collector' Mason

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