The Origins of The Clown Prince of Crime
by, October 1st, 2011 at 04:18 AM (2485 Views)
In 1869 a book by the esteemed author Victor Hugo was published. Most famously the writer of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", Hugo had been exiled from France for the political nature of his writings. So, over the first fifteen months that he lived in exile, Hugo wrote "The Man Who Laughs". In the story a small boy named Gwynplaine is abandoned in Western England, and is struggling to find his way in a snow storm. On his way towards nowhere, the boy finds a small blind infant that clutches to its dead mother's breast. Understanding that he will likely not make it, the boy takes the child and pushes on. He eventually ends up in a traveling caravan's camp, where a man named Ursus takes him in.
What does this have to do with the Joker? Well, when Ursus encounters the boy, he is disturbed. He appears to be laughing as he holds the blind babe. Ursus screams at him, and the boy looks up and reveals his face. The story goes on to tragedy, but the boys face is forever something like this:
That image is a still from the 1927 movie rendition of "The Man Who Laughs", as portrayed by Conrad Veidt (aka the bad guy in Casablanca as well as an important role in another classic from the 20's, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"). Now we move forward a short ways to the late 30's/early 40's and a monthly serial called Detective Comics, which features a writer by the name of Bob Kane. Now Kane had grown up in the era of the pulps, which were a special time in the history of comics/stories. He had become interested in a story in a comic book called Action Comics (comics had great titles back then, eh?) and especially a character names Superman. In response to this character he wrote his own more pulp inspired character named Batman, who solved various mysteries. The Batman premiered in issue #27, and by issue #38 the publisher decided to give Batman his own serial, simply called Batman. In this book is introduced a character named the Joker, and his image would grow legendary across serialized fiction.
This image is from this very same issue, which I have laying in front of me in a collected chronicle. Notice any similarities? Well you should. Bob Kane, the creator of the Batman, said in the 1970s that he was inspired by "The Man Who Laughs" to create a villain who held a heinous appearance, a clown's smile. Now the lead in "The Man Who Laughs" is not a villain. Nor is his face simply contorted. Had Kane read "The Man Who Laughs" he would know that Gwynplaine's face has a Glasgow smile, also known as a Chelsea smile, which is a scarring that occurs when a person either has their cheeks cut with a knife from the lips outward, or are "fish-hooked" which is the same action but using the fingers.
In any event the Joker became an icon for his brutal brand of horror. His character was extremely prominent in the 40's, but died off in the 60's as the Adam West Batman became the popular version of the caped crusader. The Joker was a wild, dangerous, violent character who just didn't fit with the camp image of this Batman.
The Joker returned to prominence in the 70's and 80's when DC returned to its gritty roots. He was featured in such books as The Killing Joke, and The Dark Knight Returns, and for the first times something was made of his perfect yin/yang relationship with the Batman.
In 1989 a movie was made of the Batman, featuring Michael Keaton as Bats himself and Jack Nicholson in a legendary performance as the Joker. Tim Burton directed, and moved on to direct the sequel. Now here's where things get weird. In Batman Returns, the Penguin is the main enemy. However, his henchmen are all clowns. This has a very intriguing reason behind it. Prior to the making of the movie, Tim Burton re-watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, featuring Conrad Veidt as one of the main characters. The same Conrad Veidt who played Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs 7 years later. As the story came full circle, Tim Burton decided to base his Penguin character on Veidt's character in Cabinet. And that friends, is the story of the Joker.
Also: I just realized that Veidt is also the name of the main antagonist in the Watchmen. Holy shit