With Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight re-introducing The Joker to movie audiences, I've had a few notes from friends asking me if I'd recommend comic book versions of the clowned prince of crime to casual readers.
Absolutely, pull up a chair and a cup of joe and I'll bring you up to speed in everything you want to read about Batman's number one enemy.
The Joker was first introduced in 1940 when creators Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson realized if Batman was to succeed he needed some star villains to go up against, much the same way Dick Tracy did in the newspaper strips.
Sure, Batman had taken on Dr. Death the previous year, and he was an interesting enough villain, sort of a combination of Lionel Atwill's character in Mystery of the Wax Museum and the many evil men populating pulp novels of the time. But overall he was pretty mediocre.
Enter The Joker. Either based on a playing card Jerry Robinson came across, the Conrad Veidt movie THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, or Death's Harlequinn from THE SHADOW pulps (it all depends on who you ask) The Joker was born. His first appearance was in BATMAN COMICS #1 Spring 1940 and he was as far removed from what the general populace thinks of him. This was no clown prince. No evil jokester. This was a homicidal maniac bent on revenge who announced the names of his victims over the radio and then despite the best efforts of the police killed them anyway using his Joker toxin-- a wicked substance that caused the victims to die with a Joker like grin chiseled on their face.
Nolan is said to have based his version of the Joker on these first stories.
It wasn't long before the Joker got silly.
DC Comics toned down the whole Batman series because frankly everything was a bit too scary for kids, and pretty soon the Joker went from sadistic killer to a guy who wanted his own Batman utility belt. If you hated Cesar Romero's take on him in the Batman Tv Series with Adam West, then you pretty much want to avoid Batman comics from 1942-1972.
Until Batman Comics #251.
Writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams wanted to bring the Joker back to his dark roots, and by dark I mean scary.
"The Joker's Five Way Revenge" put the Joker moved him from a Mike Myers type of character to a Michael Myers type of killer. It also re-established him as Batman's number one enemy. The Chaos to Batman's order.
A few short years later Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers brought the Joker into their popular run in Detective Comics 476 with "The Laughing Fish!" which is in my opinion, the Greatest Joker story ever told. Rogers art and Englehart's writing combined perfectly to create a story that was evocative of Batman #1 without being a re-telling.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is a graphic novel written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean and it has the most nightmarish version of the Joker to date-- a true work of madness and very highly regarded.
Lastly, Frank Miller's take on the Joker was key to his acclaimed THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS storyline and it tells the last Batman/Joker battle in a way only Miller could do it.
So there you have it. My recommendations for the best Joker stories. Notable for it's absence is THE KILLING JOKE-- a book which is beautiful to look at with Brian Bolland's clean visuals, and despite Alan Moore being one of my favorite writers, one which I don't enjoy. The story doesn't make sense to me and The Joker isn't portrayed as the master criminal/homicidal maniac he is in the other stories, instead he's a failed stand up comedian and to me the book reads more like a wannabee guy dreaming he's the Joker than the real deal. I know this is sacrilidge to some of you but I just don't dig it.