JOKER WEEK: From the Golden Age to today, here are the Harlequin of Hate’s greatest tales…

It’s JOKER WEEK! We’re celebrating comics’ greatest villain since there’s a big ol’ major motion picture coming out this week. For the complete index of features, click here. — Dan

Back in March, we convened a blue-ribbon panel to select the TOP 13 BATMAN STORIES EVER – in any medium: comics, TV, film, you name it. Among the panelists were the likes of Neal Adams and Paul Levitz. (Click here to check it out.)

Now, with JOKER WEEK upon us — there’s a big, fancy movie coming out this week, y’know — I’ve decided go back to the well with a ranking of the TOP 13 JOKER STORIES EVER.

Given the somewhat narrower focus, I decided to do this as a solo project but I kept the general rule in place: Any Joker story from any medium from any era was eligible. I also made a point of casting a wide net to show how the Clown Prince of Crime has been portrayed at various times since his 1940 debut in Batman #1.

From Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson’s famous ’60s pin-up

Now, one side note: There’s a major Joker story that you will not find on this list: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore, Brian Bolland and John Higgins. There’s no doubting its cultural impact but I’ve never been a fan and if you care to know why, you can click here. That said, our panelists earlier this year selected it as #6 in the TOP 13 BATMAN STORIES EVER. (Click here if you want to see what voters had to say.)

You may agree with that decision. You may not.

Either way, here is 13th Dimension’s TOP 13 JOKER STORIES EVER – RANKED:

13. Detective Comics #388: Public Luna-Tic Number One! by John Broome, Bob Brown and Joe Giella. An off-the-hook caper that was one of the last gasps of ‘60s camp. The DC editors had for some time steered away from the Adam West TV show’s influence on the comics, but there was still plenty of wackiness to go around as the Silver Age drew to a close. In this bizarrely nonsensical tale from 1969, the Joker tries to convince Batman and Robin he’s transported them to the moon, where he plans to kill them. The plot fails, of course, but what’s noteworthy is that this is really the last time the Joker would be portrayed as a gimmicky buffoon.

Irv Novick

12. Detective Comics #168: The Man Behind the Red Hood! by Bill Finger, Lew Sayre Schwartz and George Roussos (with a small assist by Win Mortimer). A solid Golden Age tale that came out at the end of 1950, but more importantly, it sets the foundation for the Joker’s origin, which would be augmented and embellished for decades to come, by everyone from Alan Moore to Tim Burton to Scott Snyder and many, many more. An essential chapter in Joker lore.

Lew Sayre Schwartz pencils, George Roussos inks

11. The Joker #1: The Joker’s Double Jeopardy! by Denny O’Neil, Irv Novick and Dick Giordano. The Joker gets his own ongoing series! It was often a challenge for writers to make a homicidal maniac the protagonist and the Comics Code Authority ensured the Clown Prince of Crime failed at the end of every story. But Batman’s arch-enemy’s nine-issue series that launched in 1975 offered plenty of ridiculous mayhem – and a healthy share of murderous anarchy. The premiere issue plays it relatively straight, giving us a Joker-Two-Face showdown that simultaneously conveys why the killer clown is top of the heap even as it helps elevate Harvey Dent’s stature.

Dick Giordano

10. Batman ’89: Written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren. Directed by Tim Burton. For a lot of fans, it’s Jack Nicholson’s electric performance that holds Tim Burton’s first Batman film together. Either way, there’s no question this is as much the Joker’s movie as it is Batman’s. Unsurprisingly, this also made our 80th Anniversary TOP 13 BATMAN COUNTDOWN earlier this year, so you can click here to read more about this modern film favorite.

9. Batman ’66: Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under! Written by Charles Hoffman and directed by Oscar Rudolph. No episode better encapsulates just how gloriously unhinged the Batman ‘66 show could be than this Season 3 comedic tour de force. And so much of it is down to Cesar Romero’s leave-it-all-on-the-field performance. (“Cowabunga! Cowabunga! I won! I won!”) When we published our 50th Anniversary TOP 13 BATMAN ’66 EPISODE COUNTDOWN in 2016 (click here), I ranked Pop Goes the Joker/Flop Goes the Joker from Season 2 higher because it’s actually more clever as a robust satire. But when it comes down to it, 1967’s Surf’s Up stands above as an iconic emblem of the show’s outlandishness. Which is really what the Joker stands for. (Click here for more on the episode.)

8. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. Screenplay by Paul Dini. Story by Dini, Glen Murakami and Bruce Timm. Directed by Curt Geda. For some, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the greatest actors to portray Batman and the Joker. For some, Batman: The Animated Series and its offshoots are the greatest adaptation of the Dark Knight and his world. For me, all of that powerful creativity came to a head in this 2000 direct-to-video feature that is at once horrifying and electrifying.

7. Batman #8: The Cross Country Crimes! by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson and George Roussos. I first read this rousing 1941 adventure in the magnificent 1975 treasury Limited Collectors’ Edition #C-37 and it stands up as an early example of just how terrifying the Joker could be. His most twisted gag? Repainting a highway center line at night so a bus plunges off a cliff.

6. The Dark Knight. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Like Batman ’89, director Christopher Nolan’s high-water mark is as much a Joker story as a Batman story. Heath Ledger’s startling performance was horrifying and magnetic, earning him a much-deserved posthumous Academy Award. It says a lot about the nature of the character that Joaquin Phoenix is already being talked about as an Oscar contender, as well. (Click here for more on 2008’s The Dark Knight from our TOP 13 BATMAN COUNTDOWN.)

5. Gotham Central #12-15: Soft Targets, by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark. Gotham Central stands as one of the very best series of the Modern Age – and this 2003-04 arc was its highlight. The vast majority of Joker stories naturally deal with his conflict with Batman. Here, we see how everyday cops have to cope with the madness that ensues whenever those larger-than-life combatants do battle – as well as the inevitable collateral damage. Christopher Nolan and co. lifted liberally from this spectacularly sinister, realistic take on a villain who revels in being an agent of chaos. Only one Joker story from the last 30 or so years is superior (see below).

Michael Lark

4. Batman #1: “The Joker,” by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. Batman #1 is one of the greatest single issues of all time and much of it is down to the Joker’s debut. It’s amazing how much the creators got right the first time out: The villain would evolve over time, but the core of his sadistic villainy was set right here. (The issue’s second Joker story, which introduces the trope of Batman’s greatest villain surviving certain death, is also a corker.) This 1940 introductory tale also made the TOP 13 BATMAN COUNTDOWN, so you can click here to read more about its enduring impact.

3. The Dark Knight Returns #3: Hunt the Dark Knight, by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley. The third issue of Miller’s seminal 1986 Batman story centers on the Joker – amping up how monstrously dangerous he is and underscoring his psychosexual connection to the Dark Knight. Though the issue is part of a larger tale, this is the miniseries’ highest point and provides such a fitting final confrontation between these decades-long adversaries that no other creator needs to revisit this idea again. Brilliant in concept and execution, it’s possibly Miller’s single greatest issue. (And yes, The Dark Knight Returns made the TOP 13 BATMAN COUNTDOWN. Click here.)

2. Detective Comics #475-476: The Laughing Fish!/Sign of the Joker! by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin. Truth to tell, I had a really hard time not picking this for the top slot. This version of the Joker is as good as it gets: not just murderously evil but utterly, spectacularly mad. And of course the whole thing looks incredible. The only thing holding this 1977 two-parter from the top spot is that it’s part of a larger tale that ties up multiple threads. When we conducted the TOP 13 BATMAN COUNTDOWN survey, I voted the Englehart-Rogers run as the greatest Batman story ever (the full panel put it at #3), but in making this list, I felt strongly that the top story needs to stand completely on its own. Which brings us to…

1. Batman #251: The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge! by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. This is not only the greatest Joker story ever, it’s the greatest single Batman issue ever. Which makes it, to my way of thinking, the single greatest comic book ever produced. OK, maybe I’m getting a little carried away, but the fact remains that O’Neil and Adams in 1973 brought the Joker back to his insanely lethal beginnings and cast a template that every writer and artist has followed for nearly five decades. This is 22-and-a-half pages of storytelling perfection, by a legendary creative team at the very height of its considerably prodigious powers. Not just that, the cover is an utter classic that — SPOILER ALERT — will be included in our ranking of the TOP 13 JOKER COVERS EVER later this week. Oh, and it’s no accident that DC chose to release the Batman #251 Facsimile Edition this week, when Joker comes out. You can click here to get an INSIDE LOOK. (And naturally, this story also made the TOP 13 BATMAN COUNTDOWN. Click here.)


— The Complete JOKER’S WEEK Index of Features. Click here.

— EXCLUSIVE INSIDE LOOK: The BATMAN #251 Facsimile Edition. Click here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. I agree with all of these, however I was shocked that LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT #50 wasn’t included. Bret Blevin’s Joker is one of THE FINEST, most eerily creepy depictions of the character & of course THAT Bolland cover with it’s feline nod to the Laughing Fish…. well, you know what i mean!

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  2. I just wish Heath Ledger’s Joker had not been so tragic. I rank Cesar Romero, Mark Hamill and then Jack Nicholson. Who voiced the character in the ’60’s-’70’s cartoon?

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    • Ted Knight (Ted Baxter from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) voiced the Joker in those old Filmation cartoons, along with the Penguin, the Riddler, Commissioner Gordon, and lots of the other male voices on the show.

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      • Ted Knight did most of the incidental male voices (including the narration) on the Filmation Batman cartoons, and he did do Penguin and Riddler, but it was Larry Storch who supplied the Joker’s voice.

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  3. Never a fan of the darker tales like Killing Joke, don’t even get me started on that movie, but my favorite has to be the very first appearance. I have always loved the idea of announcing the victim’s name over the radio.

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  4. I would have put Laughing Fish on top and left out the campy Joker

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  5. I personally think Pop Goes the Joker/Flop Goes the Joker was better story-wise (and Batman ’89 probably borrowed the Joker/art gallery bit from these episodes), but Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under was certainly more iconic.

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