“I have a theory about the Joker,” said the most pretentious nerd ever.
Okay, now that I’ve acknowledged my extreme worthlessness, let’s get on with it. I think it’s impossible for the Joker to have a satisfying origin story. I don’t mean that there’s no writer good enough or idea captivating enough to work. I mean that any satisfying origin story cannot work for the Joker by definition.
There are many, many explanations for The Joker peppering the literature. Some of the most interesting takes on his background (like The Killing Joke, which does contain some remarkable writing despite its vile and demeaning treatment of Barbara Gordon) acknowledge that they are on shaky ground at best, or even outright lies spun by the least reliable narrator. Some of the best interpretations of the character (The Dark Knight, duh) don’t bother explaining him at all, and this gets at the heart of my argument.
While he was occasionally little more than a clown- or playing-card-themed villain (see the Silver Age Batman comics for examples), he has largely been an agent of pure chaos*. When he lapses into logic, it’s invariably to show Batman how puny and unreliable reason is when confronted with reality–using logic to refute itself. The best Joker stories revolve around his provoking Batman to question or abandon his ideals, and he invariably wins by losing. He personifies the second law of thermodynamics, and that’s why he’s so compelling and terrifying: he reminds us that death is inevitable and the universe is uncaring.
He’s not a person so much as he’s an abstraction. That’s true for many comic book characters (e.g. The Hulk is rage), but in his case it limits his personhood much more sharply. Rage and other heroic/villainous qualities are human, but chaos transcends humanity–heck, it transcends what we think of as reality. If you are chaos, then you aren’t a person with a history, much less an origin story.
The Joker can either be a terrific iconic villain, or he can have an interesting backstory. But maybe what we need is more contradiction. I’m all in favor of adding more and more canonical origin stories to the mix until eventually we realize that they’re all wrong and misguided and unimportant. Tell us all the lies and one day we’ll see the truth.
And so it goes. Gotham has been nodding and winking about The Joker’s origin even as it’s been ducking and weaving in an effort to avoid the inevitable. If we’re all lucky (especially the showrunners), it’ll be cancelled before the big, unsatisfying reveal. Or maybe they know what they’re doing and can find a way to just call down the Joker without explanation. I’d watch the hell out of that.
* When I use the word “chaos,” I don’t mean random or ever-changing. I mean a state that reflects complexities our minds aren’t complex enough to understand. It’s the natural order of the universe that can’t be compressed into the artificial order we create with our minds. I swear to god I am not high.