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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

7 DAYS OF THE BAT - DAY 7: LOVE THAT JOKER!

"All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy", he says. Well then he must have had one hell of a rotten week. They call him the Clown Prince of Crime, decked in purple, with a chalk white death mask of a face, filthy green hair and a painted on smile of sadistic glee. He’s played arguably the largest role in my youthful inspirations, and has continued to fascinate, frighten and entertain me for over twenty years. He may be dressed as a circus comedy act, but no one’s laughing. This entry is dedicated to the individual who deserves the fair share of the credit for Batman’s continued success, the freak who stands high above all other villains in his genre and the demonic prankster who tops my list of favourite fictional characters. His name is the Joker and this is 7 Days Of The Bat – Day 7.

When I was pre-planning this whole countdown to Dark Knight thing, I knew I wanted it to be a weeklong celebration. I also figured that, as film criticism is my ultimate passion, it would consist of film retrospectives. But there were only five truly notable Bat-films. After toying with, and discarding, the idea of including the Adam West 1966 Batman flick, I began to think of decent substitutes. Mask Of The Phantasm was a surprisingly late addition, actually. In the end, though, I decided to make the final instalment, the culmination of my tireless work (These things take longer than you’d expect!) to be a love letter, of sorts, to the initial kernel of interest that drew me to the franchise to begin with.

When I was around 6 years old, my mom introduced me to Adam West’s classic campy Batman TV series. It was like crack for a hyper-imaginative child obsessed with the villains of Star Wars and He-Man. It pulled me in immediately with its endless stream of memorable bad-guys (I found the Dynamic Duo kinda dull). Out of the plethora of evil-doers, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin and Otto Preminger’s Mr. Freeze had a pretty big effect. Frank Gorshin’s The Riddler was even more appealing, with his hyperactive giggle and, to my odd young mind, awesome outfit. But even he couldn’t hold a candle to the genius of Cesar Romero’s (moustachioed) Joker. I remember feeling strangely crestfallen whenever I turned the show on and he wasn’t featured.

Watching Batman: The Movie was like a dream come true. Riddler and Joker together! And Joker was kicking all sorts of ass. I recall feeling unusually proud of the fact that Joker put up the best fight on the climactic penguin-submarine fist-fight. He sent Robin into the drink, for Pete’s sake! That’s hardcore.

Mr. Romero even inspired my first ever home movie where I, at the age of 7, wearing a home-made Joker mask, played the Clown Prince of Crime and battled the likes of Batman (My sister Janine) and Robin (One of the neighbour kids). I did some serious stunt-falls that day, and am still entertained watching myself, in love with the character I was portraying, prat-falling around like a mental patient and even getting clocked in the face by my over-enthusiastic little sister.

I even had a Joker sweatshirt. I can’t remember if it was my mom or Grandma that bought it for me, but if was black and was emblazoned with a picture of my hero, laughing maniacally (With “HA HA HA’s all over the place), and pointing a gun outwards. My fourth grade teacher, the far-more-evil Ms. Harrington (Picture the Crypt Keeper... Only scarier!) gave me hell for wearing it on Canadian Remembrance Day. She may have had a point about the inappropriateness in honouring our fallen veterans by wearing a shirt depicting a homicidal clown, but whatever! I was a just a dumb kid who couldn’t see past his own twisted hero worship.

1989 was an amazing year, as it thrust my purple-adorned idol into the spotlight. The commercials, the toys, the advertisements... My mom bought me an 8X12 glossy photo of Jack Nicholson as Joker, wearing sunglasses, in a beach-chair holding a can on Smilex. Later that year she would get an artist friend of hers to replicate the photo on the top of my 9th Birthday cake. Best cake ever! I still have that glossy photo, although it’s a tad dog-eared and worn now (My cousin maliciously scribbled on it with a black crayon. Thank God for her health that it came off!), on my mirror. I also had a Batman Choose Your Own Adventure-type book and would purposely skip ahead to make sure that I followed the paths that led to Joker being involved in the story.

I didn’t actually make it all the way through Batman (On video, not in theatres) on my first go-around. Being a fairly sensitive child, the sight of Joker gleefully blowing Jack Palance to shreds, stabbing that fat gangster with a pen and then frying another to a crispy skeleton was a bit much for me. Cesar Romero never did stuff like that! I’m gonna guess I made it about 50 mins. in and then chose to go upstairs and decorate the Christmas tree instead. It wasn’t until ’92 that I actually made it all the way through and was able to fully appreciate the brilliance that Jack Nicolson brought to the character. To this day, his take on the role is in the upper echelon of my favourite performances of all time. He made the Joker scary, which was something I didn’t realize was important until later in life.

The Animated Series continued the love affair, and Mark Hamill’s flawless voice-work thrilled me to no end. An episode featuring a Joker-created cloud of laughing gas making its way through Gotham was a major favourite. I also, as mentioned in my Mask Of The Phantasm review, was blown away by his role in that excellent feature. Joker’s insertion into a Batman story always raises the quality level by about half.

As the years rolled on, Batman became less of a creative force in my life. I never really read the comic-books. I was a Marvel guy. But the Joker would always loom large in my creative thoughts and writing. I wonder now if my love for the character was a major catalyst for my appreciation and fandom of the music of Marilyn Manson. The similarities are definitely striking: the garish wardrobe, clown-like make-up, emphasis on the blackest humour and catharsis through anarchy. Attending his concerts was likely the closest I would ever come to seeing Joker in the flesh (Although why would I want to?).

A few years ago, after a long vacation from comics, I began getting back into that world. I started by picking up a copy of Batman: Riddler & Two-Face Tales. My appetite was whetted! I began to hear the lure of the lunatic’s laughter, and picked up Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, and then Greatest Joker Tales, then The Killing Joke and onwards. Those three masterpieces were all chillingly effective and only made me love the character even more. I was discovering another facet of him that I had, for some unknown reason, never bothered to explore in the past. Recently I’ve flown through Mr. J’s appearances in Jeph Loeb’s top-notch Long Halloween and Dark Victory, Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum and Ed Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs. I also have a lot of love for Michael Green’s Lovers And Madmen which, in my mind, captured the relentless and frightening insanity of ol’ green hair almost as much as his first appearance waaaaaay back in 1940. When he sees Batman for the first time, the sinister smile of joy as he proclaims “He looks... Ridiculous!” Great, incisive stuff. Batman saving him from certain death, and then him tearfully declaring “You do care!” is a brilliant peak into Joker’s psychology. He needs Batman as much as Batman doesn’t need him.

Whether played as a flamboyantly gay psychopath, or as a vicious genius, I truly believe that what makes him so hypnotic is the unspoken fact that he is the only person who truly terrifies Batman. That moment, in Killing Joke, where Batman pleads with Joker, begging him to let him help him to rehabilitate himself, you can feel the fear within the Dark Knight. This is a man who he cannot predict, can’t control and will always have his moral code questioned when dealing with him. I think that he is destined to one day kill the Joker, and when he does, the Clown will have the last laugh, as he will have finally broken his only equal. For this reason, any Batman tale featuring the Joker becomes a deeper study into the main character, and gives the work richer nuances and themes than other non-Joker efforts.

This year looks to continue my life-long addiction, with Heath Ledger’s (apparently definitive) take on the character in The Dark Knight. I’ll be there opening night, clad in my Joker baseball hat and t-shirt, waiting to be transported into the sickest of minds, and finding excitement in the sheer madness of it all. I’ll cover my feelings towards this performance in my upcoming review, but on the basis of what I’ve seen I’m thrilled.

It’s impossible for me to recall a time when the Joker didn’t have a mysterious influence over my life. He's charismatic and exciting but also scary. He's embodies the worst mankind has to offer, and he finds it... hilarious. Many of us find ourselves compelled by artistic works, be they classic novels, paintings, music or films. I, like many, just had the fortune, and personal tastes, to reach into the pile and pull out the Joker card.

And I know he’s laughing about it still...

1 comment:

J9 said...

excuse me, 5 notable batman movies.... Wheres batman:the movie... Adam west, hello? You talk about Batman Forever, and Batman and Robin but no Batman: the movie. For shame, cameron, for shame