Joking Matter: Adam West and Colleagues Analyze the Joker
Film and comic book creators join the 1960s Batman in examining the Joker.
Posted May 08, 2014
For PsychologyToday.com's "Joking Matter" topic, "Beyond Heroes and Villains" clearly needs to feature Batman's arch-enemy, the Joker. Instead of posting things I've already said about that villain in Batman and Psychology, this time I'll share highlights from the Q&A that came at the end of a 90-minute San Diego Comic-Con International panel Dr. Robin Rosenberg and I conducted, "Is the Joker a Psychopath? You decide!" The non-psychologists joining us knew more than a little about the Clown Prince of Crime: film producer and comics scholar Michael Uslan, executive producer of every Batman movie since the 1980s; artist Jerry Robinson, who co-created (many feel created) the Joker while working as Bob Kane's earliest known Batman ghost artist; writer Steve Englehart (by telphone) who wrote "The Laughing Fish," a story often cited as proof that the Joker really is insane; and actor Adam West, who skipped a Family Guy panel where he could have promoted his current work and instead joined us to represent his friend, the late Cesar Romero, who played the Joker in Adam's 1966-1968 Batman television series.
Until Adam told me afterward, I did not know he had never met Michael or Jerry before. Each of the three later commented on what a wonderful occasion that turned out to be. Michael discusses it in his autobiography, The Boy Who Loved Batman.
Here are some of the more psychologically excerpts from the Q&A portion of that event which Adam, Michael, and Jerry each later called historic.
Travis: What the heck is wrong with the Joker?
Adam: He’s slightly antisocial. (In our earlier conversation outside the panel, Adam had said that the Joker is definitely antisocial.)
Michael: There’s nothing wrong with the Joker. He’s the greatest supervillain in the history of comic books.
Jerry: Well, I agree with Michael. There’s nothing wrong with the Joker. There may be something wrong with the rest of us.
First Audience Question: A lot of the stories are based around how the Joker can’t survive without Batman and Batman can’t survive without the Joker. What are your thoughts on something like that?
Robin: You know how competition can really make people reach higher levels than they were previously capable of? I think that’s what happens with Batman and Joker. They each force the other to rise to ever increasing heights… Batman loves a challenge and I think Joker forces him to do that. He doesn’t want to become complacent…
Michael: I have a slightly different take on it. My fascination with the Joker vis-à-vis Batman has always kind of gone back to Edgar Allen Poe’s "The Cask of Amontillado" where you’ve got the horror just being masked by the masks of the Carnival, and it has been fascinating to me since I was a kid to see these two forces doing this dance with each other when the good guy is dressed like a scary monster and the bad guy is dressed like a clown. That has always been a fascination to me, and I think one of the interesting things in the movies had been the Tim Burton approach which was at that time—1989, twenty years ago this past month—revolutionary, and it was the Joker as he was created by Jerry and Bill in Batman #1, as exemplified over the years by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ "The Laughing Fish," by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ "The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge." It was the Joker as the deadly Clown Prince of Crime that we knew for decades in the comic books.
The genius of Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger—and they deserve all the credit—was to me a change. Instead of it being classic comic book good versus evil, it became order versus chaos. It became real. I, for one, truly believed this man was a terrorist that placed absolutely zero value on human life, including his own. I was sitting and watching, thinking this could be real, this could be happening, and it resonated very, very deeply for me. There were critics saying that in dealing with the Joker this was the important movie to deal with 9/11 and post-9/11 issues, and that to me was absolutely amazing.
Jerry: I find it interesting that Michael was so impressed with Poe’s work, which I was—and here we wound up together since we were both impressed by Edgar Allen Poe. In fact, I was in a (recitation) contest one time in high school and I chose "The Tell-Tale Heart." I can still recite some of it. I came in second, by the way. (During one of our pre-panel conversations, Jerry had described how influential the specific Poe story “The Cask of Amontillado” had been upon him during the creation of the Joker.)
An audience member asked who is responsible “for the various origins of the Joker that we’re familiar with.”
Travis (indicating the other panelists): None of them. I know that Jerry had a very specific intent regarding how much we should know about the origin of the Joker, The Dark Knight hits on the same thing when we keep getting different versions, and your Joker (indicating Adam) never had an origin.
Michael: Let’s give credit where credit is due, to The Killing Joke. If you have not seen that story, rush out and go read it.
Travis: Jerry, what are your thoughts regarding origins of the Joker?
Jerry: Well, we had a lot of discussions about that. Bill and Bob and myself, we discussed at my first outline of that first story how I was going to explain his visual look. I decided to leave his face white simply because I wanted him to resemble the playing card joker. He didn’t have green hair. It was just the white of the face and the red lips. We decided deliberately not to explain it, not to write an origin. We thought that would detract from the whole aura, the mystery of the Joker—where did he come from, how did he get that way? No, we did not explain that, quite deliberately. The origin story was written by a subsequent writer many years later.
Travis: So you and Bill did not drop the Joker in a vat of acid.
Jerry: No, we did not. Our initial reaction to that was if we dropped him into that vat, he obviously would have come out deformed.
Audience Question: I was wondering, is anything incarnation clinically curable?
Travis (psychology professor): Robin, that’s your problem.
Robin (clinical psychologist): If any were able to be rehabilitated, it would probably be Cesar Romero’s, the lightest one you could get, and I’m even not sure about him. In fact, the psychopath cannot be treated… There is no treatment that really works, unfortunately. Their brains are different, they respond differently. If any Joker’s a psychopath, he cannot be rehabilitated.
Audience Question: (to Jerry) When you’re writing a character over and over again, how would you define that border where there’s something the Joker would not do. I’m not thinking about necessarily the horrible but also the sensible. Did you ever define that border or do you just let the character go? Did you ever find out what you would not have the Joker do?
Jerry: Well, one thing we decided early on, after we used it once, was not to have him use guns. I drew the first and only cover on Batman of him with two guns, a gun in each hand, and Aladdin’s lamp. That was Aladdin’s lamp changing into the Joker. We had a conference after that and we decided not to have him use a gun. I think they began to get worried about parents’ reaction. Although this preceded the Comics Code, they were already getting very sensitive to that issue. So that was the only thing we tried to avoid, although it’s kind of ridiculous when he’d kill people by poisoned darts, vapors, whatever.
Jerry speculated that guns had been too reminiscent of real world criminals.
Audience Question: I know that in most incarnations of the Joker when he is given an origin story, it’s a single traumatic moment that causes him to be insane, and I was just wondering: Can psychopathy be created by a single traumatic experience?
Travis: Again, insane and psychopath are different issues. Psychopaths are grown and over the course of their entire lifetime it’s built. You have many specific events that contribute to shaping. Is there one event that makes you an extrovert, something as simple as that much less something as complex as a psychopath?
Robin: Actually, let me expand on that. They’ve done family studies, twin studies, adoption studies, and you need to have the genetic vulnerability towards psychopathy. There are certain traits that can run in families, but just having genes isn’t enough. You have to have certain environment, upbringing that’s on top of the genes. So falling into a vat of acid as an adult wouldn’t actually make someone a psychopath, as far as we can tell. If they had not been psychopathically inclined prior to that, they wouldn’t become one.
Jerry: I would advise against it.
Adam: Travis, I did a little backstory in my head for Joker. I reasoned the insanity, whatever you want to call his psychopathic quality—I reasoned that he was kidnapped by a perverted clown when he was a youngster.
Jerry: That would do it.
Robin: Only if he had the genes for it.
Adam: But I have backstories for Batman too. I won’t tell you.
Audience Question: I’d like to ask you about an idea that was presented by Grant Morrison in Arkham Asylum and kind of by Paul Dini in The Animated Series that the Joker kind of reinvents himself with every new day and how that kind of reflects his portrayal through the films by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger and how that—
Travis: And Cesar Romero. That would even give continuity across all of them.
Audience Question (cont.): —how it kind of means he could be consistent because in the comics he could be this trickster clown one day and a murderous psychopath the next. I just wanted to get your take on that.
Travis: True. In the comics, you are correct, they do treat it as if the trickster clown of one era is still the same. They just say the Joker stopped killing people for awhile and then he started killing again, and they are treating it as continuity of character over time. Michael referred to the order versus chaos. Adam, you said something about that the other day, that in your era it was a battle of order and chaos, and there is continuity of this character. Whether he’s killing people or not, there are other essential qualities defining, "What is the Joker?" Anyone want to elaborate?
Michael: I’ll elaborate a little bit, being a fan of Batman and a comic book historian. The interpretation of both the Joker and Batman over the decades has been radically different just in the comic books alone. He’s gone from the Clown Prince of Crime and a funnier, lighter Batman to a darker Batman and to a homicidal maniac to a psychopath, and the same thing is true for each of the characters. It really depends when your period of time was when you were reading Batman comics or watching the cartoons or watching the movie. That is what really defines for you as an individual who your true Batman is and who your true Joker is, and it can run the spectrum and it’s gonna be different for different people. But just as with the Joker, you can’t peg which is his true origin, then for which is the true Joker, as a fan, as a lover of the material, you also can’t peg it. It’s up to you as an individual to tell us and to decide which is the true Batman, which is the true Joker.
Last Question: So I was wondering if between the Joker and the Batman if… (long pause to catch his breath) It’s always said that Batman hates the Joker, but I was wondering if there’s a sort of love for each other?
Travis: (after restating the question) Guys? (The ensuing pause amused the audience. They were frequently amused throughout this panel.)
Michael: (to Jerry) You created him.
Jerry: Well, I think the Batman needs the Joker more than the Joker needs the Batman.
Travis: All right, it’s almost time. Closing comments, parting thoughts, or whatever it is Jerry Springer calls them?
Michael: There are two points I’d love to make. Number one, comic books and superheroes are our modern day mythology. It is contemporary American folklore, and in the context of Batman and the Joker, this is part of the endless battle we’ve been reading about that has been passed down from generation to generation, an oral tradition as well as written tradition of heroes versus monsters, heroes versus demons and dragons—and when I say heroes these days, I mean both male and female—and so it continues. The ancient gods of Greece, Rome, and Egypt still exist; only today they all wear Spandex and capes. And it is the eternal struggle between good and evil or order and chaos that will keep a primal story with such great characters going on endlessly, endlessly, where everyone around the world irrespective of culture or boundary or age or demographic or gender can really just sit back and enjoy story after story of Batman and the Joker.
Michael: My one closing remark as a personal note and with apologies to any kids that are here today: I am now about to let the 13-year-old Michael out for a moment because Mr. West may have been in awe of this panel but I am sitting next to the Batman of the super Sixties and there is something I’ve gotta say. This is my fantasy about to come true. 13-year-old Michael take it away: Holy s***!
Adam: Yes, I’m a senior superhero now: (makes his voice sound older) Batman’s daddy. (Adam was voicing Bruce Wayne’s father Dr. Thomas Wayne this year for the animated series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold.)
As mentioned above, these were simply some of the final questions during the 90-minute panel. If you'd like to find out more of what we discussed, you're in luck because Mike Catron posted the complete panel in four parts on YouTube.