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The Joker’s True Identity: Breaking Down The Possibilities For The Summer’s Big Reveal

The Joker by Brian Bolland

 

If you watched the DC Comics panel at last weekend’s WonderCon in Los Angeles, then you saw the reveals of all the titles and most of the creative teams for the company’s upcoming “Rebirth” event. Mixed in with those, though, was one more announcement about DC’s upcoming plans: When Justice League #50 hits shelves next month as the climax to “The Darkseid War,” Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok are planning to give the Joker a “real identity” that will presumably go beyond just being Gotham City’s most notoriously murderous clown.

It’s a bold move, especially since it’s happening in the company’s flagship team book rather than in a solo Batman title. In the days since the panel, the news has got a whole lot of people — myself included — talking about the possibilities of what we’re going to see in April. If the Joker’s not just the Joker, then who is he?

 

Art by Brian Bolland

 

This is, of course, not the first time that there’s been an attempt to graft a Big Reveal onto the Joker. In comics, it happens most famously in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland‘s The Killing Joke, which intercuts the Joker’s horrific acts in the present with the tragic story of a failing comedian whose wife dies in a freak accident on the day that he’s pressganged into service as a stand-in supervillain.

It’s an origin that was more-or-less accepted as the standard since it was originally published in 1988 — largely due to the prestige of the creators — but even that was just a new twist on an old story, an attempt at modernizing the classic origin story that made its first appearance way back in 1951’s “The Man Behind The Red Hood.”

 

Detective Comics #168

 

The same goes for the Red Hood Gang’s appearance in Zero Year, too, although in that case, it’s even less clear that the Gang’s leader — whose very familiar smile is the only part of his face that we can see — is actually the guy who becomes the Joker, or whether even that identity was passed around by multiple unknown crooks.

The thing is, while all of those stories were built around the idea of giving a background for the Joker that went beyond just explaining his twisted smile, chalk-white skin, and green hair by tying his very existence as the Joker to Batman, they also kept things pretty vague. In the original story, he’s just an unknown criminal going for one big score before he retires, and while we see bits and pieces of his (pretty miserable) home life in The Killing Joke, we never get a name. That simple omission — and the fact that, despite all of the stories detailing Batman’s early years, it’s never been made quite clear just how this failed comedian and/or small-time crook knows how to manufacture lethal chuckle poison — has helped the Joker to maintain an air of mystery that other villains don’t have.

Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie went a step further by giving us an origin that included a full name: Jack Napier, a pun that’s only a half-step less ridiculous than “Edward Nygma.” In that version, the Joker was mashed up with Joe Chill, the small-time hood who killed Batman’s parents before working his way up Gotham City’s mobs before his chemical makeover caused him to go full supervillain. In addition to giving him a way to shift his criminal interest from alley murders to elaborate museum vandalism, this connection also allowed the story to fall into a three-act action movie structure, with Batman getting revenge at the end by killing the murderer who killed his parents.

A few stories in the comics have chipped away at small pieces of Joker’s air of mystery in recent years. Thanks to his appearance in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo‘s Batman: Endgame, where he was disguised as an Arkham Asylum doctor named Eric Border — and thanks to his re-emergence after that story as an apparently fully-healed member of society with no memory of his time as a supervillain — we’ve seen what he looks like without his distinctive disfigurement. In Batman #23.1, in a story by Andy Kubert and Andy Clarke, we’ve even seen a glimpse of the Joker’s childhood, being raised by his Aunt Eunice. But through it all, that “true name” has eluded us.

So where do we stand going into Justice League #50?

 

Justice League #42

 

If you haven’t been reading it, the idea of “revealing” the Joker’s identity in the finale of “The Darkseid War” was set up in the storyline’s first issue, when Batman took control of Metron’s Mobius Chair and immediately began pestering it with the kind of questions that you have when you’re suddenly granted access to all of the knowledge in the universe. Specifically, he asks about the Joker’s “true name.”

The phrasing there seems to be purposefully awkward — unlike “real name,” the phrase that we normally see in origin stories and Official Handbook entries, Batman says “true name,” a phrase that’s usually associated with magic and demons. Between that and Batman’s disbelieving reaction, that gives me what I think is probably the most likely possibility: That the Joker’s true identity is, well, The Joker.

If Bruce Wayne’s true identity is Batman — an idea that a lot of fans gravitate to, with the understanding that the millionaire philanthropist bit is just a façade to facilitate his night-time crimefighting — then it makes sense that his arch-enemy’s true identity would follow the same path. Even moreso, in fact, when you consider that the Joker is a full-time murderclown. It’s not like he’s putting on a pair of glasses and going to a day job where nobody notices that he smells like circus poison, right?

Plus, the idea that Batman wants there to be something more, something human and vulnerable beneath that permanent grin, in the same way that there’s a very human Bruce Wayne at the core of Batman, only to find out that there’s nothing else there? That’s the kind of knowledge that could very well provoke a reaction like “that’s not possible.”

Looking at the whole page, though, there are two questions that Batman asks, and that’s certainly not an accident. At the very least, we’re supposed to believe that these are the two things that Batman wants to know most out of everything in the entire universe, but by putting them together like this, Johns and Fabok have certainly given the impression that they’re related. At first glance, it looks like we’re getting the answer to one and the promise of a big reveal later for the other, but what if it’s not? What if we got the answer right there already?

 

Untold Legend of the Batman #1

 

Which is our second major possibility: That Johns and Fabok are taking a cue from Batman ’89 and revealing that the Joker is really Joe Chill — and hopefully, that Chill’s middle name is “Kerr.” If the Joker’s going to be someone other than the Joker, that seems like the most obvious choice, but I have my doubts that it could actually work.

For one thing, it would make the Joker significantly older than Batman, although I suppose being dumped into a vat of toxic chemicals could leave one very well-preserved, corpse-like pallor aside. For another, the Joker and Batman already have a very deep antagonistic relationship, so adding that level to it really feels like gilding a lily that’s already been gilded five or six times. Eventually, you’re just swinging around a big ol’ golden Tootsie Pop.

But while we’re on the subject of a version of the Joker who’s significantly older than Batman, we have a third possibility that’s been floated around by speculative fans: Thomas Wayne.

 

Art by Greg Capullo

 

To be honest, this one seems extremely unlikely, unless the Joker ends up being some random guy who just happens to be named “Thomas Wayne,” which would be amazing and hilarious. For one thing, “Thomas Wayne is the Bad Guy” was the fakeout of Morrison and Tony Daniel‘s Batman RIP, and for another, we’ve had an even more recent story — Snyder and Capullo’s Court of Owls — that was built around a similar vein of Batman having to deal with a villainous branch of his own family tree.

That said, you could certainly make a case for it. We’ve seen Thomas Wayne as Batman twice in recent memory, once in Flashpoint, where it was Martha Wayne who became the Joker, and once on the current version of Earth-2, where it was revealed that he survived the mugging, faked his death, and then emerged from hiding to become Batman after Bruce died fighting Darkseid. If you can go as far as doing that with Batman’s dad, then it’s not that hard to imagine that he could also be recast as the Joker.

Those are the major suspects, but the possibilities here are virtually endless, especially given that other stories have played with the idea of revealing that the Joker is actually Dick Grayson, Alfred Pennyworth, or Tim Drake from the future, something that, weirdly enough, is actually possible in the current version of the DC Universe.

Whether the answer is any of these, or someone else entirely, we’ll have to wait for the issue to find out. But don’t let that stop you from speculating in the meantime.

 

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