This week saw the release of the animated adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke, and it hasn’t been that well received, especially the new scenes added to increase the runtime. And the film’s release has given me cause to look back on the Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s original work that was so well-regarded that it basically became The Joker‘s official origin. Seeing it with the eyes of a nominal adult I realized that, while a beautifully drawn tale, The Killing Joke has aged terribly and wouldn’t even rank sixth among the best Joker comics, let alone at the top.
If your knowledge of The Clown Prince of Crime is limited to his engrossing appearances in films like The Dark Knight and Suicide Squad, or Mark Hamill’s iconic vocal performance of the man, you’re missing out on some great comic books. Though the new film will lead many to check out the regressive, overly angry, and skeevie Killing Joke, here are five better stories from the world of graphic novels. Give these a read when you’re searching out The Joker’s greatest crimes.
Gotham Central: Soft Targets
The short-lived comic series Gotham Central is everything the lackluster Gotham TV show should be. It’s a fantastic, gritty police procedural that looks at the day-to-day lives of the Gotham cops who clean up after Batman. Gotham Central had great stories following most of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, but the book was never better than in the winter murder mystery that showcased The Joker.
Written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka with art by Michael Lark, “Soft Targets” is the five-part epic following Joker’s holiday rampage of Gotham. In a relatively mundane plot for Mr. J, he’s using a high powered sniper rifle to take out random folks all over the city, striking fear into the whole town. Neither the police or Batman can find him, but when Joker finally surfaces in the story, it leads to an interrogation that rivals the one in The Dark Knight. If you’re looking for a great Joker story from the perspective of people not wearing capes, “Soft Targets” should be on your reading list.
Detective Comics #826 “Slayride”
Not every great Joker story needs 100 pages of monologues, an epic brawl, or to deconstruct the nature of sanity. In fact, a great Joker story doesn’t necessarily need to feature Batman. That’s the case in this tightly written, 22-page adventure that follows an intense car trip with Joker driving around Robin during a busy Christmas Eve night.
“Slayride” is a single issue story by Batman: The Animated Series veteran Paul Dini and artist Don Kramer, and it makes a minivan as scary as any complex deathtrap when Robin is driven around Gotham by a blissfully cruel Joker. Mr. J is played with wide-eyed mania, improvising a night of horrors for the captive Boy Wonder, all as Robin tries his best to find a way out. The well-paced tale builds to a great finale, and it includes a fantastic description of Joker’s personality that perfectly encapsulates his comedic style of villainy.
Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo had one of the best runs on Batman in the modern age, so you better believe that the writer and artist’s approach to The Joker would be one for the ages. After being handed an overly edgy Joker who cut off his own face for no discernable reason, the duo turned him into a potent and very personal foe. The “Death of the Family” story had Joker challenging Batman and his colleagues in while teasing he knew all their secrets before Bruce finally took him down. But that was just the prologue for “Endgame.”
Treated as the ultimate battle between Batman and Joker, the evil clown ravages Gotham to near destruction, poisoning the entire town with his special toxin. Batman needed help from everyone he could get but was finding that Joker had even found a way to defeat the Justice League as part of his final scheme. “Endgame” raises the stakes higher than any other Joker story, takes Joker in clever new directions, and concludes with one of the best fistfights Batman and Joker have ever had. It isn’t technically the last Joker story, but it’s good enough to be his last laugh.
Batman Adventures: Mad Love
Harley Quinn was a breakout star when she debuted on Batman: The Animated Series back in 1992, at first just a memorable sidekick to The Joker. But soon enough she’d star in her own episodes, eventually getting brought into DC’s comics and eventually make her live-action debut in 2016’s Suicide Squad. When it was time to detail her origin, the story was formerly deemed too mature for television, so writer Paul Dini teamed with series director Bruce Timm to tell the tale in the original graphic novel, Mad Love.
The story shows how Harley’s abusive, problematic relationship with The Joker began, and how he continually uses her in his plots to destroy Batman. You witness The Joker at his most manipulative, as well as seeing how his cruel-yet-magnetic charisma is part of his twisted psychopathy. While this is definitely Harley’s story, Mad Love is a peek inside The Joker’s mind like you’ve never had before, making his battles against Batman more personal than they appear.
Batman: The Man Who Laughed
The Joker has had more origins than any Wikia can contain, but this one by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke is easily his best, trumping the overly fawning Killing Joke. Set directly after Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, The Joker has just made his debut in Gotham. His seemingly random acts of violence have got the police confused, and even Batman has never seen anything like it at this point in his career.
The Man Who Laughs title is a tribute to the silent film that influenced Joker’s first appearance, and Brubaker/Mahnke make many sly allusions to Joker’s currently noncanonical early comic stories. The tale gives ample background to Joker’s origins while still keeping parts of it a mystery, and adds danger to Batman and Joker’s first encounters because Bruce is dealing with something unknown. It’s a fresh take on the tried and true chaos vs order dynamic of the pair’s endless war, and even has a few moments so good that they possibly inspired similar scenes in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.