Today we talk about juxtaposition. And the Clown Prince of Gotham is the perfect case study to do it. We also dive deep, very deep, into what makes the Joker so compelling to modern audiences. Coulrophobia anyone?
From the latin words iuxta (“in close proximity”/”next to”) and positio (“place”/”position”) comes juxtaposition. It describes the state of having two things in a close spacial proximity to each other. Or in terms of art: the act of putting two signs next to each other to create a new separate meaning.
Everything is next to something. Just having things close to each other does not make a juxtaposition significant. Like with any other type of sign, significance can be intended by the creator, but eventually the viewer decides, if the juxtaposition is significant to him. So like with any other type of sign, the creator has to understand his audience and guide their attention towards something of importance to them.
Without considering any context, which of these three juxtapositions, you think has the most significance to most people:
‚Äö√Ñ√¨ police man with a gun
‚Äö√Ñ√¨ baby with a toy
‚Äö√Ñ√¨ baby with a gun
Police men have guns, babies have toys… there is not much too those juxtapositions. Adding a gun to a police man only supplements the image of police man, maybe tweaks it to armed police man.
But a gun close to a baby, that’s something. The juxtaposition drives us to look for a connection, and that connection is not self-explanatory. It’s weird, possibly dangerous, a contrast of violence versus innocence or death versus life, a mystery, all sorts of things. The juxtaposition of the two images emerges as a sign itself and suddenly both images, the baby and the gun, become supplements for this new established sign.
Juxtapositions can come in multiple forms, which are significant to the viewer. See the examples here and consider what connotations each juxtaposition has for you:
The prince and the princess, the pirate and the treasure, Popeye and spinach, and so on.
The surfer and the shark, the victim and the killer, the thief and your money, Superman and Kryptonite, and such.
randomness / surrealism
The melting clock and the desert, the plumber and the mushroom, the carpenter and the walrus.
Sonic and Mario, a DeLorean and a western saloon, Darth Vader and Cervantes, Batman and Scorpion (Mortal Kombat).
Mario and Wario, Batman and Batgirl, Laurel and Hardy.
Big Daddy and Little Sister, a giant and a mouse, a baby and a very old man, ugly duckling and beautiful swan.
Heaven and hell, cats and dogs, jedi and sith, black rook and white rook.
Juxtaposition Of Conflicting Forces In Popculture
Juxtaposing two conflicting entities is a very very popular component in most narrative publications. Conflict is a potent driving force for any story and adds multilayered qualities to characters and situations.
Whole genres are dedicated to the juxtaposition of conflicting entities and concepts, like romantic comedies or buddy cop movies, where we have 80 minutes of two people being the complete opposite of each other and final 10 minutes of getting together. But by far the most successful juxtapositions are any variation of the theme of good versus evil.
The basic thing is to have two opposing entities (characters and/or factions), so the viewer can quickly see the side to root for. This setup makes it easy for the audience to separate friend from foe (except the occasional traitor) and sort character actions into categories of just and unjust. Defining a faction or character as good and another as evil makes for a clear cut narration, where story development takes a backseat, so that the action can take center stage. This black and white cut is very useful for video games with limited storytelling resources and ambitions.
Where it gets really interesting is, when the conflict is shown within one single entity. The anti-hero, the tragic villain, the torn nation, the likable bad guy, the split personality, the half man half beast. These kind of characters, when written and illustrated well, give a juxtaposition of good and evil, that adds depth to an entity and demands investigation before the viewer is allowed to judge.
One perfect example for this is the currently and, let’s be honest, ever popular vampire. Well done vampire designs juxtapose various conflicting elements, such as:
humanity and animalism
life and death
pleasure and pain
love and hate
fulfillment of sexual desire and violent rape
physical attraction and physical thread
beauty and fearsomeness
Another very popular theme, which is driven by juxtaposition of good and evil within one entity (character or fictional world), is the idea of twisted children and twisted children’s stories. This idea especially resonates well with young adults. Many are currently moving away from their childhood values and roles, sometimes even rejecting them, and the life of that young adult recently became drastically harder and less whimsical. So having childlike imagery twisted and corrupted is pretty analogous to that feeling of loss of childhood.
Juxtapotions of twisted imagery include:
playful activity and objects of violence / violent activity and toys
children and objects of violence / children and evil demonic features
children’s characters or mascots and monstrous features
comedy and sadness
popular children’s stories and adult themes
fun activities and torture
innocence and corruption
Genealogy Of The Joker’s Sign Language
Now we finally made it to, what in my opinion is the core of Joker’s appeal and the driving theme of all related design: juxtaposing excitement and horror. He is sexually attractive, in twisted kind of way, he is a playful guy in a twisted kind of way and he is completely horrifying. His iconography is constantly juxtaposing conflicting signals, similar to themes of vampirism and the twisted kid’s stuff theme. With components like this, he is everything but boring.
I personally approve the decision by Rocksteady to not attempt re-vamping or modernizing the character for the game series. With the character of Harley Quinn, I thought the revamp backfired and made her less of what she is in the source material. They played it very very straight with the Joker here. And if they would have wanted to modernize him, they would have had to compete with the “Dark Knight” Joker, which is so god damn spot on and brilliant, that I think it would have been a loosing battle.
The character of Joker first appeared in 1940, in the very first issue of Batman’s own comic book. Up to this historic publication, the Batman was only featured in anthology format books or newspapers. When the Joker was first designed, his genealogy wasn’t that complex. According to “Batman ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ The Complete History” by Les Daniels, his design was inspired by playing cards, advertisements for fun parks and a movie from 1928 titled “The Man Who Laughs”. But today’s visual genealogy of the Joker is much more complex, due to +60 years of popculture and multiple re-incarnations and iterations of the character.
The Man Who Laughs
In this 1928 silent movie lies the visual and somewhat spiritual inspiration to the appearance of the Joker. Part of the plot summary from wikipedia:
Taking place in England in the year 1690, The Man Who Laughs features Gwynplaine, the son of an English nobleman who has offended King James II. The monarch sentences Gwynplaine’s father to death in an iron maiden, after calling upon a surgeon, Dr. Hardquannone, to disfigure the boy’s face into a permanent grin. As a title card states, the King condemned him “to laugh forever at his fool of a father.”
It is confirmed, that the film’s protagonist served as reference for the comic character. But even if not, the uncanny likeness would make a relation seem very likely.
The Joker’s origin in the comics is debatable. There is a version of his backstory, which is considered canon, “The Killing Joke” by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, where he was a failed comedian before turning into the Joker. Though there are more versions of that story in the DC comic books. In the movies, it’s either a completely reworked story (Burton film), or the character doesn’t seem to recall it himself (Nolan film).
In the comics and most other incarnations, one thing is clear: He got dropped into a vat of chemicals, which hideously transformed him, since then forces him to laugh and smile (similar to the 1928 movie) and eventually turned him insane. But instead of having this gruesome tragedy tear him apart, he decided to roll with it and became The Clown Prince Of Gotham.
And this is the key defining moment of this character. The moment when he accepted, that suffering and tragedy are a reason to laugh and be happy. This twisted judgement is since then the driving force of his actions, his visual language, his effect on his environment.
He wants to bring suffering and tragedy to the world, because you are supposed to laugh at it. Let’s put a smile on that face!
The original gimmick of the Joker was, that he is based on a playing card, the wild card. Wild cards (and any card game imagery for that matter) are not only a strong part of his iconography, but as it turns out are also of high symbolic value for the Joker.
In the games, a joker has no affiliation to any party. He is neither spades, clubs, hearts, nor diamonds. A joker card is drawn at random. A joker also can do anything he likes and most of the time is there to circumvent the rules.
The behavior of the card is perfectly analogous to the character. In contrast to most villains, the Joker has no goal except to cause havoc. He does not want to get rich, he does not want to have anything, he just wants to completely derail your psyche. Nobody, no good guy, no bad guy, can trust him. And there is no rule in life you think a sane or insane man must follow, which will not be broken by the Joker.
I once was at a circus and two clowns performed. I was around 10 years old. One guy just drew a revolver and unloaded its barrel on the other guy. He touched his chest to check for wounds, but didn’t feel anything. Reliefed that nothing happened, he treated himself to a cold glass of water. He swallowed it and the water poured out of the holes in his chest. Everybody was laughing and applauding. That’s clowns.
Clowns. Are. Horrible.
No really. With the exception of the occasional balloon animal, all they do is indulge in violent or purposefully harmful behavior. They punch, whack, smack and kick each other, use guns and knifes and heavy machines, or cause life-threatening accidents. There is just one tiny thing keeping these acts of cruelty from actually being gruesome… it’s clowns.
By default, all stuff clowns do is in good fun. It’s a prank, a trick, a false threat to create excitement and tension, and in the end we all will laugh about it. When a clown points a gun at us, we trust something funny to happen. But what if we can’t trust the clown?
Oh, and then there is the faces. Coulrophobia, the irrational fear of clowns, mainly relates to the visual appearance of clowns. And considering what a clown face is, it’s not so hard to grasp, why it triggers heavy fear reactions in some people. A clown face first is a deformed face with enlarged features and pale skin. And then there are emotions burnt into the face. Many classic clown make-ups feature a wide grin and tears, which is already a conflicting emotional signal, add the actual facial expression of the person below the paint to the equation and a face can become completely unreadable or even monstrous to some people.
The evil clown, killer clown or sad clown is a great horror trope. Twisting a clown turns pretent violence into real violence, which is an effective trick to make the pretent violence of horror stories feel just one bit more real to the viewer.
Also coulrohobia is an entertaining fear (for those not suffering from it), with a big potential for great twisted images and crazy scenes.
Evil clowns are the ultimate betrayal of trust and innocence. We lower our defenses, expecting fun, only to be severely punished for just that. The Joker is just exactly this kind of clown, but with one key difference: He does not think the clowning stops, when the hurting begins. He just thinks you don’t get the joke.
Why so serious? I just put a knife in your mouth.
A common motif on joker cards in many decks is a harlequin or jester. When it comes to symbolic qualities, there is not much to go on here. There are some characters from german folklore, Till Eulenspiegel and Casperle, which could be viewed as harlequins, but that’s a very loose connection.
But the iconic qualities of a harlequin are actually quite strong. Strong enough to serve as a gimmick to base a full character on. Harley Quinn originated as a side character in the 90s animated TV show and catapulted to popularity, making her way into the comics and even getting her own series.
The story behind the character is, that she, Harleen Quinzell, was a psychologist, who thought she could deal with the Joker. Session after session, she got more enthralled with his personality, which then switched over into complete unconditional emotional and physical devotion to her former patient. Imagine agent Starling getting the hots for Hannibal Lector.
She has very special place in the DC universe. Harley is victim in a very abusive relationship, with the Joker. She gets physically abused and often left to die (which then eventually doesn’t happen). Still, she keeps going back to “Mr.J.”, and the Joker from time to time rewards her with gestures of affection. (Which is really sad to watch.) What makes her special is, that she is the only person, the Joker is truly connecting to. She gets the whole laugh because it hurts joke.
She also is used in stories to display the Joker as a very sexual character. Rare in comics, but even rarer in anything licensed from kids TV shows, Harley and Joker ‘s love is heavy on sex. Joker turns her on like crazy and she offers a great target for the Joker to aim his charms at.
Complementing the idea of twisted sex appeal, are the uncanny and often played similarities between the Joker design and stereotypical vampires. His pale skin, dark hair, tailcoat dress and the emphasis on teeth put him just two pointy teeth and a cape away from a classic Dracula look.
Joker’s Fun House
Following the juxtaposition themes of the Joker and the narrative core theme of Arkham City (appropriation), let’s end this installment by exploring the Joker iconography found in Arkham City.
Thanks for reading. There are still two more parts in the pipeline. Next time we explore symbolic creativity with Two Face, where we check out insane environment designs, which I have saved for that one.And lastly we will round up some of the other villains and some odds and ends. I also will wrap up this series by giving some great sources and book recommendations.
I hope you enjoyed the ride so far and like and share. Thanks.
As always, check the Batman tag for all related posts.