By Papa Llama - August 9, 2009
During our Comic-Con International panel on the psychopathy of the Joker, one panelist had to attend via remote. Back when comic book writer Steve Englehart had expected to attend Comic-Con in person, he was going to sit on the panel with us. When his travel plans changed so that he would not be coming to San Diego, we arranged instead for him to join us via webcam. Due to technical problems, though, we couldn’t use the webcam, and therefore his involvement consisted of Comics Arts Conference co-founder Peter Coogan holding up a cell phone near whoever was speaking at any given time so Steve could hear us and then holding it up to the microphone so the audience could hear Steve.
Given that our panel had Jerry Robinson who created the Joker, Michael Uslan who has produced six Batman movies, and Adam West who played Batman, you might wonder why we recruited one specific comic book writer out of all the countless creators who have worked on Batman, Detective Comics, and many other bat-comics over the years. Steve earned his B.A. at Wesleyan in 1969 with a majorin psychology (which Adam West minored in, by the way) which is relevant, but that’s not why we had him.
For me, Steve Englehart’s work on Captain America, The Avengers, and The Defenders defined Marvel Comics when I first started reading their publicationis. Spider-Man of the early 1970s had his own distinct storylines, but Steve’s stories introduced me to that whole Marvel Universe. Elements from those stories fascinate me to this day. I first corresponded with Steve over three years ago with questions about the character Mantis which he’d introduced back then, and we’ve exchanged other email since then, including some consideration of how strongly his work had influenced The Dark Knight motion picture.
In 1976-1977, Steve wrote a mere eight-issue run of Detective Comics. Pencilled by Marshall Rogers (with some later work by Walt Simonson) and inked by Terry Austin, those eight issues received high praise for taking Batman back to his roots, capturing the feel of the first year of Bob Kane/Bill Finger’s Detective Comics stories without making them seem outdated. They showed that Batman and his city could be both gothic and modern.
One particular story from this run, “The Laughing Fish,” became a defining moment for Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker. Younger fans may know this story from the cartoon episode which Paul Dini wrote based on Steve’s story (Batman: The Animated Series episode 34, 1993).
In the story, fishermen discover that fish now have the Joker’s colors and hideous smile. The Joker has dumped chemicals into the local waters, expecting to copyright the fish and make a fortune off them, only to be thwarted by copyright executives who say he cannot copyright a natural resource. In discussions of whether the Joker is insane, many people still cite that story as proof that yes, the Joker really is insane.
Insanity is a legal term, not a psychiatric term. It means that the person is not criminally responsible for his or her actions due to a mental defect which prevents that person from recognizing the real world meaning of those actions. You could actually be psychotic yet sane. Just because hallucinatory voices tell you to kill your neighbor Bob doesn’t mean you’re any less responsible for your actions than if your real live poker buddy says, “Hey, go kill Bob,” if you’re still able to recognize the action would be wrong.
Despite the Joker’s in-story status of being classified as criminally insane ever since author Denny O’Neil’s writings of 1973 (when the Joker turned murderous again) and 1974 (when O’Neil created Arkham Asylum, then called Arkham Hospital), not everyone in the real world agrees. Two days before our own panel, three forensic psychiatrists discussing whether various Bat-villains qualified as “not guilty by reason of insanity” concluded that the Joker was actually sane and therefore belonged in prison, not a mental hospital. Audience members raised a number of comic book story points of which those speakers were unaware. Like our panelists, they felt that the Joker qualifies as a psychopath, someone with an extreme form of antisocial personality disorder, but that has nothing to do with whether someone is sane or insane. To focus on one specific version of the Joker for the sheer sake of having a coherent discussion, the forensic psychiatrists had focused specifically on the Joker as depicted in The Dark Knight. When it comes to determining whether the comic book Joker really is out of touch with reality, that’s another issue. In fact, prior to our panel, Steve Englehart had expressed that one of his concerns about The Dark Knight was that is Joker seemed too rational for how he viewed the essential character.
Because Steve could not be present for Q&A with the audience, we interviewed him briefly, beginning with the central question: Is the Joker a psychopath?
Steve: Well, I think that he is one.
In fact, the answer seemed so obvious that Steve asked us what else we wanted.
Travis: Is the Joker a psychopath? Is he psychotic? Is he actually insane? Particularly as you wrote him. What was your intent? Because you wrote “The Laughing Fish” story which a lot of people to this day cite as the proof that the Joker is actually insane.
Steve: Well, I definitely think that he is insane. The specific diagnosis, I’m not qualified to say. To me, he is definitely psychopathic, psycho-whatever.
Peter: What were you trying to say with the story? Were you responding to previous incarnations of the Joker? It was such a re-definitional moment in the Joker’s character.
Steve: I think re-definition is right. When Jerry created the character, he was insane, he was this scary villain, and then over the years he got watered down quite a bit. He became this clown guy. I really wanted to get back to what Batman, the strip, was in the first year. It was very dark and scary, pre-Robin.
I was very clear that the Batman was a very human guy behind the mask, and that he had his own psychological problems but he was not insane. That has come up a lot over the years, whether Batman’s insane, but in my opinion he is not. In my opinion, he stands right out as having pushed himself as far as he can go because that’s how he becomes the hero that he is, and he knows that if he took one more step, he’d fall into the abyss. And so he stands on the edge of that abyss. But the Joker has definitely gone over the edge, and so the contrast between those two is what interests me.
So I tried to redefine Joker, as he had been when he started but also modern, not just regurgitate what had been done in the Forties. ‘The Laughing Fish’ was my attempt to try to show that this guy just wasn’t logical. Even in the days when he was the scary villain, he had plans, he did things with some idea of how it was all gonna work out. I really wanted to come up with some concept that was just insane on the face of it. I mean, the whole idea of copyrighting fish based on dumping chemicals into the ocean and trying to get the government to go along with it, anybody else would look at this and go, ‘That’s clearly not sane.’ But from the Joker’s standpoint, the more insane, the better.
For me, if the Joker says, ‘I’m gonna go rob a bank,’ his mind just sort of opens up in all directions and he thinks, ‘I could rob a bank but go it one better by stealing a car and driving it underwater.’ At the end of the day, he still wants to rob the bank. He conceives of this incredibly bizarre plan, but he’s going to figure out how to make that work. He’s not interested in something that involves stealing a car and not robbing the bank. So he’s going to make what he comes up with work, but he gets there in such an explosive, non-linear, off-the-wall way that he’s basically unpredictable. So I take all that and that’s where ‘The Laughing Fish’ comes from.
Catch Us at Comic-Con 2009 (with Adam West update)
My Conversation With Batman (Robin Couldn’t Make It)
Interview: Meet the Joker’s Maker, Jerry Robinson
Interview: The Joker’s Maker Tackles The Man Who Laughs
Comic-Con International Panel Excerpt: Would the Joker Date?