The Joker as a Contemporary Manifestation of the Trickster

The trickster is probably one of the most recognisable mythological representations in human culture and many have studied it in order to unveil its origins and its very raison d’être (reason or justification for existence). What is so fascinating about this figure is how one can find a manifestation of the trickster in many different cultures. For example, one may recall the Japanese Kitsune, Loki in Norse Mythology, or Anansi in some African and Caribbean cultures. It seems only logical to expect that such a figure has prevailed in current pop culture, the Joker, Batman's archnemesis, being its most significant manifestation.

The Killing Joke by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland.

It is in Native American cultures where the most famous, and perhaps the oldest representation of a trickster figure can be found, usually related to an animal like a coyote, a raven, or a spider. The trickster is a shapeshifter, who is able to transform into animals or people, and it is closely related to laughter and humour, so much so that sometimes it is hard to distinguish if the audience is supposed to laugh at it or with it (Rudin, 1956, p. 7). A very clear example of a trickster figure in western culture is that of Hermes, the Olympian god son of Zeus, also known as Mercury in Roman mythology. In fact, William G. Doty extracted a list of characteristics for the figure of the trickster using Hermes/Mercury as a prototype: 1. he is a marginal figure and shows a contradictory temperament; 2. he is closely related to erotism; 3. he has a creative and innovative character; 4. he is a tricky thief; 5. he is usually regarded as funny and humorous (Alanka, 2015, p. 340). The marginal character of the trickster seems to be a key element in the significance of this mythological figure in human culture. It works outside of society, which gives it the perfect place to act as it wishes and satisfies its desires without being subjected to societal norms. This situates it in a place in between, it interacts with humans but is not integrated into society; it seems to be a character operating in the margins. These characteristics fit perfectly with the different manifestations of the trickster in different mythologies all over the world.


It should not come as a surprise that such a common figure would maintain a predominant place in human culture as well as evolve into different characters as the time passes. This is the main argument of Reesman’s book The Trickster Lives: Culture and Myth in American Fiction (2001). She affirms that the figure of the Trickster has prevailed and evolved in modern-day American culture. Some of the figures she proposes are Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. But also characters like Bugs Bunny, Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the Weasley twins in Harry Potter, Tyrion Lannister in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire; and even the different interpretations of Loki in Marvel Comics or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as the mysterious figure “Low Key Lyesmith” in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001). And, of course, the Joker, Batman's antagonist in the DC Comics.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki in the Disney+ series Loki.

Considering the Joker as a trickster archetype is a relatively easy jump, not only for the obvious allusion in the name but also because he seems to reflect many of its characteristics. As a trickster, the Joker displays a cunning intelligence and unpredictability that takes heroes by surprise. He also seems to easily alternate between relatively harmless pranks to mass murders and brutal violence with no apparent motive. Torture and pain seem to be a constant in his stories, from the famous scars on his face and the peeling the skin off of his face, to the brutal beatings he inflicts on his victims just because he feels like it. One may recall, for example, Detective Comics issue #826 Slayride written by Paul Dini in 2007, when he accidentally encounters Robin, ties him to his car, and starts killing people by running over them with a car or shooting them. The Joker’s violence in this story is completely purposeless, he just wants to torture Robin.


The Joker as a shapeshifter would explain his multiple interpretations across different storylines and media. His origins are rebooted every time there is a change of writer or director in DC, and every time he gets a new adaptation to the big or small screen. One may find, for example, the anarchist side of the Joker in Nolan’s The Dark Knight; a more psychopathic Joker in the 2016 film Suicide Squad; or what some have interpreted as a Marxist critique of society in the Joker’s origin story proposed by Alan Moore in the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke. The lack of a clear origin story that seems to define almost every comic character allows the Joker to easily shift categories in a matter of a single issue. Trying to understand or classify the Joker is ultimately useless, a shapeshifter is what it wants to be.


Another key element that connects the Joker with the trickster is his identification as a clown. His creators in DC were inspired by Conrad Veidt’s portrayal in the film The Man Who Laughs (1928), based on Victor Hugo’s novel, where the audience follows the story of a clown who was very sad, but had a constant smile on his face. Visually, some clown features in the Joker’s typical characterisation can definitely be appreciated: a pale white face with his signature grin, green hair, purple suit, and his favourite weapons are those which look like toys. The Joker-clown relation could not be more specific, as well as the relation between the clown and the figure of the trickster. As explained before, the trickster participates in society but does not belong to it, and something very similar happens with the clown: “He cannot be identified with any of the known roles of his contemporary social order, but he is immediately recognised; he is deliberately outlandish and yet undoubtedly familiar” (Zucker, 1954). As Rudin explains, tricksters and clowns are in charge of bringing disorder into society to define order and maintain it. And this is exactly what the Joker does.

Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

In one of Heath Ledger’s most famous speeches as the Joker, this topic is directly addressed: “Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order and everything becomes chaos, I’m an agent of chaos.” As with the figure of the clown, the Joker does not seem to have a role in society, there is no way in which he can fit in. But there is one way in which he can affect society: he is the “agent of chaos,” he introduces disorder in society. He is a complete outsider, which keeps him apart but gives him a peripheral view of sorts from which he can intervene at any moment and with any excuse. This lack of a place in society is something that he shares with Batman. However, at the end of the day, Batman comes home and lives a double life as the millionaire Bruce Wayne. He has a company, a family, and most importantly, a place in society. But the Joker is always the Joker, he has no other personality, no other name and therefore, no place in society whatsoever. He is always a trickster, a character living constantly in the margins.


References:

  • Alanka, O. (2015). God Hermes as the Messenger Archetype. International Journal of Social Science. 39, pp. 337-346.

  • Dini, P. (2007). Detective Comics Vol. 1 #826 Slayride. DC Comics.

  • Nolan, C. (Director) (2008). The Dark Knight [Film]. Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, DC Comics, Syncopy.

  • Reesman, J. C. (2001). The Trickster Lives: Culture and Myth in American Fiction. Ed. Jeanne Campbell Reesman. University of Georgia Press. Athens, Georgia. p. xviii.

  • Rudin, P. (2015). The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. Pickle Partners Publishing. Kindle Edition. pp. 7-8.

  • Zucker, W. (1954). The Image of the Clown. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Vol. 12, Nº 3, pp. 310-317.

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Isabel Panadero

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