The 13th Floor

Who Is The Man Who Laughs? The Origin & Shocking Real-Life Inspiration Of THE JOKER!

In May of 1939, the world was introduced to a detective dressed like a bat. Created by the teenaged Bob Kane and the more experienced Bill Finger, Batman exploded onto the scene in DETECTIVE COMICS issue #27. Something of a mirror image to Superman, Batman was a human with no special abilities outside of being smart and rich. He wore dark clothes and hid in the shadows. He also wore purple gloves and carried a gun at first, but that stuff was changed pretty quick.

Less than a year later, the bigwigs at DC Comics made the decision to give the Dark Knight Detective his own book. Bill Finger and Bob Kane were given a deadline – the book needed to hit shelves by April 1940. Finger and Kane got to work, along with Kane’s letterer who would end up being the primary artist on BATMAN, Jerry Robinson. This is where things get… murky.

All three agree that Bill Finger came up with the idea of the Joker, an evil clown tormenting the people of Gotham. Jerry Robinson, though, claims that Finger’s idea came when he said that they should create an arch-villain for Batman. At this point, Batman didn’t have reoccurring villains, he mainly just kept fighting random crime lords. This idea, according to Robinson, got Finger’s brain moving, and so came Joker. Robinson pretty much said that Kane had nothing to do with the creation of Joker.

Kane claimed that Bill Finger came to him with a picture and an idea for Joker before they ever discussed it with Robinson. I suppose we’ll never know for sure who the second person in the creation of Joker was, but all can agree that Bill Finger is the real father of the Clown Prince of Crime.

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Finger’s way of creating Joker was pretty clear. He knew that in fiction, great villains are often the opposite of the hero. Batman is clad in dark colors, so his enemy should be bright. Batman is dour, so his enemy should be funny. It was that thought that lead Finger to a name… Joker. Then, as these things happen, the image came to him, a freakish grin. A smile so terrifying that it would bring children nightmares. Finger pulled out a picture of Gwynplaine, the main character of both the book and film, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.

The story of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, about a boy who is disfigured at the order of the king so that his face is stuck in a permanent smile, stuck with Finger. More importantly, the make-up used on actor Conrad Veidt stuck with Finger. In his first appearance, Joker’s story is broken into two parts, THE JOKER and THE JOKER RETURNS.

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THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) Universal Pictures

In THE JOKER, we are introduced to the best known supervillain in history. Joker takes over a radio station and announces his plan to kill several men as he steals valuable items from them. Then he pulls it off exactly as he describes. For some reason, this really pisses off the underworld of Gotham, and ganster Brute Nelson takes it on himself to kill Joker. Naturally, Joker kills Brute instead. Batman tracks down Joker, and is almost killed for his actions.

Joker captures Robin and is about to inject him with Joker Venom – a poison that kills instantly and leaves the corpse with a permanent smile – when Batman shows up, taking Joker down.

In THE JOKER RETURNS, Joker escapes from police custody two days after Batman captured him. In a spree of violence, Joker kills a police chief, steals a painting, and steals a valuable gem from a rather well off guy. He kills the well off guy too, just for kicks.

The Joker returns to the radio, announcing his plan to steal the Cleopatra Necklace from the Drake Museum. Sure enough, Joker pulls off the heist, knocking out Batman in the process. Clearly, Batman wasn’t very good at his vigilante work yet. A public figure starts speaking out against Joker (were there people speaking up for Joker?) so Joker announces his plans to kill him, then kills him.

Batman meets with Commissioner Gordon as Bruce Wayne, and together they set up a trap for Joker. Joker falls for it and ends up in a battle with Batman. In the fight, Joker stabs himself. Badly injured, Joker is taken in by Batman.

Joker is unlike any other character in comics. He has no goal, no real path. Sure, there are other psycho killers in comic books, but there isn’t another one who can be used in so many ways. A writer can take Joker and put him in a funny story where he becomes obsessed with a man who cut him off in traffic, then the next time he shows up, Joker is crippling Barbara Gordon and torturing Jim Gordon. He can be innocent and vile all at once. Part of what makes that possible is that no one knows who Joker is. He just showed up one day. His origin has been told many times, by many writers, and each origin is, in a way, true because none of them are real. These are stories Joker tells, setting his origin to fit the things that will make the person he is talking to react. In his first origin, Joker was a lab worker who became the Red Hood and planned to rob his boss. He is stopped by Batman, and in the struggle he falls into a vat of chemicals, disfiguring him and driving him insane.

That story is changed slightly in the most famous telling of Joker’s origin, THE KILLING JOKE. In that, Joker is a failed comedian who agrees to help a team of thieves break into a chemical plant in order to get some quick cash for his pregnant wife. Just before the heist, Joker learns that his wife has died, as has his unborn child. At the heist, Joker falls into a vat of chemicals and is… well you know.

Another version has it that Joker’s wife was killed by a corrupt cop.

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In the story CASE STUDY, it is suggested that Joker was a big name crime boss who took on the Red Hood persona so he could do what he loved most, petty crimes. The story also suggests that Joker isn’t insane, but fakes it so that he can escape the death penalty. In the series BATMAN CONFIDENTIAL, Joker is a petty criminal who is obsessed with Batman and looks to get his attention, he succeeds, and Batman purposely scars his face and hands him over to a mob boss who Joker double crossed. The mob boss has Joker tortured and tossed into a vat of toxic chemicals.

In a story from THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, the Atom sees a memory that the Joker has. The memory is the Joker as a child, burning his parents alive after they punish him. Most recently, Joker has claimed that he is immortal, but was once a jester of a Pharaoh. I think Joker put it best himself when he said “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

I don’t know of any other character in fiction that is like Joker. No other villain goes this long without purpose, without redemption, or without pity. We can, in some ways, understand why Lex Luthor hates Superman. We can feel for Eddie Brock, the original Venom, a man whose life was ruined by Spider-Man and seeks his own form of justice for it. But Joker, he is the truly terrifying figure of humanity. He is like the Zodiac killer, no known motive, no real pattern, and an identity forever lost to us. The everyday man who one day, for reasons we may never really understand, snaps, and begins to kill. We’ll never be able to really see into the head of someone like Peter Kürten, The Vampire of Düsseldorf, though we do have some clues.

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Kürten was the third of thirteen children. He grew up poor in Mülheim am Rhein, a district of Cologne, Germany, and his father, an alcoholic, regularly raped Kürten’s mother and sisters. Kürten claimed that he committed his first murder when he was nine. In his statement, he explained how he drowned two other boys who he went swimming with one day. His first recorded murder was in 1913 when Kürten strangled a nine year old girl during a robbery. An eight year stint in prison for a different robbery kept Kürten from killing again for a while, but by 1929, he was back to being a monster on the loose.

Kürten started his reign of terror in February when he assaulted a woman, then a few days later molested and killed another nine year old girl. A few days after that, Kürten murdered a mechanic, stabbing him twenty times. He then went silent for six months before coming back with a vengeance. Kürten started his new wave of violence by killing a woman on August 11th. Ten days later, he stabbed three people in three separate attacks within fifteen minutes. Three days later, he killed two children, ages five and fourteen. A few days after that he stabbed another woman.

In September, Kürten raped and murdered a servant girl, beating her to death with a hammer. I suppose he found joy in using the hammer, as he would use it in his next three attacks. The women of those attacks all survived. Kürten next killed a five year old girl, stabbing her with scissors. Kürten would continue attacking women well into 1930, and he often sent police or local newspapers maps to the locations of his victims graves. Still, police did not think these murders were being committed by a single individual. Because Kürten continued to change his methods of killing, the police were not putting the pieces of the puzzle together. In May of 1930, Kürten kidnapped Maria Butlies and took her to his home. Kürten, realizing that taking Butlies to his home was a bad idea, then took her to the Grafenberger Woods where he raped her, but did not kill her. Butlies led the police to Kürten’s home. He was able to escape from the police, but was caught a few days later, on May 24th.

At first Kürten claimed he was not guilty of the crimes he was arrested for, but soon enough he confessed to them. In interviews with psychiatrist Karl Berg, Kürten admitted that his primary goal was sexual pleasure. Kürten told Berg that the amount of stab wounds or hammer blows varied because it all depended on how long it took him to reach orgasm. He also explained that the sight of blood was integral to his pleasure as it stimulated. He also admitted to drinking the blood of at least one of his victims.

During his trial, Kürten changed his story, claiming that the murders were his way of striking back at an oppressive society and that the sexual molestation of the women was never the primary motive. Not surprisingly, no one believed that bullshit, and Kürten was sentenced to death by guillotine. His last words, which may just be the creepiest last words anyone has ever spoken, were  “Tell me, after my head is chopped off, will I still be able to hear, at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck? That would be the pleasure to end all pleasures.”

The life and crimes of Kürten has inspired many an artist. Fritz Lang’s M is based in part on the life of Kürten. Randy Newman’s song IN GERMANY BEFORE THE WAR is also about Kürten. Anthony Neilson’s play NORMAL: THE DUSSELDORF RIPPER is a story told from the point of view of Kürten’s lawyer.

Perhaps, if you’re so inclined, you would like to take a look at Kürten’s head. It is currently on display at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.

*Photos: DC Comics