Painting the Joker: A Look at the Varying Stylistic Approaches to the Joker

The Joker has always been a villain of high intrigue as part of the Batman’s crime-fighting history; since Heath Leger’s memorable dark portrayal – all the more so.  He is always portrayed as a criminal master-mind, but the details of who the Joker is and what exactly his aim is, varies from comic to comic, film to film.  Two things has remained constant throughout the course of the Joker’s portrayed history: his striking visage and bold colour depiction, but why?

When you think of the Joker, of whom do you picture?

Is it Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and/or Jerry Robinson?


Original Joker Concept Drawing

Cesar Romero? Mark Hamil? Heath Ledger?

The JokerCostume:

Aside from his original tourist garb (Hawaiian shirt, shorts and camera), in comic or film portrayal, the Joker has always been associated with his trademark purple 3-piece suit, often seen sported with a green vest. To expand on McCloud’s point about superheroes’ “costume colors remain[ing] exactly the same, panel after panel, they came to symbolize the characters in the mind of the reader,” (Heer, and Worcester 80) it would be fair to assume that infamous foes would have similar associations. Derek Punsalan discusses colour theory in comics in his blog on Awesome-Engine and states an interesting point: that primary colours typical costume colouring for heroes, while complimentary colours were reserved for villains, as he states: “a lot of purple and green was used for villains.” Although his primary focus is on Spiderman and other Marvel characters, one can extrapolate the information presented and apply colour theory to the heroes and villains of the DC world.

Other well-known green and purple heroes/villains:

  • The Hulk – although moreso a “hero,” Bruce Banner’s alter-ego struggles with morals and dances on the good/evil line, especially concerning his short list of selfless, pro-social missions of a generic superhero.
  • Green Goblin
  • The Riddler

“Wanna Know How I Got These Scars?”

Another iconic association with Joker, is his disturbing facial features that give him his namesake.  The widely accepted story of his stark-faced, grinning origin, in short, is that he fell into an acid bath while breaking into a card-factory/factory of sorts. The burns petrified his body leaving his skin chalk-white, his hair green, and an unsightly perma-smile smeared across his face. Tim Burton upholds this Redhood origin story in his film portrayal, where Nolan contributes to a darker Joker who maniacally makes up countless stories behind his scar and ‘war paint.’  The Joker’s message, despite occasional inaccuracies in film portrayals, consistently stays true to comic origins: that he is no different than any man in Gotham – “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy” (Bolland and Moore).  I found it interesting to note that after reading ‘The Killing Joke’ and watching ‘The Dark Knight’ again, the Joker’s target victim changed from Gordon to Dent and met with disturbing success.

The Joker has undoubtedly evolved throughout the years, from maniacal killer to contemplative sociopath.  However, the iconography of who he is will ring clear for continued generations because of the key details that have come to represent him: his costume, menacing smile, and message.

Further Questions:

Do you suppose the complimentary colours are attributed to villains and questionable moral characters because they are muddied colours, unlike monochromatic/primary coloured superheroes?

Is there anything creators and/or actors have dropped or added to the character of Joker that has significantly altered the way in which pop. culture perceives him? Has this, in turn, effected the modern comic portrayal?


Punsalan , Derek. “Superhero Colour Theory.” Awesome Engine. Dynamite in the Brain, 15 Jan 2008. Web. 26 Apr. 2013. <>.

McCloud, Scott, Understanding Comics (Northampton: Tundra, 1993).

Heer, Jeet, and Kent Worcester. A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. 80. Print.

Bolland, Brian, and Alan Moore. The Killing Joke. DC Comics, 1988. Print.

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