I always call this incarnation “Old Man Joker” for short because it shows how age cannot deter the clown prince of crime or dull his edge. This pick comes from the 1986 Frank Miller Graphic Novel, The Dark Knight Returns. It’s a fantastic tale and, in my opinion, essential reading for any comic book fan. That includes people who aren’t really into superheroes. It’s how Batman retired after the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. In his absence Gotham City fell into a dystopian future while Superman became a tool of the US government.
As you can probably tell, it’s hard to talk about this Joker in detail without revealing more of the story. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum but It’s only four issues long. So you can by all means just take my word for it and go read it for yourself.
Long story short, Batman decides to take up the cowl again and fight crime (hence the title). But where has his rouge gallery been this whole time? Well, most of them were forced out of the crime business by a new breed of street thugs that call themselves “The Mutants.” However, Joker himself coerced himself into a coma-like state for nearly forty years because he had no purpose with the absence of his greatest foe. When a chance news report talks about a fresh Batman sighting, he almost instantly emerges from his vegetative state and embarks on a plan to do what he does best. Ruthlessly kill countless people while getting as much publicity for it as possible.
There’s a lot of reasons I love this Joker so much. However, I think the largest reason is because this is such a concrete and entertaining story and The Joker fits so well into it. His master plan so properly reflects the world in which the story takes place because it (huge spoilers begin here) involves drumming up press for his recovery, guest starring on a live prime time talk show, and killing everyone in the audience. How sick would a world have to become for a psychotic killer to get on a talk show where the host uses his body count as a selling point for an interview? The world of The Dark Knight Returns. It also doesn’t hurt that he snaps his own neck in order to frame The Batman for murder and have the US government sick Superman on him (huge spoilers end here).
The Dark Knight Returns is a great What-If-Story that gets The Joker’s character down perfectly and utilizes it in just the right way. It also solidified how the two characters are two sides of the same coin and destined to fight one another forever, a theme that’s prevalent to this day. Check it out.