The Joker occupies an almost mythological place in popular culture. With his green hair and clown makeup, the Joker has transformed from one of Batman’s campy villains to a figure of terror. The Joker’s darker turn has only increased his popularity, thanks to live-action DC films. Every new actor to take on the Joker role faces the challenge of adding their own disturbing dimension to the character. It seems like every version is trying to be the scariest one.
But as menacing as actors like Heath Ledger and Barry Keoghan are as the Clown Prince of Crime, there is a uniquely haunting effect to the character on the page. In the comic book format, the only limits on the Joker are the imaginations of the creative team producing his story. Considering that chaos motivates his character, this limitlessness adds another layer to his actions. As such, his most terrifying form—seen in Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, and Jonathan Glapion’s “Death of the Family” arc—feels too visceral to ever become a live-action film.
The Joker in “Death of the Family,” spanning Batman (2011) #13-17, brings a tailored sense of terror to Gotham City. For those who aren’t familiar, Batman’s network of adopted children and allies, known colloquially as the Bat-Family, play a significant role in his comics. The Bat-Family makes Batman strong, but it can also make him vulnerable to villains like the Joker. “Death of the Family” is a story that plays on that vulnerability. The title inverts the famous Batman: A Death in the Family storyline from the late 1980s. There, the Joker murdered Jason Todd, the second Robin.
As the title suggests, the Joker in “Death of the Family” acts as a disruptive force. He removes the sense of safety that Batman has in Gotham and within his own family. To start, the Joker sports a dramatically different look. He wears a mask of his own detached face skin, stretched over the raw flesh underneath. Writer Scott Snyder deploys the Joker like a slasher movie villain. The Joker lurks in the shadows, strategically revealing himself for dramatic effect. In one scene during a power outage, he murders an entire unit of Gotham City police officers Michael Myers-style: through brute force.
What makes “Death of the Family” Joker so terrifying is his pursuit of maximum psychological damage for Batman and his children. He doesn’t want to directly kill anyone in the main cast, because that would spoil the fun for him. It’s the same reason why he kills those GCPD officers in front of Jim Gordon, leaving him the only survivor. The Joker’s cruelty thrives on letting a select few witnesses live. Then they can be disturbed for the rest of their lives.
Furthermore, because of the comic book format, a certain level of abstraction applies to the Joker that film and television will simply never measure up to. Even if Hollywood adapted this story, the Joker’s actions would lose some of their impact. This is because audiences would be watching an actor embody the role. Regardless of how excellent Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, or Barry Keoghan are as the Joker, we are ultimately watching a familiar face briefly slip into a costume.
In a comic book, the Joker is a drawing. He is no one but himself—an idea that “Death of the Family” touches upon. Artist Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion conjure this haunting appearance of the Joker onto the page from nothing. Together with Scott Snyder’s scripts, this vision of terror is born, not in our world, but in the world of the story. Because “Death of the Family”‘s Joker is so divorced from our reality, we fear the unknown.
The Joker’s detached face, one of the primary vessels of fear in the story, contributes to this abstraction. That rotting skin held taut by staples and wires reminds us the familiar can be easily cut away to tease the horror of the unknown lying beneath. If the Joker’s face, a sight we’re accustomed to and maybe even desensitized by, can be warped into a new nightmarish vision with one change, then couldn’t the same be done for Batman?
“Death of the Family” answers this question when the Bat-Family awakens with their faces bandaged and bloody while seated at a dinner table. The Joker taunts them and Batman before revealing the horrific main course on the table. It appears to be the skinned faces of the Bat-Family. Fear is a subjective and personal experience. The Joker in “Death of the Family“ leans into fear’s individualized nature, recalling another standout appearance of his in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. In order for the Joker to be scary, a story must understand what Batman himself fears.