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The Joker Was Inspired By A Tragic HERO

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Of all of Batman’s many villains, The Joker boasts one of the most frightening faces. Young readers who saw the pale, green-haired man leering at them from the comic book panels likely developed an immediate fear of clowns. A great deal of this fear comes from his smile – a horrible, permanent grin that shows everyone just how twisted his sick mind really is.

Ironically, however, the Joker’s famous disfigurement was inspired by another famous literary and film character who, unlike the Clown Prince of Crime, was a decent, kind-hearted man with a tragic backstory. Although his freakish grin is now synonymous with evil, the man who provided the model for the Joker’s terrifying appearance was actually a sympathetic hero!

In 1939, artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger were hard at work creating a new hero who could stand next to pop culture’s newest sensation, Superman. Drawing inspiration from a variety of sources, including monsters like Dracula, pulp magazine anti-heroes like the Shadow, and classic detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Kane and Finger developed Batman, a nocturnal avenger born of the darkest literary characters.

When it came time to design Batman’s rogues’ gallery, however, Kane and Finger found inspiration from other sources – including a 1928 silent film entitled The Man Who Laughs. Based on a novel written by Victor Hugo (the writer of Les Miserables), The Man Who Laughs was a similarly tragic tale about a young man named Gwynplaine. The son of a lord, Gwynplaine loses his father when King James II sentences him to death. Gwynplaine then falls into the clutches of sadistic child-buyer Dr. Hardquannone, who disfigures him with a permanent grin.

Unlike the Joker, however, Gwynplaine’s deformity does not drive him insane. Instead, when his captors desert him in the snow, he rescues a blind girl and earns money for them by joining a freak show and performing as the “Laughing Man.” Although the work is demeaning, over the years, he becomes the show’s star performer and falls in love with the now-adult blind woman, Dea. Gwynplaine keeps himself distant from Dea, however, feeling she doesn’t deserve to be with a freak like him.

Things change for “The Laughing Man,” however when his true lineage is uncovered and the owner of his estate, the dark seductress Duchess Josiana, becomes attracted to his scarred appearance. Gwynplaine is abducted by Queen Anne who tries to force Josiana to marry him – however, he renounces his title and escapes. Although both Gwynplaine and Dea die in the novel, the film ends happily with the two admitting their feelings for each other and sailing to England.

Although portrayed sympathetically by actor Conrad Veidt, Gwynplaine’s permanent smile, dark eyes, and swept-back hair gave him a ghoulish look that Bob Kane reproduced almost exactly in his initial designs for the Joker. Over the years, as the Joker grew in popularity, Gwynplaine’s frightening but tragic look became consumed by the Joker’s evil. Their link continued to be referenced, however, both in the comics and in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight when Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker revealed his permanent grin was also the result of mutilation.

While it seems impossible today for anyone to feel anything but terror from the Joker’s face, the real-life origins of his facial disfigurement reveal that his literary predecessor was anything but a homicidal maniac. Alternate versions of the Joker have shown the Clown Prince can display a heroic side… perhaps remnants of Gwynplaine are peeking through his literary descendant?


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