The Joker Is Wild: Celebrating 75 Years of the Clown Prince of Crime

The Joker by Brian Bolland

The Joker by Brian Bolland

We celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Joker with a small conference dedicated to the Clown Prince of Crime’s ‘life and works’ last Saturday, and it served as a good reminder of how refreshing academic inquiry could be when placed actually outside an academic context.

Organised by Euro Media Forum and chaired by my good friend Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone  – who also gave an lucid an insightful paper on the Joker and Batman as a comedy double-act  – the event may not have been terribly well attended, but it did inspire an convivial atmosphere of open discussion and debate which wasn’t about intellectual one-upmanship but genuine passion for the subject matter, and a desire to get at it – him – from as many angles as possible.

 Jack Nicholson at The Joker in Batman (1989)

Jack Nicholson at The Joker in Batman (1989)

Running the gamut from conversational ‘geeky’ presentations and more scholarly insights into the Joker as a key character of Batman lore across various media (comics, film, animation and video game), we heard presentations which delved into Joker’s design history, evil clowns in pop culture, and how the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger film-Jokers compare to each other; as well as the idea of the Joker as a demiurge, the Joker’s smile as a traumatic ‘wound’ (with all the symbolic weight that the image implies) and the socio-political imagery of both the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger Jokers (that would be me).

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

It was an unabashedly geeky way to spend a Saturday, of course, but a part of me felt very proud of the fact that we got together to pay tribute to the Joker – one of my favourite characters in fiction – in such a concerted and dedicated way. The main take-away insight from it all – if we could reduce it to just one – is that the Joker’s familiar-but-amorphous nature is what makes him such an enduring – and enduringly scary – villain. He is equal parts prankster, psychopath, terrorist and trickster – sometimes embodying just one of those characteristics at a given time, other times (more often than not, it seems) amalgamating all of those things in garish and dangerous brew.

Illustration by Greg Capullo

Illustration by Greg Capullo

In short, I think he’s secured himself the role of an archetype worth remembering, celebrating and returning to.

Worship My Wreck | The Pale Emperor by Marilyn Manson

Guess who's back: Nostalgia and slick production values rescue Manson from has-been histrionics

Guess who’s back: Nostalgia and slick production values rescue Manson from has-been histrionics

It was a combination of factors: slick marketing campaign that toned down the kitsch in favour of an appealing glacial menace, an evocative title that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Moorcockian post-swords and sorcery romp (and so was fun to think about) and a killer riff on its first single (‘Deep Six’). Whether it was one of these ingredients or a combination of all, I somehow found myself enjoying the latest Marilyn Manson album, The Pale Emperor, again and again.

The last time I dedicated as much time to a release from the former musical enfant terrible was when I was just pupating out of my own youth: Holywood, the final in an unofficial ‘trilogy’ of albums that still defines Manson’s contribution to pop culture: ‘Antichrist Superstar’ and ‘Mechanical Animals’ being the preceding albums… both of which I preferred to Holywood, though Holywood certainly made more of an impression than subsequent releases – the fact that it made an impression at all is already a step up, in fact.

There is something heartening about a former musical idol sort-of emerging from the has-been doldrums to release a decent album, and the fact that The Pale Emperor is not a tacky rehash of former glories while somehow also managing to ride on nostalgic appeal, is what allows it to pass muster, I think.

Despite the archly melodramatic title, Manson isn’t reaching for the same concept-album grandiosity of the ‘trilogy’ here. I’m not equipped to talk about the technicalities of the album’s sound and musical direction, but since Manson has always been conscious about ‘message’ to deliver either counter-cultural slogans or simply for shock value, I will say something about the lyrics.

The album kicks off with a Wildean refrain on ‘Killing Strangers’ – ‘We’re killing strangers so we don’t kill the ones that we love’ – which sets the poetic tone of the rest of it. It all tends towards the facile and it’s cringe-inducing at the best of times, but it’s so polished and earnest that I couldn’t help but find it charming.

Other notable nuggets:

– ‘It’s better to be blamed for robbing Peter than guilty for paying Paul’ (‘Devil Beneath My Feet’)
– ‘You want to know what Zeus said to Narcissus?’/’You better watch yourself’ (‘Deep Six’)
– ‘I feel stoned and alone like a heretic’/’I’m ready to meet my maker’ (‘The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles’)
– ‘Cannot say, I’m breaking the rules’/’If I can glue them back together’ (‘Worship My Wreck’).

What I will say about the sound is that it all comes across as less of a rock stadium courting experience, though one that still packs a punch. ‘Deep Six’, ‘The Devil Beneath My Feet’ and ‘Cupid Carries a Gun’ have a rock-and-roll sense of pure fun about them that’s infectious, and there’s also a rip-roaring appeal to ‘The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles’ and ‘Slave Only Dreams to be King’.

It’s the more vulnerable tracks that feel like innovations in Manson’s repertoire, however, with ‘Worship My Wreck’ and ‘Devil Beneath My Feet’ bolstering their confessional approach with equally ‘exposed’ vocal stylings.

I was introduced to Marilyn Manson during a blistering performance of the now-classic ‘The Beautiful People’ at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards. An impressionable 10-year-old me was transfixed by this cross-dressing figure and his equally menacing band, ripping into the big middle finger of a song accompanied by confronting, fascist stage design as the likes of Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs looked on, aghast. He would then become something of a benchmark figure for me, and I’m sure everyone has ‘their own Manson’, whichever side of the generational divide they hail from.

For myself, Manson inculcated an appeal for gender-bending decadence which has stayed with me, and a love for gothic and subversive effects that threads through most things I love. (I never quite latched onto the anti-Christian element since I was raised in an atheist-cum-agnostic household, for better or worse).

Flawed as The Pale Emperor is, it feels good to learn that he can still punch his weight in a contemporary musical landscape. Though this time it feels less of a subversive slap on the face, and more of a welcome visit from an old friend.