Like Superman has Lex Luthor, He-Man has Skeletor and Spider-Man has Green Goblin, Batman has always had The Joker. The shocking green hair. The pale white skin. The evil grin. The maniacal laugh. These are all classic Joker trademarks. But where did the inspiration come from? It all began with a silent German Expressionist film called The Man Who Laughs.
“Oh I’m not gonna kill you. I’m just gonna hurt you. Really… really… bad.”
In the nearly 80 years since his debut, Joker has changed and we’ve seen an evolution of the character… but it all began with a strange silent film. The way Batman creator Bob Kane tells it, the Veidt inspiration was there from the very beginning:
“Bill Finger and I created the Joker. Bill was the writer. Jerry Robinson came to me with a playing card of the Joker. That’s the way I sum it up. But he looks like Conrad Veidt — you know, the actor in The Man Who Laughs, [the 1928 movie based on the novel] by Victor Hugo. There’s a photo of Conrad Veidt in my biography, Batman & Me. So Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, ‘Here’s the Joker.'”
Based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same, the film takes place in England in the year 1690. The Man Who Laughs features Gwynplaine, the son of an English nobleman who has offended King James II. The monarch sentences Gwynplaine’s father to death in an iron maiden, after calling upon a surgeon, Dr. Hardquannone, to disfigure the boy’s face into a permanent grin. As a title card states, the King condemned him “to laugh forever at his fool of a father.”