Joker is at his best when he’s sadistic, personal, and a little surreal. Qualities his copycat the Man Who Laughs nailed in his debut appearance.
Warning: contains discussion of violence and disturbing themes.
While Joker may be the one and only Clown Prince of Crime, he’s also a cultural icon, which more or less guarantees supervillain copycats will spring up to bask in his reflected glory. One such copycat is the Man Who Laughs, but the twisted villain actually revealed a major issue with how Batman’s nemesis is portrayed.
Born Norman S. Rotrig and hailing from France, the Man Who Laughs is affectionately and practically recognized as simply the French Joker. Still, his backstory is far more complex than being just another Joker knock-off. Norman was raised by his father after his mother’s death during childbirth. As his father grew obsessed with Victor Hugo’s writings, he decided to create living art, with his son as the raw materials. Similar to how Joker removed his own face, Norman’s father gave his son a permanent grin. The resulting pain and trauma put Norman onto the path of becoming a surrealistic criminal.
Batman & Robin #26 by David Hine, Greg Tocchini, and Andrei Bressan concludes with the Man Who Laughs getting revenge on his old man. Adopting his father’s penchant for turning people into works of art, Norman deconstructs his victim, storing his still-connected organs in various vats programmed to keep him alive as long as possible in a hidden facility that not even the World’s Greatest Detective will ever find. For as long as these machines continue to work – likely long after Batman and the Joker’s respective deaths – Norman’s father is forced to watch a neverending loop of the family’s home movies, reflecting on the ways he mistreated his son.
The Man Who Laughs’ crime is sadistic, melodramatic, and darkly ironic, hitting all the hallmarks of a great (if disturbing) Joker story. Joker’s strength as a character is that he is at his most interesting when his crimes are targeted and personal towards a single person, much like Norman’s towards his own father. Joker’s most calculated and compelling crimes are often directed towards trying to prove a point towards a single figure like Batman or Commissioner Gordon, as most famously seen in The Killing Joke. That’s when the Joker is at his most terrifying and oddly fascinating – when he’s employing what Dick Grayson once described as his “cranky, creepy attention to detail”
The Joker loses his intrigue factor when his crimes become broader, targeting no one in particular, but instead a mass of people at once, such as his antics in Joker War or nefarious antics like killing the entirety of Gotham City. Joker’s broader crimes aren’t necessarily bad or boring, but he loses his specificity when he fits into a grander supervillain role. As a twisted serial killer stalking the streets of Gotham, Joker is one of pop-culture’s most unsettling figures. However, as a large-scale operator, he tends to lose his charm.
That’s not to say that Joker should be limited, but that his terrifying potential is all the scarier when it focuses in on a specific target. Joker is most terrifying when he might be hiding under the bed, not when he’s firebombing the city. In this issue, the Man Who Laughs feels more like the Joker than the real deal has in recent memory, unleashing a personality and creativity reserved for the very best horror fiction.
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