Saturday, August 15, 2015

How Victor Hugo Created the Joker


            What’s this, you say? I proposed this as a blog entry to several people and each of them said the exact same thing. “The Joker? From Batman? You are out of your fucking mind.” And while it is true that Victor Hugo died in 1888 and the Joker did not appear in the pages of Batman until 1940, I still stand by my statement.
            Victor Hugo, that towering literary giant and author of two of the most notable novels to come out of the 19th Century – The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables- published a melodramatic piece in 1869 titled L’Homme Qui Rit- translated as The Laughing Man or The Man Who Laughs. He wrote the story while living in the Channel Islands, having been exiled from France due to the political content of his other works.
            The action revolves around the character of Gwynplaine, a 25 year old sideshow worker in 17th Century England, whose face was mutilated in his early childhood into that of a clown’s mask- meaning his mouth was carved into a permanent grin. Unlike the Joker however, Gwynplaine is a sympathetic character. He lives with his friend Ursa, his pet wolf Homo (meaning “man” in Latin- stop your snickering) and a blind girl Dea, who is desperately in love with him.
Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine
Gwynplaine is eventually summoned to perform before the Queen of England for her court’s amusement and while there he stumbles across a doctor who is being tortured in the cells. It transpires that this same doctor is the same one who cut open Gwynplaine’s face as a child, on orders from the previous king. He then sold the boy to a group of travelers who used him to beg for alms. The reason for his disfigurement was that, after Gwynplaine’s parent had died, the previous king wished those estates to go to a supporter of his and decided to do away with the child.
            When the truth is eventually revealed, the new king reinstates Gwynplaine as a lord and provides him with a wife, who at first is sexually attracted to his freakish features, but soon completely rejects him. Upon his presentation to the House of Lords, Gwynplaine attempts to make a speech upon the unfairness of the modern age and the disparity between rich and poor, but he is laughed off the floor with much mocking of his features.
Realizing that he would never be accepted, Gwynplaine renounces his peerage and sets out to find his former family. He discovers that they had been exiled from England for illegally using a wolf in their act. He manages to board the ship they are on and he and Dea have a tender reunion before she suddenly dies of an unexplained illness. Gwnyplaine, driven to insanity and still speaking to Dea as if she were alive, walks off the side of the boat and into the icy water. It ends with Homo howling into the sea after his lost master.
            Eventually the book was made into the film The Man Who Laughs staring May Philbim as the blind Dea and Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine (Veidt also acted as the Nazi general in Casablanca). He was decked out in a fairly decent looking set of dentures with metal hooks that pulled the corners of his mouth back into a very distinctive grin. Even though it is a silent film, it has a very modern feel and is beautifully shot. The late great Rodger Ebert described it as, “One of the final treasures of German silent expressionism… The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but it is so steeped expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film.”
Kino DVD cover
The movie plays more or less like the book, except at the end where the action is changed to Dea and Gwynplaine are happily reunited and sail off together. It was considered a lost film, until about 15 years ago when it was rediscovered, since then it has been restored by Kino (probably the best company around for silent film transfers) and distributed on DVD and Blue Ray.

by  Doug Mahnke
            Most people who know their comic history will remember that the Joker’s creation is credited jointly to Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane (though Kane in his typical self-aggrandizement claims credit for the entire thing). The Joker debuted in Batman #1 and went on to appear in most of the first 12 issues. Now granted the characters of The Joker and Gwynplaine are light years apart, but Robinson claims that when he was tinkering around with the concept of the Joker, he originally based on a card from the playing deck, but felt it needed something more. Then he remembered The Man Who Laughs and added the smiling rictus to the characters face. Thus a classic was born from a classic.
          And that’s how Victor Hugo created the Joker.