Johan Liebert and The Joker: A Comparison of The Same Character
Comic books are a vast art form with a rabid fan-base, so naturally, it is also the type of art form that sparks a lot of debate and discussions over a wide array of questions in relations to characters, powers, morality, etc. Superman is a popular name thrown around when asked who is the most powerful superhero and names like Galactus and Darkseid are valid contenders when asked who is the most powerful villain. But how about who is the most good or the most evil? Strength is not synonymous with morality, so a powerful hero like Superman is not necessarily the most good nor is Galactus the most evil. Morality is a difficult subject to grasp, and the idea that no one is truly evil is a common theme in comic books. One of the most commonly posed questions is “who is the most evil comic book character?” One of the most frequent answers is a name that is infamous not only with comic book fans, but among the general public–The Joker.
The Joker could easily be considered as one of the most iconic characters of all time. He has appeared more frequently in Batman comics than any other villain, he frequently comes in #1 in popular comic villain rankings (IGN put him in second behind Magneto, which I personally don’t agree with), and his many incarnations on television, video games, and the big screen always garner critical acclaim. Many could argue he is as famous as his constant adversary, Batman, and that is because The Joker achieves what is incredibly difficult, or what some can argue is impossible. He is a character of pure evil.
However, as iconic and unique The Joker may seem, on the other side of the globe in Japan, there is a character that is remarkably similar to The Joker, though not as known worldwide. Like The Joker, he is portrayed as a being without compassion and is seen as the face of evil in the series. Finding a character that is similar to The Joker is something noteworthy because of how iconic The Joker is for his unique personality and behavior. This character is a personification of pure evil taken form in a different fictional character, but a character who is identical to the iconic Joker–Johan Liebert.
In the brilliant psychological thriller anime, Monster, we follow the protagonist, Dr. Tenma, as he tries to hunt down and kill Johan Liebert, the titular monster of the series. Johan Liebert is the manga version of pure evil, much like The Joker is the comic book version of pure evil. Both these characters have been meticulously designed and written to be seen not only as a villain, but as pure evil. It is only when we put aside the two characters’ drastically different appearances and outward behavior to examine their life, their treatment of humanity, and their inner motivations and strengths do we then realize that Johan and The Joker are the same character.
Why does Hannibal Lecter eat people? For the longest time that was one of the most terrifying mysteries of cinema (until Thomas Harris ruined the illusion by elaborating on Lecter’s back story, which was stupid). The mystery of why he did what he did was what made him so terrifying and enthralling. Johan Liebert and The Joker are the same way. What made them like this? Is this a case of nature vs. nurture? The origin story of both characters are murky at best. In Monster, the mystery of Johan made him more of a force of nature or a god than a man. As the story went on though, we learn more and more about him. We learn he was the result of an orchestrated eugenics experiment, he lived with his mother and sister in Prague, he was separated from his sister for a long time until they were reunited and forced to travel on their own, and then he was taken to the infamous and mysterious Kinderheim 511. However, we never learn if his treatment as a child is what caused him to become the legendary monster, or if he was simply born this way. Certainly by the time he attended Kinderheim 511, he was already at a level that could not be controlled by the staff of the compound. By the time he was 10, he was already a monster.
The Joker’s origin is even murkier than Johan’s. Unlike Johan’s back story, which was carefully intertwined with the past of other characters in the series who were still alive and able to fill in the many blanks of Johan’s past, The Joker’s story is completely devoid of any credible witnesses, including The Joker himself. The best thing we have to go on concerning The Joker’s origin story is found in Alan Moore’s comic, The Killing Joke. In this story, we discover that The Joker was originally a failed comedian who got into some shady dealings with the mob. On the day he was to help out certain mob members with a heist, his pregnant wife was killed in a freak accident and the heist he was involved with went south and he fell into a vat of chemicals that permanently altered his appearance. That was the day he went mad. As clear-cut as this story seems, even The Joker admits his past is lost to him. He sometimes remembers it one day and remembers it completely differently the next, which suits him fine because, “If I have a past, I would prefer it to be multiple choice!” So, the origin story we heard in The Killing Joke is by no means fact, and the only thing we can take as truth from this is that The Joker became what he did because of “one bad day.”
In most cases, evil acts always have a motive. Magneto acts as he does because he knows what it is like to be a persecuted minority, and he wants to change that for himself and his people. Light Yagami takes on the role of Kira because he believes he can lead the world to a golden age. However, characters like Johan and The Joker are different. There is no motive for what they do, no method to their madness.
In Monster, throughout his childhood, Johan would kill his foster parents and move on to find another suitable host/victim. Why does he kill them? We have no real insight into his mind, only the minds of those close to him or those who believe they think like him. One of the many murderers who worshiped Johan said that, in Johan’s shoes, he would kill his foster parents because they now bore him. Is this true? It could be or it couldn’t be. It is an educated guess at best, but Johan is not a man who can be compared to others. Maybe that one particular murderer would kill out of boredom, and Johan has exhibited signs of acting out of an interest in someone, but to assume he acts similarly to others is a statement more ludicrous than the idea of killing out of boredom. The best, and most likely, thing that resembles motive that Johan has is his desire to be the last one standing at the end of the world. In addition to the killings of his many foster parents, when he got older and went out of his way to kill someone directly (a rare honor), so much emphasis is put on the absence of presence. Inspector Lunge, the classic “quirky but genius” detective, is a man who is always capable of understanding a killer’s thought process and motive when he examines a crime scene, but even he admits that when dealing with a murder at the hands of Johan, he feels nothing. He senses no motive, no feelings, and no reason behind the slaughter.
The Joker is similar to Johan in this regard. However, unlike Johan, The Joker is quite the chatterbox, so we actually have an idea of why he murders and acts the way he does. Out of amusement. He kills at a whim, and enjoys the thrill of battling with Batman, and he uses murder to get his attention. In the movie, The Dark Knight, he openly admits to Batman that he was bored with ripping off the mob, and that Batman completes him. This relationship he shares with Batman in The Dark Knight and the comics is also the relationship Johan has with his sister, Anna, whom he sees as his other half. While amusement is definitely his primary goal in his murders, he also kills for several other reasons, and keeping up with his image of pure evil, all the reasons are equally insane. In the Death of the Family story arc, possibly the story arc where The Joker is at his most deranged, The Joker returns from a year hiatus after he willing had his face cut off (seriously) and he makes his return in grand fashion by storming the police station and single-handedly kills 19 police officers, all just to serve as his grand return (and to pick up his face, and again, totally serious). In the same story arc, The Joker kills a close friend of Dick Grayson (aka Nightwing) because he dresses as a clown in Grayson’s circus, and there can’t be more than one clown in Gotham. In the comic, Injustice: Gods Among Us, The Joker tricked Superman into murdering Lois Lane, and the death of Lois was the trigger for a massive bomb that destroyed Metropolis. This definitely ranked as one of The Joker’s worst atrocities and largest mass murders, and he only did it because he was tired of playing with Batman and always losing. He decided to “play on easy mode” by challenging Superman.
While the motives of The Joker and Johan differ slightly, there is one solid link between Johan and The Joker in regard to their motivation, and that is the senselessness of it all. There is no reason or benefit for them after they kill, which is something people can at least understand. People killing out of jealousy or greed is common, and at some level understandable, but what Johan and The Joker do is inhuman. And this inhumanity is what makes them so appealing to readers. It is easy to create a character of pure good, but pure evil, that is another feat entirely.
Treatment of Victims
“Your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.” -Albus Dumbledore
For many, coming up with something worse than death is a challenge, but what Johan and The Joker do their victims goes above and beyond normal behavior and is proof that the death these characters deliver is a blessing after what they do to their victims first. Murder is bad in its own right, but for characters like The Joker and Johan, they don’t simply kill. They toy with their victims and actively try to break them as a human being. The reason behind these particular murders lack any understandable purpose for most people, but for men like Johan and The Joker, these murders have a purpose–to corrupt.
Throughout the Monster series, we learn that Johan has a fascination for fear, and he uses this fear to break people and corrupt them. For example, Johan’s heart-to-heart with a recovering alcoholic ends with the man doubting his own morality and his right to even rekindle a relationship with his estranged daughter, and he begins drinking again and falls to his death. Another time, in what may be the scariest thing Johan has ever done, he manages to convince everyone at his orphanage, adults and children, to slaughter one another by fueling their innermost fears and hatred. While these deaths may have served a purpose in some plan known only to Johan, actively destroying a man’s identity and forcing others to kill one another out of fear, doubt, and hatred was disturbingly cruel. Also, a real page-turner.
While Johan used his fascination with fear as a way to torture and corrupt certain victims, The Joker is fueled by a different fascination when he is interested enough to toy with his victims, and that is to prove the fragility of “good” and “order”. The Joker has long been associated with chaos, a point made clear in The Dark Knight, where he specifically called himself an, “agent of chaos.” Every extreme case where he took it upon himself to toy with and torture his victims was done as a way to show that most people are just like him. In The Killing Joke, The Joker tried his best to break the mind of Commissioner Gordon, a morally sound individual, in order to prove that a man as morally straight as Gordon is one bad day away from turning out like him. While that example ended in failure, it completely worked in The Dark Knight where he did the same thing to Harvey Dent and in Injustice: Gods Among Us where he did it to Superman.
“Have you ever been in the presence of true greatness? I’m not talking about a celebrity of an athlete. I’m talking about someone who changes the world. Someone who history will never forget. So have you? Well, I have, and I’ll tell you something…It’s to die for.” -Harley Quinn
Charisma is one of the traits found in the type of people who change history. Most American presidents have it and even more dictators have it. Also, Johan Liebert and The Joker have it, and appropriately, these were the type of men who could change history. Both these men’s charisma was felt by everyone. Johan is the picture perfect image of a handsome and charismatic young man. Everyone he meets acknowledges him as perfect, and every person he encounters finds him easy to talk to, which he would always use to his advantage. The Joker is the polar opposite to Johan in this regard, but he still has a charisma that no one can ignore. While no one who sees him will ever mistake him as handsome or easy to talk to, they are all in complete awe and terror of his presence. In the Infinite Crisis story-line, the supervillain organization, The Society, didn’t even offer The Joker an invitation to join because they were too scared of his unpredictable personality (He would late kill the leader, Alexander Luthor, Jr., for not including him). Even in a child’s cartoon like Justice League, this charisma is palpable when we see The Joker walks into a room of super-villains, and everyone goes quiet to hear him out, even Lex Luthor. And even despite their drastically different appearances, they both can pull off the girly look.
However, charisma is capable of more than making a good first impression. True charisma has the power to control. Both Johan and The Joker have a charisma that reaches out to, and is able to control, certain individuals. In Monster, we get to see many sessions between a psychologist and his criminal subjects in jail. These murderers helped serve to give us a level of insight to Johan, and all these murderers worship Johan and did what he wanted. One of them even killed himself after Johan’s name was mentioned, most likely out of fear that he would hinder Johan in some way. The Joker has the same effect, but on people with unsound minds. In The Dark Knight, Batman tells Harvey Dent that one of the men who shot Gordon was a paranoid schizophrenic and exactly the type of mind that The Joker attracts. However, the best example of The Joker’s control is in Detective Comics #16-17, where we find that a dangerous fascination with The Joker is an actual medical condition, with hundreds of people camping out in a park to protest The Joker’s release and some taking on the mantle of The Joker to commit crimes in his honor. This disorder even affects able-minded and respected people of the community, like the psychiatrists who would treat those afflicted by The Joker’s charisma.
Johan Liebert and The Joker are not perfect matches in everything they do, as their motivations to kill and toy with their victims vary a bit, but at their core, the two characters are the same because of their simplicity. Yes, Johan Liebert and The Joker can be seen as simple, because they are fueled by evil without any of the complexities and moral dilemmas that come from acting decent and good. Also, on top of the reasons already listed, there is another trait the two share that only people who read their stories can understand, and that is the physical effect these fictional characters have over you. The chill that runs down your body when you hear their explanation for the slaughter they orchestrated and the lingering feelings you harbor of these characters that follow you even after sleep is something only characters as terrifyingly off-putting and curiously enthralling like Johan Liebert and The Joker can deliver.
What do you think? Leave a comment.