I’m mortified, terrified and excited beyond reason after seeing this photo and happier than ever about how awesome next summer’s Batman Begins continuation, The Dark Knight, is going to be.

So without further ado, here’s the first official image of Heath Ledger as The Joker:

This one requires some explanation and background:

On Thursday, I posted the link to the I Believe in Harvey Dent website that Warner Bros. put up to promote a mock Gotham City District Attorney campaign for the character of Harvey Dent, played in the film by Aaron Eckhart.

Not to be outdone, The Joker started his own website, called I Believe in Harvey Dent, Too.

When you look at The Joker’s graffiti-covered Dent poster long enough, it slowly dissolves into a very pixeled-up photo of the Joker’s face, BUT, it’s not very clear.

If you enter your email and the secret code (which is there on the page), it will send you a link and some coordinates, which you can enter in to reveal more of the image.

But Jett over at Batman on Film revealed the full image, and it’s a shocker. It’s a weird angle, and it’s blurry and it’s grainy, but it’s very creepy and disturbing beyond description. He’s got a gash of a smile slashed across the length of his face, and clown makeup applied haphazardly around the blistery scars. His skin is ashen and pale, like it’s been chemically bleached.

Hopefully we’ll see a better image soon that reveals his face in a better context. But so far, I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I can’t believe they’re actually going as far as they’re going with his look, and that makes me feel very good about this movie. Batman Begins didn’t pull any punches, and this first image of Ledger as The Joker leaves me confident that Christopher Nolan and the gang are going to take this one up a notch. Begins was a very mature film in the sense that it treated Batman more like a figure out of classic literature — like The Count of Monte Cristo, for example — than like a comic book. (And why not? Batman’s been around in the comics since 1939. That’s classic to me.) Casting an actor of Heath Ledger’s caliber to go up against Christian Bale’s indomitable Batman was pure genius on Nolan’s part, and I can’t wait to see how this one shakes down.

The Joker will scare the nacho cheese stains out of your brand new jeans on July 18, 2008!

In the meantime, please help yourself to lots of other Batman news right here.