If you ask me for my opinion about Alan Moore, I will probably go into a long rant. While I don’t like him as a person, I can’t disagree with his genius as a comic writer. This man does things with setting up panels and what-not that I could never hope to do. And my pick for one of his best stories is also the second entry in Joker Week, The Killing Joke, a tale that looks into the Joker’s past as well as his motivation and relationship with Batman. Warning: there will be spoilers aplenty.
Released in March 1988, written by Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke may be the most influential Batman story ever written. It redefined the Joker for a lot of fans, and personally I hold it as the most important story about the character. Literally, you want to be able to write the Joker, you have to read this story to get a handle on his character.
The story starts with Batman heading to the asylum in an attempt to reason with the Joker and avoid what may be the inevitable death of them both. When it becomes obvious that Joker has escaped, the search is on before he does some new horror. Sadly, he’s already got his newest plan in motion.
First, he shoots Barbara Gordon, paralyzing her. And after abducting her father, he takes pictures of her naked and helpless. With Commissioner Gordon as his prisoner, Joker plans to break his sanity, and to show that it’s easy for a normal person to go as insane as he is. Why?
Peppered throughout the story are a series of flashbacks. A story of a struggling comedian who quit his job as a chemist to pursue his dream. A man with a pregnant wife. A man desperate enough to provide for his family that he throws down with some criminals. And then his wife dies, electrocuted while testing a baby bottle heater. Despite having no more reason for anything, he goes along with them to the chemical plant, dressed as the Red Hood. Cops show up, blasting up the gang, and the man flees in terror. Batman shows up, making the man panic as he leaps into a vat of chemicals. When he finally removes his mask, his sanity finally snaps at the sheer insanity of it all as his features have become distorted into those of a clown.
In the present, Batman finds Barbara, and goes after Gordon, who has not snapped despite all he’s been through. As Batman battles through a funhouse, Joker starts having an honest talk with him. Joker just wants to make a point that everything in life is just a sad, sick joke. Everything you’ve ever loved and worked for can just be taken from you, so what’s the point? Joker knows something bad happened to him, but he can’t remember anymore what’s true in his memories. After all, if he had to have a past, can’t it be multiple choice? Batman should get it, after all. No one does what he does unless he lost something too.
At the end of the fight, Batman and Joker are stuck just waiting outside the funhouse for the cops, Joker having just learned that he failed to break Gordon, and maybe it’s just him that’s sick. Batman pleads his case from the beginning of the book, that maybe he can help and avoid the constant battling. Joker actually cries and says that it’s too late for him, and then does the strangest thing: he tells a joke.
“See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn’t dare make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!’ B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says ‘Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!”
He starts laughing, not his usual twisted laughter, but genuine laughter. And then, Batman starts laughing, too. The final panel is a mirror of the first, raindrops falling on the ground.
This book blew my mind. I mean, there’s so many story ideas at work in this bad boy. First of all, the parallelism between Joker’s possible origin and Batman’s. Tragedies brought on by random chance. Two incredibly different reactions: one, who suffered his tragedy as a child becomes a hero and vows to never let another suffer like he did, and the other, suffering his as an adult, gives up on his humanity and becomes a monster. Hell, even the joke has symbolism. The malicious lunatic is Joker, whose madness makes him try to harm others, and the other is Batman, who may be insane but still can function.
And then there’s the juxtaposition of Joker’s lost humanity with his most horrifying acts. I’m not going to lie, I initially thought it may have been a possibility that Joker raped the paralyzed Barbara Gordon, and the only reason I know he didn’t is because it has never been stated ever that he did anything other than shoot, strip and photograph her. These images, in their stark horrifying artwork, show how far he’s fallen from the man who just wanted his family to be financially stable. It works though, because Joker comes across as one of the most three-dimensional villains in Batman’s rogues gallery, a fully human individual who fell so far from human empathy and compassion because he felt them so strongly before.
The long standing influences this book has had on the Batman franchise are obvious, besides Barbara Gordon going from Batgirl to Oracle. Joker thinking that all people need is a simple push to go mad is a major theme of Heath Ledger’s take on the clown in The Dark Knight. Tim Burton’s film version was heavily influenced by this book (which makes sense, given that the book preceded the film by a year). Hell, even the game, Batman: Arkham Asylum, utilizes a Joker who is just as monstrous as Moore wrote him, and his throne made of mannequins is taken from the graphic novel.
This book has been reprinted in both a collection of Alan Moore stories, as well as a deluxe edition with reworked color by Bolland. I personally recommend the original, because I love its wild, almost hallucinogenic colors, but that’s just me. Read this story no matter where you have to go to find it.
Now that we have an accepted, more updated origin of the Joker, what about his first meeting with Batman? Tune in tomorrow bat-fans, as we look at the modern update of their first battle in Batman: The Man Who Laughs.