The Killing Joke – One Shot, March 1988
Author: Alan Moore
Illustrator: Brian Bolland
Even before the DC/Marvel divide occurred in our house (FYI there is no longer a divide, we are both entirely Marvel converts now), there was another divide. I grew up with Superman, from the comics to the Christopher Reeve movies and although I enjoyed some stuff (Batman Returns is my favourite Christmas movie!) I was never a huge Batman fan. Nothing has significantly changed on that front over the years, though I have enjoyed some of the animated movie Superman/Batman crossovers. On the other hand, Hubster is a massive Batman fan. We have debated on many occasions the superiority of both and have agreed to disagree. I tell you this to acknowledge that I have read much less Batman than I have Superman, and when I have read them I’ve largely enjoyed them. Recently The Killing Joke came up in conversation and I decided to read it and pop a review on here.
Essentially we are looking at two different paths/storylines coming to a meeting point. The Joker’s is his trying to prove that it just takes one bad day to send someone insane, and Batman’s is to avoid the inevitable (and deadly) end to his relationship with the Joker that he can see on the horizon. This is interspersed with flashbacks to the one bad day the Joker experienced that drove him over the edge.
This volume is a great illustration of the complex relationship between Batman and Joker, which is especially highlighted in the ending. It is also a key volume in looking at the treatment of female characters in comics.
The art is great, of it’s day. Colour is used well to highlight dramatic moments and the story itself is brutal. As we’ve come to expect from the Clown Prince of Crime, his actions are insane, cruel and have devastating repercussions. Whilst capturing Jim Gordon, in his plan to drive the commissioner insane, he shoots Barbara Gordon, an injury that paralyses her.
The kidnap of Gordon is framed in such a way to make it as jarring as possible to the reader. Not just the assault on Barbara, but also the scene it interrupts – a family moment where we see Gordon at his most vulnerable. We go from a time of rest and relaxation to brutal assault, kidnap and the taking of graphic pictures of Barbara with which to torment Gordon later.
All this is designed to drive Gordon insane. We find Gordon naked and humiliated (I could live happily my whole life without seeing Jim Gordon’s penis) it’s jarring – and this is the scene to confront Batman on his eventual arrival. In Batman’s place the reader might be ready to call time on the Joker and bring an end to it all once and for all. But this is where Batman’s thread of the story connects. And this is how the story started, with the escape of the Joker discovered when Batman went to talk to him – a realisation that they need to discuss the future. Batman wanted to discuss his epiphany – if they don’t make a change they will eventually kill each other. So the reader might expect that to be exactly the ending – them finally killing each other – but instead they laugh together like old friends.
Joker’s insanity – his one bad day – is revealed through a series of flashbacks which are later revealed to be possibly fictional. It’s even possible that Joker no longer even remembers what his bad day was. This devise was used to great effect in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, where we are fed several different accounts of Joker’s scars over the course of the movie. The story the Joker tells in the Killing Joke is compelling and may help the reader even feel compassion for him. To find out this is fictional removes that compassion in a swift stroke. Joker will always be elusive and we will never fully understand him and we should be concerned if we do – that is something really driven home in this volume.
After everything he’s done before, and now this most heinous of acts against people that Batman cares for, it might seem odd to the reader for Batman not to kill him. But as mentioned, this is nothing if not indicative of their relationship. They are two halves and one day they might kill each other, but most of the time they are just going to take it to the brink and then cut it short because in truth they can’t live without each other.
As a female reader it is shocking to see that both female characters in the story, Jeannie (Joker’s possibly fictional pregnant wife) and Barbara Gordon become victims of devastation – both framed in a way to further the plot of the male characters. If factual, Jeannie’s death is a catalyst for the Joker, and Barbara’s assault is to serve in Joker’s plan. Barbara is essentially treated as an object and devise through which pain can be visited on her father. It’s not surprising then that the assault on Barbara, her disability and reinvention as Oracle places her on the list of Women in Refrigerators. The wider issue here is of a the use, and acceptance of the use, of women as objects in a plot where female characters are killed, mutilated, raped, assaulted and otherwise depowered as a plot devise. This volume is a key illustrative example of the phenomenon, as noted by Jeffrey A. Brown, author of Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture (2011), it’s an example of the “inherent misogyny of the male-dominated comic book industry”. This makes it both interesting and difficult to read.
The story is in some ways an insight into how alike the Batman and Joker really are. As the Joker taunts throughout the closing scenes – just one bad day is enough to create a Joker, or a Batman. Perhaps it is even a glimpse into Batman’s insanity as it is into Jokers, after all what kind of guy dresses up as a bat? But let me be clear on this, the Joker is vile. If anything, whether intended or not, this volume serves to strip him of his comic aspects and shows that the Joker is a sadistic criminal that should be difficult to identify with. Remember that when you see that iconic image of him snapping a photo, he’s photographic a woman he has just assaulted, brutalised and humiliated. Those who find they can identify with him should probably seek psychological help as soon as possible.
To that end, as interesting as this volume is, I can’t say whether I liked or disliked it, but I can say that although I get why he didn’t, I hate that Batman doesn’t kill the Joker. I hate that he can laugh with this man after everything he’s done. I guess that’s why I’ll always prefer Superman.
NB: I think I prefer the speculation that Batman did kill the Joker in this final scene.