Batman: The Killing Joke

Thursday October 30, 2003 @ 04:00 PM (UTC)

Book cover

Yesterday I gave this trade paperback a second read, and I can’t say it changed my first impressions. As a Bat-fan, I picked up the book because it contains an important moment in Bat history, central to the story of a character I care about. Batman: The Killing Joke is the storyline in which the Joker paralyzed Barbara Gordon, former Batgirl—a constraint that eventually led to her becoming überdecker to the hero world, Oracle.

I’ve bought some fairly cheesy trade paperbacks in the name of Bat history lessons—Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying, for example, is the story of how Tim Drake becomes Robin, and it’s dripping with cheese and earnestness. I can cope with cheese (see my enjoyment of 70’s X-Men) but there’s something about The Killing Joke that really rubs me the wrong way. It was written by Alan Moore, one of the two “dark” writers of the 80’s, who shocked the comics world out of its idyllic 70’s fluff and into grittiness. The other was Frank Miller. And while it’s obvious that Frank Miller has dark thoughts and muses far too much on sex with Wonder Woman, it’s equally obvious that Frank Miller loves superhero comics. Alan Moore, I have read and I now believe, hates superhero comics.

The plot of The Killing Joke goes a little something like this: (don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything good) Batman goes to Arkham to talk to Joker about stopping the eternal struggle that will eventually kill one or both of them. Joker has busted out, leaving some guy (they never explain who) in white makeup and a green wig in his cell. Joker buys an abandoned amusement park. Joker shoots Babs in the spine and has his lackeys carry off her father. Joker undresses Babs and takes pictures of her writhing in her own blood. Joker puts Gordon through a funhouse ride of horror, with huge flat-screen displays showing psychadelic nonsense; his own face as he harangues Gordon with very facile logic about how he, Gordon, ought to go insane; and pictures of Gordon’s daughter naked and writhing in her own blood. Batman easily figures out where Joker and Gordon are. Gordon is not insane, just very sad, and determined that he and Batman should “show Joker our way works”—“bring him in by the book.” Batman pursues Joker through the funhouse (yawn). Batman catches the Joker. Batman tries to convince the Joker that he can help him if he wants to be helped. Joker tells Batman a mediocre joke and they laugh together.

Are you bored yet? The only thing that enlivens the very twistless story is the counterpoint of a possible creation story for the Joker, where he’s a loser stand-up artist who can’t get a gig, tries one night of crime to support his pregnant wife, etc. The creation story is a little more interesting than the rest of it, but it’s a little more set in stone, a little more definitive, then I’ve ever seen DC let anyone do for a Joker story. He’s SUPPOSED to be mysterious—an image of the madness that can be birthed without reason from man. Except for “he fell in a chemical vat”, there is no bottom line on this man.

The story lacks emotional punch where it needs it – the crippling of a major ongoing character, for chrissakes; Gordon finding the resolve not to snap in the face of this coughstupidcough sophisticated psychological torture – and, in fact, seems emotionally illogical. Gordon doesn’t ask Batman whether Babs is ALIVE when he’s rescued. The fiercely protective Batman, after never laughing at a single thing the Joker has ever said (I mean, that’s part of why Mr. J hates him!), laughs at a mediocre joke he tells after nearly killing Batgirl. Are these human beings? No, they aren’t. They’re mouthpieces for Moore’s shallow conceits – one bad day makes people insane, in different ways, and the world is so awful you just have to laugh – and the only thing they show any commitment to is debating those overblown theories.

On top of that, the story makes no LOGICAL sense, something I am more than happy to overlook in a comic book, provided something else – emotional punch or comedic value – fills the void. Who was the guy in the Joker suit in Arkham? Where did the Joker get the money to buy the amusement park, or, for that matter, to outfit it with vast flat-screen displays and deadly traps within a few days? Where did the Joker find so many sideshow freaks who like to hurt people? And finally, when did bondage midget minions (who lead a naked Gordon around by a leash) become part of Joker’s schtick? Joker is, Jack Nicholson aside, an asexual villain (please see Harley Quinn’s sexual frustration for details.) Stripping Babs for the pictures, while probably a humiliation for the character, is Alan Moore saying, “Ooh, I’m so BAD!” NOT anything the Joker would do.

In short, I do believe Alan Moore hates superhero comics. And as Lana said on Smallville yesterday, “If you hate your job so much, why don’t you just quit?”

Bottom line:
Pretentiously “meaningful” and pretentiously dark, not to mention painfully 80’s. Characterization shallow and perfunctory, story trite and unexciting. Pictures okay—a few very good Joker portraits. 2 out of 10


It’s interesting that “Killing Joke” fell so flat – the other things I’ve read of Moore’s have all been pretty good (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell). However, one thing that I think is universal in his work is an aversion (not so much to superheroes) but to high melodrama. “Watchmen” is essentially a story entirely about superheroes – but what makes it unique is that it’s not part of the superhero genre. None of the plot elements that characterize a superhero comic are present – and in Watchmen, that’s what makes it innovative.

After all, isn’t it a little bit ludicrous (and other thinkers have posited this better than I) that masked vigilantes and villains monkey around the city, causing enormous amounts of property damage, facing each other hundreds of times without a single fatality except when plot demands it. Okay, maybe Gordon has too much conscience to just have the Joker sniped, but after his daughter is maimed? How many times has the Joker escaped from Arkham? Can’t we just send him to the chair by now? I know that this has been reflected upon even in the comics themselves in the postmodern ‘90s and ‘00s, but it can’t be changed, as the genre doesn’t allow it (and if any comic is restricted by the superhero genre, it’s Batman – because Batman and Superman created the genre.)

Like the “magister thief” of Crime and Punishment, so above their common man that conventional wisdom and morality don’t apply to them, the Joker and Batman operate in a world all their own. People often comment that Batman’s a crime fighter, but not a real superhero: what are his superpowers? Well, he’s got one: unlike all other officers of the law, Batman is allowed to capture and hold suspects without identifying himself and commit punitive acts of violence upon these suspects without proof of guilt. It’s like Ashcroft’s wet dream! Isn’t it so much easier to catch those bad guys/supervillians/terrorists when you don’t have to follow due process – just like Batman?

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