The Joker In The Pack
♦ Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at the 30th anniversary of DC’s Batman: The Killing Joke…
It’s a daunting task to reappraise a book such as Batman: The Killing Joke. It’s equally a familiar old shelf staple, a sacred, overanalysed screed and a cold-hearted dissertation of psychopathy that has lost little, if any, of its edge. Deep down, readers of crime novels like their psychopaths – they entertain, bemuse, shock, and have zero concern for social mores. And the Joker may well be the ultimate exemplar of that – an arch-nemesis for the most celebrated non-super powered hero, who, unlike other skewed, megalomaniac comic villains is terrifying for no other reason than he looks like a clown and also behaves like one. And in recent years, pop culture has grown to accept the notion that clowns are frightening, unreasoning misanthropes. Bill Finger was certainly onto something in 1940, although the one problem with the Joker of course was that throughout his appearances in the Batman titles he lacked nuance, angst, or inner conflict. And in the modern age, he has been motivated only by a primeval desire to upstage, destroy, hurt and kill, with his patented veneer of crass humour thrown in as his calling card. The Joker is a force of nature, a cavalier, wilful brutalist who ironically has reflected each era in comic history. For a long time, he wasn’t a deranged psychopath, but more of a pantomime gurning prankster who enjoyed pulling “boners” (haha) in order to beguile Batman and Robin. It was only in 1973, the mood of America having shifted in a far less idealistic direction, that Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams refitted the character as a sadistic monster. Steve Englehart and Marshal Rogers brilliantly refined his insanity and the Batman mythos several years later, and then Frank Miller of course added to the canon with The Dark Knight Returns. And then there was Moore and Bolland’s infamous book.
The plot for Killing Joke is simple and time honoured enough, although the tropes are drastically altered. Batman visits the Joker in Arkham Asylum to discuss their mutual, lifelong antipathy and eventual assured destruction. He quickly realises that the inmate in front of him is not the Joker but a decoy. We cut to Commissioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara, the former Batgirl, enjoying a rare moment of innocent levity in their apartment. In bursts the Joker, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt, and his henchmen – the clown shooting Barbara, while his underlings proceed to beat up and then kidnap Gordon. From there, the focus is on the Joker’s attempt to render Gordon insane by stripping him and forcing him to see pictures of his daughter naked, accompanied by a retinue of ghouls on an amusement park ghost train. Gordon retains his sanity despite the horror, beseeches Batman to capture the Joker “by the book” and the two antagonists share a grim yet apposite joke at the end that leads to hysterical laughter. Interspersed with this garish tableau is the Joker’s origin, mirroring the present narrative and told in sepia (well, in the recoloured version) as a failed comedian who loses everything, including his mind, during a series of unfortunate events that all occur on the same day.
And all of that to prove a point – that anyone can permanently lose their sanity due to “one bad day”. Maybe the Joker could’ve just sent Bats an essay about it instead of reverting to even worse type than usual. Moore’s coda was that the Joker and Batman didn’t just define each other, as Englehart had posited a decade earlier, they were essentially the same, their trajectories leading down different paths but both underpinned by psychosis and isolation. And it’s a good point, with bravura art from Bolland delineating a hyperreally grotesque night world, the protagonists and the setting beautifully rendered yet twisted. At its core Batman: The Killing Joke is a loss of hope and mercy, the interplay between the characters and storyline so schematic that the theme of the piece is sledgehammered into the consciousness. Moore’s attempt to humanise, admittedly briefly, Joker’s arc in the backstory from failure to malign entity is interesting, but does see the meek no-mark transcend his powerlessness – he is reborn, yet despite being dehumanized he remains abject. And then there’s the misogyny regarding Barbara Gordon’s fate – the graphic novel already borrows from the penny dreadful and cautionary tale – was such exploitation necessary? Barbara Gordon’s character is essentially reduced to a plot device drained of dignity. The tale was dark enough without that scene – was this Moore and Bolland attempting to traduce Frank Miller’s seminal effort by throwing out the rule book altogether?
Moore stated when interviewed long after the book’s publication that the story didn’t really work as it was about two hyperfictional characters, therefore little could be gleaned thematically from it in the real world sense. Agreed, but to be fair, and despite all the misgivings, it’s still a tour de force, thought provoking if not really deserving of all the hype and plaudits that followed its release. It looks stunning, and the script still crackles with grimy ease and menace. It’s all over far too quickly for a book of its alleged stature, its punchline a wee bit facile after all the histrionics. Which again is the point.
Ultimately the joke at the end is on us – what did the Batman and the Joker, and by extension the reader, really learn from that latest and most ultraviolent escapade, except that the twosome were locked in an eternal struggle that wasn’t about good and evil, it was just about them and what they had in common (despite Batman stating that he knew virtually nothing about his arch-foe)? It’s a witty, clever but ultimately empty shadowplay, a roller coaster ride that thrills and blindsides, the Joker’s rhetoric plangent yet insubstantial. With all the dark humour involved it’s anaemic and lacks fun, yet still plays – one wonders whether its legacy was as far reaching as The Dark Knight. For what it’s worth, comics had permanently changed due to this and other key 1980s series, so such matters are moot.