It’s been a while since I’ve read a Batman comic, and I’ve surprisingly never read The Killing Joke. This graphic novel is considered a classic, written by Alan Moore of Watchmen and V for Vendetta fame, and hauntingly illustrated by Brian Bolland. I purchased the 2008 deluxe edition, which was recolored by Bolland; he uses a cooler palette than the original color artist, and makes the flashback scenes into black and white, with small touches of color to add emphasis on certain objects. I’ve seen the original 1988 comic (thanks, internet!), and I definitely think the new coloring transforms the comic into the darker, weightier story it was meant to be. You can see the difference here:
The original looks psychedelic, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t fit the dark theatrical nature of some of the scenes. The recoloring and illustrations are the best things about this comic. That isn’t to say that I didn’t think the story was well executed, but the art is so great here that it overshadows the other elements. I particularly liked the way the Joker was drawn – he looked sadistic and frightening, but you could still see the human behind it. The carnival scenes are effectively chaotic, highlighting the perverseness of the Joker’s thought process and actions.
Despite my praise for the artwork and plot execution, there are some very problematic things about this novel – namely the treatment of Barbara Gordon. So let’s just get right down to it so you can see what I mean.
The Killing Joke starts off with Batman driving up to Arkham Asylum in his Batmobile on a rainy night, where he visits with the Joker in his cell, Commissioner Gordon in tow. Sitting across from the inmate, Batman says: “I’ve been thinking lately. About you and me. About what’s going to happen to us, in the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we? Perhaps you’ll kill me, perhaps I’ll kill you. Perhaps sooner. Perhaps later. I just wanted to know that I’d made a genuine attempt to talk things over and avert that outcome. Just once.” Batman notices the Joker isn’t listening and grabs his hand – white paint comes off on his gloves. It is now apparent that this inmate is an impostor, and the real Joker has escaped custody once again.
The next panel shifts to an abandoned amusement park, complete with freak show posters and a dilapidated ferris wheel. The Joker wants to buy this land, and discusses it with the seller. The price is cheap because of the disrepair of the place, but money isn’t a concern for the Joker anyway. This is where the first flashback scene occurs; we see the Joker before his accident, discussing his failing comedy career with his pregnant wife, Jeannie. He cries on her lap after lashing out at her, saying he wants to move out of their neighborhood and make money to support his family. Jeannie, with a creepy smile reminiscent of the Joker’s, pacifies him by saying she still loves him no matter what – he makes her laugh and he’s good in bed. Cut back to present day, and the Joker kills the man with his electric joy buzzer. Guess he won’t be paying for the land after all.
In the Batcave, Bruce is looking over his Joker files; he tells Alfred that he doesn’t know much about the villain, and then wonders aloud how two people can hate so much without really knowing each other. I think Bruce understands the Joker more than he lets on, but more on that later.
We are now in Commissioner Gordon’s home, where he’s reading his paper – Barbara enters with hot cocoa she made for them. There’s a knock at the door, and Barbara answers it as she simultaneously reminisces about the first time her father told her about the Joker. Obvious foreshadowing is obvious! Can you guess who’s at the door? That’s right – it’s the Joker, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt (or is that my dad?), a camera around his neck, surrounded by two of his henchmen. There’s a close up of the gun in his hand, then a close up of Barbara’s face wide-eyed in terror. He immediately shoots her in the waist area, sending her flying into the coffee table. Commissioner Gordon kneels beside her, but the henchmen drag him away and beat him up. The Joker then goes into this rant, comparing Barbara to a book:
“Please don’t worry. It’s a psychological complaint, common amongst ex-librarians. You see, she thinks she’s a coffee table edition…Mind you, I can’t say much for the volume’s condition. I mean, there’s a hole in the jacket and the spine appears to be damaged. Frankly, she won’t be walking off the shelves in that state of repair. In fact, the idea of her walking anywhere seems increasingly remote. But then, that’s always a problem with softbacks. . . . You know, it’s such a shame you’ll miss your father’s debut, Miss Gordon. Sadly, our venue wasn’t built with the disabled in mind. But don’t worry, I’ll take some snapshots to remind him of you.”
He then undresses her (this is suggested by him beginning to unbutton her shirt, as well as later evidence) to take photos.
That whole speech and scene rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, how does he know she is paralyzed? Does he have x-ray vision? I understand that some people know where to shoot to get certain effects, but it is not a guarantee – and certainly not with the type of gun that was used. But that’s just something minor – one of my real problems lies in the suggestion that being paralyzed is worse than death. Certainly, the Joker likes to inflict pain and suffering as much as possible, and in the worst way possible. To him, it is more horrific to be unable to walk than it is to die – it is a form of torture – and this is the message that is pushed to the reader. This way of thinking is not anything new, as television shows and movies (remember Million Dollar Baby?) have repeatedly shown us. I understand that becoming paralyzed is a shock for many, and a difficult realization to accept; your life is completely changed now, and you will have to get used to a new way of living. But one’s life is not over and it does not mean you will be sentenced to pain, misery and loneliness for the rest of your days. Disability can make everyday tasks more complicated, but you get used to it – it becomes normal and routine. I don’t think most able-bodied/neurotypical individuals realize that (at least, that has been my experience), so to see this ableist view being executed in this novel saddens me because this is such a highly-praised and widely-read work.
The other problem I have with this scene is the sexualization of the violence inflicted upon Barbara. Well, it’s the violence inflicted upon her in general, really. Once again, a woman is violated and abused in a comic to further the plot of the male characters; comic writer Gail Simone coined a term for this – “women in refrigerators,” which you can read about here. Barbara only did one thing in this comic – make her dad hot chocolate. Everything else was done to her, and it was all violent. Then we have the revealing shot of her breasts as the Joker begins to take her shirt off, and later, we see more portions of her naked body. It’s not done tastefully (how can it be?), and it only acts as part of the Joker’s plan to drive her father “insane.” These panels in the novel are a part of rape culture, which is perpetuated in all forms of media. We’ve been so desensitized and normalized to this violence that it didn’t even phase me when I first read the comic; it wasn’t until I sat down to write this blog post that it dawned on me how fucked up it all is.
Immediately after this brutal scene, there is another flashback. This time, pre-injury Joker is sitting in a restaurant with a few men, discussing a plan they have to rob a chemical plant. It’s not made clear what they want to steal, just that it will make them a lot of money. The Joker wants to help out his family, so he agrees to be the main guy to get them in. The gang wants him to wear a domed red hood with a cape for “added anonymity,” but really, it’s just to divert attention away from them.
Back in present day, Batman is in Barbara’s hospital room, along with her doctor and a…detective? He looks more like a scruffy guy off the street – he’s even smoking a cigarette…next to oxygen and other sensitive medical equipment. What the hell, man? Anyway, the doctor tells Batman that her “legs are completely useless” and “putting it bluntly, she may well be in a chair for the remainder of her life.” I don’t like when body parts of disabled people are called “useless” just because they cannot be used in a certain way. It’s always said in a demeaning, objectifying way, and it’s narrow-minded to think that there is only one purpose for legs or arms or whatever other body part the person is referencing. Also, to say someone’s body part is “useless” is a way of dehumanizing the individual – that they are not fully human, but rather a collection of parts that either work or do not. So, the doctor and homeless guy/detective leave the room after they talk about how she was found naked, and Batman wakes up Barbara. She starts crying, grabbing on to his suit and cape, asking what the Joker is doing to her father; she knows it is something horrible because she could see it in his eyes. It’s perfectly normal for Barbara to be concerned about her dad, but her feelings about what happened to her are not mentioned in this novel at all. I guess that doesn’t matter, as long as we see how the men react to her violations, right?
Cut to a close-up of Commissioner Gordon lying on the ground, and a pair of small hands pulling at his shirt. As the next panel pans away, there are faces of little people in black leather S&M gear telling him to get up. They proceed to undress him and put a chain and rope around his neck, dragging him outside the tent; he’s at the Joker’s carnival. Gordon comes face-to-face with the man himself, who sits atop a throne made of creepy baby dolls. While really disconcerting and macabre, there’s great dialogue here from the Joker about memories:
“Remember? Ohh, I wouldn’t do that! Remembering’s dangerous. I find the past such a worrying, anxious place. . . . Memory’s so treacherous. One moment you’re lost in a carnival of delights, with poignant childhood aromas, the flashing neon of puberty, all that sentimental candy floss . . . the next, it leads you somewhere you don’t want to go . . . somewhere dark and cold, filled with the damp, ambiguous shapes of things you’d hoped were forgotten. Memories can be vile, repulsive, little brutes. Like children, I suppose. Haha. But can we live without them? Memories are what our reason is based upon. If we can’t face them, we deny reason itself! Although, why not? We aren’t contractually tied down to rationality! There is no sanity clause! So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness. Madness is the emergency exit…you can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away…forever.”
That great piece of writing explains the Joker’s psychology perfectly. It encapsulates exactly why he does such heinous acts – and how he is connected to Batman, who also deals with painful memories. We get another glimpse into the Joker’s past now, where cops enter the restaurant looking for the Joker. They tell him, in the most emotionless and cold way possible, that his wife died of some weird electric shock from a baby bottle warmer. The Joker is distraught (though not enough, I think), and tells his fellow criminals that he can’t go through with the robbery that night. They tell him too bad (at least they say they’re sorry first!), and they had a deal – the plan still goes through.
Back at the carnival, Gordon is put in a cart with a bunch of the little people (do I really need to say why the use of little people here is ableist?), and they’re sent through a ride. The Joker sings some song about going insane, while Gordon rides past images of his naked, bloody daughter. He is obviously distraught – and so I am. Shit, that’s sick and disturbing and over the top. I get that we’re supposed to feel that way, but holy hell. After the ride, Gordon is unresponsive, and the Joker orders his people to take the Commissioner back to his cage. We then see Batman responding to a Bat signal call. The cop gives him a ticket to the carnival addressed to him, compliments of the Joker. At least Batman knows where he has to go now.
And now we arrive at our final flashback scene, where the men and pre-injury Joker are in the chemical lab. Joker has his Red Hood on as they attempt to sneak around to get to their destination. A security guard spots them, and begins shooting. The men try to flee, but are shot and killed in the process – the Joker escapes, but is unable to see well because of his hood. Batman shows up, and runs after the Joker – instead of being caught by the caped crusader, he jumps into a vat of chemicals. While the hood protected him from being killed, we see the chemicals have bleached his skin white, turned his hair green, and stained his lips a bright red; he begins laughing, and thus we have the origin of the Joker. Or one version of the origin – the Joker states in this comic that “sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another . . . if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” So I like that it’s up for debate and we’re never really given a definitive answer of the true origins; although this comic is often accepted as the real version, I don’t buy it because of the aforementioned line.
In present time, the Joker and his carnival people harass Commissioner Gordon in his cage, the Joker going on about “the average man” and how they go “stark slavering buggo” when “faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless.” It’s at this moment when the Batmobile pulls up; he leaps out of the vehicle, and attacks the Joker, knocking him to the ground. The Joker squirts him with poison and escapes into the House of Fun. Noticing Commissioner Gordon, Batman goes over to him and releases him from the cage. Gordon tells him that the Joker tried to drive him mad by showing him pictures of his daughter, then asks Batman to go after him and bring him in “by the book.”
Batman enters the funhouse, and starts running around past silly mirrors, trap doors, and video screens looking for his nemesis. The Joker, over the loudspeaker, tells Batman that he’s won because he’s driven Gordon mad – that it only takes one bad day to “reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” He even compares himself to Batman, suggesting that he, too, is crazy because of the day his parents were killed. Batman eventually locates him behind a mirror, and jumps through it to get him. As the two fight, Batman explains that Gordon is fine, despite his attempts to drive him “insane,” and “maybe ordinary people don’t always crack.” When our hero defeats the Joker in their fight, Batman offers to help rehabilitate him because “maybe [he’s] been there too.” Smiling, the Joker tells the following joke:
“There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum . . . and one night, they decide they don’t like living in an asylum anymore. 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. . . . Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daredn’t make the leap. 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!’ But the second guy just shakes his head. He says, ‘what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!”
I admit that I chuckled. Hey, even Batman laughed! But then the Joker keeps laughing and laughing – and Batman grabs him by the collar. Close up of the puddles on the ground, the police car light reflecting on the water. In the next panel, the laughing suddenly stops and the car light goes out. There are theories floating around that this suggests Batman killed the Joker, but I don’t believe that. Commissioner Gordon specifically told him to bring him in by the book, so with the Joker defeated and the cops pulling up to the scene, why would Batman murder him? Also, I don’t think after offering to rehabilitate him, Batman would be so cold. The final page is here on the right – check it out and decide for yourself. If you need the page enlarged, just click on it.
So that ends The Killing Joke. The deluxe edition comes with an afterword from Bolland, as well as a few pages of his initial sketches. There’s also a mini comic about a man who fantasizes about killing Batman. I have to point out that, on the sketch pages, Bolland apologizes to “any persons of diminutive stature who might be reading this for our lack of political correctness.” This is right after her refers to the little people as “evil dwarves.” Well…at least he tried? I guess. Sigh, comic book dudes. Sometimes I just have to roll my eyes, as there is no other response I can muster up.
Overall, this graphic novel was decent, but it wasn’t as good as I was hoping. I suppose it has a lot to do with the rampant sexism, violence, and disturbing images. I’m not sure what I was expecting, I just know it was not something this dark. There is a topic I did not touch upon in my review yet, and that is the portrayal of mental illness. I don’t necessarily feel comfortable going into detail about what I think, as I don’t believe I am qualified to judge that topic. I will say that negative and inaccurate portrayals of mental illness are damaging, and affect the public’s opinion, and I can obviously see those negative/inaccurate portrayals happening here. I can see that with the character of the Joker in general.
If you’ve read this novel, what did you think? Does Batman kill the Joker? Is this a piece of sexist trash? How about the portrayal of disability/mental illness? As always, I welcome your comments.