I bought this comic sometime in 2008 or 2009, during its most recent resurgence to popularity. As The Dark Knight‘s release date approached and Heath Ledger revealed it as a source of inspiration for his upcoming performance, Moore and Bolland’s 1988 one-shot (re)surfaced as the definitive depiction, “easily the greatest Joker story ever told.” The Killing Joke is a bizarre, brutal carnival ride of a comic book to be sure, but it doesn’t add anything meaningful to the characters it involves and torments and maims.
It does a lot of subtracting. It robs a beloved heroine of her dignity and the use of her legs. It lowers the Batman to the Joker’s level of depravity. And it diminishes the value and complexity of one of the most compelling villains in comic books.
Why does anyone like this comic? Why did I like this comic?
Until sometime last year, I would’ve sung the same praises everybody sings of The Killing Joke. But last year I did some reading, and I did some thinking, and I changed my mind. I took my copy of this wretched mistake of a Batman comic down to my local Half Price Books and received quite a fair sum of cash for it. (My copy was hardcover, you see. I hate hardcover comics anyway.)
The reading I did was mostly of the Gail Simone variety. She’s currently writing Batgirl in DC’s New 52 lineup, and she is the coiner of the comic-book criticism called “women in refrigerators,” which basically argues that, just like in real life, comic book men treat comic book women like shit to be used and thrown away.
In The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl is having some hot chocolate and hanging out with her police-commissioner dad Jim Gordon when the Joker shows up at their door and shoots Barbara through the spine. While his goons drag the commissioner away, Joker strips Barbara naked and snaps those photographs we see him leering about on the cover.
So the cover of the The Killing Joke is us looking through Barbara’s eyes, naked, humiliated and paraplegic, dying on her father’s living room floor. DC threw their most popular Bat-family heroine under the misogynist Joker-bus just to make a point: That Joker guy? He’s a sicko. When Alan Moore pitched the story to DC’s executives, they (allegedly) replied, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”
Later in the comic we learn Joker is only using Barbara to torment her father, with whom he has much older beef. But he’s just trying to make a point: even the sanest person can lose their marbles over a single, horrible day.
The only thing I can appreciate about this comic anymore is how it’s so ironically meta: Alan Moore uses Barbara Gordon to make the point that Joker’s a sicko by writing a story in which Joker uses Barbara Gordon to make the point that anybody can turn into a sicko. Only it’s worse when Alan Moore does it because he’s a real person and (allegedly) not a sicko.
(For the record, Watchmen is fucking brilliant.)
So I’ll ask again: Why does anyone like The Killing Joke? It’s gratuitous and vile, and we’re still only talking about the first of my three complaints.
Back to the refrigerator for a sec. Batgirl is arguably the highest-profile incident of this nauseating genre trope, despite not being the one it’s named for. But in the New 52, Gail Simone has taken Barbara back to the streets of Gotham, giving her back the cape and cowl no other woman has ever worn with so much style and character. Except now she’s got confidence issues, survivor’s guilt and an entirely rational fear of guns. She’s a real person, which tends to set her apart in a world where dudes (and dudettes) can bend steel with their bare hands.
I liked Barbara Gordon as Oracle, but 26 years after Killing Joke, we can be honest about what her new alter-ego really was: a Band-Aid on a wound that ran a lot deeper through DC and comic books in general than anybody realized at the time.
On to gripe #2: Moore makes Batman complicit in Joker’s violent misogyny.
Killing Joke has this weird ending where Batman catches up to Joker in his creepy Carnival-o’-Horrors and like, doesn’t kick the living shit out of him. I mean, this fucking piece of trash has just humiliated and brutalized two of his closest friends and partners in crime-fighting, damaging them both for life. You can’t unring the bell, and all that.
Of all the ways I relate to Batman as a character, our mutual disgust and hatred for victimization is the most visceral. That uncontrollable blood-red rage that grabs you by the gut when something bad is happening to somebody and nobody’s doing anything to make it stop. When I watch movies or TV shows where one person in a position of power abuses or tortures another, the following thought crosses my mind 9 times out of 10: “This show could really use more Batman right about now.” Batman doesn’t exist because his parents got shot. Batman exists because Bruce Wayne watched his parents get shot and he couldn’t do anything to stop it, and one day he decided that should never, ever happen again to anyone else.
All this is to stay: Joker should be lying in a bloody, broken heap by the last frame of this comic, possibly dead. Because if anything could force Batman to break his one rule, it should’ve been this. But instead Bats tries to talk it out with the craziest crazy in all of comic books. Joker is somehow lucid for a moment and says “Thanks but no thanks” and then tells Batman a joke.
And Batman laughs. He has a good guffaw with his ol’ buddy the Joker and then sends him off with a pat on the shoulder (literally — see image). HAHAHA, Barbara Gordon’s crippled for life, HAHAHEE. Hilarious.
I should note that my personal Bat-hero Grant Morrison sees it differently, and as usual, iconoclastically so. Seriously — listen to the clip. It does dramatically change how we could talk about this comic.
Or at least, it would change things if DC hadn’t decided to adopt Killing Joke into their mainstream canon, meaning Batman cannot possibly have killed the Joker at the end of this comic as Morrison suggests. Which means the only other interpretation is the one where Batman is a heartless bastard and the Joker wins, because he finally got his arch-nemesis to crack a smile.
That’s not my Batman. My Batman never lets the Joker win. My Batman is the one Neil Gaiman wrote in his fucking legendary story-to-end-all-Batman-stories Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader:
“Smile, damn you, why don’t you smile?!”
“Because it’s not funny.”
So here’s gripe #3, and it is a minor gripe compared to the others: The Killing Joke makes Joker boring. He tells Jim Gordon this origin story about being a shitty comedian who got mixed up with some gangsters and had “one bad day,” unceremoniously toppling him off the proverbial sanity-wagon. But he also says “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice,” implying the whole thing might be a fabrication.
The point is there’s a bunch of missing variables. We don’t know for certain who the Joker is, or why he is, and I don’t think we ever should know. Origin stories give a character their raison d’être; they let us get inside their heads and they tell us why these people choose to paint on some tights and leap over tall buildings and such.
But why would you ever want to be inside the Joker’s head? And who cares what lives in there anyway? Could anything explain (much less excuse) the fact that he’s killed and maimed and tortured hundreds of people?
In one of its many claims to greatness, The Dark Knight takes Moore’s multiple choice idea seriously and pairs it with the single most important truth about the Joker, which so many comic writers (including Moore) have either ignored or failed to understand:
Luckily Heath Ledger’s performance doesn’t have much of anything in common with The Killing Joke; his Joker is far more dynamic and unpredictable and unsettling, without any of the casual misogyny.
Bottom line: don’t buy this comic, don’t read this comic, and don’t let it slide if you see this comic on your friends’ bookshelves. It bears some discussion; most people probably just gloss over the poor treatment Barbara receives because it’s the Joker and he’s “supposed” to be like that, but sexualized violence against women absolutely isn’t okay.
Actually, you should read Watchmen either way.