Friday, July 6, 2012

The Killing Joke - Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

The Killing Joke is not a graphic novel in the same sense as The Dark Knight Returns.  For one, it is about 40 pages long.  It is basically like one-quarter of The Dark Knight Returns.  Having said that, it's arguably better than any one of the four parts of that book.

The story is short and sweet and to the point and while I was afraid of "spoiling" The Dark Knight Returns, and therefore didn't want to even name the villains that Batman faces in that story, I have mentioned it to several people and most of them just admit that they'll never read it anyways, why don't I just tell them?  I do, but I'm doing them a disservice.  They don't know what they're missing.

I was going to buy The Killing Joke until I saw that it was $18 and could be read in one sitting at Barnes & Noble.  One night last week en route to picking up some take-out on a Friday night, I sat down up against the window of second floor B&N in downtown Evanston and ran through the book in about 30-45 minutes. It's brilliantly written, hilarious, very sad, slightly heartwarming, and perverted as hell.  Once again, definitely not a book for little kids.

What is most interesting is that the story is basically the Joker's, and Batman plays more of a supporting role.  Literally!  

The story opens up with Batman saying, "You know, I really, really don't want to, but one of these days, one of us is going to have to kill the other." (Note: I may be conflating this line with The Dark Night Returns, but the idea that Batman sympathizes with the Joker to a certain degree is accurate.)  Batman really doesn't hate the Joker as much as he does in other stories.  What he feels for him is more akin to pity.  And the opening of the story certainly lends a sympathetic air to the Joker.  

This is because it tells his "origin story" and it's so sad.  This is what makes The Killing Joke a real masterpiece (even though Alan Moore later said that he did not think it was very good, and even though most people agree that it does not rise to the level of Moore's other 3 famous graphic novels - Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen--all of which have been turned into movies ranging from mildly disappointing to downright disastrous).  

The Killing Joke is, in a sense, "turned into a movie" if one combines Batman (1989) and The Dark Knight (2008).  There was much talk in The Dark Knight about how you could not be sure of the Joker's true origin--but Batman left nothing to the imagination.  I think the truth is that it's a combination of the two.

First, yes, the Joker was married.  However, he did not cut his wife's face.  (He does disfigure Alicia, in Batman, but that is irrelevant here).  Instead, he works as an engineer at Axis Chemicals, and he decides that he wants to do what he really loves--which is to make people laugh.  So he quits his job and starts trying to work as a stand-up comedian--and is a horrible failure at it.  In one scene, he and his wife (who has recently become pregnant) sit in a restaurant and dwell upon their impoverished life since he quit his job.  Needing money, he decides to accept an offer from the Mob, who want him to help them break into a building next door to Axis Chemicals (note: I am lifting this is off of Wikipedia--my memory is not so sharp and I don't own the book--but apparently it's a "card company"--now one would assume that means credit cards, but it could actually be a card manufacturing facility, which is certainly more appropriate).  

Then, the police informs him that his wife has just died in an accident.  The Mob forces him to go forward with their plan even though he has been traumatized.  They put a Red Hood on him apparently to disguise him (though it seems more like a trope used to reference the real introduction of the Joker in Batman comic books--in 1951 in the issue "The Man Behind the Red Hood.").  Batman comes in to save the day, and the Mob is dispersed, but "Red Hood" is left standing there.  Having just lost his wife and unborn child, having lost out on the money he was going to get from the job, being a failure as a comedian, being trapped in a corner by Batman, he decides to commit suicide into a vat of acid.

Second, yes, the Joker was disfigured in a vat of acid.  While this does not explain his scars in The Dark Knight, this is a story that I like much better, because of how the rest unfolds.  The Joker, now in present day, decides to play a "big joke" on Gotham City.  The set-up for that Joke is to break into Commissioner Gordon's home.

He breaks in, and he kidnaps his daughter (who is perhaps in her late-teens to mid-twenties--it's unclear).  He takes her into a room, strips her naked, cuts her, and takes pictures of her being tortured.  Commissioner Gordon is also kidnapped and brought to a funhouse.  He is also stripped naked and put into a "freakshow" cage and forced to watch a slide-show of the torture of his daughter.  After only a short while, he goes insane.  This is the Joke: if a person is just pushed and pushed and pushed--just hard enough--they can cross the line from sanity to insanity.  

It is here--when Batman arrives--that the real theme of the story emerges: all it takes is "one bad day" to drive someone insane for the rest of their life.  Some people can be redeemed--like Batman.  And some people cannot.  But Batman believes that the Joker has to have a chance.  After Batman arrives and frees Commissioner Gordon and reunites him with his daughter, the Commissioner tells him not to kill the Joker but to bring him in to "show him the way we do things."

At this point the stage is set for the final scene, with the Joker taunting Batman that perhaps his madness is also attributable to "one bad day."  He then claims that there is nothing worth living for and gives a short speech about the virtues of nihilism and tells Batman "the Joke."

"See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum... and one night, one night they decide they don't like living in an asylum any more. 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, stretching away in the moon light... stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn't dare make the leap. Y'see... 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!' B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says... He says 'Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!"

The ending has been open to speculation, but I think I am reasonably sure of the way it ends.  Note that I would recommend both The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns very highly--but that The Killing Joke should be read first.  Philosophically, I think it is the most interesting story in the bunch, and since the Joker has always been my favorite character (indeed I will play him in Batman in Brooklyn) I am naturally drawn to this book.  As the present-day Joker and the "pre-suicide" Joker are presented alongside one another, one feels sympathy for the character in one instant, where all he cares about is taking care of his wife and making people laugh, and one feels derision (or maybe, catharsis?) as he mutilates and takes pictures and does who-knows-what else to the Commissioner's daughter.  This duality then, compared with Batman, who is psychologically "one" with the Joker, but morally opposed to his view of life--who takes his bitterness out on the world, making it a more miserable place, rather than trying to make it a better place by ridding it of such evils--makes the story something of a meditation on  human existence.

I was not going to pay $18 for the deluxe edition, but I would consider getting Alan Moore's DC Universe compilation, as this is apparently included in it, and it is a story that I would like to revisit some day in the future.  This has also been a very pleasurable "research" experience, as I hope to utilize some elements from both The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke in Batman in Brooklyn.  I may go back to Barnes & Noble today and read some more Batman comic books, actually.  That sounds like a pretty good idea, yeah....

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