Batman: The Killing Joke – a reappraisal

The recent controversy over artist Rafael Albuquerque’s proposed variant cover for Batgirl #41 (you can read all about in on Comic Book Resources) has prompted me to take another look at the story that inspired it.

Batman: The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland and colored by John Higgins.  It was originally released by DC Comics in early 1988.  To say that it was a sales success would be an understatement; by the time I purchased a copy of it two years later it was already on its sixth printing.

Batman The Killing Joke cover

For a long time I considered The Killing Joke to be one of the all-time greatest Batman stories ever told.  Along with Year One, I must have read it at least a dozen times when I was in high school.

It’s been a few years, though, since I last looked at The Killing Joke.  Yesterday I pulled my copy off the bookshelf and read it again, hoping to approach it with a fresh eye.  In certain respects I found it to still be amazing; in other respects previously minor flaws suddenly seemed much more apparent to me.

I still think the basic concept is great.  The Joker recalls his (possible) origin, when he was an average guy who was vainly attempting to start a career as a stand-up comedian, a depressed mope who felt like a failure to his pregnant wife.  Desperate to provide for his family, he agreed to help a pair of crooks rob the playing card company next to the chemical plant where he used to be employed.  Then, in the space of 24 hours, everything in his life catastrophically falls apart.  And at the end of the day he is transformed forevermore into Batman’s insane arch-nemesis.

The Joker becomes obsessed with the idea that “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”  He embarks on a scheme to drive Commissioner James Gordon crazy by completely destroying his life in order to prove his point, and not just to himself, but also to Batman, who he is convinced must have also had “one bad day” that resulted in him becoming an obsessed costumed vigilante.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 7

Moore’s scripting on The Killing Joke is fantastic.  His dialogue for the Joker is brilliantly twisted, humorous in the sickest way possible.  I absolutely love the first scene with the Joker where he is somberly reflecting on how the out-of-business carnival he wishes to purchase is a decrepit, hazardous wreck, only to turn around and, grinning ear-to-ear, announce “I’m crazy for it.”

Moore also writes Batman especially well.  He is a brooding, driven figure, yet also an introspective one.  Beneath his obsession with stopping the Joker is a concern that the two of them are locked in a spiral of self-destruction, and that sooner or later one or the other will inevitably end up dead.  Despairingly he asks “How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?”

The Killing Joke shows that Batman and the Joker are mirror images of one another, both very much alike and complete opposites.  A young Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered in front of him and dedicated the rest of his life to restoring order to his existence, to doing everything in his power to protect other innocents and punish criminals.  Likewise, something happened to the Joker and his life totally collapsed.  Unlike Batman, though, the Joker’s response to this was to descend into insanity, and to actively work to drag the entire world down with him, to tear down society, to perpetuate utter chaos.

Of course, Moore then sweeps aside the Joker’s argument by having Jim Gordon emerge intact from the hell he has been subjected to.  Yes, thanks to the Joker this has probably been the absolute worst day of his entire life.  But he is still very much sane.  When Batman heads into the carnival funhouse to capture the Joker, Gordon gives him firm instructions…

“I want him brought in… and I want him brought in by the book!  By the book, you hear?  We have to show him! We have to show him our way works!”

Much as Frank Miller did in Year One, Moore demonstrates in The Killing Joke that, in his own way, Gordon is just as strong, perhaps even stronger, than Batman.  Gordon is the one who doesn’t take refuge behind a mask to operate outside the law.  Instead, Gordon is the one who chooses to remain within a corrupt, flawed system and attempts to fix it from within.  And he doesn’t retreat from life, but works to maintain family & friendships in the face of the horrors that Gotham City continually throws in his face.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 38

The artwork by Brian Bolland on The Killing Joke is astonishing.  It is exquisitely detailed.  Bolland’s layouts and storytelling are incredibly dramatic.  He does superb work telling the story, transitioning from one scene to another.

Bolland is an incredible artist, but he is also not an especially fast one.  He is very meticulous, and so usually works as a cover artist, or drawing short stories for anthology books.  The Killing Joke is one of the longest stories Bolland ever drew outside of the Judge Dredd serials he worked on in 2000 AD and the Camelot 3000 miniseries he penciled.  As I understand it, Bolland spent some amount of time completing The Killing Joke.  It really appears that the time & energy he put into it were worth it, because the finished artwork is stunning.

The coloring by John Higgins is also extremely effective.  It definitely plays a key role in establishing the mood & atmosphere of this story.

So, having explained what I think is amazing about The Killing Joke, what is it that does not work for me?  To put it bluntly and simply, I really am not happy with the treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl.

I don’t know what the exact behind-the-scenes circumstances were at DC Comics’ editorial in the mid-1980s.  Apparently post-Crisis either no one wanted to use the character of Batgirl, or there was an active directive to write her out of the Batman books.  So when Moore came along with his dramatic plans for Barbara he was given the green light with no resistance from editorial.

A specific, key component of the Joker’s plan to drive Gordon insane is through torturing his daughter Barbara.  Specifically, the Joker shoots Barbara in the spine, crippling her from the waist down.  Apparently the Joker intended to inflict precisely that damage on her, because he immediately begins making tasteless jokes about it.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 15

After the Joker’s goons drag Gordon away, the Joker undresses the gravely-wounded Barbara and takes photos of her.  Later on, when Gordon is his prisoner at the carnival, the Joker forces him to view numerous blown-up photographs of the naked, humiliated Barbara.

As a teenager reading The Killing Joke, what happened to Barbara annoyed me.  At that time I was just upset that she had been placed in a wheelchair and could no longer be Batgirl.  It seemed like a waste of a character and an unfortunate thing to do to a hero who had been around since the 1960s.

Looking at The Killing Joke now, though, I am much more unsettled by Moore’s treatment of Barbara.  The scene in the funhouse with the photos of her is genuinely disturbing.

This is probably going to be the most inappropriate analogy possible, but this reminds me of Tom & Jerry.  When I was five years old I loved the Tom & Jerry cartoon.  I watched it on TV every single day.  I could not get enough of Tom & Jerry.  Then, inevitably, I got older, and I my interests changed.  Then about two decades later when I was in my mid-20s I started seeing reruns of Tom & Jerry on Cartoon Network, and I was surprised at how incredibly violent they were.  I could not believe that I had watched these as a little kid and not come away warped by them… hmmm, then again, maybe I did.

Well, I’ve had that same sort of experience with The Killing Joke.  Re-reading it in 2015 at the age of 38, aspects of it that flew under my radar as a teenager now leap out at me as appalling.

In the past I have heard some people describe what the Joker did to Barbara as “rape.”  I was one of those people who argued that nothing sexual actually happened.  The thing is, though, looking at it again now it is definitely a form of sexual assault.  The Joker shoots Barbara, takes off her clothes and photographs her while she is completely helpless.  That must have been an incredibly horrifying, humiliating experience.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 26

In hindsight, this falls into the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon that Gail Simone documented early in her career, wherein a villain kills or tortures a female character solely to make a male hero suffer.  That is definitely the case here.  The Joker doesn’t even know that Barbara is Batgirl.  He cripples and sexually humiliates her because he wants to drive Commissioner Gordon insane.  And the Joker is only doing that in order to prove a point to Batman, which makes the torture that Barbara experienced even more indirectly related to the protagonist.

I really cannot help but wonder if The Killing Joke could have worked better if Moore had approached it differently, if he had not done what he did to Barbara.  At the very least, Moore could have just had Barbara wounded by the Joker and left the door open for her recovery and return to the role of Batgirl so that she could once again be a hero instead of a victim.

Credit where credit is due: writers John Ostrander & Kim Yale, who were upset at Barbara Gordon’s treatment in The Killing Joke, successfully revamped her into the computer hacker & information broker Oracle in the pages of Suicide Squad.  Oracle soon became a key member of Batman’s supporting cast.  In the Birds of Prey series first Chuck Dixon and then Gail Simone herself did great work with Barbara / Oracle.

When Barbara finally regained her ability to walk and resumed the identity of Batgirl in the New 52, Simone was again there to chronicle her adventures.  So fortunately, despite what happened to Barbara in The Killing Joke, other writers were able to make her an interesting, viable character again.

Suicide Squad 49 cover Oracle

Another aspect of The Killing Joke that I am not happy with is that it helped begin the escalation of the Joker into an unstoppable mass murderer.  It became a case of “Can you top this?”  The Killing Joke saw the Joker cripple Batgirl and try to drive Gordon insane.  Shortly after, in “A Death in the Family,” the Joker brutally murdered Jason Todd / Robin and attempted to poison the United Nations General Assembly at the behest of the Ayatollah Khomeini… no, really, that actually happened!  Since then there have been stories where the Joker mutilates newborn babies, runs over innocent people, attempts to blow up Gotham with a nuclear bomb and murders Jim Gordon’s wife Sarah, just to name a few atrocities.  It’s all culminated with the Joker cutting off his own face just to show us how evil and insane he is.

This is why I am generally not a fan of the Joker.  Yes, for most of his history the character has been a murderer.  But before the late 1980s the Joker wasn’t an indiscriminate killer.  His crimes, however horrible, were motivated by a certain sick humor and bizarre rationales.  Hell, even in The Killing Joke he isn’t going around murdering people left & right.  He kills one person, the owner of the carnival.  That’s it.  Despite that, Moore’s depiction of the Joker is one of the most frightening ever.

But again, this is yet another example of subsequent writers looking at the success & innovations of Moore’s work in the 1980s and totally taking the wrong lessons away.  Just as they did with Watchmen, later Batman writers looked at The Killing Joke and said “Let’s make the Joker and all of Batman’s other enemies completely insane and violent and have them murder lots of people! Grim & gritty is cool!”

Batman The Animated Series Joker

That’s probably why my favorite version of the Joker is actually from Batman: The Animated Series.  Because the audience for that series was all ages, the Joker could not be seen killing anyone.  That required the writers to actually be creative and come up with other ways in which to make the character scary.  Unlike in the comic books, The Animated Series couldn’t simply rely on mindless carnage to show us the Joker was insane and evil.

Besides, Mark Hamill was brilliant at voicing the Joker.  His portray of the character was perfect.  Even though The Killing Joke was published four years before The Animated Series made its debut, re-reading Alan Moore’s dialogue for the Joker, I can totally “hear” Hamill’s voice in my head.

Summing it all up, Batman: The Killing Joke is a good story with superb artwork.  However, there are nevertheless aspects of the writing that are undeniably problematic.  While I still like The Killing Joke, it definitely has some real flaws, especially its treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon.

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15 thoughts on “Batman: The Killing Joke – a reappraisal

  1. Pingback: About that Batgirl variant cover by Rafael Albuquerque | In My Not So Humble Opinion
  2. I loved the art on “The Killing Joke,” but always hated the story, for the very reasons you give. Moore crossed a line that shouldn’t have been crossed, and bares responsibility for sparking all the “dark and gritty” stories that followed. And now that DC is finally trying to do the right thing and course correct by rejecting that Batgirl variant cover, all the socially retarded fanboys are going crazy. They’re so inured to sexual violence due to years of overexposure to porn and slasher flicks that they have no idea what sexual menacing even means. To them, it’s just another day at the keyboard.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A couple of thoughts.

    First, a supporting character was hurt in order to get to the main character. That’s normal. That’s storytelling. It’s not (necessarily) woman in refrigerators – though that would depend on whether all your supporting characters were female or not, I guess. But the very fact that Jason Todd’s Robin was later killed disproves the “fridges” theory – and that act had a far more lasting impact on Batman.

    (Though you cannot hide from the fact that Alan Moore stated when he proposed the story, a then DC editor allegedly said “cripple the bitch.” That’s just disgusting.)

    But if we follow the fridges theory, that means we can either only have female supporting characters for female leads, or no female supporting characters. Because trauma / trial / adversity is what makes superhero comics so interesting – if we’re not allowed to target supporting characters because of their gender, that really narrows the scope.

    Second, stripping someone doesn’t have to be sexual. It’s debasing, yes. When a ‘stag’ is stripped by his mates and handcuffed to a lamppost, is that sexual? No. Any sexual context in The Killing Joke is inferred. Don’t forget, he stripped Gordon too. So either the Joker is bisexual (possible, but no clear evidence) or asexual (far more likely). Either way, I didn’t read it as a sexual act, merely a way of debasing and humiliating both characters. You described it as “horrifying, humiliating.” I completely agree. But not sexual. I don’t read anything sexual in The Killing Joke at all (Alan Moore has stated since that Barbara wasn’t raped), as I read the Joker as asexual. The closest he has to a love interest is Batman, but that’s not manifested as a physical attraction.

    The fact that Joker doesn’t know Barbara is Batgirl is irrelevant. He knows she’s the daughter of his target, which is plot relevant.

    What would have been interesting would be an ‘alternate world’ scenario where Gordon’s child was male instead of female. Would Alan Moore have written the story the same way? I don’t know.

    Remember, for every wounding of Batgirl / death of Supergirl there has been a death of Robin / death of Superboy. These are key supporting characters from over 75 yeas of history – it would be disingenuous not to put some of them in real peril just because of gender.

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    • The Moore quote proves Ben’s point about the sexist context of women in peril – it’s a point Moore was expressing himself.

      I think Moore was putting that “cripple the bitch” context into the story: that The Joker attacks Barbara only as a way to test Gordon is meant to echo how women are harmed to provide motivation for the male protagonist. Moore and Bolland are very careful artists – so the creepy sexual way she is posed naked in those photographs being shown to her father in bondage gear is meant to point to the creepy subtext of “women in refrigerators”. There’s a difference between secondary character being in peril as a standard plot device and the frequency and intensity of how women are used in this trope and how often woman is equate with sexual yet helpless. When Robin died he wasn’t stripped naked in depicted in a series of frames depicting parts of his body. Look at those panels: if it were any more obvious Moore and Bolland might as well have written THIS IS THE SUBTEXT.

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      • When Robin was murdered, The Joker didn’t want to photograph him for Batman, he intended to BLOW HIM UP (which he proceeded to do).

        If the Joker’s intent was to drive Batman to madness — as with Gordon — I have no doubt he’d have stripped Robin naked and photographed him, as well. Especially considering the oft-made jokes regarding Batman & Robin’s relationship.

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        • Alex, one crucial thing to keep in mind is that I seriously doubt that DC would have ever let any of their creators write a scene where the Joker shot Robin, stripped him naked, and photographed him. But they were fine with Moore having it done to Batgirl. In other words, it appears that they felt it was acceptable to show sexual violence & humiliation directed at a woman, but not at a man. There appears to be a real double standard there.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Oops, mis-typed my name! Good grief.

    Should have said: thank you for taking the time to write your piece. It’s interesting and thought provoking. That can only be a good thing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree with your take, though I suspect Moore was intentionally implying the rape subtext. Most of his 80s work had the subtext of using grim excess to question the nature of superhero fantasies and those who produce and consume them. It’s possible he was trying to deconstruct the women in refrigerators trope by showing how using violence against a woman in service of telling a man’s story echoes the dynamic of sexual assault.

    The problem with this is: a) sometimes criticizing sex and violence by depicting can also be indulging it, despite his intent Moore sometimes seems a bit to into the thrill of shocking material; b) I feel his more subtle satirical/critical points come across better with newly created or less familiar characters. Swamp Thing and the Watchmen were more open to being used in this way. c) Even when it is obvious, readers and creators have long ignored the subtext and critiques and embraced grim and gritty deconstruction as merely edgy and cool.

    Thus something which may be meant to satirize the creator/fan tendency to consume the symbolic rape of female characters becomes a touchstone for those who perpetuate this trend. Certainly in this case the popularity of The Killing Joke became a pretext for the childish wallow in rape, murder and grimness that was Identity Crisis.

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  6. I don’t know how I missed this excellent blog post. I agree 100%. The Killing Joke revolts me in my middle age, but I will admit I was titillated over Bolland’s art and Moore’s grim/gritty writing back in college–was I upset about Batgirl’s treatment? Similarly: only because I liked her as a character and was woefully oblivious to the reaction women would have to such scenes. I had a similar reaction with by Nabokov. I thought it was such a work of genius in uni, but today, I feel creeped out and wish Nabokov (just as I wish Alan Moore) had exercised their extraordinary grey matter in another direction, made other plot choices, and chosen different subject matter.

    I think that Stephen(m) and the other people who commented answered his own query: if Robin had been stripped naked–then of course it would have been sexual, and of course DC would never dare do that, as Ben Herman points out. So, the Killing Joke is unfortunately guilty of that “woman in refrigerator” trope. Barbara is never seen to display courage or defiant will against the nemesis. She buckles and caves. Nothing deflates a villain’s ego faster than a hero/ine who refuses to be terrorized. Imagine how that dialog could have played out: “[speaking to the Joker] Go ahead, Joker. Get your sick little jollies. Take all the pictures you want. I’m gonna be there when you fall. [Turning to speak to her father] Dad, ignore him. You get free of this mess and come save me. Together we’ll put this animal where he belongs.” Or something along those lines–obviously I’m not Moore.

    Rape is a power trip, is about domination, so if Barbara takes that away from the Joker, then she empowers herself and emasculates her would-be victimizer. She could be put in danger, taken hostage, etc. But she is a hero after all, veteran of countless gun battles, etc., and after so many years of superhero-ing, her meek response to the event is what chafes me most. Why wouldn’t she muster up some gumption and defy the Joker? Because that would have ruined Moore’s/Joker’s hypothesis. It’s that false note (that and Batman waxing sentimental over the Joker and then even further…sharing a laugh with the Joker at the end? Did Batman suddenly have amnesia and forget what the Joker did to one of his colleagues and best friend’s daughter?) that ruins this potential masterpiece for me and makes me relegate it to work of pop culture, not literature. In other words, Moore went for the shock value instead of the sublime.

    What makes all of this even more problematic beyond the gender issues is the question of (self) censorship that underlies all of this. Evil men will always use whatever dastardly strategies that are easy at hand, and if a writer wants to inject “realism” into his script, then why shouldn’t s/he? I often wonder about this question vis-a-vis the specific medium and modalities employed. If this were a novel and we were reading it instead of “seeing” it in pictures or on film, it might fly (for me). But (for me) the specific act of seeing (no matter how tastefully rendered by Bolland) Batgirl so horribly treated, makes me feel complicit in the crime, if that makes any sense. Whereas if I were to read it in a more abstract medium (print–no illustrations), I feel like I have control to censor my imagination. But, when it’s on display graphically, that choice is taken from me. I just feel that the print modality is of a different order than the visual ones. It’s so easy to show something and you are forever changed as it were, which means I think that more control and forethought has to go into a work of art in which visual modalities are employed.

    Great post! Really thought provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: The Movement #10 | iBLOGalot
  8. First, to everyone saying they are revolted or disturbed by the story and/or the Jokers actions in…..that’s the point. You’re supposed to be. And pulling back from the story, only having Barbra be hurt, go through this and then be back as Batgirl as if nothing happened, would not only undercut the story Moore was telling but completely undercut and disregard the trauma that we went through.

    Second, this idea that “women are fridges” is just silly. Would you argue that Bruces mother was handled poorly as a charater because she was created only to die to create Batman? Yes sometimes bad things happen to female characters, but sometimes bad things happen to male characters. Comics like Batman are full of dangerous characters who do horrible things to other people. You can not say you want to see more important female heroes and/or characters in stories like these and then have a problem when something bad happens to them.

    Third, the great thing about all this is, the Killing Joke really does offend you or bother you or whatever…..you NEVER have to read it again. You never have to watch the movie they are making. You can simply pretend it doesn’t exist.

    Also, I think its very unfair to claim that DC wouldn’t have allowed Jason Todd to be stripped and/or photographed. You have no idea if that conversation ever took place and/or how it would have gone if it did. Kyle Rayner, Nightwing, Green Arrow, Apollo, even Batman have all been victims of Rape and/or sexual violence in DC books.

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    • Well, Sluggo, other than Nightwing (who, yes, was raped by the female villain Tarantula in a scene that many readers found to not be particularly well-executed) offhand I do not recall any of the male characters you list being victims of sexual violence.

      Nevertheless, thank you for taking the time to share your opinions on The Killing Joke. We will have to agree to disagree.

      Like

  9. The Killing Joke is a classic and troubling work. What I think makes it truly troubling is not that Moore & Bolland created the work, that amply displays their incredible talent, but that it echoes horrid aspects of reality in which real life “Jokers” do horrible things to women (men too, as well as to children of both sexes, but more often to women). Moore’s work has shown enough variety in his depiction of women that I wouldn’t take this as evidence of a misogynistic outlook on his part but was part of his overall dark storytelling in this period. Fortunately, the character of Barbara Gordon survived, was put to good use as a disabled character and, in the grand tradition of fantasy fiction, eventually got much better. If Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been a comicbook character, not only would he still be alive well past 100 years old, he’d have somehow overcome the polio that had crippled him in the last 24 years of his life.
    Thinking on the “women in refrigerators” trope, in comics it was all too common at Marvel circa 1969 to 1973, with the deaths of Una in Captain Marvel, Janice Cord in Iron Man, Lady Dorma in Sub-Mariner and, finally, Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man, although just a few years later they did it again with Jarella in the Hulk, all long before that infamous Green Lantern story. I missed the first three instances, but upon reading the story wherein Jarella is crushed by falling rubble while saving a young child (echoing the death of Captain George Stacy) it struck me that the deaths of male heroes’ female love interests was already becoming far-too common, even if, admittedly, if superhero comics were more realistic far more characters would die horrid deaths and stay dead.
    I mostly quit reading comics by the late ’80s, when the dark & gritty era really got going. I admit I do prefer super-hero comics with a bit more realistic outlook rather than entirely escapist stories, but while real life does include much grimness there’s also much light and portraying unrelenting horror in which everyone the hero cares about is killed off or seriously maimed by his enemies just to torment him would be too depressing to keep up with. I think a part of the reason the last Amazing Spider-Man film didn’t do particularly well at the box office was the all-too predictable death of Gwen Stacy — personally, I wasn’t totally surprised that she would die but I did have hope that the movie would take a different twist and have her survive. After all, this incarnation of Spider-Man and his supporting cast was so different from their Silver Age counterparts that it would have made a lot more sense to keep Gwen alive. As it was, her death cast a dark pall over the series that it couldn’t survive, and in this case there was not even a Mary Jane to provide sympathy.
    Just random related thoughts upon reading this posting.

    Liked by 1 person

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