“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
Batman: The Killing Joke
I remember how I felt when I was done reading Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke. I was utterly shell-shocked. I stared into space with the slender book in my hands, paralyzed in complete disbelief.
Batman and The Joker — here were two characters that I felt as though I had known my whole life. And there I was, seeing them in a different light — in a much more human and sympathetic way. Just as I did from reading Watchmen, it felt as if I was reading a commentary on the human condition, rather than a mere comic book.
I spent weeks reeling from what I read, and reflecting on what it all meant.
If I’m honest, I still haven’t quite gotten myself out of that process yet, even months on. But this is my best attempt to make sense of it at this moment.
It’s fair to say that my generation grew up being familiar with the dark and realistic interpretation of Batman. And this is mostly thanks to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, as well as the Arkham games and most recently Matt Reeves’s amazing film The Batman, and Todd Phillips’ Joker.
While this dark view of the caped crusader might not be something new us today, it was a huge deal nearly four decades ago.
It can be traced back to some of the most influential Batman comic books ever written, such as Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, Jeff Loeb’s The Long Halloween, and of course, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.
By the time Alan Moore published The Killing Joke, he had already made a name for himself for forever changing the comic book genre with Watchmen. With its dark and realistic depictions of life and its three-dimensional characters, Alan Moore especially has been credited for bringing comic books into maturity — so much so that people started using the term “graphic novels” instead.
Prior to The Killing Joke, The Joker was often portrayed as a cartoonish jester, who was simply insane. Being Alan Moore, he decided to have a fresh take on The Joker. With that, he made the character much more multi-layered by suggesting, “what if The Joker wasn’t insane — at least not from a medical point of view? What if he were completely aware of his actions and thoughts? What if being insane here meant that he had a worldview that is at odds with that of society?”
In the story, it is revealed that The Joker used to be a struggling comedian. To fend for his pregnant wife, he took up a deal with some local gangsters to rob a factory. Suddenly, he lost his wife and unborn child in a freak accident. And despite his wanting to opt out of the deal, he was pressured into robbing the factory anyway. The robbery went awry, and in his attempt to escape from the police, he fell into a vat of acid, which turned his skin pale-white and his hair green.
All of this happened in the span of just one bad day.
Though, it is worth noting that we don’t know how much of his backstory is even true, as The Joker is an unreliable narrator of his own past. As he says, “If I have to have a past, then I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
Broken by the random cruelness of the tragedies he supposedly experienced, it can be argued that The Joker became an absurdist, as he lost faith in the idea that life had any meaning at all. He became much further entrenched in a life of crime, embracing the belief that life is just one big joke, and that ultimately none of his actions matter.
As The Joker says, “I find the past such a worrying, anxious place…Memory’s so treacherous…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.”
In the present day, The Joker targets Commissioner Gordon for his next spree. He cripples Gordon’s daughter Barbara, or Batgirl, and strips her nude. He later subjects Gordon to horrendous torture in an abandoned funfair, dehumanizing him to a level lower than that of animals. He shows Gordon nude photos that he took of his daughter, all in an attempt to prove that it only takes one bad day to drive a person insane.
The Joker doesn’t bother to exact the same violent acts towards Batman, as he believes that Batman is his equal — that he too, was driven insane by his one bad day. He is right of course, because we know that Batman witnessed his parents being gunned down when he was a child.
He tells Batman, “You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up as a flying rat? You had a bad day and it drove you as crazy as everybody else…only you won’t admit it! You have to keep pretending that life makes sense, that there’s some point to all this struggling! God, you make me want to puke.”
The Joker’s plan fails, as Gordon doesn’t break. Batman rescues Gordon to safety and engages in a fight with The Joker. Eventually, the fight de-escalates, and the two characters engage in conversation.
Batman attempts to empathize with The Joker, and even offers his help to rehabilitate him. In a rare display of humanity, The Joker apologizes and turns down his help, claiming that he has gone past the point of no return — showing that he is aware of his own condition.
The Joker chuckles at a joke he suddenly remembered, and shares it with Batman. He tells about two guys who attempt to escape from a lunatic asylum by jumping across rooftops. The first guy jumps without a problem. The second guy is afraid of heights and doesn’t dare to make the jump. To help his friend, the first guy has an idea — he could shine a flashlight across the gap, so that his friend could just walk along that beam of light and join him on the other side. The second guy doubts his idea and says, “What do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was halfway across!”
The joke can be thought of as an analogy for Batman and The Joker. Both are insane. But Batman, like the first guy, has managed to overcome his insanity and find his place in society. The Joker, on the other hand, like the second guy, is not able to do the same. He is afraid, perhaps in believing in any hope that he could once again have a normal life, after his previous one was shattered into pieces. He turns down Batman’s help, as he is mistrustful that Batman would give up on him halfway, or that his help wouldn’t work in the first place.
Batman and The Joker share a laugh — their only civil interaction that we ever get to see. Their laughter resounds in the rain, as the beam of light shone by a streetlamp above them slowly fades, and the panel cuts to black.
The reason why The Killing Joke is one of the very best comics I’ve ever read is because of how human it is.
In a sense, Alan Moore made The Joker a much more terrifying character, because we realize that anybody could be The Joker if they were similarly driven to the edge. While the comic doesn’t condone any of The Joker’s violent behavior, it does make us think, that who are we to say that we wouldn’t end up the same way if we were placed in a similar situation as his?
Just as psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in A Man’s Search For Meaning, “No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”
People have heavily debated about what happens at the end of the story, whether Batman kills The Joker. But personally, I’ve never been concerned about it. It’s meant to be ambiguous, and that’s the point of it being written anticlimactically. There are no epic conclusions, just laughter and rain.
As Alan Moore himself commented, “My intention at the end of that book was to have the two characters simply experiencing a brief moment of lucidity in their ongoing very weird and probably fatal relationship with each other, reaching a moment where they both perceive the hell that they are in, and can only laugh at their preposterous situation.”
The influence of The Killing Joke can clearly be seen in various adaptations. In Todd Phillips’ Joker, for example, a similar concept is adapted for the protagonist, who is a struggling comedian and eventually embraces being an outcast in society. Needless to say, The Killing Joke has a very special place in the Batman universe, as well as my bookshelf.
One person has a strong dislike for The Killing Joke, however, and that is its ever-self-critical author Alan Moore. He has said that he wasn’t challenging himself in writing the comic, that he wasn’t “saying anything interesting”. He has also claimed that the comic was too violent, and that there was no importance in fleshing out “a guy dressed as a bat” and The Joker, who are not like any person you would meet in real life.
Well, that’s Alan Moore for you. It wouldn’t be normal if he doesn’t disown his work.
Anyway, if you ever have the opportunity to read The Killing Joke, I highly recommend that you do so, as it’s different from any Batman story that you’ve ever experienced.
It might mean differently to you, but that’s the beauty of all good art. If there were any meaning at all in art, let it be multiple choice.