In the late 1980s, Alan Moore was one of the rock stars of comics. He had started out writing for the venerable British comics weekly, 2000 A.D., home of JUDGE DREDD, and for the anthology magazine WARRIOR, where he wrote such series as V FOR VENDETTA and the revival of the British hero MARVELMAN, (renamed MIRACLEMAN when reprinted in the U.S.) Coming to DC Comics, he wrote a groundbreaking run on SWAMP THING which indirectly led to the creation of DC's VERTIGO line of comics. Moore's masterpiece during this period working for DC was his epic deconstruction of the super-hero, WATCHMEN. This led to DC commissioning him to write the Definitive Joker Story, which became the graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE.
The Joker has always been an enigma in the DC Universe. Up to the Joker's first appearance, Batman had always fought your standard garden variety thugs and gangsters. The Joker, with his garish calling card, psychotic leer and box-o-crayons face, was Batman's first costumed villain. In his first appearance he apparently fell to his death, but you can't keep a good villain down.
His real name has never been revealed. Oh yes, he was given an origin story about a decade after his debut, as the leader of a gang of criminals who hid his identity under an opaque red helmet shaped like a bell jar, who called himself The Red Hood. While attempting to rob a chemical plant, his heist was interrupted by the Batman; and the Red Hood wound up falling into a vat of chemicals which bleached his skin bone-white and turned his hair green. But the Red Hood remained as much a mystery as the Joker.
Alan Moore's take on the Red Hood/Joker origin story was one of the most anticipated stories of the year. Moore was arguably the best writer working for DC at the time, and the Joker DC's most popular villain. The artist, Brian Bollard, was another alumnus of 2000 AD, and known for his meticulously rendered artwork. (And for his tardiness; one earlier series he worked on, Mike W. Barr's CAMELOT 3000, went a whole 12 months between issues; and Bollard eventually went to drawing only covers).
There is a lot of good stuff in THE KILLING JOKE. Moore has a talent for taking elements and conventions of the comic book super-hero that are cliched and even goofy, and finding new ways of looking at them. But there is much about the story that I find unsatisfying. Moore seems to agree with me; in later interviews he has said that he doesn't regard it as a terribly good story and he didn't care much for the characters. He wrote it shortly after finishing WATCHMEN, and the story carries a lot of stylistic similarities to it.
The story begins with a wordless sequence of Batman going to Arkham Asylum to confront the Joker. These initial pages are arranged in the same nine-panel 3x3 grid that Moore used in WATCHMEN. The regularity of the format provides a kind of inexorable rhythm that builds suspense. He does not maintain the format throughout the entire book, as he did with WATCHMEN, but the 3x3 grid keeps recurring, and he uses it again on the final page to tie things together, even repeating the image of the very first panel in the very last.
Batman is coming to see the Joker for an unexpected reason. “I've been thinking lately about you and me,” he says. “About what's going to happen to us in the end. We're going to kill each other, aren't we?” He wants to talk things out with the Joker, try to break the vicious cycle of their twisted antagonistic relationship; perhaps even help the Joker. But Batman is late; he learns that the Joker has already escaped.
We meet the Joker looking over an abandoned and dilapidated carnival which he plans to use for his next big plan. As he does so, we get the start of a flashback to his life before he became the Joker. This dual plot; the present one involving the carnival and Commissioner Gordon, and the flashback to his backstory; weave back and forth. As in WATCHMEN, Moore signals the transition from past to present with panels which visually echo each other. The double doors of Joker's evil funhouse in one panel echo the double doors of a seedy bar in the flashback in the next. The panel of the hapless comic covering his face in anguish leads to the one of Commissioner Gordon doing the same.
Before the Joker was the Clown Prince of Crime, he was a sad sack loser trying desperately to support his wife and child-to-be as a stand-up comedian. He wasn't very successful, and when a couple crooks want his help in robbing a playing card company. He used to work in a chemical plant next door, and the crooks want his inside information to break into the card company through the plant. They just want him to wear this costume, evening clothes and a helmet-like red hood,. “We sort of just let the most valued member of the mob wear it for, uh, added anonymity.”
The comic is desperate enough that he accepts the offer. His family needs the money. Then he learns that his wife has died in a tragic and pointless household accident. There's no reason for him to go along with the Red Hood gang anymore, but the crooks won't let him back out. He's trapped.
With the Red Hood, Moore once again demonstrates his habit of looking at real-world ramifications of comic book gimmicks. The hood is stuffy, and smells; and the special red lenses built into the hood make it difficult for the wearer to see and severely curtails his peripheral vision. And the hood itself is a cruel joke; it's purpose is not to honor the “most valued member”; it's to fool the cops into thinking the guy in the fancy dress is the ringleader so that they go after him instead.
Which is what happens. There is a gunfight with the security guards; then the Batman shows up, looking like a very devil through the hood's red-tinted lenses, and confronts the man in the hood. The sad-sack panics and jumps into a retaining pond filled with toxic waste to escape. And the rest is history.
It is a powerful re-interpretation of the Joker's origin, keeping it's original structure but fundamentally shifting how we look at it. But is it the definitive origin? The Joker himself casts doubt on it. Later on in the story he says, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha!”
While this backstory, whether real or delusional, unfolds; the Joker's plot progresses. He appears at the door of Commissioner Gordon, dressed as a tourist in a tacky Hawaiian shirt with a camera. And a gun. When Gordon's daughter, Barbara answers the door, he shoots her in the spine.
This is the significant moment, and the image of the Joker in the Hawaiian shirt with the camera and pistol has become an iconic one, like the image of young Bruce Wayne kneeling over his slain parents from BATMAN: YEAR ONE, or Superman chucking a sedan on the cover of ACTION COMICS #1. This is the moment that became an important event in DC Continutiy, a “Fixed Point in Time”, to use Doctor Who terminology. (Really. Many years later there was a story in which a time-traveling Booster Gold attempts to save her but repeatedly fails, and is forced to accept that the tragedy was somehow destined to be). The one lasting ramification of the story was that Barbara had been shot by the Joker and permanently crippled.
Barbara Gordon had formerly had a crime-fighting career as Batgirl. At the time, she hadn't really been used much in the BATMAN comics, though. Which I think is why, when Moore asked if he could have the Joker shoot Batgirl, the editor in charge of the book shrugged and said, why not?
I remember the summer before THE KILLING JOKE came out, DC published a BATGIRL SPECIAL, which was advertised with the promise that it was essential reading going into the upcoming KILLING JOKE. I remember little of that Special, apart from being disappointed. The writer, Barbara Kessel, had done a very good Batgirl origin story for the SECRET ORIGINS comic a year or so earlier, but the Special, in which Barbara fought a guy wearing a Mountie hat calling himself the Cormorant (wha...?), was not that great. At the end of the Special, Barbara feels so traumatized by her fight with the Cormorant (wha...?) that she decides to give up being Batgirl. My own suspicion was that DC was burning up an inventory story, a script they had in their files to use if they ever got any holes in their schedule, which they wouldn't be able to use after KILLING JOKE came out; and that the ending where Barbara hangs up her cape was tacked on to explain why she isn't Batgirl in TKJ.
In later interviews, Alan Moore says he regretted crippling Barbara. I suppose he wanted to do something shocking and dramatic and didn't think through what it would mean to future stories. But frankly, that was the editor's job; the editor should have either vetoed that bit, or discussed alternatives which might have worked better. Too late now.
There are a lot of Batgirl fans who hated what Moore did to her as well. The Joker did not just shoot her in the belly, smashing her spine and crippling her. When the police arrive they find that she has been stripped naked, and evidence that the Joker took photographs of her. Some fans have drawn the conclusion that he also raped her. This is never explicitly stated, but it's hard to argue that what he did wasn't a violation.
But I think what angered the Batgirl fans most was that Barbara was set up to be a disposable victim, and was set aside once she'd served her purpose. Like the Whale in “The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy”, she was introduced, given enough panels to make the audience like her, and then BANG. She gets a brief scene in the hospital with Batman afterward, but apart from that for the rest of the story she's a prop. And after the story, she was left there, crippled. She was not stuffed in a refrigerator as much as she was stuffed in a plastic bag and left on the curb for the garbage man. Whether Moore intended it or not, seemed very much like the editors wanted to write Barbara Gordon out of the DC Universe.
Not all of them. One DC editor, Kim Yale, disliked what had happened to Barbara. She and her husband, writer John Ostrander, brought her back in his book SUICIDE SQUAD as Oracle, a data-broker who maintained a vast computer network to support other super-heroes. Oracle was a mysterious figure at first, only later revealed to be Barbara Gordon; but she grew to be an important support character both for Batman and the Justice League and the leader of her own team in BIRDS OF PREY. More recently, Barbara has been shown to have received treatment restoring the use of her legs and has resumed her role as Batgirl.
But back to the story. After shooting Barbara, the Joker kidnaps her father and brings him to his little Abandoned Carnival of Evil. He has recruited a gang of extras from Tod Browning's “Freaks” who strip Gordon naked and coerce him with cattle prods into a funhouse ride – think of the psychotic boat ride from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, only with Joker singing his cynical nihilistic philosophy and culminating with Gordon forced to view enormous images of his daughter, naked and bleeding. Yes, degradation is sort of a theme here. Why does he do this all? “To prove a point,” he earlier tells Barbara.
This point is a theme he elaborates on in a number of monologues throughout the story. He puts Gordon in a cage for his henchfreaks to laugh at and expounds his philosophy of life:
“Ladies and gentlemen! … I give your... the average man! Physically unremarkable, it has instead a deformed sense of values. … Most repulsive of all, are its frail and useless notions of order and sanity. If too much weight is placed upon them... they snap. … Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this... any other response would be crazy!”
He plays variations on this theme throughout the whole story, including the sprightly music hall number he sings during the dark ride. His plan is to drive Gordon to madness, and it isn't long before the Commissioner is curled up into a fetal position, seemingly catatonic.
Meanwhile, Batman has been scouring the city for the Joker, in another wordless sequence in which he goes around intimidating people and shoving the Joker's picture in their faces. As a visual sequence, it works, and conveys the urgency of the situation, but I really expect the Dark Knight Detective to do better than that. In the end he finds the hideout only because the Joker sends him tickets to the Carnival care of the Gotham City Police Station.
As Batman pursues the Joker through his demented fun house, The Joker returns to his point.
“I've demonstrated there's no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. … 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 like a flying rat?”
He's right on the last point; that's pretty much what happened. Batman and Joker can be seen as twisted mirror images of each other. Oh, and this sequence takes place in a hall of mirrors. I should have caught that earlier. The Joker goes on to rant about the futility and irrationality of the universe.
“It's all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for … it's all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can't you see the funny side?” The Joker becomes serious for once; his face almost pensive. “Why aren't you laughing?”
“Because I've heard it before...” Batman answers grimly, “...and it wasn't funny the first time.”
And for the record, Gordon did NOT break the way the Joker expected him to. He told Batman to bring in the Joker “by the book”. “We have to show him. We have to show him our way works.” So maybe ordinary people don't always crack.
Finally defeated, the Joker resigns himself to having the snot beaten out of him and being dragged back to Arkahm. But Batman holds back. Because he still wants to say his piece; the things he tried to tell Joker back at Arkham. That the two of them seem locked on a course of Mutually Assured Destruction and they need to break out of it somehow.
“It doesn't have to end like that. I don't know what it was that bent your life out of shape, but who knows? Maybe I've been there too. Maybe I can help.”
The Joker may be crazy, but on a certain level he's a realist. He knows it will never work. He tells Batman that it's too late for that. Does he mean that with atrocity committed against Barbara and Jim Gordon that he has gone beyond redemption? Or that he had crossed that line long ago?
It's kind of like a joke. “See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum...” Joker says, and he tells this joke: a simple funny story with no decapitations, no deadly acid, and no hideous disfigurments. Perhaps it was even one of the jokes the unnamed would-be comedian tried to tell at his botched audition alluded to in the flashback. But it's a joke which maybe strikes a chord with the two crazy men facing each other in the rain; the one who looks like a clown, and the one who dresses like a bat.
And Batman does something he very rarely does. He cracks a smile. And then a chuckle. And then a laugh, and the two men dissolve into hysterical laughter as the police cars arrive and the rain comes down.
And... that's it. Pan to artistic raindrops in puddles. Fade out. The End.
I can't help but feel disappointed in the ending. It's like a massive build-up to a weak punch line. After all the Joker has done in this story, we expect something bigger, more cathartic. And if nothing else, Barbara deserves some kind of closure. Instead, we get a laugh.
Which is perhaps why writer Grant Morrison has speculated that Batman actually kills the Joker on that last page, and that THE KILLING JOKE was intended to be the Last Joker Story. If you look at the page, one can kind of see that interpretation; as they are laughing together at the end, Batman reaches out and puts his hand on Joker's upper body. The view pans away from their faces. Does Batman strangle the Joker?
Looking at the panels, I suppose one could make that case; but to me it just looks like Batman is putting his hand on Joker's shoulder to steady each other as they laugh. And that is how Moore actually describes the panel in his script: the two are helpless with laughter and holding each other up. Moore is a meticulous, detail-oriented writer; if he had wanted the Joker killed, he would have explicitly said so. Or if he had wanted the scene to be ambiguous, he would have instructed the artist as to what exactly he wanted to be ambiguous about. Having Batman kill the Joker would have blatantly gone against Gordon's request to Batman: (“By the book, do you hear!”). And it would have wrecked the point of the joke.
I have to say, that looking at the book again, I have a little better liking about some of the bits I didn't care for. Bolland's artwork is superb, and Moore's writing carries subtleties which reward repeated reading. The Joker's soliloquies are eloquent, yet Moore manages to avoid the Lucifer trap that Milton found himself in where the Bad Guy is so charismatic that he makes the Good Guy look like a stiff. Moore's Batman is forceful and quite capable of answering the Joker's absurdist nihilism. Moore's craft in structuring his plot is amazing; (and ironic, considering he's here writing about an avatar of chaos).
The ending, though, is still weak; it just sort of drizzles off into atmosphere. And I'm still not happy with the way Barbara Gordon is used as a plot device to be discarded after the Joker had finished victimizing her. That later writers were able to build off this story to reinvent her does not negate that in this tale her role is simply to be helpless, and to stay out of the way.
I don't think THE KILLING JOKE is the best Joker story ever, (although I would be hard pressed to say which one is; probably one from the Animated Series), and I sometimes get annoyed by the adulation some fans heap upon it. Yet I can't deny, where it's good, it excels; and Moore provides an interesting look into the psyches of both the Clown and the Bat.