25th Anniversary: The Killing Joke

I don’t exactly know when I started reading comic books.  I had a collection of comics, most likely hand-me-downs, but I do remember going to the corner shop down the […]

I don’t exactly know when I started reading comic books.  I had a collection of comics, most likely hand-me-downs, but I do remember going to the corner shop down the street from my aunt’s house and buying a Web of Spiderman 19 featuring the first appearance of the Humbug.  I went to shops, conventions held in conference rooms of Holiday Inns, and I traded them with friends.

That is how I first got my hands on Batman: The Killing Joke.Killingjoke

It was with my friend John.  We would get together after school and lay our comics out on the floor to see which ones were worthy of a trade.  As a Batman fan, I was interested with anything involving the Dark Knight.  Just as I was ready to trade him my copies of Alpha Flight 59 and 60 for Batman: The Cult, I saw The Killing Joke.  So that day after school, John got my Alpha Flights and I got The Killing Joke.

Originally released as a one shot (industry term for a single stand-alone story that does not fall in to a character’s continuity) by DC Comics in 1988.  It was written by Alan Moore (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Swamp Thing) and illustrated by Brian Bolland (2000AD, Animal Man, Judge Dredd).

Moore and Bolland created a Batman book which could be argued was less of a Batman book and more of a Joker book.  The story establishes an origin for the Joker using elements from a story in Detective Comics 168 (Feb. 1951), “The Man Behind the Red Hood!”

In the 1951 story, written by Bill Finger, the Joker, under the disguise of the Red Hood as a way for the Clown Prince to exact revenge on Batman.  Joker explains years prior, he stole from the Monarch Playing Card Company. When Batman came to stop him, he jumped in to a vat of chemicals which gave him his chalk white skin, red lips, and green hair.  He vowed revenge on the Caped Crusader after that day.

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Moore’s story, combined with Bolland’s artwork, takes elements of that Detective Comics issue and spins in a much darker tone which not only establishes reasons for the Joker’s insanity but creates more depth to a character that, until then, was simply the psychotic arch nemesis of the Dark Knight.

The reader gains access to the Joker as a broke and failed stand-up comedian trying to do right by his pregnant wife.  Desperate to make money in order to take care of his family, he accepts a job from the mob to break in to his old employer’s Chemical plant in order to gain access to a Playing Card Company. Before the job, Joker’s wife is tragically (and accidentally) killed.  He is forced in to carrying out the mob’s plan.  Batman shows up at the Chemical Company and the Joker, dressed as the Red Hood, escapes arrest by jumping in to a vat of chemicals.  The result of the entirety Joker had been through, coupled with his changed appearance, drives him mad and the Joker is born.

We see the Joker as a sympathetic character.  As a man who only wants to do right by his pregnant wife.  For a few panels of the book, the Joker is a character anyone reading would side with.  This added depth to the Joker serves to accentuate the madness of his actions throughout the rest of the story.  Shooting Barbara Gordon, kidnapping, stripping down, and torturing Jim Gordon, and trying to kill Batman have added intensity and make the reader understand just how insane the Joker has become.

Alan Moore has said in interviews, “Psychologically, Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other.”  This thought is pursued throughout ‘The Killing Joke’.  The idea that Batman and the Joker are no different from one another.  This idea was used by Moore to establish the Joker’s motives. To prove to Batman that we are all the same and in particular, he and Batman are the same.  One bad day can make even the sanest man go crazy.

From page 38.

4th Panel. Joker – “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?”

5th Panel. Joker – “You had a bad day, and it drove you as crazy as everybody else…only you won’t admit it”

Brian Bolland’s artwork augments and captures precisely the tone of the book and each character in it. Bolland’s pencils perfectly portray the grim determination of Batman, the fear of Barbara, the staunch sanity of Jim Gordon, and the madness of the Joker (right down to his teeth on the front cover).

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Besides just how good the story and art are, the references of ‘The Killing Joke’ are throughout the DC universe.

The story was referenced in another DC one shot, Batman: In Darkest Knight and in Ladies Night by J Michael Straczynski.  In 2007, Geoff Johns wrote a Booster Gold/Rip Hunter story that involved Booster going back in time to try and prevent Barbara from being shot.  Not to mention the years after the book was released, Barbara Gordon’s paralysis was central to her character and wasn’t retconned until recently even though the story was an out of continuity one-shot.

Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) draws heavily from ‘The Killing Joke’ and has been quoted as saying, “…its my favorite (book). It is the first comic I ever loved.”

Heath Ledger’s ‘Joker’ from ‘The Dark Knight’ gives off cues from ‘The Killing Joke’.  In the movie, the Joker had bombs planted on two separate boats filled with people.  He wanted to prove, in the end, that sane normal people, if given the proper motivation are just like the crazy people:

“You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”

In the end, ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ should be amongst one of the books in your collection and at the very least, been a book that has been read.  Where other books published before (and after) The Killing Joke can feel dated, ‘The Killing Joke’ has a story and artwork that are timeless and hold ramifications still rippling through the DC comics’ universe.  So now, on the 25th Anniversary, if you haven’t read ‘The Killing Joke’, read it.  And if you don’t have it, just do what I did, get yourself some Alpha Flight comics and find a buddy willing to trade.

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