Aug 23, 2012

The Killing Joke: A Different Way to Read It

I was talking to Leia Calderon-Rox, better known to the readers of IHOGeek as ladyvader99, about Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's THE KILLING JOKE a couple of weeks ago, and she mentioned that she liked the ending.

For the uninitiated (although I can't imagine why you'd be reading this), THE KILLING JOKE has the Joker shooting and paralyzing Barbara Gordon then torturing her father, Commissioner Jim Gordon, in an effort to drive him insane.

It doesn't work, and when Batman finally catches the Joker, he tries reaching out, saying they didn't have to kill each other. Joker says it's too late for that and tells Batman a joke, and Batman laughs at it.

The problems with this ending are obvious. While I think it may be apt for the story in itself, it undercuts the whole foundation of their rivalry. After this, it's almost impossible to take any Batman/Joker story — maybe any Batman story, period — seriously if you keep this in mind.

Or is it? Leia offered me another look at it.

THE KILLING JOKE was a story that dealt with how one could go insane after one very bad day. The Joker makes his target Commissioner Gordon. We all know the details, how the Joker shoots and paralyzed Barbara, and how at the end, he finally gets a laugh out of the Bat. What my theory is, is that the Commissioner was never really the Joker's target; it was Batman. Throughout the story, you see Batman becoming more and more strained as the Joker wreaks havoc on the Commissioner's life. We must take into account Gordon is one of Batman's only friends and that he has little to no sense of humor. The fact that he only laughs at the very end when the cops are coming — and it's not a regular laugh, it's the long, hysterical laughter of a man strained beyond repair in one day — it's very simple to deduce that Batman has snapped. This is why I think THE KILLING JOKE is really about Batman.

And my brain kind of shifted gears then and there. I reread the book, and my first instinct was that Leia is reaching. There's little evidence in the entire thing that she's after Batman and not the Joker, when it hit me: of course The Joker's not going to say his intention is to drive Batman insane. That wouldn't be like him at all. There's a twisted logic to his actions when seen from that perspective. I actually thought the whole torturing of Jim Gordon was kind of crass, unworthy of the Joker's usual, more subtle if not any less gruesome fare, but when seen from this lens, the crassness is supplanted by diabolical fiendishness.

And while it may be spare, there actually is evidence that Batman was the target: he sends tickets to Batman to let him know where he is, just in time for Gordon's torture to come to an end. That's the climax of the book: Batman confronting the Joker and trying to find a rational solution to their rivalry, only to realize there is none.

It works in the larger scheme because THE KILLING JOKE is one of the three books often cited for the "darkening" of Batman (the other two are Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, of course, and Grant Morrison's ARKHAM ASYLUM). From a publication standpoint, it may be seen as one of the linchpins, the pivotal turning points from the grim and gritty Batman. And from a narrative standpoint, it may explain Batman's descent into being more withdrawn, colder, and more distant to his friends and loved ones in the 90s. The narrative explanation for that is usually the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd, and how Batman couldn't deal with his inability to save him, but maybe it was actually this moment, when something just snapped in his brain. After all, how can anyone in the story explain that it was this moment? How could they know? No one's there but the two of them.

Is it a perfect theory? I'm not so sure. I do feel like it's open to debate. But at the very least, it's made me look at the story in a new light, and given me a way to view the ending such that one of my previous criticisms of it doesn't apply.

What do you guys think?


JV said...

Interesting insight and it gives the ending more of punch. What if Batman really snapped at the end? So not only is the Joker taken into custody but Batman as well! Now I'm thinking I should buy the re-mastered edition...

nobody said...

Agree! This is interesting. I've re-read The Killing Joke a bajillion times, and the ending always bothers me. But this is an awesome way of looking at it. Gonna read it again in a bit. :D

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