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Thursday, 21 July 2016

Comics Explained: The Killing Joke

The Killing Joke cover
As of writing an animated adaptation of The Killing  Joke will be given a limited release in cinemas worldwide. For those who do not know The Killing Joke was written as an Elseworlds story; Elseworlds are DC Comics stories set in parallel universes to the mainstream DC universe. Created by Alan Moore, (of Watchmen and V for Vendetta fame), Brian Bolland and John Higgins this story has managed to become part of the mainstream DC Universe, however, it also remains as the most controversial and dark Batman story. For the intense violence and sadism done by the Joker in this story, as well as the trauma of his origin, this story gained fame for being the definitive Joker story. The creators have even stated that they went too far with what they did in the story. Most of the criticism is directed to the treatment of Barbara Gordon, which is extremely well justified, and Alan Moore has criticized it at least three times. For this reason before we begin I will give a warning that The Killing Joke contains many moments which people may find upsetting. At the most traumatic parts I shall not go into detail or show images from the comic but, it is still very graphic. All images shown are owned by their respective companies and authors with no copyright infringement intended.

'Two Guys in a Lunatic Asylum'
The story opens with Batman visiting the Joker in Arkham Asylum. Batman has been thinking about his relationship with the Joker; how two men who know nothing about one another could hate each other so much. Batman also has been thinking about the end of their relationship. Either the Joker will kill Batman or Batman will kill the Joker. Batman wants to help the Joker so this will never come to pass. However, Batman then realizes that the man in the shadows he had been talking to was not the Joker but instead a stooge put there by the Joker as a distraction while he escaped. While this is happening the Joker is buying a carnival, and killing the seller, to enact his plan. Batman returns to the Bat Cave pondering that his and the Joker's relationship is in an endless cycle. The Joker escapes then kills and mains before being taken down by Batman. Later the Joker escapes and the cycle continues. Batman wonders how many have been killed or could have been saved if this cycle was broken. Meanwhile, we see the possible origin of the Joker.

Making a Murderer
A failed comedian
Years ago a stand-up comedian is struggling to find money for his pregnant wife. His comedy career is failing as he fails to remember the punchlines, he misses his cues and the audience remains silent as he tells his jokes. To consul the broken comedian his wife says it doesn't matter as long as he makes her laugh. Desperate for money he plans a heist of the chemical plant he used to work at but during the preparation stage his wife is tragically killed in a household accident. Despite this the criminals force him to continue with the heist that night. The comedian is forced to dress up as the infamous Red Hood he would act as a distraction for the police. During the heist the police gun down the criminals but then a creature of the night arrives. Batman early on in his career arrives at the plant but the Red Hood fears him. He panics and jumps into a chemical waste pound lock. Later on he surfaces but sees that his face has become bleached, hair turned green and body has become disfigured. He starts laughing manically. One bad day was all it took to turn make him insane. 
One Bad Day
Years later he decides to show Batman this.

Another Bad Day
The Joker decides to test his theory on someone who should be able to keep his cool no matter what: Commissioner Jim Gordon. Gordon was visiting his daughter, Barbara, (who was the then Batgirl but Jim was not aware of this), at her apartment. The doorbell rings and when she answers it she sees the Joker standing there with two armed goons.
The moment that changed DC history
The Joker then shot Barbara Gordon in her sternum. Horrified at seeing his daughter shot Jim Gordon panics before being knocked out by the Joker's goons. Barbara later wakes in hospital with Batman standing worried over her. They both realize that Jim is missing and the Joker had left Barbara lying in her own blood which points to the idea that the Joker has plans for Jim. Batman sets off then to find the Joker.

Meanwhile, Jim Gordon wakes up naked in a demonic amusement park. Before him sitting on a throne on top of a mound of dolls, and surrounded by burning dolls, is the Joker. When Jim questions the Joker about what is happening he merely replies 'You're going mad'.
The Joker's Throne
The Joker has Gordon dragged to a room where he is shown pictures of his daughter stripped naked on the floor being abused and bleeding out on the floor, (thankfully these images in the comic are almost fully obscured). While this is happening he is being tortured and jeered at by the Joker and his cronies. Batman soon arrives and frees Gordon. At this moment Batman finds out that the Joker's plan to make Jim Gordon go insane. Gordon pleads with Batman to bring the Joker down as he normally does. Batman immediately tracks down the Joker who then has a brief moment of sanity, (the Joker briefly looks distraught that he shot Barbara Gordon and tortured her father), and then tries to shoot Batman only to realize it was a fake gun. He has realized that he has failed to turn Batman insane as well. The Joker then begins to tell Batman a joke: 

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn’t dare make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says, “Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!” B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says, “Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!
Surprisingly Batman laughs at the joke. He starts to keel over laughing and places his hands on Joker's shoulders. The last panel just shows one beam of light and the laughter stops.
'Two Guys in a Lunatic Asylum'
The Killing Joke has a controversial legacy. Feminist comic book fans and writers have criticized the extreme violence that was done to Barbara Gordon and the fact that I could not show you or go into detail about the violence shows how justified this criticism is. The fact that even Alan Moore has said that he is not happy about what he did just shows how disturbing this comic is. The first time that I read The Killing Joke I found it that discomforting that I had to stop reading and to date it is the only comic that has managed to achieve this. Not even the Crossed comics caused this level of discomfort. Despite the controversy The Killing Joke was well received and was made part of the mainstream DC universe. Barbara Gordon remained paralyzed thanks to the events of the story but, remained a hero in the form of Oracle. With the New 52 reboot of the DC universe in 2011 Barbara Gordon managed to get become Batgirl once more. However, the events of The Killing Joke remained with her as Barbara occasionally suffers from PTSD during gun fights and the cover for Batgirl #41 which was inspired by the story had to be redone due to the horrific imagery on it.

The Killing Joke has greatly inspired Batman related media outside of comic books. The Joker's Hawaiian tourist outfit, which he wears while shooting Barbara, are available costumes in the video games Lego Batman and Injustice: Gods Among Us. The Birds of Prey TV series starts with the Joker paralyzing Barbara and The Batman animated TV series has two references to this story. Detective Ethan Bennett is broken, (and turned into Clayface), by the Joker in the same way the Gordon is as well as the Joker giving the same monologue about having 'one bad day'. Later on in the series there is an episode set in the future where Barbara has become Oracle. Also, every one of the Batman: Arkham games mentions in someway this story, (mostly as in all bar one Barbara appears as Oracle). In Asylum the Joker sits on a throne of mannequins, uses an alias Jack White, (used in this story when buying the amusement park) and he also starts telling the lunatic joke before saying 'you've heard it before'. In City Joker tells the story to Hugo Strange and in Origins you get to see his origin as he gives the 'one bad day' monologue. Finally, in Knight there are several: the Joker repeatedly mentions the story, Batman hallucinates and sees a, thankfully, less disturbing version of Joker paralyzing Barbara and in the DLC where you play as Batgirl the Joker shoots at Barbara, misses and then says that 'the next one won't'. Incidentally Knight also references another controversial Batman story; Death in the Family where the Joker killed Jason Todd who was the second Robin. Both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan were inspired by The Killing Joke when creating their respective version of the Joker and, Nolan even gave Heath Ledger a copy of the story to read. The Joker's creation scene was also shown in the animated film Batman: Under the Red Hood, (incidentally the film shows Jason Todd's death). My favorite person to play the Joker, the incredible Mark Hamill, only agreed to play the Joker one last time if this story would be adapted, (he is in fact playing the Joker in the new film).

Finally, with the controversy is it worth reading? I would argue yes. In my opinion this comic is not about the Joker trying to break Gordon but rather the extreme lengths the Joker will go to show that he and Batman are the same. The Joker wants so desperately for Batman to kill him as it would show both of them that they are the same. Like the Joker one bad day made Batman go insane; seeing his parents shot in front of him propelled him to becoming the Batman. While Bruce Wayne's bad day led his mania to become a force for good the bad day for a nameless comedian propelled him into a life destined to end all that was good. The Joker, meanwhile, is infuriated that Batman has not acknowledged how similar they are and is willing to destroy Barbara and Jim Gordon to make Batman see this. Like Death of the Family years later this story effectively shows the unhinged obsession the Joker has with Batman. One last note there is a theory about the last scene's imagery, (shown earlier). Grant Morrison, (author of Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth where he took imagery too far with every page having some hidden artistic meaning on it), has theorized that Alan Moore and the other creators had Batman prove Joker's idea that they were so close to being one another true. The last two shots show the laughter ending and a light going out. Morrison believes that this references the joke the Joker told and that Batman snapped the Joker's neck.

Thank you for reading. The other sources that I have used, (I took some information from the links of the picture captions), are as follows:
-Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore
-DC Comics Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle by Alan Coswill, Alex Irvine, Matthew K.Manning, Michael McAvennie, and Daniel Wallace

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