Graphic Novel: Batman: The Killing Joke

Sorry about all of the Batman related posts (who am I kidding? Nobody reads this anyway). I ended up cramming in all of my library requests into the end of the summer, after I’d read A Clash of Kings (which I’ll also talk about, at some point…). Anyway, The Killing Joke. It’s probably the most famous oneshot graphic novel starrring Batman (i.e., it’s only ever been published in one volume, and it’s a single episodic story rather than a several-issue arc. Unlike many oneshots, though, it’s mostly canon). This is partly because it was written by the illustrious graphic novelist/crazy hair man Alan Moore (“the guy who wrote Watchmen“), and partly because of the major changes in the Batman universe it created and heralded. Published in 1988, The Killing Joke marked the first time a member of the “Bat family” had been seriously hurt by the Joker, or indeed any villain, and along with A Death in the Family (spoiler: that’s the one in which Jason Todd, the second Robin, dies) it made Batman’s quest for justice much more personal. At the same time, we are introduced to the Joker as a more sympathetic character, as The Killing Joke reveals his origin.

The story in short: the Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum (again) and shows up at Commissioner Gordon’s place, where he and his daughter Barbara (who held the superhero identity of Batgirl) are relaxing after work. The Joker shoots Barbara, paralyzing her (she later becomes Oracle, Batman’s primary information source), and abducts Jim Gordon, taking him to an abandoned amusment park. In the meantime, there are flashbacks to the Joker’s life before he became a criminal: he was an impoverished engineer at a chemical factory, before he quit in a failed attempt to become a stand-up comedian. Hoping to support his pregnant wife, he agrees to help two criminals through the chemical plant so they can rob the playing card factory next door (why they would want to do this is quite a mystery). As they make the plans in a bar, the police inform the engineer that his wife died in an accident. He tries to withdraw from the plan, but the other men threaten him until he agrees to continue.  At the plant, the criminals force him to wear a red mask to identify himself as the Red Hood (it’s a way of tricking the police into thinking their accomplice is actually the leader, thus diverting attention away from themselves). They immediately blunder into plant security and get into a shootout with the police. The frightened engineer runs on to a walkway over a canal of chemical waste, only to be confronted by Batman. He jumps into the waste and escapes outside, but finds that he has been permanently deformed (to his current appearance as the Joker).

At the amusement park, the Joker and his henchmen strip Gordon naked, force him to go on one of the rides (which has been decorated with large pictures of his injured, naked daughter), and lock him in a cage in an effort to prove that “just one bad day” can drive anyone to insanity. Batman arrives to save Gordon, and the Joker retreats into the funhouse. Though traumatized by the ordeal, Gordon insists that Batman capture the Joker “by the book” in order to “show him that our way works.” Batman enters the funhouse and faces the Joker’s traps while the Joker tries to persuade his old foe that the world is “a black, awful joke”, and thus not worth fighting for. Batman tracks down and subdues the Joker, tells him that Gordon will be “fine,” and attempts to reach out to his old foe to give up crime and put a stop to their years-long war; otherwise, they will eventually have no choice but to kill each other. The Joker considers it but declines. He then tells Batman a joke that was started earlier in the comic. When the joke is finished, Batman’s stoic exterior breaks down, and he laughs along with the Joker.

Where to start with this one? The art and writing are quite good, particularly in the 2008 hardcover (which has more realistic coloring than the original release). The story is weird and chilling, particularly as it explores the Joker’s premise that anyone can be driven insane by “one bad day.” It is implied that Batman is just as crazy as the Joker, as they were both created by random tragedies, but while the Joker has allowed that to become his entire personality (inflicting bizarre and cruel punishments on people), Batman has spent his life trying to make the tragedy meaningful by bringing criminals to justice.  It’s an interesting, tragic, almost grotesque story, well told, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is curious about Batman or the Joker.

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