Thursday, November 8, 2012

Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

I found my copy of The Killing Joke among my dead brother's things.

I don't know if I loaned it to him and never asked for it back or if it was a copy he bought during one of the comic cons I dragged him to. It was one of the few things I gave him to try that he liked. He was never going to be the pop culture junkie I was....pop geekdom requires a certain level of uninhibited enthusiasm and Dominic Borrelli was an eye-roller if ever there was one....but V For Vendetta resonated with his mid-college angry Green party mentality. Burn down this corrupt world and the poisoned systems that supported it! I loaned him my copy of V For Vendetta and when he was done with it I said hey, you liked that one. Well, Alan Moore wrote another story about a maniac. Maybe you'd enjoy it. 

He didn't have many other graphic novels. He didn't have much of anything. They say that suicides give away things they own before they kill themselves but my brother never exactly hoarded the way I did. I have a comic collection that's thousands deep, folios full of obscure yakuza/kung-fu/horror movies, artwork, posters, toys, collectibles, and all the other petty crap of a guy with the attention span of a hummingbird. My brother liked big things. He pissed away a lot of money on a souped up car during his Import Tuner phase and his laptop could probably give navigation assistance to space ships. Beyond that, he owned very little. He had an almost Buddhalike detachment from the material world. Had his story not shaken out the way it did, I would have found that trait admirable.

It's corny to say this but I was into the Joker long before he got popular.

I'm writing this while looking at a tiny Joker statue that sits on my desk. He's got his hands up in a ta-daa pose, the consummate showman. We've spent an entire semester talking about maniacs and their grubby little neuroses and the petty ugliness of the horrors they inflict. The Joker is all of those things, but he's also a showman. That dichotomy always drew me to him. Yes, it's probably forced and way too manic-slash-needy, but the guy seems like he's really having a good time.

I've been collecting Joker memorabilia for years. I had a shelf in my old apartment dedicated to all the statues and figures I could collect of him. My ex-girlfriend and my mother used to add little pieces to my collection. It was one of those tiny signs that showed they were paying attention and that they loved me. Give me those small gestures over the operatic melodrama of fictitious love any day.

The Joker is the avatar for my id. I'm drawn to trickster figures, whether they are Coyote or Anansi or kitsune or Bacchus or Dionysus or Bugs Bunny. I like funny, chaotic, life-of-the-party types. Given a choice, I prefer not to live in silence. For me, heaven is an endless party with really good music and hot chicks and drinks on someone else's tab. Give me laughter over silence any day.

Just make sure they have a really good reading couch to nurse hangovers on and read.


I fell in love with the Joker specifically because of The Killing Joke. A junior high school teacher gave me a copy of the book and it sunk in with me.

I grew up during the iron age of comics. All the guys had muscles and knives, all the girls had porn-star breasts, no one wore any clothes, and everything was covered in blood. It was taboo and dramatic and fun and completely mind-blowingly stupid. Because we're a nation of repressed yokels, we equate "mature content" in our story telling with the sensational. People keep telling me that horror is all about the visceral, that everything in my genre is blood and tits. Mature storytelling can take all sorts of subject matter and apply depth and humanity to them

But I digress. Anyway.

The Joker became my avatar when I realized that the only sane response to the world was to laugh. We're stuck on a rock, nobody gives a shit about us, we go to wars over lies, people try to guard the fortress of a king they've never seen or met but all are trained to murder at the first sign of a threat.   

The Joker became my avatar when I started growing up, realized that life was unfair and uncaring, and I was going to die and there was nothing waiting for me afterward.

After you figure that stuff out, you've got three options. One, you find a system of lies and you believe in so hard that you ignore that nagging little voice in the back of your mind. Two, you shut down and become a French film student.

Or three, you throw a really good party and keep laughing until the lights go out.

I talk about my brother a lot.

I go to a siblings of suicide support group. I participate in suicide prevention walks. I slip it into casual conversation. I've had a hard time filtering out the information when I talk to people. It makes people uncomfortable and it tends to dominate the conversation and casts me in the role of Grieving Person but it's hard for me to stop myself. I want to talk about it. If I keep it up, it will become my identity.

I received the class syllabus while I was back in San Francisco, watching him go. I bought all my books at my favorite sci-fi/fantasy/horror bookstore (Dark Carnival in Berkeley, CA. If you're reading this, you should go there. It is to readers what Santa's workshop is to greedy children) and I started hacking through them as quickly as I could. When I saw The Killing Joke among my brother's things, I knew I had some shit to say on it. It was such an important part of my upbringing and I'd had the opportunity to see the work with fresh eyes.

Here's my take on the story: it's not a tale of madness but a tale of mourning.

Both Batman and the Joker are creatures created by grief. Something terrible happened to both of them and they dealt with it different ways. Batman turned his grief inward and turned broody. The Joker projected outward. I don't even think the Joker is particularly crazy. He's flamboyant and evil and comic-book crazy, but the things he done is a natural continuation of the things that happened to him. 


My brother was a brooder.

He was introverted and kept to himself, which always mystified me because he was a very handsome young man. I once took him to a friend's party and all these cute hipster girls kept asking me about him. "He's so cute!" they'd tell me and I'd seethe with jealousy and he wouldn't move an inch from the couch and not talk with anyone.

Our relationship was somewhat adversarial. I tortured him throughout his childhood and I spent my adulthood trying to make it up to him. We had a pretty good adult relationship but there was always tension between us. It didn't help that my brother got the bulk of attention. He needed it, obviously, but it felt like I was trusted to just be fine.

I contextualized my relationship using pop culture characters. If he were the selfish, destructive Loki, I was the noble idiot Thor. If he was the too-serious, brooding Batman then I was the loud party boy Joker. 

When my brother was in his hospital bed, they encouraged us to play his favorite songs and talk to him. "You never know what they can hear and music helps." So, after a bunch of pandora stations and Hawaiian music and stuff like that, I found one of the cut scenes from the video game Metal Gear Solid. It's about two brothers at war with each other. The dark one is the hero and the loud vibrant one is trying to resurrect the apocalyptic dream of his dead father.

One lived and one died. What does the Joker do without Batman?

The Killing Joke was the first real attempt (as far as I'm aware of) to humanize the Joker.

A lot of smart, serious comic fans complain about the Joker. He's one note. He's an atrocity factory. There's no rhyme or reason to what he does and the trails of bodies that he leaves in his wake is proof-positive that Batman is completely impotent. The best example of this point of view is below:

The Killing Joke is the first and pretty much only attempt to make him anything approaching a real character. Other writers have built on little aspects of this story, but most of their efforts slip into campy angst. During the one moment of lucidity that the Joker has, after he plays the popgun prank on Batman, he's not bemoaning his fate or weeping for the man he once was. He just stands before Batman, resigned and exhausted, asking why Batman doesn't kick the hell out of him for all the things he's done.

The entire scene of Batman reaching out to the Joker takes all of a page and a half. It's short and there's a tremendous amount left unsaid, but it feels authentic and natural in a way that longer speeches would have felt artificial. There's a lot of weariness and dull pain between the two of them and it fills the scene.

Brevity is often the best choice. 


There's a lot of people who think that the final pages of the story, where the Joker and Batman are laughing at the same joke about two lunatics striving for salvation, means that Batman is just as crazy as his nemesis. I hate that interpretation. Batman isn't crazy, or at least not in the same way. But he has felt tremendous loss in his own life. That moment of shared humanity allows them to laugh at the absurdity of their situation.

Plus, okay, maybe they're a little nuts. 

That, to me, is a better ending to The Killing Joke. We deal with our grief in our own ways. Some brood and go inward, some project and go outward, but either way it changes you.


No disrespectful comments please.

1 comment:

D.K. Godard said...

Wow. Just wow. The honesty, pain, everything. So visceral. That's a great post.

I totally agree about the mourning aspect. That's what I heard when I read the story. Especially that Batman, and/or the Bruce part of him at least, regrets the struggle against the Joker. And I agree with your conclusion "That moment of shared humanity allows them to laugh at the absurdity of their situation." I totally felt that. I see that scene as a moment when they both step out of who they normally are. I don't know how better to articulate this than you did. I applaud you for your honesty with what must be painful experiences. But like you said, you can either brood or laugh. Who can say which is really the sane or insane response, right?