"Beyond evil there is insanity. Beyond insanity there is The Joker."
(tagline this comic was advertised with prior to its release)
Hoo boy. This is not going to be an easy one, by any stretch of the imagination.
I was going to leave this one until further down the track, but I just picked up the 20th Anniversary Hardcover Edition and feel like talking about it. It seemed too cliché to do this one so early on in the game, but that's the way it is.
It's one I haven't read for awhile, though I've read it dozens of times in the past. I recently pulled out what was my 'mint' copy and gave it a quick glance through, trying to not put a crease in it. XD So it's probably "NM" now. hahaha. I had a reading copy, but it's gone missing. I got it out to show my current boyfriend back when we first got together, and it's vanished. (he hasn't got it, I've already asked.) My reading copies of Mad Love and Devil's Advocate are misplaced too. Grrrr. But I digress.
To kick this off, I need to give a little of my personal history with the story as that doubtless lends bias to everything I'm going to say.
I was just a little teenaged girl, setting foot in comic book shops for the first time ever, having been drawn into the world of Batman through the B:TAS toon. I love Batman, the Batfamily, the various villains and all, but I'm here primarily because I'm a Joker and Harley fan and I became a Joker and Harley because of the relationship they have. Anyway, it was early days of the internet, there just wasn't as much info out there and we certainly didn't have a lot of Jhq stuff here in Australia and I was in the comic book shop desperate to get my hands on anything related to either of them. That was when I saw The Killing Joke. I believe it was AU$10. Maybe AU$13. I'm not sure. But I bought it and it was really the first Joker story I ever read and it absolutely staggered me. I'd only really ever read Archie and TMNT comics as a much younger kid, I'd certainly never known a comic could actually be like TKJ. I didn't know a comic story could be so mature and so sophisticated and so dark and complex. So from TKJ, my own perception of Joker was really developed. Many other stories would come to contribute, but TKJ was really my first introduction to the guy and everything he was capable of.
This story is quite unusual in that it does make Joker quite sympathetic and as a teenaged fangirl, that was candy to me - I at once revelled in his perversity and brutality and wept for his tragic, lost life and longed to give him a big hug. I adored the art and well, simply, everything about the book. In a way, you can probably blame TKJ for making of me the slavishly devoted Joker fan I was - and still am, I guess. Joker's own angstiness in this story doubtless contributed to that. But I confess I have always been a lover of villains.
Considering it played such a big part in my fangirl history, it's very difficult for me to emotionally detach from it, but I never promised unbiased reviews. Let's just say it's very important to me as a story even as my more mature eyes can perceive some of its flaws, particularly in the realm of political correctness… I still cry every time I read it.
Anyway, this particular story is one of the most renowned within the DCverse and most speak of it in reverent whispers with the air of speaking of a sacred text. Whilst Joker had already been established as a psychopathic killer in other key stories as Laughing Fish and Joker's Five-Way Revenge, this story was really responsible for cementing his characterisation as the single-most dangerous foe Batman faces, as well as setting a standard which eventually led to that famous quote: "When super-villains want to scare each other, they tell Joker stories". It also most vividly illustrated the infinity, futility and inevitability of the feud between Batman and Joker, which has set the stage for the relationship ever since. It also attempted to add some sort of depth and varying layers to the Clown Prince, rounding him out more fully as a person and established him as a dedicated nihilist and anarchist.
Okay, so already it carries a mass load of impact, right? And that's just how it relates to Joker!!
But, further, it is the story responsible for crippling Barbara Gordon and confining her to a wheelchair, which has given rise to both a great deal of controversy and the incomparable Oracle. Alan Moore, for all his brilliance, perceptiveness and general all round liberal attitudes and dedication to anti-homophobia and pacifist messages, has been guilty of misogyny a couple of times and this is one of them (the creation of Rorschach being contributed to by his prostitute mother is another. How old and tired is that set-up??)
Whilst this is a discussion for another time and another journal, I am personally in favour of Barbara remaining disabled as whilst, no, no one wakes up and wants to be in a wheelchair, that is nonetheless reality for many people and through my interactions with the disabled community I know there is a need and hunger to see smart, capable, sexy and fabulous disabled characters represented in all forms of media, especially ones with sex lives. However, if it ever came down to Barbara regaining use of her legs vs the retiring of the Joker for just doing too damn much, I will of course vote for Babs to walk again. Anything so as not to lose Mistah J!
Anyway, back to TKJ.
It was originally meant to be an out of continuity story - so Babs' crippling should not have become canon - and it works on several levels. The first - the most obvious one - is the straight out battle for Batman to find Commissioner Gordon whilst Joker tries to drive him insane and reflects on what may or may not be his past. It's a dark, chilling, stomach-turning and intriguing crime-suspense story.
The second is the unending battle between Batman and Joker, which is symbolic of the struggle not so much between good and evil as between order and chaos, transcendence and descent. Even as dark and questionably moral as Batman's actions are, he is trying to transcend, even that which is base and ugly within him. Joker, on the other hand, gleefully indulges perversity and holds there is no absolute morality. One is locked into a world rigidly defined by a personal ethical code, the other has an absolute absence of ethics which he believes has set him free. One is shackled to human concerns, the other has obliterated them. Can there ever be any common ground between them? Is Batman as insane as The Joker, in his own way? Are they simply going to end up killing each other or can the pattern be broken? Here, they are set up as mirror opposites - both created from tragedy but diverging down entirely opposite paths. How close do they come to intersecting? Batman tries to sort and make sense of chaos, while Joker just gleefully makes more and claims trying to make sense of it is a futile and worthless task.
It's also about absurdity and about how we handle absurdity and how that makes us who and what we are - do we create meaning out of life? Or do we go the other way and actively struggle against it? Joker and Batman are locked onto a suicide course together. Batman seems to know this but only Joker realises how utterly hopeless and ridiculous it is. At the end of the book, for one brief moment, Batman realises it too, enabling these characters to bond - to share a laugh - to touch each other in a way that is - can only be - friendly.
In some ways it's the most chilling part of the book, because Batman actually does step outside of his own reality, the meaning he has given his life, for this to happen. He could only laugh with Joker if he has momentarily forgotten what has just happened to two important people in his life at Joker's hands.
Going further still, and it's possible I'm reading too much into this but being Alan Moore it's also possible I'm not, TKJ is also about the very nature of comic books and their heroes and villains, or speaking more broadly, the legends and mythology we have told since time began, and continue to do, even in the way we characterise opposing countries we are at war with. The roles are defined and assigned. As comic book characters they are hopelessly limited by their ascribed natures, subject to the imagination of those who write them. They are locked into place and locked into their battle. In TKJ, Batman wants to break these roles - to not play to script and beat Joker up and get his accolades - to not be Joker's foe - to work with him - to help him. But the roles can't be broken. They are what they are and both of them will play their parts, again and again and again. And when Joker helps Batman realise this, all either of them can do is laugh. Their situation is hopeless. Humanity is hopeless. And they're united in this realisation for a few moments. It works as a commentary on comic books and the sort of stories that characterise them.
Despite its many flaws, perhaps this book's greatest triumph is that it compels you to sympathise with Joker, to feel the enormity of his tragedy and perceive him as a human being rather than just a larger than life villain, even as he commits some of the most barbaric and inhuman acts he ever has. Here, Joker is three-dimensional and multi-layered, yet nonetheless irredeemable.
This is something Joker himself acknowledges at the end of the story, whilst looking so heartbroken it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. He understands he's too far beyond the pale. He understands whatever happened to him 'before' cannot excuse him. He is not heartbroken over the fact he has long ago crossed all lines, he accepts this as a simple fact. It is his role. To my reading, the pause is not him considering Batman's offer - it is him realising Batman just doesn't get it. So he tells his joke. And briefly, Batman does get it. Joker's greatest triumph? Maybe. Joker is irredeemable at least partly because he doesn't want to be redeemed. He has accepted what he is - and he loves it. Perhaps Joker even is what Batman could've become had he not - and continues to - struggle against it.
I am one of those who believes that Joker's ultimate goal is not to kill Batman, but to push Batman as far as he can go. I think a part of this is seeing how far he can go before Batman will finally snap and kill him. In this way, Joker has a death wish and I think TKJ is where we first really see it. It makes a shiver go down my spine when the Batmobile pulls up in the fairground and Joker doesn't flinch, just stands there, not even blinking, grinning at Batman. Joker is truly fearless, because there is nothing left he really values. Yes he's an egotist and he doesn't want to die in a way that isn't glorious or that ultimately doesn't have him triumphing in some way, but he isn't afraid of it.
So. All that said, this book is still problematic and that has to do with Joker's characterisation and even the things he does. The Joker of this story really seems to be on the edge - yes, that's a bit of an oxymoron isn't it - but what I mean by that is he doesn't seem to really know what he's doing. It's like he's a bit lost, a bit desperate, lashing out blindly. He's not really his usual showy, theatrical, elaborate self. Yes, there's plenty about what he does that's theatrical, but thematically it isn't tied together - it's all a bit of a shonky mess and I can't believe Joker could tolerate such imperfection from himself. Also, he's not funny.
It's not that I object to other layers to Joker being explored, it's that I don't think he'd allow it to affect his performance.
The only way I can make sense of this to say that this current past he's indulging in - which he says himself is just one of many ways he remembers it, so it is not the one true canonical option - is actually really getting to him and throwing him off his game. I know current continuity states it's been thirteen years since he first popped up, but I'd be interested to know how long Barbara has been in the chair and how that relates to when Rebecca Brown from the Going Sane storyline was around. Because I also like to read the Jeannie subplot as one final, faint struggle with Joker's small leftover slice of humanity. I think Jeannie can be quite a lovely and poignant symbol of this remaining humanity and I think it is an intriguing possibility that the lost memories of Rebecca has stirred up this little spark of humanity and the TKJ story is how he's reacted to it. Confused, conflicted and experiencing actual sorrow and bitterness.
But you know, Joker can take a joke, even when it's on him. And I think that, even if something really rotten did happen to him pre-Joker, whatever that is, it doesn't and shouldn't deter him in any way. I think Joker would, in fact, get a perverse delight in even further obliterating this last little glimmer of human consideration in him (which can even be tied into his abuse and taunting of Harley). He does love what he is and sees himself as pure and he would never put in a poor show.
Further, the things he does here really aren't his best efforts. It's rotten and nasty, but trying to drive Gordon insane by taking some photos and taking him on a rollercoaster whilst singing a cheesey tune - I actually don't think Mistah J would honestly believe that would break down Gordon's mind. Remembering that Gordon has been a cop in Gotham for many years and has seen all sorts of horror and has remained one of the good guys regardless. What Joker does is unquestionably ugly and certainly not beyond him, but I think Joker would've conceived of something infinitely more malicious, elaborate and complex and played it out over a period of time.
In short, his efforts here are largely unimaginative. He does not have a cohesive theme or even really seems to have thought it all the way through. It lacks inspiration and sophistication. It's cheap and simplistic. He is not seductive, charismatic or charming (excepting the scene where he offs the carnival owner), though he does have a few truly magnificent moments (the unflinching smirk as Batman drives up springs to mind).
So for all the complexity of the themes mentioned above, which are best highlighted in the opening and closing scenes, they are not exemplified as well as they could have been by the actual plot, which at the end of the day is a typical Batman/Joker confrontation. The fact that Barbara is crippled is its only lasting impact on continuity.
But in terms of its legacy, it did influence later depictions of the relationship between Joker and Batman significantly and did add new layers to it. And, of course, in the way it made everyone suddenly double-take and look at the Joker with new eyes and with new consideration and seeing new potential in his character and certainly allowed him to gradually become more of Batman's mirror opposite.
I think this legacy is due largely to the talent of the two story-tellers involved rather than the actual story told, if that makes sense.
In a way the opening and ending is so magnificent that the story inbetween is a let-down, and kind of unworthy of the complex themes and of its two legendary and iconic leading characters, which is a damned shame.
And ALL THAT SAID, I still think TKJ is nonetheless an amazing and ambitious story, even if this doesn't represent the best of Mistah J's brilliance and cruelty. Again, the way I make sense of it is reading it as Mistah J being so genuinely perturbed by the past he's imagined for himself this time that he's off his game. I actually think it would be brilliant if this story did come not long after the Going Sane story in continuity - and as GS is set early in both Bats and Big J's career, it's entirely possible to read it that way. And considering that it may even be why in this story Joker commits the closest thing to a sex crime he ever has (but I'll get onto that contentious issue momentarily).
Of course, the significance in the final joke is that Batman and Joker are both lost here and Joker, even if did want to be redeemed, couldn't rely on Batman to guide him back because Batman is on his own insane mission. I love the way the art parallels the joke though. The beam of the police car lights as Joker holds out his hand, the next the light is out and they are gone. Hrmmmm. Interesting, no?
But all of the art throughout this book is magnificent. Bolland, of course, is God when it comes to illustrating Joker and some of his work in TKJ has been quite shamelessly plagiarised by other artists over the years (tsk). The range of expression on Joker's face throughout this book is glorious. Now, whilst I hold Joker's emotions can't really be compared to regular human emotions, I also hold he's a very emotional and mercurial guy and I think Bolland really depicts that.
Tim Burton cites TKJ as being the first comic he actually understood how to read, which I think is a sufficient comment on how brilliantly laid out it is and the power of its story-telling. I'm not an artist and certainly not a comic book artist so I never feel qualified in making minute judgements on the artistic story-telling of a comic, unless there's something really glaringly bad or utterly brilliant. All I ever know what to say is if it works, and well, it WORKS here. It is, simply, beautiful and masterful and the stuff of legend.
Not simply because it's good art, but because of the clever and subtle use of symbolism and metaphor throughout. It takes a delicate hand to convey so much through little detail without overstating it and Bolland achieves that. It's cinematic in the way it flows and it's creepy, and haunting and gut and heart-wrenching.
Now, as I flicked through my HC edition I couldn't help but notice a couple of changes here and there (even as long as it's been since I properly read it - shows how many times I poured over it in the past!) and when I read Bolland's afterward it turns out he has made one or two adjustments. I will have to find what they are later, but one I noticed in paticular was the panel where Joker says 'it's too late for that' - in the original, Mistah J's mouth is turned down. In the amended version, he's almost smiling. Hrm! Curious, I'd love to hear Bolland's thoughts on exactly why he made that change, but I think it really does fit in with Joker's awareness of how ridiculous their situation is.
A word on the new colouring - I have an emotional attachment to the old, highly surreal, bad-dream-like colouring (especially the purple eyes, which Bolland has dispensed of, waaah!) but the new colouring is better. It's a cooler palette, even though much of it (due to certain standards such as Mistah J's purple suit and the colour's of Bats' own costume) reflects the old colouring and it suits the tone of the story. The amended colouring on the flashback scenes - in which everything is black and white except for one little highlighted object - is stunning.
It was interesting to read Bolland's difficulty in illustrating some of the scenes - Barbara's crippling and the backstory - seems Bolland's own criticisms of the tale are much in line with the major ones. Tim Sale did the forward and I have to say, I did get the chills from his words: "the transformation of the milquetoast failed comedian to insane criminal mastermind".
Whatever the critiques of TKJ are, it is an unquestionably enduring tale. Which may be a flaw in itself.
It's also worthwhile noting that Joker - who is characterised by his supreme confidence, smooth tongue and showmanship - during the telling of the final joke, begins to stutter and stammer, repeat himself, get nervous. The man he was pre-Joker briefly emerges, only to be suppressed moments later.
Perhaps I can't help but love Killing Joke because it is the most human we ever see Joker and even as devoted to our nihilistic, sociopathic hedonist as I am, I can't resist it. It's made all the more poignant and forceful because it is the only time - it underscores that he ultimately utterly rejects it and continues on his path, even though just by going there he has the option to reclaim it to some extent.
To revisit what I just said about its enduring qualities being a flaw - TKJ did spark off a lot of lesser versions trying to do the same thing with Joker's character and failing. The most guilty and horrendous of which is Hush Returns. Ugh. It's just something that really shouldn't be touched too much. Overplay it and it becomes too trite, or kills the mystery and weakens his impact as a character. Furthermore, it begins to read as an excuse and nothing is an excuse for what he has done and honestly, it really doesn't provide a truly satisfying reason for what precisely created The Joker. I think again, this is why Dini is exemplary as a Joker story-teller. He pushes the character in new directions without resorting to cheap emotional ploys. Touch on the stuff, hint at it, and that's fine, that's awesome in fact. But keep us guessing.
Anyway, I, of course, have to chime in with my own two-cents on the whole did-he-or-didn't-he debate that rages around this story. And that is regarding the possible rape of Barbara Gordon.
I was shocked to learn there even was a debate on this issue, to be honest. For me the answer is clear.
No. He didn't.
Now, stripping someone and taking naked photos of them without their consent IS sexual assault, no question. But a lot of people seem to think he 'did the deed', all the way as well.
I will give you just one very good reason Joker did not rape Barbara Gordon.
Rape is a heinous, disgusting, reprehensible, inexcusable act. It's certainly not 'beneath' Joker. But, nor is it unusual or particularly imaginative. It is the cheapest, most pathetic and easiest way people try to assert control and dominance over another person.
It is something that happens A LOT. As we all know the statistic is - what - every 2 minutes?
Doesn't change how horrendous an act it is (in fact, it rather re-emphasises that fact), but in Joker world, it's just way too common and boring. Remember Joker likes to stand out, to be exceptional. Sex crimes lump him in with the dregs.
I'm not going to say he'd never do it. If he really thought it was appropriate to the situation, I don't think he'd hesitate. But I have a hard time conceiving of a situation in which that would happen. To me, again with my bias for head-fucker Joker, I think he'd far more relish genuine seduction of those who would otherwise never touch him with a ten-foot barge pole. There is a far greater acquisition of power and accomplishment in that than rape, which is generally enacted by those who feel disempowered. Joker generally has a pretty secure sense of personal-power.
Anyway, another very good reason Joker didn't rape Barbara Gordon is because Alan Moore doesn't exactly shy away from details. If rape had been part of what he'd done, it would've been made far more explicit (not the act itself, the discussion around it). In fact, it would've been one of the things Bullock told Batman. It would've been considered, yannow, important information to the case.
I actually think the need to believe Joker raped Barbara Gordon reflects a far darker motivation in the reader. It's like, what Barbara went through wasn't enough - how can we imagine it as worse? It's sheer voyeurism, in fact.
Anyway, rape isn't the worst thing Joker could've done to her. No, the WORST thing he could've done to her (and DID actually) was USE HER as a pawn to get to Batman.
His shooting of her meant nothing to him except that it would ultimately hurt Batman. He crippled a young, athletic, active woman to get at someone else. And I have absolutely NO DOUBT Joker himself is fully aware of this fact and, if you believe, as I do, he knows the identities of the Bat Family, actually relishes this. Barbara was denied the chance to go down in a blaze of glory as Batgirl, to sacrifice herself as a hero saving the city. She was just put-down to aid the eternal feud between two madmen.
Joker would love that. That is far, far, far worse than a rape. And he knows it. Not to mention it could potentially add friction to the relationship between Babs and Batman in the future if she grew to resent him for this fact. Lots of laughs for Mistah J in that scenario.
This is actually how I've come to resolve the whole 'fridging' issue as a feminist comic book reader and what I feel could actually somewhat salvage the matter if it was explored within the comics. That is, to present it as Joker being aware of the greater impact of his actions on Babs and of how vile using her like that was. Remember Joker has a comprehensive understanding of human nature and it is entirely possible for him to perceive and understand his own actions as a 'fridging' (even if he wouldn't use that term - then again Joker does demonstrate some awareness of himself as a comic book character, so maybe he would!) and maybe it was even a deliberate, conscious strategy on his part.
But to close.
The Killing Joke. Love it, hate it, think it's perfect, think it's impossibly flawed; it remains one of the most vital and significant Joker stories and is definitely a must-read. So read it, and make up your own minds.
You know what I just realised about TKJ? In any brilliant Joker story, I usually get a couple of laughs, moments of perverse glee in what he is doing or the way he is going about it. TKJ - I just realised I have never laughed once. It has by turns made me cry, given me chills, made me feel ill, haunted, disturbed, pitying and sorrowful. But it has never made me laugh.