How far can you fall after experiencing one bad day? This question is essentially the overarching theme of Alan Moore’s one shot graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke (“The Killing Joke“). First released in 1988, The Killing Joke has since been reprinted multiple times over and is considered to be one of the most iconic Batman stories ever told, along with being the definitive Joker origin story. The novel itself, has won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album in 1989 and has appeared in The New York Times Best Seller List in 2009.
The Killing Joke is set across two different timelines and follows the downfall of a simple, average man who suffered “one bad day” and the Joker’s attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane. The graphic novel delivers the plot of the story with an opening that illustrates the Joker as being Batman’s greatest and most formidable foe, the only villain to tempt and inspire the Dark Knight to disregard his strongly held principle of not killing his enemies.
“Hello. I came to talk. I’ve been thinking lately. About you and me. About what’s going to happen to us, in the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we? Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you. Perhaps sooner. Perhaps later…I don’t fully understand why ours should be such a fatal relationship”
This notion of there being a fatal relationship between Batman and the Joker is one that implies the depth of hatred the two have of one another but also their dependence on each other. There is an implication that without the Joker, there is no Batman and vice versa. The Joker is the only criminal who truly understands the darkness within Batman and likewise, Batman is the only one who can fathom the insanity that drives the Joker. One does not exist without the other.
The plot of The Killing Joke is driven forward by the Joker’s actions in purchasing a run down carnival and beginning his quest to strip Commissioner Gordon of his sanity. It is within this graphic novel that the Joker seals his fate as one of the cruellest villains in DC comic book history, with his actions leaving a lasting impression on not only the DC Comics universe but affects the entire Bat family, along with future canon stories. The action in which I am referring to is the most horrific yet notable scene of the Joker shooting an unsuspecting Barbara Gordon a.k.a Batgirl right through her lower abdomen rendering her paralysed for the foreseeable future (not to mention potentially infertile). It is this very moment that changed the dynamics of the Bat family for good.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the Joker’s audacity continued when he strips Barbara down in order to take photographs of his handiwork. The darkness of the Joker’s actions does not stop there. The Commissioner too is stripped down completely and is enslaved at the carnival, with the Joker humiliating the man in the most depraved of ways.
Why does he do such a thing? How could he do such a thing? Is the Joker really that much of a psychopath? Those were the questions I initially asked myself upon reading the well written graphic novel but was very quick to receive the answers.
The Killing Joke not only follows the Joker’s current actions but also showcases his past, identifying the man he once was and the moment in which he essentially became the Joker. An average man, the Joker (whose name is never revealed) gave up his job at a chemical plant to become a stand-up comedian. Failing miserably and unable to support his wife and unborn child, he agrees to assist two criminals who require access through the chemical plant he once worked at. However, his resolve changes upon learning of his wife’s death in an accident. Forced and coerced into continuing on with the criminals, he joins the two at the plant and is caught out by security and Batman. Afraid of being caught by the monster that he believed Batman to be, he jumps into the plant’s waste pound lock and is swept outside. Once outside, he is shocked to discover that the chemicals had bleached his skin white, dyed his lips bright red and his hair green. Finally snapping, he laughs uncontrollably and loses any semblance of sanity he had left. Thus, the Joker is born.
What’s interesting and rather poetic in this origin story is the fact that Batman essentially helped and was involved in the Joker’s creation. Had he not been present at the chemical plant, perhaps the Joker would have taken an alternate route to escape and thereby avoiding dipping himself in chemicals. Once again, The Killing Joke effectively depicts the symbiosis between Batman and the Joker. The Joker is Batman’s greatest villain whom he understands almost in every facet because he had a hand in creating the Joker.
“I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day”
Back to Commissioner Gordon’s situation, the Joker humiliates the Commissioner, which I assume is his way of bringing the Commissioner down to his level, to the same level in which the Joker felt humiliated and embarrassed during each audition in his attempts at becoming a stand up comedian. Furthermore, showing the Commissioner the unsavoury pictures of a nude Barbara Gordon covered in her own blood acts to destroy the Commissioner almost in the same way the deaths of his wife and unborn child destroyed the Joker. Doing so at a carnival, a setting usually associated with childhood innocence and joy, adds another layer in which the Joker attempts to show life’s bleakness; that there is darkness even in the happiest of places.
Reading the graphic novel, it was fairly easy to sympathise with the Joker upon learning of his past. Imagine what it must have felt like to lose his wife, be forced to commit a crime and then be chased by Batman. On top of that, having the plight of being a failure constantly in the back of your mind. It’s not an easy thing to simply power through such hardship and make it out alive and in one piece; not for everyone. The Killing Joke essentially did well to humanise the Joker, to illustrate the point that he was but a simple man who suffered a great deal through life and was finally dealt the final blow of one really bad day.
“You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a flying rat? You had a bad day, and it drove you as crazy as everybody else… only you won’t admit it!”
In personifying the one bad day that we all face, the Joker goes on to point out yet another similarity between him and Batman. The Dark Knight himself faced one bad day that changed his life forever, much like the Joker. His childhood, his hopes and dreams, his emotions and ability to love and be loved all changed after his parents’ murder. Had it not been for that ‘bad day’, Batman would not have been created. Here, instead of showing its readers the similarities between the Joker and Batman, The Killing Joke points out the fact that one always has a choice in reacting to difficult situations. The graphic novel works to remind us all that no matter the situation, we each have a choice in how we choose to react. The Joker chose to give up and allow darkness and insanity to consume him. Batman, however, chose the path towards justice, as misguided as it sometimes may be.
What’s really interesting though, is the ending of the graphic novel. If theirs is a fatal relationship in which only one can survive, what should readers make of the final scene of The Killing Joke? Did Batman finally disregard his scruples against killing? The scene is poignant and once again urges sympathy for the Joker as he reveals a moment of sorrow for what we could only imagine to be grief for the loss of his ‘goodness’. Too far gone toward the darkness within, the Joker feels he can’t be saved and thus leaving Batman to do what he must. But what is it that he does? That is up to the readers’ imaginations.
Batman: The Killing Joke is a graphic novel that truly grasps the nature of the Joker and his relationship with Batman. From the thematic concepts to the dialogue, the graphic novel inspires psychological thought and debate into two of DC Comics’ most iconic characters. It humanises the Joker’s plight and gives him a tragic past to remind us all of just how far some may fall; all it takes is one bad day.