Retroactive Continuity 1: The Killing Joke

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Retroactive Continuity is a recurring feature in which I address works or events from outside the time period we’re currently discussing, but which are nonetheless relevant.

It is March 1988. In the music charts, the month opens with George Michael at number one, followed by two weeks of Rick Astley’s infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up,” before Michael Jackson takes over at the end of the month with “Man in the Mirror.” In theaters, Robin Williams dramedy Good Morning Vietnam has its eighth and ninth weeks at number one before being unseated for a single week by Police Academy 5, then something called Biloxi Blues takes the spot for the final week of the month.

In the news this month, the British Liberal and Social Democrat parties merge to form the center-left Social and Liberal Democrats, which will later change their names to the Liberal Democrats. In the ongoing Iran-Contra scandal, Oliver North and John Poindexter are indicted for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. And there is a chain reaction of violence in Ireland: three unarmed IRA members planning to bomb a British military band are shot dead in Operation Flavius; their funeral is then attacked by UDA member Michael Stone; a pair of British corporals then accidentally drive into the funeral of an IRA member killed in that attack; believing the corporals to be another loyalist attack, attendees of the funeral pull the corporals from their car and kill them.

And one of the most influential stories about the Joker–cited as an influence by, among others, Tim Burton, whose Batman movies are in turn a significant influence on Batman: The Animated Series–is published: The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore, art by Brian Bolland, color by John Higgins (later redone for reprints by Brian Bolland).

The first thing to acknowledge in regards to The Killing Joke is that “most influential” is not the same thing as “greatest.” As Bolland rather diplomatically puts it in the introduction he wrote for the comic’s reprint in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, “The end result wasn’t quite what I’d hoped. I don’t think it rates with some of the groundbreaking highlights of Alan’s career. There are things in the story I wouldn’t have done.”

The most likely candidate for these “things” is the Joker’s brutal attack on Barbara Gordon. Its function in the story is to illustrate the Joker’s power to transgress the normal narrative rules of a superhero comic, in which fights take place between costumed heroes and villains. The Joker attacking Batgirl in the street or even her hideout is one thing; for him to attack Barbara Gordon, however, is against the unspoken rules of the conflict. Unfortunately, what it works out to be in practice is a pure fridging: a female comic book character is violently sexually assaulted, resulting in a permanent loss of her prior heroic status, purely for the sake of exploring the response of a male character, in this case her father. (That the comic is mildly ambiguous about what, if anything, the Joker did to her beyond shooting, stripping, and photographing her is beside the point; that is still sexual assault. That later writers came up with a new, and frankly far more interesting, heroic identity for her as Oracle is similarly beside the point; within the confines of this story, her ability to be Batgirl is destroyed by the Joker.)

One can, of course, make the argument that depiction is not endorsement; the Joker is, after all, a villain, so the fact that he performs vile acts is a natural part of his character. The problem is that the comic is no more interested in Barbara Gordon’s pain than he is; both use it solely as a mechanism to provoke a response in Commissioner Gordon. The comic is serving as the Joker’s accomplice, and thereby is complicit in his guilt.

A second, lesser flaw is rather an unusual one for Moore’s work: the equation of “goodness” to adherence to social norms. It is possible–even likely, given Moore’s frequent celebration of transgressive figures in his other work–that this equation is unintentional, but it nonetheless emerges. The comic depicts Batman and the Joker as broken, ultimately tragic figures, who inevitably bring destruction to themselves and others (most especially each other) as an extended consequence of “one bad day.” Both are ultimately therefore shown to be weaker than Commissioner Gordon, who experiences a similarly bad day and nonetheless insists that Batman take the Joker down “by the book.” His adherence to “the book,” in other words, and refusal to become a transgressive or monstrous figure, are how he endures the “bad day” and resists joining Batman and Joker in their tragic dance. (Off-panel, given her relative calm in the hospital scenes, Barbara Gordon does much the same, but the comic fails to notice that she has had at least as bad a day as her father and therefore does not explore what got her through it.)

This notion of “one bad day,” a test in which terrible things come down upon a person, is visualized in the comic by ubiquitous rain. The rain in turn often forms puddles, and each of our three main figures (Joker, Batman, Commissioner Gordon) gets at least one panel dominated by their reflection in a puddle, literally illustrating this notion that a person can be defined by their own particular bad day. The Joker is mistaken, however, and not just in the obvious sense that Gordon resists being transformed by his experiences. The man that became the Joker is likewise shown, albeit fairly subtly, to be the same person before and after his own bad day. The proto-Joker is petty, frustrated, and nihilistic from the start; he is fixated on the people he can’t make laugh and the material wealth he can’t acquire, while ignoring that he does make his lover laugh and she doesn’t mind that he’s not a financial success. His anger is apparent, but so is his fear; his response is to turn his anger inward, despair and seek comfort. Only once he has nothing left to lose, and therefore nothing to fear, does that anger turn outward, but nonetheless it was there all along.

Batman, as the Joker observes, also had one bad day. This is the one place where the comic really works, and its strongest legacy in terms of influencing future depictions of the Joker: the Joker and Batman have a special relationship, not just nemeses or foils or even reflections of one another, but as two beings that cannot exist without one another. Tim Burton will make this literal, in having Batman and the Joker be directly responsible for one another’s transformative moments, but in the comic it is more metaphorical. Batman helped create the Joker through his involvement in the chemical plant, but the Joker had no involvement in birthing the Bat. Instead, by laughing at the Joker’s joke at the end of the comic, Batman is paralleled to his dead lover, confirming Batman’s twice-stated belief that he or the Joker will inevitably kill the other. But Batman is in part defined by his refusal to kill; thus, whether he dies or kills the Joker, the Joker will be the end of Batman, which is at least as important as being his beginning.

Yet we have already seen that neither the Joker nor either of the Gordons is truly transformed by their single bad day; only Batman is, forged by his parents’ death. Yet isn’t that always the case with the most iconic superheroes? Batman is Batman because his parents are dead, just as Superman is Superman because his world is dead, just as Spider-Man is Spider-Man because Uncle Ben is dead. The Joker’s fundamental error, in other words, is in his misunderstanding of what one bad day creates: not villains, but superheroes.

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