One Bad Day
By Ian Wilson
28 May 2008 — From The Killing Joke to Iron Man, it has become clear that many defining moments in comic books (and their silver screen brothers) have stemmed from the concept of having one really lousy day. But when every single one of us has to face life-changing events, often stemming from "one bad day," can we really sympathize with The Joker?
One of the most prominent Batman stories in existence is Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. This is for two reasons: it saw the crippling of Barbara Gordon (ending her run as Batgirl), and gave The Joker a possible origin story. To prove that one bad day is all it takes to create someone like himself, Joker attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane by handing him the worst day of his life. Flashbacks hint that he was once a chemical engineer who gave it all up to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably at it. Desperate for cash and wanting to support his pregnant wife, he decided to help two criminals. However, on the day of the heist, the wife and unborn child died in a household accident. Unremorseful, the crooks refused to let the grieving husband out of his commitment, and the crime transpired as planned — sort of. Security caught the men in the act, killing the two hardened criminals, leaving the widower to flee in a panic. During his flight he ran afoul of Batman, and accidentally fell into a vat of chemicals. What should have killed him, instead, turned his skin bleach-white, his hair emerald and his lips blood-red. The entirety of these events — this one bad day — drove the unnamed man insane, giving birth to Batman's greatest adversary: The Joker.
Of course, in broad terms, the idea that one bad day can change one's life is nothing new. Batman himself was basically created on the fateful day he watched his parents get gunned down. Similarly, Peter Parker's transformation into Spider-Man didn't come so much when he was bitten by a radioactive spider, but when a petty thug he didn't stop went on to kill his uncle. Since then, he has lived by his uncle's words that "with great power, comes great responsibility." This also suggests that one bad day isn't exclusive to villains; for every man driven insane by an acid bath and gamma radiation, there are others who come out mentally stronger. It is not so much the bad day itself that leads to this heroism or villainy, but the choices made in the aftermath. And this isn't exclusive to fictional characters either, it is a universal truth.
I have a personal example of how one bad day has informed my own path in life. At the start of the year, I had a girlfriend who I'll refer to as Nicola — as that's her name. We'd been together for 11 months, but were living apart. I had graduated from university last year whereas she had another two years to complete. It wasn't the easiest scenario to maintain, but generally I would see her once a month, which would be the highlight of my month. To fill the time, I took a flexible job at Subway, while searching for a career in radio. Then, two weeks before our first anniversary, she called me to say that she didn't think it was working and that she needed time to find herself. With the exception of the time I was told my grandma was unlikely to recover from her stroke, I have never been so utterly devastated. I'd known she'd been having issues with confidence, but I had no idea that it would lead to us splitting up, not least so close to the anniversary. But after taking a day or two to get all the crying and neurotic self-doubt out of my system, I had a moment of clarity. I'd been living my life from monthly visit to monthly visit, taking on jobs I didn't like; ultimately, that wouldn't benefit me in the long-term. So I revisited the career idea I had in the year between leaving school and starting university: working in a museum, pursuing my love of history. As such, I'm going to go to another university in September next year which should see me walk into a profession I'll enjoy for the rest of my life. So whilst I hated that one fateful day in January, it has given me a long-term goal. It also has the backing of my folks (who are probably glad my wastrel days are at an end), friends and Nicola herself (whom I'm still on good terms with). Now I'm not saying I'm a superhero, because it is technically irrelevant; one bad day can affect anyone, fictional or fleshy.
To tie this back into the fictional world, this concept was particularly well-done in the recent Iron Man movie. Arms developer Tony Stark's entire outlook on life changed after being gravely injured by one of his own cluster bombs and captured by terrorists. To ensure his survival, an electromagnet was placed in his chest. Before escaping and returning to America, Stark is appalled to see his very captors possessing his company's arms. Once home, Stark doesn't resume building weapons, drinking and being lewd with women — not immediately, anyway. He instead calls for his company to stop selling arms (which his board disagrees with) and redevelops the armor in which he escaped, which would become the Iron Man outfit. With heroism that includes saving a village from acts of terrorism and stopping Obadiah Stane in his tracks, Stark truly becomes a figure to admire without losing the core of his personality. One bad day led to the literal creation of Iron Man, and whilst you can argue that Stark didn't undergo the same stresses that the pre-chemical bath Joker received, bear in mind that he witnesses the deaths of those he grew close to, is disfigured in the chest area somewhat and will feel the effects of that day for the rest of his life.
What makes this change so real and believable is that bad days happen to everyone, which in turn is reflected in comic books — albeit in heightened circumstances with mutagen, radiation and aliens. Comic book movies almost always have to feature one character's origin, so it is easy to compare the treatment of each bad day against one another. A good illustration of the choice between heroism and villainy can be seen in, of all films, Spider-Man 3. When Peter Parker attaches himself to the symbiote, he is (eventually) strong enough to recognize that the alien is bad for him and is able to tear it off to regain his senses. Eddie Brock, however, is a weak, spiteful character who can't physically get rid of the symbiote when it joins itself to him. And when he does become Venom, Brock enjoys the proliferation of his negative traits to the extent that he can't be without it at the end — and suffers accordingly.
Readers and filmgoers alike can also use one bad day to relate to these characters, be they on screen or in print. This is especially true of villains, as the circumstances surrounding their transformation into the bad guy can either be self-inflicted or completely out of their hands. This separates the truly evil from the unfortunate. Whilst my domain on Earth-2.net is technically cinema, the best example of villains falling into these two categories is in Batman: The Animated Series. Harvey Dent, Victor Fries and Matt Hagen never wanted to become Two-Face, Mr. Freeze or Clayface, respectively, but fate dictated otherwise. On the other hand, Edward Nygma could have sued his boss for wrongful dismissal and probably would have won; instead, he chose to live a life of riddle-centric crimes. Jervis Tetch said he didn't want to use his mind-control technology to be with the woman he loved, but his neuroses got the better of him and he became The Mad Hatter — rendering Alice into a soulless puppet. And yet, the cartoon was so well-written that even Tetch was sympathetic, despite his self-inflicted pain.
What, then, should we make of The Joker; should sympathy be extended to a mass murderer? The Heath Ledger portrayal in the upcoming The Dark Knight seems to show how vile the character truly is, and how the paying punters react to him may well make that question even more pointed. To me, no, he shouldn't be seen as a sympathetic character; Joker chose a path of evil, even in his new state of insanity. And even then, ambiguity still reigns supreme. In regard to his origin, Joker says, "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" That single line makes Joker an unreliable narrator, akin to Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. One bad day can never be used as an excuse, although such a day could range from relatively minor things (like being dumped, I suppose) to having your entire world collapse around you. The path you choose in life is your own to make and it truly separates the good people from the bad — both in the world of fiction and reality.