Batman: The Killing Joke
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Brian Bolland
By Michael David Sims
Thanks to the Adam West TV show, many people wrongfully hold the idea that Batman is a colorful, campy, slow... talking... superhero with a young ward with a penchant for shaving his legs. Even if they've seen the 1989 feature film, somehow the television show that ran from 1966 to 1968 remains plastered to the walls of their brains — as does their idea that Batman is not worth taking seriously. So, to change their minds, I ask these people if they've read The Killing Joke. Most stare blankly, others slowly shake their heads. Even though I know they won't, I tell them to locate the nearest comic book shop and ask the owner if he has a copy for sale. The reason I do this is because The Killing Joke is one of those comic books that everybody needs to read. And I mean everybody — especially non-comic book readers. It's one of those stories that transcends the genre and destroys peoples' expectations. Inside these 48 pages is one of the greatest and darkest Batman stories of all time.
Knowing that one (or both) of them will end up dead if their feud continues, Batman makes a conscious decision to confront The Joker, to talk it out. Even though his words might not make it though to the madman, at least Batman knows he tried and he'll feel less guilty should he one day have to kill him. (Yes, Batman admits he might have to kill to end this mess.) The problem is, the clown-faced man he's speaking to at the asylum isn't The Joker, but a decoy meant to distract the guards, police and Batman as the real clown stages his grandest scheme of all...
... which involves purchasing a rundown amusement park. Well, he doesn't actually purchase it. While he surveys his new land, we're (surprisingly) privy to pieces of The Joker's origin. (This, despite what many people want to believe, is his real origin. Gordon all but confirms it with a line that could very well be overlooked.) It would seem he was once a normal man with a wife and forthcoming baby, a man who gave up a lucrative job as a lab assistant to follow his comedic dream. Problem is, he couldn't hack it. "Don't call us. We'll call you" was a phrase he heard more times that he could count. Longing to provide for his wife and unborn child, he turned to the underworld and the hopes that one big crime would provide him with enough cash to relocate and start a new life. Unfortunately, just hours before he's set to don the costume of the Red Hood, his apartment burns down, killing his wife and unborn child. Distraught, he attempts to back out of the plan, but his not so friendly friends force him to go through with it. The plan: to rob a playing card factory on the other side of the chemical factory where he used to work. Things go from the proverbial bad to worse when, unexpectedly, guards open fire on the men (killing the two crooks) and the Batman arrives. Frightened for his life (and having a hard time seeing through the metal helmet of the Red Hood costume) he jumps into a vat of chemicals and washes ashore. When he pulls the helmet away and stares into the water, he sees his new, alarming reflection, that of a white-faced, green-haired, red-lipped clown.
Even though he doesn't remember his own origin ("If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice."), somewhere deep down a part of it must remain with him because his latest plan revolves around it.
While Batman searches for his enemy, The Joker makes his presence felt in the home of Commissioner Jim Gordon. Without a single joke passing from his lips, he knocks on the front door and shoots Barbara in the pelvis — permanently damaging her spine. Reeling from the blast, she falls backwards through a glass table, spraying blood everywhere. Shocked, Gordon sits there for a moment before attempting to kill The Joker with a pair of scissors. However, The Joker's men beat Gordon unconscious and drag him away, leaving the Clown Prince of Crime with the now-paralyzed former Batgirl.
As if that wasn't enough, The Joker strips Barbara of all her clothes and takes pictures of her nude, writhing, bloody body. Later he shows them to Jim. Over and over and over again. (I've often wondered if he raped her too, but it's never actually said.) The reason for all this? To drive Jim insane. To prove a point. "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." And he might have succeeded too if he hadn't sent Batman a personal invitation to his new park. Had Batman discovered the hideout just a few hours later, Jim might have finally and permanently cracked. But The Joker's arrogance proved his downfall once again, and Batman knocks the tar out of him.
In a moment of clarity The Joker realizes what he's done and while not remorseful, he understands that he's going back to Arkham for a long, long time. Using this moment to his advantage, Batman attempts to reach his enemy, offering personal help to rehabilitate the man. But The Joker knows he's too far gone and tells a joke that touches on just who the two men are. (Batman, despite his obvious trauma, is able to make the leap towards sanity and offer a helping hand to those around him — even enemies. Whereas The Joker is too frightened and mad to take the helping hand — even if it means ending his pain.)
Despite the rather funny joke, herein lies my one problem with The Killing Joke: Batman laughs. Now I have no problem with Batman laughing, it's that he laughs on this day, a day when two of his closest friends and allies had their lives irrevocably altered. Granted, it can be chalked up to needing a release, but it feels... wrong to see him laugh on such a day and with such a man.