Thursday, November 26, 2015

Retro Review: The Killing Joke

Alan Moore's final work for DC was the 1988 landmark, The Killing Joke, a one-shot magnificently illustrated by Brian Bolland that redefined Batman and the Joker and the relationship between them. Cutting between flashbacks and narration in the present day, TKJ offered a possible backstory for the Joker, and showed one fateful encounter between the caped crusader and his archenemy, which left Barbara Gordon disabled for over two decades of DC comics.

The Joker's Plan

The major action of TKJ showed a plan by the Joker that targeted Jim and Barbara Gordon with acts of exceptional cruelty and violence in order "to prove a point." Apparently, he was able to carry out every step that he had planned. After enticing another man to pose as him in Arkham Asylum in order to delay notice of his escape, the Joker agrees to buy a closed-down carnival, but he murders the sales agent, then begins to adapt the location for a single night of terrorizing Jim Gordon.

Shortly thereafter, bizarrely dressed in a tropical shirt, he arrives at the home of Jim and Barbara Gordon. Without saying a word, he fires a gunshot into Barbara's midsection, crippling her. Then, while his thugs incapacitate Jim, the Joker comments that Jim is "topping the bill." He strips Barbara and takes photos of her naked, injured body.

When Jim Gordon awakens, he is tormented by dwarfs grotesquely clad in sadomasochistic leather. They strip him of his clothes and bring him to the Joker, who begins to assault him verbally, and sings him a song about the virtues of insanity. Then, Jim is taken on a ghost train ride and shown gigantic photographic enlargements of the nude photos that the Joker took of his bloody daughter. When the ride is over, the Joker once more explains to Jim, with mock compassion while an audience of "circus freaks" laughs, about the good sense of losing one's mind.

At this point, Batman arrives, deliberately tipped off to the location by tickets the Joker sent to the Gotham police. A short chase through the carnival grounds allows the Joker to make his pro-insanity lecture to Batman. The chase eventually turns into a fight, with the Joker injuring the caped hero lightly before Batman inevitably brings him down. Along the way, Batman escapes a couple of attempts on his life, and it is not clear if the Joker expected those to succeed, or if they were mere gestures to express his hatred. When the Joker is completely beaten, he says, in self-pity, that Batman should "kick the hell out of [him] and get a standing ovation from the public gallery."

Batman's Pitch

The timing of the Joker's plan coincides exactly with Batman's desire to make an overture to his enemy, that they should put aside their conflict. Batman first begins to make this pitch to the man who was posing as the Joker. It is repeated in silent captions when Batman begins to fight the Joker. Then, when the fight is over, the Batman lays it all out again: He doesn't want to hurt the Joker, and that if they don't stop their conflict, one or both of them will end up dying. He offers to help and rehabilitate the Joker. The Joker seems to consider it, but answers, "No. I'm sorry but… No. It's too late for that. Far too late." Despite the rejection, the Joker tells Batman a joke, and they appear to communicate calmly and genuinely once the fight is over, but it is clear that their battle will resume when next the Joker is once again free.

The Joker's Origin

Usually, recurring heroes and villains in comics are given a distinct origin and real name. Occasionally, there is no origin out of apparent indifference on the part of the creators. The Joker, however, is one of a select few for which an origin has been intentionally vague, to preserve a sense of mystery around the character. In 1987's Secret Origins #10, Alan Moore provided one of four possible origins for the Phantom Stranger. In The Killing Joke, Moore provides one for the Joker.

An earlier semi-origin the Joker had been offered in 1951's Detective Comics #168. That story indicated that the Joker had originally carried out crimes as the Red Hood, who wore a helmet and matching cape. His initial interaction with Batman ended with a swim through chemicals that transformed his hair to green and skin to clown white. Maintaining the character's mysterious background, that story never offered his real name nor showed his pre-accident face.

In an extended flashback divided into four parts, TKJ affirms the basic details of the 1951 story, but added more detail to the character's backstory, indicating that the man about to become the Joker was a failed comedian and only reluctantly a criminal, who lost his pregnant wife and unborn child on the same day that his botched robbery and run-in with Batman changed his pigmentation. TKJ breaks from the 1951 story in adding a significant emotional element to the Joker's transformation, indicating that the trauma of that one bad day instantly changed him from a not-particularly-bad man into a devoted criminal, whereas the earlier story implied that the one bad day only altered his appearance.

Moore only offers these details tentatively, however. In one panel injecting ambiguity into the flashback, the present-day Joker says, "Something like that happened to me, you know. I… I'm not exactly sure what is was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" Thus, Moore makes the Joker's backstory, like that of the Phantom Stranger, one that we have possibly but not certainly seen.

Theme: One Bad Day

An essential idea in TKJ is that trauma can remake a man from something ordinary into something remarkable. The Joker analyzes his own past in this way, and the flashback implies that the pre-Joker individual was driven to crime only out of extreme financial need and an honorable desire to support his pregnant wife and soon-to-be family. As soon as he learns of his wife's tragic death, he tries to back out of his agreement to participate in a robbery, but he is forced to comply by his partners. The day is marked not only by extreme misfortune but also by futility, as he is unable to make his own decisions, being threatened into crime by the Red Hood Gang – of which he is a stooge, not the leader – and then being cornered by the relentless police and Batman. Faced with the futility of being good – and sane – the Joker snaps and becomes a devotedly insane criminal as we see him in the present.

This aspect of the origin is owed crucially to one earlier story: Batman's origin as first presented in Detective #33. That first telling of Batman's origin connects the "terror and shock" of witnessing his parents' murders as the single motivation for his life as a crime-fighter. The vow he makes on that occasion is called "curious and strange" by Finger and Kane. The details have been affirmed and extended numerous times in successive stories, but the essential idea is that trauma fundamentally transformed the normal boy into something extraordinary.

There's little in DC mythology that's firmer than the concept of Bruce Wayne deciding to become a crime-fighter because of his parents' murders. As such, it is natural for Moore to take the same idea and reflect it through a mirror, and make a similar moment the origin of the Joker.

However, TKJ does not affirm that simple psychological model of trauma. The Joker carries out his plan for the express purpose of transforming Jim Gordon, to make him insane, but, while the Joker is able to carry out every step in his plan, Gordon does not change as the Joker hopes. When Batman rescues Jim Gordon, Gordon tells him, "I want him brought in… and I want him brought in by the book!… We have to show him that our way works!" This fact, which Gordon and Batman rub into the Joker's face, shows that the Joker was wrong, that One Bad Day does not drive everyone mad, and as Batman adds, "Maybe it was just you, all the time."

This is a neat contrast insofar as the Joker and Jim Gordon go, but what of the third side of the triangle? The Joker guesses that One Bad Day is what made Batman what he is, and in this, he is correct. But, as part of his perception of the situation, he sees Batman as confirmation of his theory, that One Bad Day turned him into someone who would "dress up like a flying rat," which is "crazy," as is "everybody else." If this is wrong, then it was unnecessary for Gordon to be put to the test; Batman already shows that One Bad Day does not drive someone crazy.

Indeed, various creators over the years have suggested that Batman is crazy; TKJ neither confirms nor rejects the idea, but it agrees, as all Batman stories do, that the traumatic event was transformative, and suggests that Batman's life itself is not enough to reject the idea that One Bad Day makes a normal person "crazy."

Mutual Assured Destruction

Batman's description of his ongoing war with the Joker closely parallels the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). As applied to the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union both possessed massive nuclear arsenals, the idea was that a war between the two would inevitably lead to the destruction of both of them. Therefore, any war between them was unwinnable and therefore unthinkable.

War is obviously on Moore's mind in TKJ, as voiced by the Joker. He explicitly uses the phrase "World War Three" as he describes how close the world is to accidental nuclear war. One panel later, he (with considerable oversimplification) suggests that "the last World War" (WW2) was triggered by an argument over telegraph poles. TKJ describes the Batman-Joker war in terms that are parallel to the Cold War conflict between the US and USSR.

When TKJ begins, the Batman-Joker war has been in progress for years, but Batman sees death as an inevitable outcome. And, while he rejects the suicidal nature of it, the Joker accepts it. As such, the dynamic in TKJ is similar to the Cold War's nuclear arms race. In Watchmen, Moore, through Ozymandius, also expresses that nuclear war is inevitable unless something exceptional takes place to prevent it. In TKJ, Moore scripts the Joker's position as similar to that of the U.S. and Soviet Union, while Batman's choice is something sane that the West (and Eastern Bloc) should adopt. In another possible comment on nuclear war, the Joker says, "That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day." A nuclear war would be to the world what the Joker is to a healthy, ordinary mind.

But, as in his Twilight of the Superheroes proposal, Moore also finds fault with society as a whole. He believed that society as a whole was at risk of disintegration, and the Joker in TKJ voices similar concern, that the average man has a "deformed set of values" who survives "not very well" in "today's harsh and irrational world."

As prophecy, Moore's work has, fortunately, not played out in the 27 years since it was printed. Total societal disintegration has yet come to pass.


The artwork, by Brian Bolland, is exceptionally vivid, with the use of photorealistic proportions in most cases highlighting exceptions such as the proportion of the Joker and his circus freak sidekicks. Another exception is when Bolland copies panels from older works, such as file photos of the Joker, Batman from the cover of Detective #27, the Batman family including the Kathy Kane Batwoman, and an implausibly old-fashioned Batmobile. The technique of including older-style artwork within a story has been used many times since TKJ, and it powerfully contrasts the style of those more innocent times with the especially brutal content of TKJ.

Moore makes use of the medium in unusual and attention-getting ways. The story begins and ends with long stretches without dialogue, with the title pages' artwork blending seamlessly into the story. In the beginning, as in the end, we see the concentric circles made by raindrops as a pattern in puddles. This suggests cycles and repetition and the fact that the struggle between Batman and the Joker, and all superhero comics, goes on in a repeated pattern forever. The scene between Batman and the solotaire-playing (fake) Joker is iconic and was repeated by Grant Morrison in DC Universe #0's lead-in to Batman, R.I.P.

Dialogue and captions are repeated, overlie superficially unrelated art, and make sly comments at the transitions between scenes. The first line of the joke that Joker tells at the end are used, out of place, as the story's first words: There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum. In fact, Batman and the (fake) Joker are the two guys in a lunatic asylum, and the joke at the end provides commentary on them. The re-use of the line also reinforces the pattern of a cycle, and the fact that Batman and the Joker cannot break out of their endless war. Later in that scene, Batman says that he doesn't want Joker's death on his hands as the makeup of the fake Joker comes off and smears his gloves. When Jim Gordon warns Batman not to harm a hair on the man's head, Batman offers Gordon the fake Joker's wig. When the real Joker, at the carnival, says that money isn't a problem "these days," we see the first cut to his earlier days, when poverty was a great problem. When that scene ends with the pre-Joker seeing his face reflected in a metal cabinet door, the narration cuts back to the present-day Joker seeing his face reflected in the glass of a "LAUGHING CLOWN" machine, but the Joker isn't laughing. When Joker kills the sales agent, his dialogue is overflowing with double meanings, seemingly speaking cheerfully while referring, repeatedly, to the man's death. The man's death grin ends one scene as the joker card that Batman took from Arkham opens the next one. Later, after shooting Barbara, the Joker refers to her, a librarian, as though she were a book, including "There's a hole in the jacket and the spine appears to be damaged." The Joker ends the scene holding a drink in one hand as he touches Barbara, and then the narration cuts to the proto-Joker holding a drink in one hand as he picks up a shrimp. The technique is used, scene after scene, throughout TKJ as it was in Watchmen and other Moore works.

Moore, a horror writer in his work on Swamp Thing, uses particularly sharp moments in the wording and actions to build up the Joker as something otherworldly. When Batman accosts the man who helped him escape from Arkham, he asks, "Do you realize what you've set free?" with not a "who" but a "what." The Joker strips both Barbara and then Jim Gordon naked, an indignity one wouldn't find in earlier superhero comics, with an added note of perversion when he forces Jim to see pictures of his naked (and crippled) daughter. Later, Barbara shares her horror with us when she tells Batman, "He's taking it to the limit this time. You didn't see. You didn't see his eyes." The proto-Joker's shock when he learns of his wife's death and again when he is forced into joining the robbery are exceptionally tragic alone and more so in juxtaposition. When his grief is the greatest, two leering figures, one of them probably a prostitute, lean in and seem to laugh at his misfortune. Elsewhere in that scene, we see a man passed out in his own vomit. The cover itself is shocking, with the Joker's seemingly harmless "Smile" as he points a camera towards us is galling when one considers how he used a camera in the story. Moore doesn't just break the rules of family comic books; he shatters them. While the Joker and the Gordons are traumatized by their experiences, the reader – at least in the late Eighties – was shocked by the innovative levels of horror in the content. And, given the themes of the story, this is not gratuitous; it illustrates the points effectively.

Did Batman Kill the Joker?

In August 2013, Grant Morrison, in an interview with Kevin Smith, says that in his interpretation, Batman kills the Joker at the end of TKJ. As he explains, Batman reaches out and places his hands on the Joker, then the laughter stops, then the light goes out, and this "in such a way that it’s ambiguous" indicates that Batman has killed the Joker.

It's certainly no better than ambiguous: There is no real evidence that Batman has killed the Joker, and certainly readers do not typically read the story concluding that he did, or else Morrison's supposition would not have made such a splash online.

I strongly disagree. Laughter ends in that scene because laughter always ends. The siren ends and the light goes out because police turn off their sirens and their headlights. The jumps from one panel to the next do not have a specific timeframe associated with them, and we see simply nothing of any attack by Batman on the Joker.

Even more important: Batman has just said that he will not beat the hell out of the Joker because he is (as requested by Jim Gordon) doing this one by the book. Batman is asked to do it by the book, he says that he is doing it by the book, and we don't see anything to indicate that he's not doing it by the book.

References online to the original script seem to confirm that the story does not end with the Joker's death. The description of the ending is, "[Batman] and The Joker are going to kill each other one day. It’s preordained. They may as well enjoy this one rare moment of contact while it lasts." But I don't think this evidence was even needed.

Morrison used the carnival grounds from TKJ in his run on Batman and Robin. He obviously respects the work greatly. But this particular theory seems to me to be difficult to defend.


Though not a perfect story, TKJ is nonetheless one of the most memorable Batman stories – and certainly one of the most memorable Joker stories. It is flawed: The point that the Joker is trying to make and the way it is refuted are both fairly slapdash. The comics make much of One Bad Day creating a hero or villain, and neither the Joker's thesis that it always creates a villain nor the case of Jim Gordon in refuting that thesis are very compelling. As Alan Moore himself says, "Brian did a wonderful job on the art but I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting." He furthermore said, "Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they're just two comic book characters."

That last comment is particularly interesting. The Cold War parallels might permit the claim that TKJ is saying something interesting and that Batman and the Joker in TKJ are symbols of something real. This leaves us to conclude either that the Cold War parallels are unintended, or that Moore considers any such parallel relatively inconsequential.

This suggests that the Cold War overtones that I saw in TKJ from my first reading is, like the Batman-killing-Joker ending that Morrison saw in it, more in the eye of the reader than the writer. And perhaps that is a benefit of the doubt that readers extend to an accomplished writer and a work that is of overall high quality; Moore's reputation makes readers look for hidden levels that may not have been intended. It's perhaps timely to post this retro review right after the one for Kingdom Come, as both are highly regarded for their excellent art and powerful overtones, but neither has a deep message to make them truly great, though they easily fool us into feeling that they do.


  1. Hi Rikdad.

    Loving these retro reviews of yours. Thank you for your insights and great analysis overall.

    I'd like to share some of my reactions after my first reading of TKJ (which was more than a decade ago). They've remained consistent to the day:

    1. Brutalizing Barbar Gordon seemed gratuitous to me (especially since I read TKJ immediately after reading "The Watchmen"). Too many of Moore's stories have brutality towards main female protagonists (this was confirmed again when I read The League of Extraordinary gentlemen vol 2 again). Tough to handle then, tough to handle now.

    2. My instant gut feeling about the ending was, Batman would *never* laugh with the Joker, considering what Joker did to Barbara (even if he were to overlook the crimes he has committed in the past). In fact, this very point was referenced by the character of Barbara Gordon in an issue of the old series "Batman Chronicles" where Batman goes to visit Barbara in the hospital the next night after the events of TKJ. She says something on the lines of "I heard you guys had a good laugh about it all?"

    I must have read TKJ three more times since my first read, and while I admire the Art and some of the dialogue (esp the opening scene that you describe so well), I have never warmed upto it.

    Something mean-spirited and cold about it; and I'm not referring to the joker.

    My two cents - thank you for listening.

  2. Dispatch, that's a great comment. I agree with both of those ideas. I'm not sure if the violence, etc. inflicted on Barbara Gordon was truly/technically gratuitous, as it seems essential to the plot, but one may certainly consider it excessive and/or that violence like this does a kind of harm that is to be rejected. That's a matter of opinion. Obviously, Gail Simone promoted this issue wonderfully after the murder of Kyle Rayner's girlfriend, Alex DeWitt.

    I agree that Batman laughing with the Joker seems wildly out of character. Arguably, Batman making an overture to the Joker is also/equally out of character.

    And, your distinction is important: There's cruelty here that belongs to Moore, not the Joker. Again, as I mentioned in earlier reviews of Moore's work, many of his best-remembered stories are about the destruction of a superhero or even all superheroes. TKJ was simply Barbara Gordon's turn. Moore, in an interview, seemed to express dismay that horror was so common in 1980s media, but he did all he could to increase that.

  3. I never thought I would manage to read anything new or worthwhile when it came to the subject of analyzing TKJ, but leave it to Rikdad!
    TKJ has long been "my favorite comic book". If only because it blew my mind when I first read it as a 10 year old, and it's what I am used to answering with when asked what my favorite comic is. Looking at the book with adult eyes (I am in my 30s) I still really like it and appreciate it, but I see the flaws in the work more clearly. I agree with a lot of the points you make in your blog. The violence towards Barbara leaves a much worse a taste in my mouth now, than it did when I was a kid. However, this resulted in other writers developing Barbara into a much stronger character (imo) as Oracle, an inspiring woman who overcomes a disability and makes a real difference.
    I strongly disagree with Morrison's opinion of the ending for obvious reasons (I am not even convinced Morrison actually interrupts the ending like that, I think he was trying to be controversial and get a reaction in an interview, as he has a reputation for doing)
    I also strongly disagree that The Joker performed any sexual acts on Barbara (or anyone else) as has frequently been asserted.
    At any rate, not enough can be said about the impact this book made on me when I first read it. It made me a lifelong Brian Bolland fan and sealed my fate as a lifelong comic book reader / fanatic. And for that I can never forget it, nor do I think I will stop calling it my "favorite comic book", although not without maybe a few qualifiers. thanks again Rikdad.

  4. TKJ definitely made Barbara Gordon into a more original character than she had been before, but that wasn't really the intention of or handiwork of Moore.

    The Batman-kills-Joker interpretation feels like one of those things where a song is supposed to be about something and then the songwriter says they didn't intended that meaning. Fun and memorable, maybe, but sort of a sidebar.

    TKJ definitely elevated the medium. I think its most enduring contribution might be to begin the phenomenon of a modern artist deliberately imitating older art/style to juxtapose the sensibilities of two different eras. I'm not sure if TKJ was the very first use of that technique, but I can't identify an earlier example.

    1. Great point, the art juxtaposition where Batman is looking at that old photograph really stuck with me after I first read it

  5. I should add that Watchmen, which was certainly earlier, used the clashing styles in an old photo of the original Watchmen and the moral decay in the present to make a similar statement. However, the "old" photo in Watchmen was actually new. TKJ is the first instance that I know of that repurposed an old panel to create that effect.

    Identity Crisis did the same thing, more than once. Morrison's Batman also did so, with the Club of Heroes story using it multiple times, and "Last Rites" bringing back many old scenes, including Bruce Wayne's conversation with Jim Gordon in Detective #27, though usually with updated art.