Batman: The Killing Joke
|Batman: The Killing Joke|
Cover of Batman: The Killing Joke
Art by Brian Bolland
|Publication date||March 1988|
|No. of issues||1|
|Created by||Alan Moore|
|Written by||Alan Moore|
|Colorist(s)||John Higgins (original)|
Brian Bolland (Deluxe Edition)
|Batman: The Killing Joke||ISBN 0-930289-45-5|
|DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore||ISBN 1401209270|
|Batman: The Killing Joke - 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition||ISBN 9781401216672|
Batman: The Killing Joke is a 1988 DC Comics one-shot graphic novel featuring the characters Batman and the Joker written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. The Killing Joke provides an origin story for the supervillain the Joker, loosely adapted from the 1951 story arc "The Man Behind the Red Hood!". The Joker's origin is presented via flashback, while simultaneously depicting his attempt to drive Jim Gordon insane and Batman's desperate attempt to stop him.
Created by Moore, Bolland, and Higgins as their own take on the Joker's source and psychology, the story became famous for its origin of the Joker as a tragic character; a family man and failed comedian who suffered "one bad day" that finally drove him insane. Moore stated that he attempted to show the similarities and contrasts between Batman and the Joker. The story's effects on the mainstream Batman continuity also included the shooting and paralysis of Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl), an event that laid the groundwork for her to develop the identity of Oracle.
Many critics consider the graphic novel to be the definitive Joker story and one of the best Batman stories ever published. The comic won the Eisner Award for 'Best Graphic Album' in 1989 and appeared on The New York Times Best Seller List in May 2009. In 2006, The Killing Joke was reprinted as part of the trade paperback DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore. In 2008, DC Comics reprinted the story in a deluxe hardcover edition, which features new coloring by Bolland, with a more somber, realistic, and subdued palette than the original. Elements of The Killing Joke have inspired or been incorporated into other aspects of Batman media.
- 1 Background and creation
- 2 Plot summary
- 3 Themes and analysis
- 4 Critical reception and legacy
- 5 In other media
- 6 Reprints
- 7 References
Background and creation
Artist Brian Bolland's version of the Joker stemmed in part from his having recently seen the film The Man Who Laughs. Giordano's invitation led directly to Bolland working with writer Alan Moore to create a plausible background story for the Joker. He recounted, "I thought about it in terms of who's my favorite writer at the moment, what hero I would really love to do, and which villain? I basically came up with Alan, Batman and the Joker".
Although the story takes pains to stress that it is merely one possible "origin story" for the Joker, it has been widely accepted and adopted into DC continuity, and editor Len Wein had to ask the publisher for approval of a central mutilation of a long-running character. Bolland said that he saw "Judge Death [as] almost a dry run for drawing the Joker". He also recounted that "by the time Alan had finished Watchmen he had fallen out with DC to a certain extent ... in the end, he only continued to do Killing Joke as a favor to me".
The 48-page prestige format one-shot comic took a considerable amount of time to produce. Both Moore and Bolland are well known for their meticulous and time-consuming work; both creators' then-recently finished 12-issue maxiseries titles – Moore's Watchmen and Bolland's Camelot 3000 – had seen delays. He was aided by the laid-back attitude taken by DC, who he says "seemed prepared to let me do it at my own pace". The original editor, Len Wein, left the company, and was replaced by Dennis O'Neil, a "very hands-off sort of guy", with whom Bolland only recalls having one conversation about the book.
Bolland envisaged the flashback sequences in black and white, and instructed Watchmen colorist John Higgins to use "muted November colors". He was upset when he saw the finished comic had "garish ... hideous glowing purples and pinks ... and my precious Eraserhead-esque flashback sequences swamped in orange". The 2008-published 20th anniversary edition of the book featured new colouring by Bolland, restoring his artistic intentions to the palette.
The story is referred to in a flashback scene in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies, Batman: Under the Red Hood. In the movie, Red Hood lures Batman to the chemical factory where the Joker's accident took place. Batman remembers the events like in the comic, where a fleeing Joker had attempted to escape while trying to claim that he was set up but accidentally fell into the toxic waste that disfigured him. The film's villain, Jason Todd – whom the Joker murdered, and who takes up his murderer's former criminal identity upon being returned to life by Ra's al Ghul – calls it Batman's greatest failure. Jason also obliquely refers to the Joker crippling Barbara.
The man who will become the Joker is an unnamed engineer who quits his job at a chemical company to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife Jeannie, he agrees to guide two criminals through the chemical plant where he previously worked so that they can rob the playing card company next to it. During the planning, the police inform him that his wife and unborn child have died in a household accident. Grief-stricken, the engineer tries to withdraw from the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his commitment to them.
At the plant, the criminals make him don a special mask to become the infamous Red Hood. As previously told to the engineer by the criminals, they use this disguise to implicate any accomplice as the mastermind and to divert attention away from themselves. Once inside, they encounter security personnel, a shootout ensues, and the two criminals are killed. The engineer is confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance.
Terrified, the engineer jumps into the chemical plant's waste pound lock to escape Batman and is swept through a pipe leading to the outside. Once outside, he discovers to his horror that the chemicals have permanently bleached his skin chalk-white, stained his lips ruby-red and dyed his hair bright green. The engineer's disfigurement, compounded with the loss of his family, drives him completely insane and marks the birth of the Joker.
In the present day, Batman goes to Arkham Asylum to talk with the Joker about ending their years-long feud, only to realize that the Joker has escaped and put a decoy in his place. Soon after, the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in the stomach, and kidnaps her father, Commissioner James Gordon. The bullet penetrates Barbara's spine, permanently paralyzing her. The Joker imprisons Gordon in a run-down amusement park. His henchmen then beat Gordon and cage him in the park's freak show. It is implied but not explicitly said that the Joker gives Gordon LSD to continue his mental torture. The Joker chains Gordon to one of the park's rides and forces him to view blown-up photos of Barbara, lying nude on the floor of her apartment following the shooting. Once Gordon has run the horrifying gauntlet, the Joker puts him on display in the freak show, ridiculing him as "the average man", a naïve weakling doomed to insanity.
Batman's attempts to locate Commissioner Gordon are unsuccessful until the Joker sends him an "invitation" that leads him to the amusement park. Batman arrives to save Gordon, and the Joker retreats into the funhouse. Though traumatized by the ordeal, Gordon retains his sanity and moral code, and he insists that Batman capture the Joker "by the book" in order to "show him that our way works". Batman enters the funhouse and dodges the Joker's booby traps, while the Joker tries to persuade his nemesis that the world is "a black, awful joke" that is not worth fighting for, and that it only takes "one bad day" to drive an ordinary man insane.
Batman subdues the Joker and tells him that Gordon survived the Joker's torments, and suggests that the Joker is alone in his madness. He attempts to reach out to the Joker and offers to help him recover in order to end their everlasting war, which Batman fears may one day result in a fight to the death. The Joker declines, saying it is "too late for that. Far too late". He then says that this situation reminds him of a joke about two inmates in a lunatic asylum who try to escape. One inmate jumps across a narrow gap between the asylum and the adjoining building, but the other is afraid he will fall. The first inmate offers to shine his flashlight across the gap so the other can walk across the beam, but the second inmate replies, "What do you think I am, crazy? You'd turn it off when I was halfway across!" Batman chuckles at the punchline, and the two old foes laugh as the police arrive.
From the text itself, the ending is ambiguous: according to one view, Batman breaks the Joker's neck out of panel, causing the laughter to stop abruptly. Some people theorise that the title, "The Killing Joke", is in reference to the ending scene, in which The Joker and Batman laugh, over a joke, thus triggering Batman to kill the Joker. According to another view, Batman and the Joker, who have been fighting for years, end all of their disputes by having a good laugh about it all.
Themes and analysis
The book explores Moore's assertion that, psychologically, "Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other" by delving into the relationship between the two. The story itself shows how the Joker and Batman came to terms with their respective life-altering tragedies, which both eventually lead to their present lives and confrontation. Critic Geoff Klock further explained that "both Batman and the Joker are creations of a random and tragic 'one bad day'. Batman spends his life forging meaning from the random tragedy, whereas the Joker reflects the absurdity of life, and all its random injustice".
The torments that the Joker puts Commissioner Gordon through are meant to serve as "proof that there is something buried deep within each lunatic, a nugget of insanity, that is simply waiting for the right moment to spring forth". Unlike the Joker, however, Gordon emerges from his ordeal with his sanity and moral code intact. The story is also famous for changing how the Modern Age of Comics perceived Batman comics by bringing it back to its darker roots. The comic book, however, delves deeper in order to present Batman's own psychology—that he is, in his own way, just as insane as the Joker, and that he and the Joker perceive the world according to differing points of view, with the Joker's interpreted through a joke.
The Joker serves as an unreliable narrator. He admits to his own uncertainty, as he has disparate memories of the single event ("Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another ... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"), accentuating the comic's depiction of "a world unraveling toward relentless urban violence and moral nihilism ..."
Critical reception and legacy
Although a one-shot, the events of The Killing Joke were adopted into ongoing comic book storylines. DC Comics officially retired Batgirl in the one-shot comic Batgirl Special #1 (July 1988), and when Barbara Gordon reappeared in the Suicide Squad series, she was in a wheelchair and became the computer hacker Oracle. This event, along with a Batman storyline that takes place shortly afterward, Batman: A Death in the Family, involving the Joker murdering Robin (Jason Todd), The Killing Joke, leads Batman's obsession with the Clown Prince of Crime to a personal level. The mantle of Batgirl would eventually be passed to successor Cassandra Cain and later, Stephanie Brown. Gordon's paralysis was later retconned into a temporary event that lasted only three years in DC Comics' 2011 line-wide title relaunch, The New 52, which saw her restored as the first and only Batgirl.
The graphic novel won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album and garnered Alan Moore the Best Writer award in 1989. Hilary Goldstein of IGN Comics praised The Killing Joke, calling it "easily the greatest Joker story ever told" and adding that "Moore's rhythmic dialogue and Bolland's organic art create a unique story often mimicked but never matched". IGN declared The Killing Joke the third-greatest Batman graphic novel, after The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate called The Killing Joke "one of the greatest comics of the 20th century, period". Van Jensen of ComicMix said, "Each time [I read The Killing Joke] I'm amazed all over again at how Alan Moore and Brian Bolland teamed to pack such intensity, ferocity and humanity into those pages. B.L. Wooldridge of Batman in Comics called the graphic novel "an incredible story, with Moore at his best and awe-inspiring art by painter Brian Bolland". Comics historians Robert Greenberger and Matthew K. Manning describe it as "the definitive Joker story of all time". Manning additionally called it "one of the most powerful and disturbing stories in the history of Gotham City".
Andy Shaw of Grovel had a more lukewarm response to The Killing Joke, saying that though "wonderfully executed", it "suffer[s] from its reliance on the rules of the superhero story". Seb Patrick of Den of Geek also had a mixed response, calling The Killing Joke "one of the most revered and influential 'Batman' stories ever written and arguably the definitive Joker story", but adding that it's "not at the level of [Alan Moore's] true masterpieces [such as] Watchmen, V for Vendetta [and] The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen".
In a 2000 interview, Moore said: "I don't think it's a very good book. It's not saying anything very interesting". In 2003, he elaborated:
The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn't about anything that you're ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there's no important human information being imparted ... Yeah, it was something that I thought was clumsy, misjudged and had no real human importance. It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn't really relate to the real world in any way.
In a 2006 interview with Wizard magazine, Moore was also critical about his decision to cripple Barbara Gordon: "I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon - who was Batgirl at the time - and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project ... [He] said, 'Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch'. It was probably one of the areas where they should've reined me in, but they didn't".
In the introduction to the story as it appears in the DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore trade paperback, Brian Bolland disputes the widely held belief that the story started as a Batman annual story and ended up as a prestige-format book. Bolland recalls that the idea for a one-off Batman story focusing on the Joker—with Batman more of an incidental character—was his. Bolland says that in 1984, DC editor Dick Giordano told him he could do any project for DC he wanted, and Bolland requested to do a Batman/Joker prestige book with Moore as writer. Bolland has also expressed dissatisfaction with the final book, and regrets that its impending schedule for release meant he could not color the book himself (John Higgins was the colorist). Bolland says that "the end result wasn't quite what I'd hoped. I don't think it rates with some of the highlights of Alan's career". March 2008 saw the release of the artwork as Bolland intended it: the twentieth anniversary hardcover edition of The Killing Joke is completely recolored by Bolland himself. The book made The New York Times Best Seller list in May 2009.
Influence on Joker stories
Critic Mark Vogler wrote that The Killing Joke provided the Joker "with a sympathetic back story as it presented some of the villain's most vile offenses". Moore's rendition of the Joker's origin employs elements of the 1951 story "The Man Behind the Red Hood" (Detective Comics #168), which established the concept of the Joker originally having been a thief known only as the Red Hood. The tragic and human elements of the character's story, coupled with his barbaric crimes as the Joker, portray the character as more of a three-dimensional human being. During an interview with Salon, Moore explained that Joker's psychotic nature could have been caused by a "bad decision" in his life.
Much of the Joker's backstory from The Killing Joke is also referenced in 2004's "Pushback" (Batman: Gotham Knights #50-55; reprinted with #66 as Batman: Hush Returns), in which the events are observed and reported by the Riddler, who recounts that the pregnant wife of the pre-accident Joker, who is called "Jack" prior to his accident, was kidnapped and murdered by the criminals in order to force his compliance.
The book has been the subject of feminist critique, criticizing the treatment of Barbara Gordon. Author Brian Cronin notes that "[many] readers felt the violence towards Barbara Gordon was too much, and even Moore, in retrospect, has expressed his displeasure with how the story turned out". Author Sharon Packer wrote: "Anyone who feels that feminist critics overreacted to [Gordon's] accident is advised to consult the source material ... Moore's The Killing Joke is sadistic to the core. It shows Gordon stripped and mutilated, with before, during and after photos of the attack displayed before her bound and gagged father, the police commissioner. She is more than merely disabled". Gail Simone included the character's paralysis in a list of "major female characters that had been killed, mutilated, and depowered", dubbing the phenomenon "Women in Refrigerators" in reference to a 1994 Green Lantern story where the title character discovers his girlfriend's mutilated body in his refrigerator. Author Jeffrey A. Brown noted The Killing Joke as an example of the "relatively unequal violence [female characters] are subjected to" in the major DC/Marvel comics industry. While male characters may be critically injured or killed, they are more than likely to be returned to their original conception, while "women on the other hand, are more likely to be casually, but irreparably, wounded such as when Barbara Gordon's (the original Batgirl) spine was shattered by the Joker just for fun and has been restricted to a wheelchair for over a decade now".
"Oracle: Year One: Born of Hope"
In 1996, John Ostrander and Kim Yale wrote a story entitled "Oracle: Year One: Born of Hope" which appeared in The Batman Chronicles #5. The story consists of Barbara recounting the events of The Killing Joke from her perspective, and the immediate aftermath of those events, including her recovery from her injuries and her adoption of the Oracle mantle.
In the story, Booster Gold is charged by Rip Hunter to go back in time and save Barbara from being shot by the Joker. Booster arrives at the carnival shortly after the Joker has rounded up the freaks, only to be attacked by them. He manages to escape, but arrives too late to save Barbara. Catching the Joker in the middle of taking photos of the wounded Barbara, Booster attacks the Joker in a rage; the Joker nevertheless gains the upper hand, snapping several photos of Booster as well. Rip returns Booster to the future before Joker can murder him, but Booster demands to be sent back again. Booster fails several times until Rip reveals that the Joker is destined to paralyze her, as it would ensure that she would become Oracle. Rip did this to demonstrate to Booster that some points in time, like Barbara's paralysis, are fixed and cannot be prevented or altered, so that Booster would not continue insisting on rescuing his friend Ted Kord from death, another fixed point. The story also reveals that Batman kept the photos of Barbara and Booster, and had been waiting until Booster came of age before confronting him. Batman thanks Booster for trying to stop the Joker and offers him his friendship. Eventually, Dick Grayson, who becomes his mentor's temporary successor as Batman, would also learn about this and offer his thanks as well.
In 2010, writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Cliff Chiang collaborated on a one-shot story called "Ladies' Night", which was published in the anthology series The Brave and the Bold. The story is set shortly before The Killing Joke and deals with Zatanna and Wonder Woman struggling to come to terms with the impending attack on Barbara after Zatanna has a precognitive dream about it. Like "No Joke", the story heavily implies that the heroines cannot alter Barbara's fate, despite their desire to do so, instead giving her a final night on the town before she loses the use of her legs. The story also implies that Wonder Woman served as the inspiration for Barbara Gordon's eventual codename of Oracle.
The New 52
When DC Comics relaunched its continuity in 2011, many of Batman's stories were erased from history or altered, but the events of The Killing Joke remained intact. In the new continuity, Barbara Gordon recovered from the paralysis after four years. Although she resumes her work as Batgirl one year after recovering her mobility, she continues to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder when exposed to gunfire that could result in receiving new spinal damage.
On March 13, 2015 DC Comics released 25 Joker-themed variant covers for its various monthly series for release that June, in celebration of the character's 75th anniversary. Among them was a cover to Batgirl #41 by artist Rafael Albuquerque that took its inspiration from The Killing Joke. The cover depicts the Joker standing next to a tearful Batgirl, who has a red smile painted across her mouth. The Joker has one hand holding a revolver draped over Batgirl's shoulder and is pointing to her cheek with the other hand, as if gesturing to shoot her. The cover quickly drew criticism for highlighting a dark period in the character's history, especially when juxtaposed with the youthful, more optimistic direction of the series at the time. The hashtag #changethecover drew dozens of posts on Twitter and Tumblr asking DC to not release the variant. DC ultimately withdrew the cover from publication at the request of Albuquerque, who stated, "My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art...For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled".
In other media
- Along with The Dark Knight Returns, Tim Burton has mentioned that The Killing Joke influenced his film adaptation of Batman, specifically the origin of the Joker. Burton was quoted as saying, "I was never a giant comic book fan, but I've always loved the image of Batman and the Joker. The reason I've never been a comic book fan — and I think it started when I was a child — is because I could never tell which box I was supposed to read. I don't know if it was dyslexia or whatever, but that's why I loved The Killing Joke, because for the first time I could tell which one to read. It's my favorite. It's the first comic I've ever loved. And the success of those graphic novels made our ideas more acceptable".
- Director Christopher Nolan has mentioned that The Killing Joke influenced the story and Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker in the 2008 film The Dark Knight. Ledger also stated in an interview that he was given a copy of the graphic novel as reference for the role, which he really tried to put down.
- Writer/director Todd Phillips has stated that the Joker's descent into madness after an unsuccessful career as a stand-up comedian in The Killing Joke, served as inspiration for the plot of the 2019 Joker origin film.
- The Killing Joke animated film was released on Blu-ray and DVD on August 2, 2016, and also played in select theatres on July 25 and 26, 2016. Sam Liu directed and Bruce Timm executive produced the film. The Batman: The Animated Series castmates, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Tara Strong returned respectively, alongside Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon. The film received negative to mixed reception. The film's storyline follows the original comic, but also includes a new storyline involving Barbara's decision to retire as Batgirl after a crisis involving a mob war, as well as a brief sexual relationship between Batman and Batgirl that earned a particular amount of criticism from critics and fans.
- In the 2013 video game Injustice: Gods Among Us, a downloadable content Killing Joke pack includes three skins for the character from the story. It includes his Hawaiian attire, the Red Hood, and his hat and long coat.
- In the 2013 video game Batman: Arkham Origins, a prequel to the Arkham series, there are several references to The Killing Joke. When Batman enters a carnival-esque room, Joker tells him he got a great deal on an out-of-service amusement park, "You should have seen the look on the real estate agent's face when we shook hands on the deal!", alluding to Joker's conning a theme park entrepreneur into granting him the rights of a run-down amusement park early in the graphic novel and then proceeding to murder him via Joker toxin. In a level featuring a psychiatric interview with Dr. Harleen Quinzel, Joker is playable as the Red Hood, walking through the chemical plant that will end with him becoming the Joker, as well as earlier beating up several patrons at a Comedy Club due to very poor reception towards a joke he made. The name of the achievement for defeating the Joker in the ending of the game "Perhaps sooner, perhaps later" was a reference to Batman's talk with "Joker" in the beginning of the graphic novel. While promoting the game, Troy Baker, who voices the Joker in the game, recites a monologue from the graphic novel.
- The 2015 video game Batman: Arkham Knight depicts the Joker's shooting of Barbara Gordon, as one of Batman's hallucinations throughout the game. The shooting closely resembles the scene in the graphic novel, including the Joker's appearance at Gordon's apartment door, and the clothing he wears, with the only difference being that James Gordon was absent at the time.
- The cover of the comic book Darkwing Duck Annual, published in March 2011, was based on the cover of The Killing Joke.
- Novelists Christa Faust and Gary Phillips wrote a novel adaptation of Alan Moore's story, published on September 25, 2018 by Titan Books.
There are multiple printings of the original comic graphic novel. The title on the cover of the multiple printings changes color.
In March 2008, a deluxe hardcover version of the book was released, featuring recoloring of the book by Brian Bolland. The new colors featured black-and-white flashbacks, as opposed to Higgins' colors, along with one or two items per panel colored in pink or red, up until the helmet of the Red Hood is revealed. In addition to recoloring the pages, Bolland also removed the yellow oval around the bat symbol on Batman's chest. Also included is a colored version of Bolland's "An Innocent Guy" (originally published in Batman Black and White), an introduction by Tim Sale and an epilogue by Bolland. Van Jensen of ComicMix said that "the new colors really do improve the book, giving it a subtlety and grimness not present in the original". James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate said that the original version "is outdone by Bolland's recoloring", which he said "gives the comic a more timeless quality". Seb Patrick of Den of Geek had a lukewarm reaction, calling the recoloring of the flashbacks "superb", but commenting that "some of the [other] changes seem to have less of a point — increasing definition for the sake of it, but giving the book too much of a present-day feel rather than looking like it was printed in the 1980s".
A 30th anniversary edition was released in 2018.
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