The Killing Joke: Portrait of an Absurd Sadist

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“To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason”

—Albert Camus

“Reflect upon life, and all its random injustice”

—The Joker

                                                                                                   

Alan Moore’s, The Killing Joke is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential Joker stories in DC comics history. Any list enumerating preeminent Joker lore would, no doubt, contain The Killing Joke among its top volumes. Within a franchise already notorious for its sinister veneer, Alan Moore employs some of the darkest tones and themes ever accomplished. In The Killing Joke we are given a Joker at his most absurdly sadistic; a willing denizen of nature’s random cruelty. We are given a possible Joker-origin, only to learn that, for the Joker, origin stories are “multiple choice”. At every turn, he embodies a sense of senselessness. The Killing Joke is a hallmark, a signpost, a lighthouse for the chaos that is the Joker saga. The irony of the infamous villain lies in his purposeful cultivation and celebration of purposelessness; he lives to flaunt how pointless living is. The Killing Joke brings that concept of absurd-sadism to a higher fruition. Furthermore, it addresses the fragility of the human psyche and the precarious nature of human sanity.

Structurally speaking, it is important to note that the opening and closing panels are identical depictions of a rippled puddle surface – the same puddle surface in which the Joker gazes when he suggests that Gordon reflect on life’s random injustice. These puddles, which serve as bookends to the entire work, seem to function as symbols for reflection, and furthermore, for self-reflection – a common existential theme. Moore may be subscribing to the existential notion that self-reflection leads to confronting life’s absurdity. The meaninglessness of life announces itself most distinctly to those who view it with the cruelest honesty.

Also, regarding structure, we see Moore’s masterful use of transitions. From thematic panel mirrors to linguistic repetitions, Moore’s story progresses in and out of the past and present with wonderful fluidity. Everything has an internal logic, which provides an effective canvas for the deranged content.

We begin with the Batmobile driving through rain-slicked streets, and we see that Batman is paying a visit to Arkham Asylum. The comedic imagery of a man dressed as a bat willingly walking into an insane asylum is bolstered by a sign that he passes reading “You don’t have to be crazy to work here – but it helps!”Batman’s sanity and mental stability, in the end, will serve as a point of comparison to the Joker’s.

Deeper into the asylum and within the walls of the Joker’s cell, the preface of a joke is uttered as Batman seats himself across from his long-time adversary, who is playing cards:

There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…”

Like the matching panels that open and close the story, the joke is both the first and last thing spoken. These two structural elements combined give the impression of circularity, which is also an absurdist theme.

In an odd moment for Batman, we see him reach out to the Joker in a venture to wage peace. It appears as though the purpose of Batman’s visit is to negotiate a non-fatal outcome between the two of them. He attempts to use reason to confront the Joker, illustrating the inevitable end result of their diametrically opposed relationship. As will be illustrated later, it is ironic that this story which begins with Batman’s uncharacteristic attempt at reasoning with the Joker, ends with his uncharacteristic killing of the Joker.

“Are you listening to me, its life and death that I’m discussing here?”

Here is an indication of the centrality of existential themes. The panel depicts Batman’s hand grasping the Joker’s, almost pleadingly, as he enunciates the stakes that are involved.

However, it is soon revealed that the Joker is already one step ahead of Batman. The impostor playing cards in the cell is nothing more than a decoy dressed up to look like the Joker. The hero has already been outsmarted by the villain. Once again, the lunatic has escaped and is free in Gotham City.

Next, we find the escaped Joker providing an appraisal for a theme park for which he is prospecting. The first murder he commits is dispatching the owner of the park rather than paying for the property. This scene evokes the topic of money which segues to a possible story from the Joker’s past.

Every flashback to the Joker’s origin is presented in a distinct color scheme of sepia. An appropriate tone for a distorted past that is also, presumably, soaked in blood and madness. There is also a single object in each flashback that is depicted in a distinct and exaggerated red, which announces itself loudly in the panels. Eventually, one of these objects is the Red Hood.

Once, the Joker was an aspiring comedian whose proficiency in the trade was grossly deficient. We learn that the Joker’s former life was plagued by plight from financial issues and an increasing pressure to provide for his budding family. The enunciated object in this scene is a strange crab-like creature in a bowl.

After a brief glimpse into the present-day Batcave where Bruce discusses the Joker with Alfred, we quickly move to the home of Barbara Gordon, who is sharing beverages with her father, Jim Gordon. They are speaking of the Joker’s recent escape from Arkham Asylum as Jim scrapbooks. As the Middle-Age proverb states: “Speak of the Devil and he doth appear.”

Barbara answers a knock on the door which reveals the Joker already aiming a gun at her. In one of the more controversial moments in Batman history, the Joker shoots Barbara in the stomach, leaving her bleeding on the ground. (This trauma would echo throughout Batgirl continuity for years to come). As henchmen take Jim captive, the Joker proceeds to joke at the expense of Barbara’s debilitated state. He mocks her suffering and then begins to take photographs of her as she lies crippled. Barbara asks the Joker why he is doing what he is doing and he replies, “to prove a point.” Later, we learn that she was stripped, and likely sexually assaulted.

Clearly, the Joker of this story is a form of escalated sadism, but more importantly, it is made explicit that there is intention behind his cruelty. The Joker has a purpose. The final panel of this scene shows the Joker removing Barbara’s shirt while saying: “Here’s to crime.”

The color scheme shifts, and, once again, we enter the Joker’s past. We are given a stereotypical crime scenario involving the good man, Pre-Joker, who is going for one big score to fund a future life with his family. Though he is a good man, his desperation and his failure as a comedian compel him to take up with criminals. It is revealed that during the job, Pre-Joker will wear the infamous Red Hood to mask his identity.

As we return to the present we find Batman visiting the wounded Barbara Gordon in the hospital where she warns him of the Joker’s escalated efforts.

“He’s taking it to the limit this time.” she says, clarifying the heightened stakes in which the Joker is now dabbling.

This brings us to the climax. From the seeds of his recently purchased and dilapidated theme-park, the Joker has created a carnival hellscape, specially prepared to break the psyche of Jim Gordon. The Joker proceeds to torture Jim. First, demon, dwarf, henchmen strip him naked, prod him with electricity and parade him through the fair-grounds. All around are the Joker’s minions, which are circus freaks who stare at Jim in a kind of reverse exhibitionism. As the procession develops the Joker remarks on the silly predilection humans have for reason and rationality.

“We aren’t contractually tied down to rationality, there is no sanity clause!” says the Joker.

Soon we learn that the Joker’s response to the cruelty of the world is the opposite of reason. It is his contention that madness is an appropriate response to the abysmal conditions of reality.

“Madness is the emergency exit.” claims the Joker.

This leads us back to the Joker’s past where absurdity comes to full fruition. In what could only be described as a ludicrous and bizarre death, his wife is killed in a baby-bottle-heater accident. I assume that Moore used this extremely outlandish death to further illustrate the absurd and senseless cruelty of the universe.

However, despite his wife’s passing, he has already made his commitment to the criminals, and we quickly learn that they will not be pardoning him from the planned heist.

As we return to the torture of Jim Gordon, the Joker composes a song in honor of madness. It is reiterated that madness is an appropriate solution to the dismal circumstances that confront human existence. The Joker exalts the life of the asylum and provides a reason for being unreasonable.

If you hurt inside, get certified, and if life should treat you bad, don’t get ee-ee-even get mad!”

The conclusion of the climax depicts the Pre-Joker and his criminal cohorts attempting their planned robbery. The Red Hood is the enunciated object in this flashback and it is worn by Pre-Joker. During the botched robbery, Batman and the Police frighten Pre-Joker and cause him to leap into a chemical bath adorned with the Red Hood. This significant punctuation to an already “bad day”, gives birth to the Joker.

The iconic and horrific panel depicting the Joker in his full fruition has a background of laughing, which carries from the crimson-colored flashback to the present scenario at the fair-grounds.

At last, Batman is able to locate the Joker’s torture-lair. The Batmobile cuts through the scene with heroic violence and Batman is instantly upon the Joker and his minions. Circularity is once again demonstrated by Batman giving the same speech that he gives at the beginning regarding their mutual destiny. He concludes:

“We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?”

As Batman pursues, the Joker gives a rather compelling argument for his position regarding madness as an answer to life’s injustices. He illustrates the pathetic absurdity of the human condition by illuminating pitiful circumstances that threatened the entire human race. Like the death of his wife, who died absurdly and almost stupidly, the Joker shows that humans are largely likely to die absurd and stupid deaths. Nature often laughs at our expense and the Joker chooses to join in on nature’s amusement.

It is also during this scene that the Joker comes very close to guessing the circumstances which led to Batman’s creation. The Joker makes an extremely good point addressing the fact that Batman must have suffered a “bad day” in order to be compelled to dress up like a Bat and fight criminals. The Joker, essentially, exposes the fact that Batman is just as crazy as he is, maybe more so.

And thus we are brought to the conclusion. Circularity announces itself again as Batman makes one more attempt at a peaceful solution. The Joker rejects the offer and then proceeds to tell the last joke he will ever tell: The Killing Joke. The very same joke that prefaced the story. It reads thusly:

There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum anymore. They decide they’re going to escape. So, like, they get up onto the roof and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across, with no problem. But his friend, his friend daredn’t make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me.’ B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He says ‘wh-what do you think I am? CRAZY? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!

One clear issue raised in the joke is that of mental hygiene. The main characters featured are residents of a mental institute. The two inmates decide that they wish to escape and find themselves facing a significant obstruction to their freedom. One inmate offers the other an absurd escape route and the other rejects it, based on an equally absurd reasoning. Alan Moore seems to be comparing the two lunatics in the joke to Batman and the Joker; a comparison that seems to imply the phrase: Who is more foolish, the fool, or the fool who follows him? The interesting debate occurs when trying to decide which one is the fool and which one is the fool following the fool. Instead of regarding the joke as a joke, it is interesting to approach it as a riddle.

Finally, and uncharacteristically, Batman kills the Joker. Now, this interpretation is completely subjective, as I am fairly certain Moore intended. I believe the reader is meant to draw their own conclusion as to what happens after Batman takes hold of the Joker.

Because this is a story about breaking points, and furthermore, because Batman explicitly states, twice, that one of them is going to kill the other, it is my contention that Batman kills the Joker. This is Batman’s breaking point. He uncharacteristically tries to reason with the Joker, likewise he uncharacteristically laughs at the Killing Joke, and this provides a series of behaviors that make it logical to believe that Batman also uncharacteristically kills the Joker. The Joker wins, escaping his cruel life by causing Batman to finally kill him and betray his code.

Further evidence for the Joker’s death is in the final panels, where we see his laugh carry through a few frames and then finally extinguish. It is reasonable to conclude that only one thing could stop the Joker from laughing, namely, death. This would also substantiate the title, The Killing Joke.

In summary, The Killing Joke is a story regarding the absurdity of life and the madness that is catalyzed by encountering that absurdity. It compares the madness of a villain to the madness of a hero as both confront their realities. Who is more unreasonable? The man who embraces the chaos or the man who fights against it? Is it wiser to swim upstream in a violent river or to be carried by the current through rocks and falls? In an absurd world, madness and heroism are both equally valid responses, and in the case of Batman and the Joker, reactions to personal trauma. In short, human sanity is an extremely tenuous enterprise. No one is immune from going mad, in fact, its always right there at the fringe of possibility. All it takes is ONE BAD DAY.

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