Welcome back to Flashback Friday! We’ve been remiss on this little column, but it is back by popular demand, and will now be coming to you regularly every week. As we’ve tried to do in the past, this Flashback is linked to a little something hitting theaters this weekend.
In 1988, DC Comics took a gigantic (none at all) risk, and let a total unknown (already legendary) writer take control of a third string (one of the most popular ever) character and redefine his weakest (greatest) villain. Now, in a small (enormous) movie with no (tons of) hype, these two rivals get to share the spotlight once again.
In The Dark Knight, Batman and the Joker will face off (no other villain pun intended) for control of Gotham. In The Killing Joke, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland took a card game, a conversation, and a bullet, and built a relationship that has been central to many of Batman’s greatest tales since.
With the origin story, this tale serves to humanize The Joker, making his character tragic and likening him to the hero. In a way, the origin of The Joker and the other actions he takes throughout the book serve more to define Batman than himself. Through Joker, we see the thin line between good and evil, between sane and crazy, and he serves to make us question- which side is Batman really on in both those inequalities?
I digress back to the meat of the story itself. As Alan Moore is wont to do, he tells one story in the past and one story in the present. They are at extremes in relation to each other, which shows the true nature of a psychotic break. The past story is even called into question, itself. Towards the end of the story, Joker mentions that he isn’t completely sure of all the details. Was he telling his own origin story, or were we looking at it as outside observers? That sort of self-doubt that Moore instills so expertly brings the reader one step closer to the insanity The Joker so desperately wants Commissioner Gordon to experience.
To that end, the most shocking and arguably the most long-lasting event in this comic is how Joker kicks off Jim Gordon’s tour o’ madness. Joker goes to Gordon’s front door wearing a Hawaiian shirt and rings the doorbell. When Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon opens the door expecting a friend, she sees him standing there with a gun aimed at her. He fires, shooting her straight through the stomach and into her spine. This of course had a long-lasting effect; Barbara is still confined to a wheelchair, 20 years later, and fights crime as Oracle. Perhaps the more disturbing part of Joker’s plan, however, was how he then stripped her naked and took pictures of her. Later, he showed these pictures to Jim in his effort to drive him batty.
Batman eventually takes down the Joker, although Joker does almost get the jump on him. He seems to genuinely expect his gun to fire, but instead a flag that says “Click Click Click” pops out. After an invitation to ‘ol Bats to beat him silly, Batman explains to Joker that he wants to help him. He wants to bring him back from insanity. Joker has a very brief moment of lucidity, saying “No, I’m sorry, but… No. It’s too late for that. Far too late” before he slides back into his persona, and tells a joke.
The most controversial part of this whole story isn’t the shot, the pictures, or the putting Jim Gordon in somewhat sado-masochistic garb. No, it’s that last page of dialogue. After all the things the Joker has done in the past, and everything he’s done in just the past couple hours, Batman and Joker share a laugh over a joke, like two old friends. Does this prove Batman’s insanity? Is he merely exhausted? Does he feel that sorry for Joker? These questions are just a few, and the book certainly leaves a lot open to interpretation.
Regardless, The Killing Joke did a lot to define the way Batman and Joker stories would be told from then on. The influence can be seen in further stories featuring the two characters in comics, animation, and yes, the movies. If you have even a passing interest in either or both of these characters, this is an absolute must read, and one that you can read over and over- I know I have.
Batman: The Killing Joke is available in softcover everywhere, and in a recent hardcover special edition, recolored by Brian Bolland