The Less-Than-Lethal Joke

An admission: I am a comic fan who has not read a lot of ‘classic’ comics. My really big comic-buying period was in the eighties and I tended to stay away from many of the big names, though I did read the Ten Titans (back when they weren’t a joke) and the X-Men. Batman appears in my lists in Batman and the Outsiders and few other places, largely due to the old TV series. (In my Ultrahumans books, Night Shift is based on the Batman I saw in those earlier comics – a jerk in a suit – while Mink is representative of the slightly more modern Batman… Though the New 52 Batman is still a bit of a jerk.)

Anyway, I’ve never really felt the need to read a lot of the old classics because I knew the plots anyway. I have read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but I’ve never read Death in the Family (aka, Jason Todd is voted off Gotham Island) or The Killing Joke… until last night. With the animated film of The Killing Joke coming out soon there has been a plethora of review videos on YouTube dealing with the original comic, which everyone says I should read, so I picked up a copy on Comixology and I read it.

If you don’t want the story spoiled – it’s been 30 years people! – then stop reading here.

A summary: The Joker breaks out of Arkham, again, with a plan, again. He is going to show Batman that they aren’t really that different (again?) by demonstrating that the strongest person can be driven mad by ‘just one bad day.’ To this end, Joker buys (well, steals) an old amusement park, shoots Barbara Gordon through the spine, and kidnaps Jim Gordon, her father. Joker then strips the commissioner, puts him in a dog collar, and has him driven through a sick, ghost train ride where he is tormented by the Joker’s singing followed by pictures of his naked, now paralysed daughter which the Joker took earlier. Batman turns up to rescue Gordon (the Joker told him where they were, and Gordon hasn’t gone mad), and chases down the Joker. In the final scene, Joker tells an actual joke (which was quite funny), and Batman joins in the slightly maniacal laughter, and then you get a fade. Some people interpret the last few frames as showing the Bat killing the Joke, hence the title, but that’s debated.

Okay, so I went into this knowing what was coming. The is basically the origin of Oracle, a horrifying, sadistic backstory to one of Batman’s more unique sidekicks and the keystone of the various incarnations of the Birds of Prey team. But… It was published in 1988. I’m almost certain that I wouldn’t have found it as shocking as some back then (I’m a sick and twisted individual and have been for a while), but now… Well, it was just not that shocking. It’s a masterful mindfuck on the Joker’s part and it was maybe the first time he’s been shown to be quite that psychotic, but in the light of modern history and the way fictional villains, including the Joker, have progressed, it’s not that big a shock.

I can’t help but think that people are looking back on this rather short story with blood-tinted spectacles. Alan Moore, who wrote and received awards for it, does not consider it one of his better stories. The fan-love for it seems to stem from two basic elements: the shooting of Batgirl and Joker’s treatment of her, and the idea that Batman kills the Joker at the end. A lot of this stuff stems from the idea that The Killing Joke was intended to be an alternate-world plot intended to be the ultimate Batman-Joker story, the one that ended it all. Hence, Batman could end their battle the only way it seemed likely to end.

Over on YouTube, you can watch the Variant Comics review of The Killing Joke to see the fan-favoured viewpoint. Then I’d recommend watching the NerdSync video on whether Batman does kill Joker. The latter was most informative, the former was watching someone gush about a comic. Basically, The Killing Joke was always part of the main DC universe plotline, it was not retconned in later. Barbara had retired as Batgirl before the events of The Killing Joke. Alan Moore doesn’t think Joker dies at the end; in fact Moore says that in the end, nothing has changed, and the identical first and last panels (of rain falling into a puddle) are meant to indicate this. The key frame which ‘shows Batman reaching for the Joker’s throat’ doesn’t; as directed by Moore, it shows Batman holding Joker’s shoulders. For me, the clincher is that Gordon has ordered Batman to bring Joker in, by the book, as it’s the only way to show him how wrong he is. Batman tells Joker that’s what he’s doing and I don’t think one reasonably funny joke is going to finally tip Batman over the edge. (In the New 52, Batman does not exactly kill Joker during Death of the Family, but he does let him die (maybe). This takes a lot more than what happens in The Killing Joke; like 30 years more!) I don’t believe the ‘Joker dies’ idea. The facts just don’t support it.

And that leaves us with Barbara/Batgirl. Here I’m going to turn to another video on YouTube: Nerdwriter1 recently released his views on why Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn’t work. The theory, and it’s one I think holds a lake-full of water, is that Zack Snyder is too focused on moments, single images which hit you in the face and implant in your memory, rather than scenes, which actually tend to advance plot and character development. Moments are great, and the things we frequently talk about after a film (or comic) is over, but if your film (or comic) consists only of moments held together with some exposition scenes, you don’t have a great film, you have a great talking point (and talking around the water cooler, or internet fan page, can go either way). I honestly believe that that is what we have with The Killing Joke. People remember the moments and don’t notice that the story is short and just a little pointless. The shooting of Barbara Gordon is a masterful set of panels, and the punchline with Jim Gordon being faced with the pictures Joker has taken has punch. There are two scenes which are memorable, to me, and stand out more: Barbara waking up in the hospital and thinking not of her own condition, but of what the Joker has planned for her father, and the telling of the final joke along with the dialogue which leads up to it. The first of those is frequently ignored, and the only comment most people seem to make about the second revolves around the Joker’s supposed death.

So, that’s my opinion of The Killing Joke. I’m looking forward to the animated version, quite a lot actually, and I don’t regret reading the original. I just really don’t see what all the fuss is about.

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One response to “The Less-Than-Lethal Joke

  1. Ah, but you don’t talk about the art, which is definitely part of the reason it’s so famous. Brian Bollard was on a roll at the time as one of the hip artists in the 80s. And his art draws the eye. Which of course helps tell the story. At the time it was shocking, I remember the talk well and have read the comic numerous times since but not recently. I’ll have to dig it out now.

    Lots of water under the bridge since in literature and real life with an seemingly endless number of psychos who make the Joker look pretty tame committing horrible crimes for real.

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