Batman The Killing Joke: Beyond Good and Evil
© Copyright 2017 Soujanan Muraleetharan Student, Ryerson University
The Joker has transcended other villains and arguably other graphic novel series, and soared into popular culture. This ascension is primarily linked to Alan Moore`s legendary graphic novel Batman The Killing Joke (1988). What Moore did here as evidenced with this graphic novel has had an immense effect on the Batman mythology including its later various adaptions and has been considered a classic among fans, writers, artists and the industry in general. Primarily this is because of the mature, complex and emotion involved. The Joker has always been the vile villain committing evil because he finds it funny. But in this novel he is given surprising depth and character. While it is true the traits that commonly define him as a psychotic, sociopathic, nihilist who does wrong and evil out of a sense amusement are prevalent, there is a philosophy and ideology that is very human and real. This human relation makes him relatable and the villain suddenly very real and understood. He is no longer a mere two-dimensional villain but one with surprising depth. Moore augments the Joker`s character with a grounded and sympathetic worldview that takes both the villain and his conflict with Batman beyond the confines of only good and evil. This essay will expand on their ideology and how here it can relate to reality.
There are many reasons to why Batman is an appealing character; his motivation, the artistic appeal and many cite his rogues` gallery of diverse and colourful villains. There are two graphic novels, The Dark Knight Returns (1986) by Frank Miller and Batman: The Killing Joke(1988) by Moore that many consider the series best. Both have spawned and influenced several adaptions. But it is the Moore novel that has had the more profound effect on the series throughout twenty years and has even had a deluxe edition with updated colouring in 2008 whereas the former novel has not. Moore`s novel turned Batman and Joker into ideological opposites and parallels. It is true Miller initially set the stage for a gritty and dark Batman. But the relationship between the two and the Joker himself is purely one of a good versus evil dynamic rather than a complex class of opposing but connected ideologies.
The term ideology is not inherently a bad thing; here it is used to coin the set of values, beliefs, norms and worldview a person holds that guides them. Batman`s ideology is well known. His ideology is one of mercy and justice through violence and intimidation but still an essence of mercy and ethics as he never kills or maims. The vilest criminals are not above this rule. Batman truly believes in the value and perseverance of life. In The Killing Joke (1988) this particular value of his is repeated thrice. Most notably by the end Batman has disarmed the Joker and when the Joker wearily insists Batman hurry and beat him already, he is rebuffed on the grounds that Batman wants to rehabilitate him. Despite use of violence there is a strict moral code and a positive outlook on life. Moore presents the Joker as someone in this story as trying to prove to Batman that any good man can end up just like him through a startling trauma. He victimizes and tortures Commissioner Gordon for this purpose.
The Joker explains his ideology that he sees everything as a joke. He finds the struggles, joys and life of everyone not exactly funny, but meaningless and laughs at the perception of any valued meaning. As the YouTube channel Wisecrack in their Philosophy of The Joker surmise, he sees everything in the form of “moral nihilism.” That is to say everything, including morals, is nothing to him. He essentially finds nothing to be valued or cared for whereas Batman constantly attempts to preserve every life. However before their ideology, came the set of circumstances that led them there. This was ultimately trauma.
Both of them are men who suffered from personal and life-changing trauma. The response to this trauma is even more important as this is the difference between their outlook on reality since this is where they take divergent pathways in life and in ideologies. Batman`s origins have been told many times in various flashbacks through various adaptions. It was a robbery at the hands of an armed mugger where a young Bruce Wayne watched both his parents being brutally murdered. He responded in manner to that trauma by fighting crime.
In “Holy PSTD, Batman!:” An Analysis of the Psychiatric Symptoms of Bruce Wayne by S. Taylor Williams, there was an analysis of how the overall character of Bruce Wayne exhibited clear signs of posttraumatic stress disorder. The standards Williams used to measure and analyze this are from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). These included symptoms to indicate PTSD and were analyzed by Williams. For the most part concerning each of the symptoms Batman passed as a man suffering from PTSD. It is noteworthy that an iconic and popular character shares not only a tragic and relatable set of circumstances regarding pain and loss, but equally so since he shares a real and serious mental concern. This analysis by Williams is vital since it is proof of the character being grounded to reality and a sense of relatable humanity. But Joker is more of a complex and unknown factor here. An understanding of his character was not a focus of any novel. Throughout The Killing Joke, the Joker and therefore the readers have are shown constant snippets of his life as a failing comedian, with a pregnant wife who later dies in an accident. He is tricked and used by the mob where he is forced to confront Batman to which he falls into a vat of unknown chemicals. He arises deformed and mad with a terrifying visage.
Moore added depth and sincere humanity to Joker and thus expanded and enriched the antagonistic relationship between the two. But make no mistake; Joker is a vile and evil person as the mere act of killing makes him laugh. But Moore does add layers to the character presenting as a man who reacts to his trauma through pain and laughter and causing others pain. More so despite the flashbacks regarding his pregnant wife, he reveals his memories of his past are constantly changing but he can only recall pain. He seeks to prove regardless of one`s moral character it takes one bad incident to ruin them by attempting to drive Commissioner Gordon mad. When Batman proclaims he failed and Commissioner Gordon is sane and further responds that perhaps only the Joker is the one who is depraved enough to sink so low and rotten when broken. Joker loses his composure and grin and lashes out with a denial.
This is the specific difference between Joker and Batman that becomes relevant. Both have traumatic pasts that changed them and chose widely divergent pathways in response to them. Despite how opposite they are, more so they try to prove their ideals are better and try to convert the other in their way of thinking. Surely Batman frustrates the Joker in a way by existing since he proves the Joker is not entirely wrong. But also he gloomily inquires, without his trademark grin, why Batman is not laughing with him. Batman at least acknowledges a potential change in the Joker since he recognizes and understands his pain by once again, reaching out and trying to help get better by the end and noting the man crying after his gesture of mercy. At that moment the Joker tells him sincerely it is too late. This implies while the Joker does indeed have autonomy, he feels he must he has to be this way and he just cannot change.
The origin of Batman has already been told and thus understood but not even mentioned in the novel. This is because over the forty years Batman has been greatly expanded and explored concerning his motivation, ideals, values and beliefs. But this is not the case for the Joker. Just take a look at image one, the very cover. Arguably it is more about exploring the Joker. The covers for graphic novels work in a similar manner for novels, they represent the narrative. This is an image of the grinning Joker with a wicked gleam. His wrinkles, crevices and large grin are drawn in disturbing detail. This is the image of the villain without the hero on the cover. One can certainly look at this image and say he is the main focus. The narrative can further argue this. The novel expands on the Joker’s character by giving him a motivation for his senseless madness and insight into his twisted humanity that transcends a pure evil mentality. This also includes an expanded character inducing sympathy from readers and a view into his possible past. Such as how Batman’s origin story paved the way for readers to sympathize for a man fighting crime dressed up as a bat, a similar tactic can work for Joker.
Regarding the twist of Joker`s past constantly changing in his own mind it can be understood through Isaac Cates in On the Literary use of Superheroes; Or, Batman and Superman Fistfight in Heaven. The nature of comics can be rather unfulfilling due to a static nature that forces the comfortable status quo. The Joker has always had an unknown past because that added to the fear of him. He is an unknown. Others in the mythos have complex lives that led to a terrifying life. But their pasts made them sympathetic and human, thus relatable and better understood. Harley Quinn for years was a woman twisted and in an abusive relationship with the Joker. Two-Face is split into conflict between two parts of himself. But they became better known through their pasts and their evil can be become better understood. They are not just one-dimensional. Yes they have done horrible acts of evil but it is more interesting to have sympathetic and complex villains since they are fascinating characters. Having characters purely evil is not inherently an issue but acts as a distance to the reader since there can be a lack of reasoning for such evil and can even be boring. The characters are already unrealistic and distant to the readers by their colorful outfits and mannerisms. By adding a possible past and acknowledging trauma Moore’s Joker becomes still an unknown threat but one with legitimate grief and longing whose madness becomes less understood and more developed as a realistic human mindset.
Cates acknowledges the criticism regarding graphic novels. Whether they are too immature, unrealistic and repetitive are legitimate criticisms but ones Cates rightly disagrees with as absolute determinants of the entire genre. His primary argument centers on the symbolic representations these characters can embody that reflect real ideologies rather than only childish, one-dimensional, and/or purely a good versus evil narrative. He references several classic works but not Moore’s The Killing Joke (1998). This is most likely because the examples used are ones with political connections. There really are no direct or serious political connections. However it is important to note Cates never disregards, explicitly and implicitly, that graphic novels cannot have complex social meanings outside of a political sphere.
But these characters are representations for thoughts and ideals. More so they are exaggerated ideals that are still posit complex and real ideologies of how people see the world and treat each other. He is the extreme exaggerated representation of viewing reality as nothing but meaningless and worthlessness just as Batman is the same for his opposing values. But brought down to a more realistic level they reveal possible mindsets and choices people encounter when faced with grief and trauma. Certainly people can become mad, live in denial, suffer from PTSD, suicidal tendencies, depression and behaviour erratically. Not everyone heals and lives healthy lives. People can react to trauma and grief with the intent to master it. They can use their pain and enrich the lives of others. Nevertheless people cannot ignore and forget their trauma and it does shape people for better and for worse.
The Joker accepts his circumstances and holds it to the world as an absolute fact. Certainly when it comes down to it Batman is the better person with the better ideology. He acknowledges the world as cracked but not broken. It needs help and can be improved upon. Batman and the Joker are violent extremes but remove the violence entirely and both of their ideals are identifiable and real. The Joker does not care and therefore is not invested or inclined to do anything good because he sees no point in a broken world and there are people like this. But most just exist in misery without the desire or goal to burn the world. Not everyone has to respond exactly like Batman, but can do so by trying to make the world a better place or thinking and living positively. The Joker`s ideology is more destructive, jaded and easy. It is more easy to give up on the world and just live on in one`s personal bubble. Joker certainly does, despite his failure of proving to Batman and to Gordon that anyone good can end up like him he still acknowledges he cannot change even though he is proven wrong about his absolution.
There is indeed a level of responsibility regarding choice and the Joker alongside real villains should be held responsible. The Joker is not a representation of the mentally ill or even madness. He is clever, aware of his own evil and really as Wisecrack puts it; his ideology is grounded far more in an existential conundrum. Christopher Nolan`s Joker from the Dark Knight (2008) is a fascinating character. Wisecrack explains how this version specifically works in the manner as a destroyer of morality. His plan is purely ruining the morals and values of everyone. This includes the heroic Harvey Dent, officers, guards and regular citizens. This means while the Joker is complicit so are they regarding their own autonomy. This mode of operation is certainly inspired from Moore`s Joker. Except the issue here the grief and the frustration and vulnerability is non-existent here. This makes the character less human and less sincere through his vulnerability and visible humanity. But people still enjoy this villain because on some level he is right and people connect to his nihilism. But the broken villain is more important and complex because it comes from a place of pain and the decisions and nihilistic view lead to evil.
The close ties to humanity are important because both the Nolan Joker and the Moore Joker feel a sense of kinship toward Batman. The Nolan Joker views Batman as a playmate and one similar to him, only as a freak. But since there is more insight into the Moore Joker the shared traumatic connection is understood better and is better than a clash between order and chaos as better represented in The Dark Knight. There they represent ideals of principles rather than deep humane philosophies of a shattered life. This is why the Moore ascending their conflict beyond good and evil is important; it becomes a tragic and philosophical conflict between two complex people with still good and evil. They both see pain in each other as evidenced by the final scene.
Looking at image two, after tearfully rebuffing Batman`s aid to help him through his pain he shares a joke and the two laugh. It is deeply odd after the tragic events Batman laughs as though they are friends. On the other hand many argue there is evidence that Batman realizes this chaos will never end and decides to kill Joker. This is ambiguous but the final panels indicate a further distance from the characters, as they become shadows. The laughing is indicated by white lettering that slowly starts to disappear as the characters and light are no longer seen. But for a brief moment they are friends. Batman fully sees a vulnerable Joker and shares a laugh, not one of pure friendship, but one of unified pain. The second last panel goes from a nearly soaked shot of grass with light only reflecting on water to the patch of land being soaked, dark and without light. This could be a sign this was truly Joker`s last chance to change and they both stuck in the gloomy dark. The ending is still tragic but not definite for everyone. People can change and their perspectives on reality can become better or worse.
Cates, Isaac. “On the Literary use of Superheroes; Or, Batman and Superman Fistfight in
Heaven.” American Literature 83.4 (2011): 831-57. Web. 1 Mar. 2017
Moore, A and Bolland B. Batman The Killing Joke. 1988. DC Comics. 2008
The Dark Knight. Directed by Christopher Nolan, performances by Christian Bale, Heath
Ledger, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Rachel Dawes.
Warner Bros. 2008
“The Philosophy of The Joker – Wisecrack Edition”. YouTube, uploaded by Wisecrack, 30 July
Williams. T. “Holy PTSD, Batman!:” An Analysis of the Psychiatric Symptoms of Bruce
Wayne. Acadmeic Psychiatry. Volume 36 Issue 3, pp 252-255
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.