Moore Nitpicking: The Killing Joke
IMAGE: Batgirl’s New Costume (DC)
Last month I wrote an article on Batgirl (published over at PopMatters). Inspired by her new costume redesign, it was really just an excuse to talk about how fantastic the character of Batgirl is, despite being too often overlooked as just an extension of the Batman franchise.
As an opinion column I guess it was serviceable – if a little shambolic. To use a truly tortured analogy, it was meant to be much like the new outfit itself: all concise and sleek lines. Clean. Clear. Snappy. I was going to bring up the outfit; use it to talk a bit about why Batgirl is profoundly cooler than she’s traditionally been given credit for; try to resist the urge to make snotty comments about Aquaman; sign out. Bip bop boom.
Instead (as so frequently seems to occur with my work) it became rather more rambling. Not necessarily in a bad way, it just took a few indulgent meanders. To continue stomping the outfit metaphor to death, I mentioned the character of Spawn in there at one point (I held back on the Aquaman, so he got a blast), and the further I got along, the more it felt like what I was actually writing was a version of his ensemble: all extraneous cape, superfluous chains, and over-stylised logos all over the place.*
And ARGH! Lookit! I’m doing it all over again! Apparently I can’t help my little self.
In any case, the point is that there was a section I cut out of that piece that I wanted to quickly discuss here. During the article I reference one of DC’s most famous graphic novels, The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore, a near-universally beloved work that has had an indelible impact upon all subsequent depictions of the Batman mythos, and the character of the Joker in particular.
Except… I’m not its biggest fan.
I don’t think it’s bad, or anything. I can absolutely see why it retains such special place in people’s hearts. But there are elements of that book that do bother me, that ultimately get in the way of me considering it one of the great Batman tales. And yet for some reason it keeps drawing me back, keeps asking me to reconsider it as something more.
As I explain in the article, foremost amongst my issues with the comic, is the problematic way in which it treats its female characters. The Batgirl character in particular is completely marginalised, turned into a victim to be savaged, thereby ‘motivating’ the real heroes of the story: her father Commissioner Gordon, and her vigilante ‘father’ Batman.
For fairly obvious reasons, I’m not a huge fan of how that narrative mechanic takes a strong, proud, capable and autonomous character like Barbara Gordon, and reduces her to a casualty – particularly so as she’s not even punished for being Batgirl, but rather just Jim Gordon’s daughter. From serving her father tea and complaining that he’s getting his laundry dirty, she’s paralysed, stripped naked and photographed; literally turned into a gruesome art-object to titillate the Joker, torment Gordon, and (although the Joker doesn’t realise it) enrage the Batman.
And when you dig further into the tale, she is not even the only woman cynically discarded to further the plot progression for its principle male cast. In flashback, the Joker is shown to have had a wife and unborn child. It is presumably for them that he gets involved with some mobsters who want him to help them break into a chemical factory, to ‘prove [himself] as a husband … and as a father’. However, both Joker’s wife and child die, unseen (an electrical fault in a baby bottle heater), only to be reported dead after the fact. They become just plot beats used to legitimise the fracturing of his psyche – even though, weirdly, this new widower’s response isn’t shown to be much more than, ‘Well, I don’t need to pull that heist anymore, guys…’ In an uncomfortable way, it almost feels like, in death, the narrative is blaming his wife even more for his circumstance, since he was only apparently turning to crime to support her.
That might well sound like petty nitpicking – he is the proto-Joker, after all. Human empathy may have never been one of the principle features of his personality. And it’s also true that if this is indeed all meant to come across as psychologically devastating, I would prefer quiet understatement to him throwing his head back in a William Shatner-style roar to the heavens. But it does consequentially undercut exactly how far he ‘falls’ from grace if you are trying to read his narrative arc as a tragedy. If this is a guy who can slough off the decimation of his entire family with little response (only later that day while going through with the robbery anyway, albeit against his will, he remarks how surprising it is that he should still be remembering his wife) then it is difficult to empathise with him or feel much pity. It’s only after he takes a bath in a toxic soup and he is personally, physically effected that his psyche seems to snap, which risks making him seem all the more selfish, and his family all the more redundant.
Of course, the other, far more interesting interpretation (the one that I prefer to believe) is that none of this is true anyway. This curiously emotionally subdued back story of lost love and a reluctant descent into crime is just a fantasy that the Joker himself has made up, one of the many lies that he has told himself to graft some semblance of self onto the twisted, irrational void of his personality. It would explain why the wife and child are so peripheral and disposable; they are just ciphers in his playacting. ‘Jeannie and Junior’, names so rote and alliterative that they really are just (imaginary) baby steps away from the real, unwavering focus of his egotism: Joker. We don’t see or feel their deaths because they are just manufactured excuses for his behaviour. And we wouldn’t want them drawing focus away from the real star: the guy wandering around in the bright costume and permanent stage-smile.
But if that is true, if Joker’s ambivalence is a sign of his blind selfishness, then it makes the treatment of Barbara even more important. And sadly, she too is dismissed when its plot convenient. In the present, real world of the story, when Batman arrives on the scene to save the day, Jim Gordon doesn’t even ask about his daughter – who as far as he knows might well be dead. At that moment, as far as Jim knows, his daughter has been shot through the gut, brutalised by sociopaths, and left to bleed out on their carpet.** Literally the last time he saw her she was naked, surrounded by a gang of lunatics, and screaming in pain. And yet as Batman swoops in, his first line is not ‘Barbara?’ (indeed, we never see him ask that); instead he’s preoccupied with warning Batman not to step over the line, insisting, ‘I want him brought in by the book’. Although trying to tamp down his shock, his primary concern is that Batman not lose his composure, do something crazy and prove the Joker’s crazed pessimism right.
Now, that may just be some heretofore undiscovered Jim Gordon superpower – Mega-Stoicism? Emotion-dampening? Hyper-suppression? – but for a human being, the whole ‘Don’t let the Joker win this moral debate’ would probably take a momentary backseat to, ‘Hey, is my daughter – you know – alive?’ Particularly so if this final confrontation, as Gordon’s dialogue suggests, is about disproving the Joker’s dispassionate narcissism.
The response to much of this criticism will be, of course, that this is ultimately not a story about these women. Barbara, Joker’s wife, the ‘Fat Lady’ who recurs throughout as a background gag (a poster featuring her at one point even reads ‘Gals, Be Glad It Ain’t You’ – which for all the women in this narrative seems profoundly true); they are all, by necessity, subservient to the psychodrama being played out amongst the three leads. But again, if the point of the story is to draw a distinction between the Joker and Jim (if not the Joker and the Bat), then having them both seen to be forgetting their loved ones in pursuit of some ethos seems an odd, counterintuitive choice.
But, again, I freely admit: I’m being fussy. It’s a powerful story, even if it has to sideline or undermine characters I love in service to its end.
And speaking of that ending, I guess before I go I probably should offer my opinion of the issue of its contrary interpretations. Because in recent years, whenever the subject of The Killing Joke arises, the inevitable question of what exactly is happening on that final page rears its head.
The debate, largely fuelled, as far as I can tell, by writer Grant Morrison, is that the traditional reading of the story – that Batman catches the Joker, restrains himself from enacting revenge as Gordon implored him, and then the two of them, Clown and Crusader, share a morbid laugh over a deranged joke that the Joker decides to recount – is wrong.
IMAGE: The Killing Joke (last page) by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (DC)
Morrison believes that this is a misunderstanding of the ambiguity Moore intentionally left in his story. For him, and for those who share his reading, when the comic panels tilt focus down to the glistening puddles in the street, Batman actually does finally snap and strangles the Joker to death, ending their perpetual war in a ghoulish failure.
To be fair, the pun title of the book can be seen to lean toward this interpretation. The Killing Joke – not just a joke that cracks up its audience, but a joke that kills, that finally sends Batman over the edge.
But I just don’t see it.
Firstly, more than anything else, it would just seem like lazy plotting in service of a cheap shock tactic; after all, Batman spends the latter portion of the book rubbing it in the Joker’s face that he didn’t win, that the Joker is the only broken savage in the story despite inflicting the worst that he could on others. To then arbitrarily change his mind and kill him anyway not only undermines the agony of that stoicism and proves the Joker right, it seems weirdly antithetical. The reason that grim denouement exists is because they’ve both already lost. The Joker failed to drag anyone else down to his level; the Batman realises that he’s never going to be able to pull his enemy out of this inevitable death spiral; so faced with the inescapability of their intractable, unchangeable path toward ruin, they share a laugh – a joke about two other lunatics trying to escape, but too lost to madness to help themselves. Killing him after they both came to that realisation would not only be cheap, it would actually make the opposite, less tragic point.
Obviously the focus shifts away from the action and the noise fades out, but that just seems more about Moore trying to evoke that sense of cyclical quietude than an implication of murder. The reason that the panels tilt down, returning us to that very same image of the light reflected in the rain puddle, the image with which this whole story begins, is because is it, ultimately, about these two lunatics in their irresolvable cycle. It becomes a narrative ouroboros, starting all over again – Batman and Joker, trapped together forever. The people around them continue to get chewed up, but the heroism and tragedy of their circumstance likewise continues to fuel more stories. Neither of them can change, but neither will stop trying to change the other either.
It’s no doubt why I keep coming back to this tale myself, despite my reservations. Because there really is a marvellous magnetism to these two characters that is perhaps best encapsulated in this gloomy vignette. It’s just a shame that an arguably even more interesting character had to be sacrificed in order to render that portrait in its most potent form.
IMAGE: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (DC)
* And even then I left out a cranky old man rant about how the youngins today don’t know what it was like before comic book films were legitimised. What with their Captain America: Winter Soldiers and Guardians of the Galaxies… They never had to live through the nightmare of Steel or the artery-clogging cheese of Superman 4: The Quest for Peace or f**king Batman and F**king Robin. And don’t even make me bring up Howard the Duck! That’s a whole other parcel of emotional horror I dare not unpack. …Although I guess they did have to contend with Green Lantern and X Men Origins: Wolverine, so maybe we have all seen some soul withering stuff.
** More specifically, he actually shoots her in the pelvis, which opens up a whole other potentially loaded assault on gender riff that I shall leave unexplored.