Archive for Alan Moore

In the Shadow of the Shadow of the Bat: Why Batgirl Rocks

Posted in criticism with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2016 by drayfish

[Given the recent uproar over the depiction of Batman and Batgirl in the latest animated DC movie adaptation of The Killing Joke, I thought this piece was worth republishing.  A version of this column originally appeared on PopMatters two years ago – hence the dated references.  Remember when we only suspected but didn’t yet know that Batman v Superman: Drawn and Quartered was a sloppy, nihilistic hate screed?  Ah, the innocence of ignorance.]

batgirl-new-costume-pic

The question of who, ultimately, is the ‘best’ superhero has haunted the minds of nerds for generations.

…Well, at least two generations.  Three maybe?  Four?

It’s why we squee in delight watching Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, seeing our heroes smack each other around a little ­before they all team up and order bowling league uniforms.  It’s why Superman and the Flash keep racing each other around the world just for funsies.  It’s why there are still some people inexplicably excited about Zack Snyder’s upcoming cinematic atrocity, Superman v Batman: Drab and Senseless, because at the very least it promises the sight of Supes and the Bat slugging it out – or, more accurately, the opportunity to see Snyder slavishly recreate Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comic panels without troubling to use any imagination or storytelling craft for himself.

(Speaking of Batman v Superman, if I can just take a brief tangent for a moment: no doubt others have already made this observation, but ‘v’ is actually used to indicate a legal battle, not a physical one.  So unless Bruce Wayne is fronting the money for a class-action reckless endangerment suit against Superman for all that carnage he caused in the last film, the title seems to be yet another sign of how little thought Snyder and his writer Goyer are again putting in their next script.)

In many ways it’s a timeless argument – an ongoing rhetorical debate that delights in colliding our greatest pop cultural loves.  Immediately preceding comic books every gothic monstrosity from Dracula to Mr Hyde to the Mummy was battling it out for popularity in cinemas and fiction (eventually also appearing in crossover films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944); the spirit of which continue to this day with the Alien Vs. Predator franchise).  In fact, I don’t doubt that there were at least two nerds way back in ancient Greece standing about bickering over who would win in a knock out street brawl between Poseidon or Apollo.  (Poseidon.  He’d play dirty.)

But no matter how much fun it is to bandy around  comparisons and swim in hypotheticals, for a lot of people – myself very much included – the question of which superhero wins the day already has a definitive answer.  It’s one of those ‘Who’s the best, not counting…’ kind of inquiries.

Because it’s Batman, right?

That’s certainly the answer I’ve had locked and loaded since I was a child –  before I knew any of the intricacies of the Marvel and DC universes.  Before I could parse the individual influences of figures like Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, and Steve Ditko upon their medium.  Before Christopher Nolan and The Avengers films had rescued the superhero  genre from its sad, cheesy stagnation.  Even before the glorious Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series and its Superman and Justice League sequels.  Before all of that, my mind was already firmly made up.

It’s Batman, y’all.

‘Yeah, but, yeah, but – Green Lantern’s ring can create anything he imagines…’ my invented-purely-for-the-purposes-of-this-example dearest childhood friend would argue.

‘Nope.  It’s Batman,’ I would reply.  ‘Cause he doesn’t need dumb space magic to fight crime, and he’s not allergic to the colour yellow.’

(…Seriously.  He can imagine into being a fully-functioning space ship to travel across the stars, but if someone comes at him with a handful of paint swatches labelled ‘Daffodil’ and ‘Buttercup’ and he crumbles?)

‘Well, what about Superman?  He’s got laser eyes and can fly and stuff…’

‘Nup.  Cause Batman can swing through the city with grappling hooks, and he doesn’t have any lame McGuffin weaknesses.  …Except, you know, for all the crippling psychological despair.’

‘Wolverine’s got claws and fast healing…’

‘Batman’s got a utility belt and a stuffed dinosaur.’

‘What about Spawn?’

‘You’re not even trying anymore, are you?

It should be said that I have heard a stunningly persuasive argument made for Wonder Woman – but still, for me, that same trump card always applied: Batman is ‘best’ precisely because he doesn’t have the powers that the other heroes are gifted with.  He punches well above his weight, a mere mortal amongst gods – not only meeting their gaze, but more often than not staring them down.  The most human of all super-humans, he exemplifies the virtue of using wit and passion and dogged stubbornness to turn his weaknesses into strengths; to do what he knows is right, even if it’s never easy.

And that all seemed very persuasive for the longest time.  Indeed, for a rabid Batman fan like myself, it offered a wonderfully smug sense of superiority.  All other heroes just seemed lazy by comparison.

What’s that Spider Man?  You want to complain about how the Daily Bugle doesn’t love you enough?  Well why don’t you go cry about your super strength and spidey senses to your supermodel girlfriend.  And how about you, Thor?  Yeah, it must be tough being a magical, immortal, impervious Nordic prince.  Who can fly.  With those pecs.  And you – shiny guy.  What’s your deal?  …Silver Surfer, you sayWhat, you just surf around everywhere?  Through space?  In the indentured service of a psychotic, galaxy-eating god?  …Well, sucks to be you.  At least you got a surfboard anyway.

And put some pants on.

But you know what?  For all my years of confident self-satisfaction, hand-waving away all debate, the truth I’ve now come to realise is: I was wrong.

It’s not Batman – although I was in the right ballpark.  Instead it’s that other hero in the winged-marsupial get up.  The one too often swallowed by the big guy’s brooding, omnipresent shadow.

It’s Batgirl.

I realised because of the zipper.

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IMAGE: Batgirl new costume (MTV News)

See, the past few weeks Batgirl has gotten some press due to her new creative team’s decision to update her costume along with some tweaks to the narrative.  For the most part, it appears that the response to the new look has been positive; and personally, although I will always favour the Bruce Timm animated series redesign, I really like the new look too.

Thankfully Batgirl has never been a character over-sexualised in her depiction – no Power Girl cleavage-heavy swimsuits or fishnet anythings – and happily that tradition continues.  The new uniform looks sleek and functional.  Made up of a leather jacket, detachable cape, Doc Martens combo, it has character, it’s not just some new splash of purples and yellows on a cookie-cutter skin-tight spandex, or that weird goth-gimp mute batgirl they went with a few years ago (who, yes, I know, wasn’t Barbara Gordon).

It’s nice to see her outfit reflect more of her personality.  Young, adaptable, stylish and practical.  It’s colourful but not garish; chic but not some instantly-dated stab at being ‘hip’ (just go back and look at the original Superboy ’90s redesigns to see just how archaic trying to manufacture ‘cool’ can be).  The whole ensemble is a piece of functional fashion that she chose to put on to do her job.  And significantly, the Bat-insignia is not some grim shield emblazoning her chest.

It’s got a zip up the middle of it.

And that’s what got me thinking…

It made me realise: perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve overlooked her for so long.  After all, viewed superficially, Batgirl can seem more of an addendum than a protagonist in her own right: she was an addition to an already established franchise; she didn’t invent the whole ‘bat’ motif, she just cribbed it off the other guy.  That bat isn’t a symbol of her operatically memorable origin story.  She just wears it.  She wasn’t even Batman’s first assistant.  To those unfamiliar with the lore it might even seem like she’s meant to be lumped in with all the other ‘bat’-prefixed material – like Bat-Mite and Bat-Hound and the Bat-Cycle – as though she were not only subservient to Bruce Wayne’s tortured tale, but merely an accessory in service of it.  She’s branded with his story, she doesn’t forge one of her own.

This tendency to  disregard Batgirl’s autonomy has always dogged the character, stretching right back to her first ever incarnation.  Some critics, such as Bill Boichel in ‘Batman: Commodity as Myth’ (The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media, eds. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, London: Routledge, 1991, p.13) even argue that the initial version of ‘Bat-Girl’ (Betty Kane, who was the niece of ‘Bat-Woman’ Kathy Kane) was only ever introduced to serve as a lazy heterosexual love interest.  Supposedly, she and her aunt were to be romantic pairings for Batman and Robin, blatant attempts to assuage the Comic Code Authority’s paranoid fears over a ‘homosexual’ agenda in the heart of the mythos.  Sure, she went on colourful romps with the caped crusaders, fighting crooks and aliens and hypnotism and magical genies, but she was ultimately just in it for the chance to win over Robin’s heart – even though he had already pledged his heart to Lady Justice herself (swoon!)

As Will Brooker points out in his exceptional analysis, Batman Unmasked: Analysing A Cultural Icon (London, Continuum, 2000, pp.101-70), the truth of Bat-Girl’s introduction and her contribution to the text is far more multifaceted than this, but these marginalisations – whether real or imagined – have continued to occur throughout the character’s history.  She’s considered decorative: a heterosexual disguise; an ingredient for a love triangle; a bone thrown to female readers.  Indeed, sometimes it feels like people only bother noticing Batgirl when she’s got a snazzy new outfit, or the gossip media is making pissy comments about how ‘fat’ Alicia Silverstone looks in her rubber suit.

Indeed, such dismissals are why I have a problematical relationship with one of the most universally acclaimed Batman graphic novels of all time: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (DC Comics, 1988).

batman-and-joker-laughing

IMAGE: From The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bollard

Wait – was that the sound of angry mob torches being lit?  Hold on.  Hear me out.

I’m not saying that The Killing Joke is a bad story.  It’s rightfully considered one of the great Batman tales: a brief, harrowing glimpse into the perpetual conflict of Batman and the Joker, and the carnage that their entwined obsession leaves in their wake.  For those who haven’t read it, it’s well worth seeking out.  If for no other reason than that it introduces greater depth and complexity to the Joker, a character that had frequently been depicted as little more than a colourful buffoon.  It has indelibly impacted every presentation of the clown prince since, even being directly cited as an inspiration for both Tim Burton and Heath Ledger in their iconic characterisations in cinema.

Briefly, the story concerns the Joker making one final, sociopathic statement about how frail the human psyche can be.  He decides to show Batman how ‘one bad day’ can unhinge a previously moral, upstanding person, hoping to fracture the divide between hero and lunatic.  To do this he decides to destroy Commissioner Gordon – Batman’s ally and the most upstanding man in Gotham – by surprising him in his house and brutally, savagely assaulting his daughter – going on to create a gruesome exhibition of her torture and pain.

And at this point you can probably predict what my issue with the story is.  In order to tell a story such as this there had to be a real casualty – someone to symbolise that the Joker had finally gone too far.  The Joker had to step over the line from killing random strangers (figures we, as readers, we can feel horrified about, but ultimately forget)  to permanently, violently impacting one of the principle characters.  In service of the plot, Moore selects Batgirl, now Barbara Gordon, to become that sacrificial lamb, turning her into another frustratingly familiar example of the ‘woman in a refrigerator’ trope since her suffering is used to cause Commissioner Gordon – and by extension Batman – the most acute possible pain.  She gives them a reason to fight harder, to brood deeper, to feel even more.

Sure, in subsequent stories Barbara transformed into Oracle, rescuing herself from victimhood by proving to be all the more extraordinary – continuing to fight crime in spite of her disability – but for the span of Moore’s narrative, in service of the specific tale he was telling, she was reduced to the role of victim: shot, stripped naked, photographed (and as some have inferred, perhaps even raped).  She’s not even shown being Batgirl.  Her only actions throughout narrative (aside from squirming in agony) are to serve her father a cup of tea and nag him about getting his clothes dirty.  In fact, to make the act even more arbitrary, the Joker doesn’t target Barbara because she’s Batgirl – he knows her only as Gordon’s daughter.  So in a twisted irony she is punished not because of her crime fighting alter ego, but a quirk of fate in her parentage.

It reduces her, even if momentarily, to just another Bruce Wayne loved one to be savaged and tortured, to twist the knife of guilt into Batman’s gut just a little further.  And that’s a shame, because this kind of chance brutality is a story trope that can, and has, been utilised well in the past – in the Batman universe, no less.

In the Batman Animated Series episode ‘Over the Edge’, written by Paul Dini, Batgirl is killed by Scarecrow while on patrol, thrown from a building to land with a sickening crunch onto the roof of Jim Gordon’s car.  But she’s not just arbitrarily slaughtered to make everyone feel bad – it’s shown to be the natural, unfortunate result of this weird, self-destructive campaign that the entire Bat Family are all on.  It sends Bruce and Jim Gordon into a death spiral of mutual annihilation, with Gordon blaming Bruce for his daughter’s death, and Bruce, wracked with guilt, refusing to let his crusade end.  Both men are shown finally broken, both having betrayed the moral fortitude that they maintained for so long in the wake of abject despair.

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IMAGE: Batgirl sketch by Bruce Timm

Mercifully, the entire thing is revealed to be a Scarecrow-induced paranoid hallucination – ironically one dreamed by Barbara herself, thus, ultimately making it her story – but the message that the episode explores, and the unspoken bond it reinforces between Barbara, her father, and Bruce, is quite touching, and handled with an elegant subtly that Moore’s more vicious tale, for all its philosophical gesticulating, lacks.

But that’s just personal opinion (and perhaps it’s not fair to compare the two anyway – they are, after all, different narratives, in different mediums, for two different audiences).  I can completely understand why Moore’s tale is such a beloved and respected work; but it’s a bugbear that gnaws at me whenever I return to it.  Batgirl is stripped of agency, made subservient to Bruce’s story.  And I don’t like seeing that, because, as I’ve come to realise, in truth, she transcends him.  She always has.

After all, Batgirl fills the full Batman checklist, but she does far more besides.  The vigilante crime fighting?  Check.  The detective skills?  Check.  The acumen to juggle an impossible double life?  (Without just slapping a pair of cheap glasses on her face and calling it a day – I’m looking at you, Clark Kent.)  Check.  She’s tenacious.  Brave.  She’s a brawler, a gymnast, a thinker.  And she does it all without Bruce Wayne’s Scrooge McDuck pile o’ money, his indentured slave Alfred, or the Martian Manhunter on speed dial.  There’s more than a little bit if that old truism about Ginger Rogers in Batgirl: like Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, she does everything Batman does – only backwards, and in high heels.

More significantly though: Bruce needs trauma to be Batman.  Even Moore’s story is just piling further pathos onto the narrative’s gloomy foundation.  Having lost his parents to random injustice Bruce needs sorrow and guilt and despair to focus him.  Fighting crime is the only way that he can channel his self-loathing and guilt.  He uses it as a crutch.  Same with Dick Grayson.  Both seething orphans, their devotion to justice is a way to manifest their personal demons as an obstacle they can punch.

Bruce is compelled to become Batman as a form of self-preservation.  Just as Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face, or Oswald Cobblepot becomes the Penguin – because they are all traumatised souls who have to lose themselves in an alternate persona lest they go loose themselves utterly to madness.  Bruce’s false face is a hero, but his is still a disassociation motivated by fear.

In contrast, Barbara Gordon didn’t need her parents to die to spur her into action.  She didn’t need to be personally effected or disenfranchised to feel compelled to serve her fellow citizens.  She doesn’t have to stare into an abyss of despair and horror each night to feel a duty to act.

Maybe that lack of specific motivation is the product of narrative laziness on behalf of her creators.  Maybe her original inclusion was merely a heterosexual romantic distraction.  Maybe there was some patronisingly antiquated design about how a woman couldn’t be burdened with a dark origin story, that she needed to be fun and perky and fresh.  I don’t honestly know.  But whatever the reason she was created, the result is a character far more worthy of regard.

And that’s what brings me back to that new outfit, and that playful new zip-up bat logo…

Because, sure, it would be nice if she didn’t have to wear someone else’s symbol (even Robin got a private visit to the graphic designer for his upper-case R). But that in itself is indicative of how remarkable her character is.  She chose that image.  It wasn’t inflicted upon her by some personal terror or driving tragedy.

She takes that bat insignia – a symbol of one man’s mad, blind crusade – and redeems it, drags it out of the shadows and into the light.  For Bruce, the bat is a dark alcove to hide within, to redirect fear upon those who would inflict fear upon others; Barbara, meanwhile, is leaping around in yellow.  She takes a crusade born from, and mired within, fear, imbuing it with courage and selfless generosity.

Batgirl did something far more remarkable and far more heroic than being ‘chosen’: she chose for herself.  She saw people suffering.  She saw greed and cruelty and injustice.  She saw some weirdo in a cape trying to do something about it, then did the most extraordinary thing of all.  She decided she could help.

She’s Batman – only better.  She does it with style.

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IMAGE: Batgirl new costume (MTV News)

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Moore Nitpicking: The Killing Joke

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2014 by drayfish

batgirl new costume pic

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.

The Killing Joke end

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.

Batman and Joker laughing

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.

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