The Killing Joke Overview

January 12th, 2010


(Recently I’ve written a stack of non-game related articles, but considering that very few people will read them, I’ve decided to post them here to fill the current gap in content. I hope you don’t mind.)

“I loved THE KILLING JOKE…It’s my favourite. It’s the first comic I’ve ever loved.”

-Tim Burton

I don’t think you could find a better recommendation to stick on the front of your comic book than Tim Burton’s advocation. The Killing Joke, for those not familiar, is an important piece of the Batman comic line for a few reasons. The Killing Joke reveals the Joker origin story and set the initial precedence for a more serious, psychological analysis of the Clown Prince and his counterpoise, The Dark Knight.

There are two main motifs throughout the story, one from either side of the see-saw. The first is Batman’s want to escape the suicide course that his dichotomy with The Joker has created. The second is Joker’s want to maintain this cycle. As far as Joker sees it, the only difference between Batman and himself is one bad day. One bad day, as the interludes of greyed out backstory depict, is what turned The Joker from an ordinary man into the Clown Prince, and what Joker attempts to re-enact on Commissioner Gordon.

The most impressive part of Moore’s interpretation of the Batman universe is the use of language and visuals to highlight continuity between characters, events and metaphors. The devices used to enter and exit The Joker’s flash back sequences are good examples. Such as how the issue of money is brought up when Joker is negotiating the purchase of the abandoned carnival and how this flows into the financial pressure burdening his former life where he earned little money as a comedian to support his wife. The flashback concludes with the former location pertaining a visual likeness to a scenery of the carnival.

This technique is thrown in more minutely too. The way the doors of a carnival ride become the doors of the bar where Joker was conned into committing his first criminal act, or the way Barbara clutching Batman’s cape inverts to Joker’s minions pulling Gordon by his open shirt.

On an initial read the book’s semblance is that of a typical Batman and Joker story, but a more astute reader will notice the way that the story-telling is calculated to represent the equilibrium of the forever-binding Batman-Joker relationship. It all culminates, to much irony, in a joke that both parties are in on in a way that invites the reader to further analyse the text.

The Killing Joke is an essential Batman comic, no doubt, however I’m inclined to agree with Moore’s own response to the book (“clumsy, misjudged and [devoid of] real human importance” ). The writing is solid but isn’t as polished as Moore’s other works in the way it presents deeper meaning. The Killing Joke still has an air of campiness to it that squashes it somewhat from making proper commentary of life outside the Batman universe. I don’t think that this should be taken as a real heavy criticism though, as this was the first time the Batman series had taken a more intellectual direction. In this regard,The  Killing Joke only feels pedestrian to the more refined interpretations of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (movie) which attacked the psychological nature of the comics in a more apparent manner. The midgets wearing S&M gear or Joker’s hollow attempt of turning Gordon insane are prime example of what I’d infer as the obscure juvenility of the comic book medium making its way through. Maybe I’m still too much of a newbie to comment here, but weird hyper violence and bombastic dialogue throw me as examples of distasteful and senseless comic book ‘tude. The Killing Joke, thankfully, isn’t off the charts in either regard.

Conclusion: Killing Joke is a text worth exploring, but less masterful than one might expect.

Additional Readings

The Alan Moore Interview: The Killing Joke and Brought to Light