Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Alan Moore - Batman: The Killing Joke

So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness. Madness is the Emergency Exit. You can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away. Forever.

The Killing Joke is the familiar story of Batman and the Joker. We see the Joker begin his plan, some hints at the Joker’s origin, and then Comissionar Gordon and his daughter, Barbra, are at home, and the doorbell is ringing...

The Joker enters and, with no preamble whatsoever, blows both Barbara’s spine and any pretences of the rules away.

The Killing Joke is a psychological battle a personal duel between Batman and the Joker, where the stakes are reality. Convinced that all the separates sane from insane, perception from reality, is “one bad day,” the Joker puts Gordon through hell unimaginable. Shown photographs of his wounded, nude daughter. Stripped naked and surrounded by the deformed and the deranged. Subjected to the Joker’s arguments and ministrations. By the end of it, the Joker knows, Gordon will be insane.

The Joker is a mockery of everything that is human. Having seen beyond us, he is the master of everything that we are and hold dear. He is practically asexual himself, yet he strips Barbra and shows Gordon the pictures, all to destroy the man. At the height of his power in the novel, he speaks to his minions, those who have been enlightened, about humanity, and he does it by describing a creature in a cage, something obsolete, interesting in the same way as any specimen is, any part of the past, but something hopelessly inferior nonetheless. His expressions and poses are as manic as his dialogue. At times, he’s scared and almost comically intimidated, at others he’s maniacal, others terrified, and, at some times, he’s simply hidden by shadow:

Of course, Batman shows up, invited by the Joker. The two are opposites, diametrically opposed and fated to clash again and again:

I’ve been thinking lately. About you and me…We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we? Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you. Perhaps sooner. Perhaps later…Are you listening to me? It’s life and death that we’re discussing here. Maybe my death. Maybe yours.

Batman and the Joker are opposites, yes, but they are more than that. They are two heads of the same man, victims to that same One Bad Day, each taking a different lesson from their catalyst. The Joker dedicated himself to destroying that existence that he’d once had, proving to the rest of the world that darkness is all that matters. Batman dedicated his life to preserving the reality that he no longer shares.

The Killing Joke is marred by two flaws. The first, and the lesser, of the two, is Gordon’s sanity at the end. Now, I’m not disputing the end result. What I do have a problem with is that we never really see him change, at all. I don’t know if a man would truly break, no matter the man, in circumstances like those here, as the Joker claims, but it’s clear that it would change him. While I’m sure that Gordon does change, in the course of the narrative, we don’t see it. We see his horrified, naked figure as he’s tormented, we see him a cage, and then, at the end, we see him say: “I want him brought in by the book.” There’s no indication that Gordon felt anything at all; we are kept entirely out of his head, leaving us with a perfect picture of both extremes, but nothing much in the middle, no real grasp of how the common man fits into the picture.

My other complaint stems from Gordon’s aforementioned line. Let’s look at that for a second: “I want him brought in by the book.” Uh, by the book? Excuse me? I’m pretty sure that the book does not include a masked vigilante chasing down the criminals, beating them to a bloody pulp, and then handing over the leftovers. In fact, I’m pretty sure that that’s as far from any police procedural as you can get.

The second flaw is far more important. The Killing Joke is a novel that explores the human psyche, but it’s one that does so from firmly within the formula of its genre, and it even goes so far as to call attention to the tropes that it’s obeying…because. At times, it’s hard to feel like anything in The Killing Joke matters. Batman’s sending Joker back to Arkham, but neither character even bothers to pretend it’s the last time, and both of them openly acknowledge that there will be a final showdown someday, but certainly not here. The possibility that maybe Batman won’t find the Joker, or that the Joker will win, or that he’ll get away, none of that is even considered here.

The atmosphere and psychological aspects of The Killing Joke come off brilliantly, but the page turning suspense that one assumes to be the core of a super hero comic is totally missing. Still, if you’re a Batman fan, or are just curious about the genre, this is a great read.

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