In the past couple of weeks, we’ve focused on Alan Moore’s through Watchmen. With all that we have discussed on him as context, I thought it would be interesting to look at another of his famous graphic novels, Batman: The Killing Joke. Despite having very different plots, themes, and structures, the two books have much in common through Moore’s writing style.
A similarity between The Killing Joke and Watchmen can be immediately identified through Moore’s interest in symmetry. One of the main themes of The Killing Joke are how Batman and the Joker mirror each other. The Joker believes that “one bad day” is all it takes for a person to go insane, reflecting on how he lost his own sanity. Looking at both of their origin stories, you can see how Batman also lost his sanity on the day his parents died. They had very similar origins, but reacted in opposite ways; Batman tried to find meaning and order in the senseless chaos of the world, and the Joker revealed in the chaos that ruined his life. This symmetry is one of the most fundamental aspects of the Batman comics, especially in regard to Batman’s relationship with the Joker, and perhaps is what drew Moore to writing one.
There are several choices Moore made in writing The Killing Joke that are rare in comics, especially with mainstream publishers like DC Comics. An integral choice to the story was to have the Joker be an unreliable narrator. As Joker tells the story of his origin, he repeatedly reminds us that he often remembers it very differently. The story we are told may be completely false. Moore does this for two reasons: to further reflect the root of Joker’s insanity caused by his traumatic “one bad day”, and to prevent the Joker from having a definitive origin story. The main point of the Joker throughout the Batman comics is that he is the embodiment of chaos and insanity. Moore wanted to leave this part of the Joker’s ambiguity intact, so he left his entire story open to be potentially false.
The question of sexism was a large criticism of The Killing Joke. The frame story surrounds the Joker trying to break James Gordon’s will by shooting and paralyzing his daughter, Barbara, and making him watch her lie in pain. This strongly follows the “Woman in the Refrigerator” trope of having female characters be injured or killed as a plot device. Barbara Gordon, who at the time was Batgirl, spends the entire length of the story trapped, paralyzed, and helpless. Of course, this ties into what we’ve talked about in class regarding how Moore treats his female characters in Watchmen.
Interestingly, when Moore looked back on The Killing Joke years later, he says that he probably went unnecessarily far in injuring Barbara. He was surprised the editors at DC even let it go through. “I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon – who was Batgirl at the time – and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project … [He] said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.’ It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.” This does much to show how the comic book community of the time, or at least its publishers, felt about women in comics. What we consider sexist today was probably given very little thought only fifteen years ago.
Despite these criticisms, The Killing Joke is so popular that it is considered one of the best Batman comics of all time. While not technically canon, many accept Moore’s origin story for the Joker to be true, and Barbara Gordon’s paralyzing injury remained in later comics.