Meet the Magus, Part 7:

Dualism and the Dark Side in Batman: The Killing Joke

For fans, many of the works that Alan Moore produced for DC carry the shadow of later acrimony between the author and publisher, regardless of whether Moore was unhappy with DC at the time he created those works. Several works also fall into a period that spanned deteriorating relations with DC. One of these is Batman: The Killing Joke, produced with Brian Bolland between 1986 and 1988. By the time the project was underway, Moore had “fallen out” with DC and only completed the script as a favor to Bolland, who had requested Moore as his writer on the project in the first place (Millidge 138). While this is not the only Batman story that Moore ever wrote, it is his most celebrated for its unusual premise: that any one under the pressure of “one bad day” might take a very wrong turn in life. Behind the premise stands a landmark in characterization, presenting Batman and the Joker as a double act with intrinsic similarities. As Gary Spencer Millidge notes, “Moore made the symbiosis of the Batman and Joker characters explicit, drawing parallels between the two adversaries, clearly defining them as ‘two sides of the same coin’” These features were, in turn, influential in the 1989 Batman film and have now become very firmly embedded in Batman mythology (Millidge 137).

The Killing Joke is a work known for its extreme violence and cruel sense of humor, as well as the controversial attack on Barbara Gordon that permanently removed her from her role as Batgirl. Moore himself has explained that it’s not a favorite work of his; nevertheless, it’s an unmistakable part of his oeuvre that most fans wouldn’t want to do without. Unlike Swamp Thing, this mainstream DC work leaves little room for overtly magical subject matter, but it grapples fairly pointedly with concepts of good and evil, sanity and madness, and absurdity and identity in such a way that it delves deeply into Moore’s personal philosophies and exposes many of the principles that underlie his world view.

Dualism

Like many great artistic works, Moore’s writings contain plenty of pairs of character doubles with all the psychological significance that they may entail concerning the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind. We noticed that A Small Killing was actually built upon the dualism of the inner boy / outer man dynamic, but Swamp Thing, too, is a character that is both an elemental being and a lingering after-impression of Alec Holland, while V in V for Vendetta represents a character reborn into a second self. Where there is dualism, there is usually conflict or a struggle for resolution between opposites. For Moore, any form of resolution is grounded in the recognition of an essential interrelationship. This paradigm of interrelated opposites is also a fundamental premise within Moore’s magical belief system. For Moore, the awareness that even the most clearly defined opposites are interrelated has ties to both beneficial and dangerous mental states. Recognizing connectedness opens a “window on reality,” referring to a “higher” level of reality, but controlling the flow of information from one side of the window to the other can be problematic, if not overwhelming (Berlatsky 90). He compares schizophrenia, for instance, to having this window “kicked in” and thereafter having little control over this influx of information (Berlatsky 90).

Magical practice, however, not only addresses this “window” but also tries to moderate the flow of information to the point of usefulness: “What the magician is attempting to do is alter the dimension or the angle of that window, broaden it perhaps, tilt it so it can see different things” (Berlatsky 90). For Moore, the difference between this form of interaction with the “window” and “madness” is the semi-arbitrary imposition of a “system” upon that information by the magical practitioner. The “system” could be as diverse as a mythological network of associations, or perhaps the well-known ten-sephiroth format of the Kaballah. It functions as a “filing cabinet,” where the magician can organize the otherwise chaotic influx of impressions: “The magician’s got a system into which the alien information that will be pouring into him or her will be fitted” (Berlatsky 90).

The premise that enables the filing cabinet to function, however, thereby preserving sanity, is the assumption that the world outside the window, the world inside the window, and the information in flux between the two, are related and that this relationship can be described and elucidated. This is the pattern for the “interconnectedness of everything,” which Moore also describes as the “standard for lunacy” as well as also being “standard magic” (Berlatsky 91). Madness and magic converge around this central truth. Moore also suggests that imposing a magical system upon this influx of information is, to some extent, a particularly modern solution to increasing need for “controlled laws” (Berlatsky 91). When faced with the potential for madness in the presence of society’s most entrenched contradictions and absurdities, running toward it rather than away may be the instrument of personal salvation. Moore uses the metaphor of encountering large waves at the seaside in his childhood: “It is counterintuitive. The impulse is to run away, but the right thing to do is to plunge into it deliberately, and be in control when you do it” (Berlatsky 92). Engaging with the wave head-on prevents injury, just as engaging with chaos by imposing an information system upon it may prevent madness. Moore concludes, “Magic is a response to the madness of the twentieth century” (Berlatsky 92).

The Thoth Tarot system, as interpreted by Aleister Crowley, resolves some of these contradictions through the card known as “the Lovers” or “the Brothers.” It contains all of the double-associations of Gemini and twins but also connects to what Crowley calls the “creation of the world.” He feels that the card references the ambiguities of Cain and Abel mythology, wherein two brothers struggle, blood is shed, and the shape of reality is changed. It is a card of “reaction” that contains the “equal and opposite” reaction as per the laws of physics. Physical laws are mirrored in intellectual processes, since “[t]he formulation of any idea creates its contradictory at almost the same moment” (Crowley 81). In this “continuous see-saw of contradictory ideas” only a system of organized relationships makes any kind of resolution possible (Crowley 82). Since one idea can never fully eradicate its opposite, establishing a stable relationship between the two poles, pointing out their common assumptions, breaks down what otherwise might be comprised of eternal struggle. The situation is relatively simple in Moore’s magical and psychological terms: unresolved dualism without a system of interrelationship results in madness, because any complex interrelationship without an organized system to “file” this intense information can result in madness. The essential truth of interrelatedness must be tackled head-on for the sake of sanity.

The Dark Side

If dualism is at the heart of many of Moore’s characters, what exactly does it mean when Moore presents a “dark side” to someone? Isn’t that just one side of the established equation? Easy answers are complicated by the fact that Moore’s “good” characters are not, in fact, all that good, a situation that he prefers. While he admits that, for him, “[t]he villains are always much more interesting than the heroes” in stories, he also clarifies “I prefer to make my heroes somewhat ambiguous so that they have got some nasty edges. People who are so good – there aren’t very many of them. You don’t meet them, and they’re not very interesting when you do” (Berlatsky 20). If Moore’s heroes are “ambiguous,” and therefore “interesting,” his villains are equally “ambiguous,” containing some positive potential. This is the point of intersection between Moore’s dual character sets: a substantial overlap draws them together. One’s “dark side” is the flip side of the “coin” from the other’s “good” side, and understanding between them, even in part, may result in major self-discovery and growth.

With Moore, particularly, it’s important to distinguish between his idea of a “dark side” and his idea of real “evil.” Evil does exist in Moore’s work, and it’s a thornier concept that usually crops up when humanity renders itself inhuman. For our purposes, the “dark side” in Moore’s work is a looser catch-all concept that serves to counterpoise the concept of the noble or heroic side of a character. To complicate things slightly, however, this “dark side” corresponds, in terms of the Thoth Tarot, to the Devil card. Just as the “dark side” of a character can be misunderstood, so Crowley feels that the Devil card has always been “misunderstood” (105). Its central goat figure, he argues, should be equated with the deity Pan. In fact, the goat “represents creative energy in its most material form” (Crowley 105).

The card’s goat represents the “complete appreciation of all existing things. He rejoices in the rugged and the barren no less than in the smooth and the fertile. All things equally exalt him. He represents the finding of ecstasy in every phenomenon, however naturally repugnant; he transcends all limitations; he is Pan; he is All” (Crowley 106). This emphasis on unregulated potential is a far cry from the traditional associations of a “devil” or even “the Devil” in Western religious terms but is a close match for some of Moore’s “dark side” themes that ally more with primal chaos than a more purely directed form of evil. Even Crowley, however, equates this potential with madness: “It is the Tree of Life as seen against a background of the exquisitely tenuous, complex, and fantastic forms of madness, the divine madness of spring” (Crowley 106).  This explanation is remarkably similar to Moore’s window analogy. The information, flowing unregulated through the window from a higher reality is overwhelming and provokes madness. That undistilled form of chaotic potential could be embodied by this card’s “devil,” Pan quite easily.

Batman: The Killing Joke

When artist Brian Bolland asked for Moore to be the writer on a new Batman story for him, Moore wanted a new “origin” for the Joker since “he wasn’t convinced by the character’s existing origin,” looking in the “mirror” and “going mad” (qtd. in Millidge 137). The text therefore develops as an interweaving of a “present” tense story concerning the Joker and Batman and a series of flashbacks reframing the Joker’s origins. He had never before appeared quite so human and “ordinary” as a petty hood caught up in organized crime and deprived of the things he cared most about (his wife and child) by a “million to one accident.”

Moore felt he had to create a man before he could create a villain. This contrasts sharply in the interweaved narrative with the shocking violence and remarkable premeditation of his home invasion against Commissioner Gordon and the psychological torture he enacts upon his victims. How does the reader reconcile the seemingly vast distance between the hapless fool of fortune and the tyrannical torturer? This sets up a dualism within the Joker’s own personality that turns upon a point of trauma, an incident wherein the information that the Joker received about the potentials of the universe could not be structured by him into a workable system. What happened to his wife and child, and therefore to him, made no sense. Without a system, a “filing cabinet” for these overwhelming truths, madness set in for the Joker.

The Joker’s ostensible counterpart, Batman, is also a dual figure within his own personality. There’s every reason why The Killing Joke opens with Batman’s visit to Arkham Asylum, since he, too, could easily take up residence there. The fact that Batman intentionally visits the Joker in the asylum to try to “talk it out” and avert seemingly inevitable mutual destruction is astonishing in terms of the Batman mythos of the time. Is it normal for Batman to be willingly associating himself with such “filth”? The Killing Joke is a very different world, psychologically, from what fans might have expected, but it very precisely pursues its own logic. Strong visual symbols predominate.

Batman and the Joker are sitting at a table in a game of solitaire. Only the Joker seems to be playing, but that is untrue. Batman’s “game” is the visit itself and their conversation. The dualism is established through parallelism. Batman’s speech to the Joker, fragmented as a conversation, is nevertheless one-sided, just as the Joker’s movements of the cards on the table continue in real time. Their seated position across the table from each other, the visual emphasis on their two sets of hands on the table, and Batman’s speech itself establish the interrelatedness inherent in dualism. For the Joker and Batman, acknowledging this might, in fact, stabilize the chaos and lead to some kind of personal epiphany. Batman seems close to that understanding, stating “I just wanted to know that I’d made a genuine attempt to talk things over and avert that outcome. Just once” (5). When he reaches across the table and grabs the Joker’s wrist to get his attention, thereby smearing his blue gauntlets with white skin paint, he establishes the depth of their relationship. It’s a highly personal gesture from Batman, particularly for a character generally known for his non-physicality toward others. Batman is attempting to elucidate their dualism before something “fatal” happens and chaos catches up with them both, but his gesture has come too late, as the “real” Joker has flown the coop and this stand-in has no power to negotiate.

This confrontation with “reality” has a second act, but not before the Joker has carried out even more heinous plans against the Gordons. This suggests that Batman was only marginally too late, that if he had only come to Arkham sooner, all of this could have been redirected, even if only slightly. On the other hand, it may well be that only the extreme experiences of the Joker’s carnival madhouse and the very physical confrontation between Batman and the Joker enable them to progress any further in terms of communication. Just as Batman has predicted, they attempt to kill each other in any number of ways, from fists to poison, knives, and guns. Joker, too, fully expects a deadly end to this conflict, insisting it’s “far too late” for reconciliation of any kind. The best they can do, in the end, is to share a joke. The fact that they share it is, of course, the crux of the story as their only meeting point in true communication, a “tell” that gives away their essential similarity. And if things have not been resolved to avert a deadly “end,” they have been organized around a central truth of dualism. They each know where the other one stands, Batman reaching out, the Joker refusing “rehabilitation,” and both sharing something: a belief in the absurdity of life.

Those things that qualify Batman to understand the Joker’s position are the same that qualify him for a place in Arkham Asylum.  He encountered a traumatic loss, just like the Joker (one that seemed one in a million) and was overwhelmed by it. The universe ceased to make sense and was rendered chaotic for the young Bruce Wayne when he saw his parents murdered. But Bruce imposed a rigid organizing system on the window that had been opened in his life. In fact, this rigidity is what Batman is known for in his wider mythos. The highly organized “filing cabinet” he imposes on his life consists of a series of behavioral codes and imperatives that leave little room for anything else in his life. This is hardly surprising considering how intensely that window was “kicked in” for him. His “system” makes him operable and shows him a form of interrelatedness that he can handle, such as the relationship between petty crime and suffering for the populace. This “system” that Batman imposes is the most significant differentiating feature between Batman and his “twin,” the Joker. They encountered similar moments of intense exposure to the chaotic aspects of the universe but reacted differently. Batman narrowly, we assume, avoided madness, while the Joker, failing to impose a controlling system, remained trapped within the overload of information. Other writers, such as Grant Morrison, later took up this possibility when analyzing the Joker’s psychology.

As Moore says about The Killing Joke,“It’s a story which defines to some degree the relationship between the Joker and the Batman. They’re two ordinary people who have had something extraordinary happen in their lives and they’ve reacted in very different ways” (qtd. in Millidge 137). The differences in their reactions define whether their “dark side” or better nature predominate. The Joker remains in a chaotic state, unable to “rehabilitate” or impose a single system to regulate his understanding or behavior, and so he is capable of remarkable atrocities. It is possible, however, that he is also capable of remarkably creative and generative acts, hence his wicked sense of ingenuity. His potential as a “devil” raises questions about Batman’s own potential, however. Is Batman’s “system” too arbitrary, too exacting? Does he, perhaps, need to laugh at the cosmic joke? Or is the system’s rigidity the only thing keeping him from completely losing his grip on reality? Readers appreciate new questions to ponder in a story, and many of the questions that The Killing Joke raises, and leaves open to interpretation, are psychological in nature.

The reader is left – after the incisive, haunting visual storytelling of Brian Bolland’s two-year saga and the psychedelic high-contrast colors of John Higgins (in the original version) – with the sense that every detail in The Killing Joke contributes to the deeper meaning of the text. The final image is no exception: the concentric, radiating circles of raindrops in a puddle, a puddle that seeps between the feet of the Joker and Batman and seems to link them in the final panels of the comic, washing mud away and book-ending the narrative. The concentric rings formed by the raindrops seem perfectly balanced, reassuring in their orderliness. Considering that the Joker has been declaiming a world that makes no sense in the narrative, this visual balance provides a peculiar answer to at least some of the questions of the text. The order of dualism, at least, has been established for our anti-protagonist and our pro-antagonist, and in some unspecified sense, this is the natural order of things.

Works Cited

Berlatsky, Eric, ed. Alan Moore: Conversations. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

Crowley, Aleister. The Book of Thoth (Egyptian Tarot). San Francisco, CA: Weiser Books, 2008.

Millidge, Gary Spencer. Alan Moore: Storyteller. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2011.

Moore, Alan, (w.), Brian Bolland, (p.i.), John Higgins, (c.). Batman: The Killing Joke. New York: DC Comics, 1988.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar and medievalist who has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book, as well as scholarly blog-posts for Sequart Research and Literacy Organization about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey. She is @HannahMenzies on Twitter.

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