The ’80s for comics is something akin to the British Invasion. American Rock-and-Roll saw a exponential boost in popularity when British acts invaded the already well-established scene, bringing with them unique stylistic influences that would become normative in the following years. In the same manner, the ’80 was a decade of blockbusters in the comics industry. Featuring the talents of Brian Bolland, John Higgins, Richard Starkings, Dave Gibbons, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore, mainstream comics were transformed from the moody, yet tampered idealism of the Silver Age to a brave new world of modern story telling. In Tim Sale’s introductory note to The Killing Joke, he describes Moore and Bolland’s chief talents in “both [excelling] in impressing with their rendering of the mundane.” No longer were comic book heroes abstract intellectual concepts, broad and larger than life, but humanized. Through Moore’s stylistic scripting and powerful beats, The Killing Joke transformed the joker into a man, not an archetype. Structurally the story is carefully plotted, and radically different from its predecessors. While stories featuring serialized arcs strung together in tandem through a collection of issues were gaining momentum at the time (with The Dark Knight Returns only written two years prior), The Killing Joke is actually only a single issue story, numbering 46 pages. Remarkably, in only a few pages it manages to create a potent origin story for the Joker, while at the same time advancing a bold new cosmology of ’80s grit, championing Golden and Silver Age iconography. In this respect it is not a graphic novel. It’s genre-busting, as it should be. Moore’s popular resentment toward graphic novels is well known and documented. In an interview in October of 2000 Moore made his sentiments known to Irish writer Barry Kavanagh:
The problem is that “graphic novel” just came to mean “expensive comic book” and so what you’d get is people like DC Comics or Marvel Comics – because “graphic novels” were getting some attention, they’d stick six issues of whatever worthless piece of crap they happened to be publishing lately under a glossy cover and call it The She-Hulk Graphic Novel, you know?
Marketing quibbles aside, Moore’s focus on the psychology of characters in DC’s corpus is what sets him apart. This snake-worshiping, anarchistic storyteller has and always will be a household name in the comic book kingdom.
The Killing Joke is told with uncanny metaphysical self-awareness, bringing to life the characters that inhabit the mythos, confronted with their own fight against the inevitability of human nature. Part of what makes the Joker’s story so powerful is that the joke is on him. In the Christopher Nolan film, The Dark Knight, principal imagery is extensively borrowed from The Killing Joke, especially the final dialogue between Batman and the Joker overlooking the bay. Notable differences aside, the two compare and contrast two different incarnations of the Batman and the Joker. Nolan’s universe is still in the birthing pains of its conception, and Batman still a novice, finding his place in the DCU, whereas Moore’s antagonistic pair is on the brink of self-destruction, like two familiar Cold War belligerents with tactical ICBMs and itchy trigger fingers. Though each are striking the same chord of mutual enmity, Moore’s Joker is much more than simply a force of chaos or an agent of anarchy. He’s a tragic figure, an anonymous casualty of Modern disillusionment, broken down into what Moore would present as the true face of humanity. Unlike Batman, Joker doesn’t wear any mask. It’s not just all white makeup and red lipstick. As the silent introduction of Batman and Gordon walking into Arkham describes, the Joker is the only one that doesn’t wear a mask. He’s the real deal: humanity in its true form.
The Joker’s transition is what makes the whole picture of a fallen man come together. In the origin story presented, the everyman that is to become the Joker is simple minded and pitiful. He is painted as a failed comedian who left a lucrative job at a chemical plant to pursue his dreams. Though naïve and idealistic, he means well, trying to eek out a living for him and his wife and future child. Much of the introductory material in the flashbacks show him confronting himself in the mirror, foreshadowing his inner darkness clawing at the surface to come out. The portrait of the unfunny comedian is a remarkable start for the Joker, who throughout the comic is actually very funny, and precise with his language and quips, contrasting against the paranoid and soft spoken everyman that he used to be. What is also interesting is that he is actually failing in his pursuit, which is odd given that some of the funniest comedians historically have struggled with depression, leveraging self-depreciating humor in their acts. Notable comedian Chris Farley died of a drug overdose after multiple trips to rehab and obesity centers, following in the footsteps of his idol John Belushi who also overdosed. Funnyman and comic enthusiast Patton Oswalt regularly remarks on his use of antidepressants in his sketches alongside his contemporaries from the Comedians of Comedy Tour. Yet despite his circumstances the everyman that is to become the Joker has all the proper struggles noteworthy of comedians, but is unable to seal the deal. Moore’s use of the origin story is purposeful, in that the reader assumes that they will see the turning point in which the everyman becomes the Joker. As he laments in his inability to provide, he bemoans the judgmental looks from his landlady Mrs. Burkiss, but when she is portrayed as listening in to the argument she is neither judgmental or malicious. She holds a cat, with a look of concern and worry. The reader then must wonder if the Joker is already at the brink of insanity, and if the everyman that holds him in has started his journey to breaking down and losing himself in the Red Hood.
Memory and it’s connection to reason plays a role in The Killing Joke, establishing the Joker as not a product of insanity, but an unleashed persona meant to protect the everyman from the immense personal pain suffered by the loss of his wife and nascent child. In the dialogue between himself and Jim Gordon, the Joker says, “memories are what our reason is based upon.” The wordplay and use of memory and reason runs through the subsequent panels detailing the moment the everyman finds out his wife had died a pointless, random death. He says there is no longer a reason to break the law to provide for her. Consequently, there was no reason for him to lie to her, for in the act of doing so he negated his love for her by betraying her trust. Reason, then, is embodied in the memory of his wife Jeannie, and without her the everyman is reduced to a mere anecdotal existence, the butt of a cruel joke, which is illustrated by the onlookers in the bar laughing at him. The Joker admits he can no longer remember who he was or the transition from the everyman to his present self. Unlike the everyman, the Joker only lives in the present. He cannot be predicted, for he does not historically premeditate his violence for future havoc. While Moore and Nolan’s Jokers do plan extensively their scripted violence, how their acts are instigated are still products of randomness. The past, which embodies his humanity, he no longer remembers. In contrast to the Joker, Jim Gordon is an agent of order, scrapbooking the memories that affect his life, collating together evidence that the world can truly be a better place. Gordon’s reliance on the past which whimsically details his existence in snippets of small victories and minor defeats are what holds him together. After Batman rescues him, Jim cries out “We have to show him our way still works!” It is Jim’s response to chaos. Order must be maintained. Without it the whole world falls into the mire of random violence.
The powerful scene at the conclusion of The Killing Joke is not only iconic, but encapsulates what establishes DC Comic’s ethos in a rapidly changing world where morals are played loosely and pragmatically. Generally in conversations where Superman is evoked, the point of contention often is Superman’s lack of believability, in that he doesn’t simply lobotomize those he fights to deter future conflict. He is perceived as being naïve, the “big blue boy scout,” for the reason that he still clings to the morals that shaped him in the ’30s. Despite this, Superman is no nuclear deterrent. He does not leverage his power by force to change the world, but does so by example (a topic dealt with extensively between Manchester Black and the Man of Steel in “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?”). Batman in like capacity does the same, executing ideal justice as the example of how criminals ought to be brought to justice. Batman in the concluding conversation between himself and the Joker reaches out to the Joker, offers to bring him in and rehabilitate, whereas in some Marvel continuity a punishing entity would have already spent him. Though Moore confesses that he is an anarchist, The Killing Joke pleads for order and reason in a Postmodern world. As the saying goes ala Jor-El, “they can be a better people if they wish to be, they only need a light to show them the way.” DC, amidst the darkening cosmology of sequential narrative, champions truth and justice in a world without. Batman no longer strives to simply put criminals away, he acts in the capacity of Superman, condescending to the worries and troubles of his comrades, allies, and victims to random acts of tragedy, giving them hope that people could be better. This conversation is mirrored in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and is juxtaposed onto Harvey Dent, and not the Joker, as Batman pleads with Dent to come to his senses. It is a strange retcon, but offers intriguing caveats to the mythos introduced by Moore twenty years prior to the release of, arguably, the most engaging of the Nolan films, The Dark Knight.
As aforementioned, The Killing Joke offers the Joker up as a tragic hero. Given Moore’s unconventional use of characterization, often taking characters and putting them on their heads, this wouldn’t be too far out of the ordinary. What is remarkable, however, is what such a concept does to the mythos of DC villainy. What if the Joker was really a wretched man suppressing his humanity in favor of the uncontrollable nature of brute randomness? Moore was the first to take what was already established as an antithetical construction of Batman and turn him into a man. Like a mental health patient, locked away in the loneliness of their own mind, the Joker no longer is an insular creature but one desperately trying to break out and make contact with humanity, but by employing all the wrong, twisted methods. Villains are developed to be hated, but it’s hard to hate a man who lost everything by pure circumstance. Moore’s positioning of this is fascinating. To the reader, it’s challenging, and its true ramifications still evade us nearly twenty five years later.