Sanity Among Craziness: My Take on “The Killing Joke”

Sanity Among Craziness: My Take on “The Killing Joke”
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“It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled’s all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side?Why aren’t you laughing?” – Joker

My next Alan Moore piece will be on The Killing Joke – maybe the greatest comic book story ever told. Most comic book fans know the story behind it and the events that took place. I’m going to try to explain the book a bit, so sit back, relax and enjoy my breakdown of this masterpiece.

The Killing Joke is a one-off released in 1988 intended originally to exist outside of the Batman current storyline. However it created such an impact on the larger storyline that it became the most talked about graphic novel maybe ever. That Moore could do this is incredible in the first place. This is the book that ended Barbara Gordon as Batgirl and lead her to take on the persona of Oracle. The Killing Joke has influenced Christopher Nolan’s and Tim Burton’s Batman films and sales so high that it forced DC comics to re-release it 9 years later with better colour. Heath Ledger is on record as stating that he read The Killing Joke to prepare for his role as Joker. This article will try to determine whether Moore’s Joker does lack a clear motivation, thus differentiating himself from Batman, by investigating the book’s portrayal of madness and sanity. Furthermore, I will examine the Joker’s claims that he has chosen insanity, even recommending it to other characters in the comic. By examining the relationship Batman and Joker have with reason and madness and defining characteristics of madness, I will argue that the graphic novel presents the Joker as having clear motivation: to drive others mad, but to a madness that cannot exist outside the confines of reason.

The cover of The Killing Joke, which portrays the Joker pointing a camera at the reader and instructing him or her to smile, sets the scene and instructs us how to read what follows. The first conclusion drawn is the text incorporates the reader into the comic from the start. In a foreshadowing of Barbara Gordon’s fate the audience is being captured and shot. For a successful joke the audience is a necessary inclusion but can the Joker be insane if his wit requires intelligibility? The Joker is not the agent or scary part of the cover that honour goes to the camera itself. It’s name is “Witz” or in German…. joke!! Before we even open the book we see representation of characters as mirror images (Batman and Joker) and photographic images (Barbara Gordon). The camera points to a misleading process that is presentation and thus associates its holder with deception. With this opening image being an image of a machine it allows us to see before we flip the cover the importance of the camera. The inside front and back covers represent within the book that nothing has changed. These duplicate images differ from most of the other images in the novel in that they reproduce each other perfectly. As the scenes unfold Batman arrives at Arkham Asylum to visit the Joker. Upon entering his cell, Batman sits across from the Joker as the latter plays cards. The first 6 panels of the page imply that the Joker and Batman are mirror images. The pages show how similar the two are by positioning them in nearly identical positions, central both spatially and thematically, emphasizing their parallelism via the side by side shot you see of them. The implication is that while the two are opposing forces, they share the same origin. They are psychologically mirror images of one another.

The revelation appears to be nullified though when Batman grabs Joker’s arm and finds white make-up has rubbed off on his gloves, revealing that the person he thought was Joker is someone in disguise. The Joker card that was present in the entire scene suddenly disappears showing the person to be a counterfeit. The Joker and his stand in indicate something that has no beginning and ending point. Awareness of this never-ending process for Batman is enough to drive someone mad. However, that same awareness also reveals that faith in a simple reality and requires a madness to function. Batman’s shock and anger after finding out this Joker to be fake is on the insanity level.

In a flashback, we read one version of the Joker’s origin story. Upon learning his wife is pregnant, a fledgling comedian arranges to help two criminals break into a factory where he once worked in exchange for money. The criminals inform him he will be wearing a red hood mask with a two-way mirror glass. When he protests saying he doesn’t want to be confused with the red hood gang he is basically told to pound sand. In other words, it is not the individual who is important but the position the individual holds. If we remember that reality is dependent upon images (like the cover) we can conclude the red hood is the hood of reality. Everyone occupies this reality in their life and it’s made more significant in that this man is becoming the Joker. Batman and Joker seem to occupy different sides of a dichotomy. The Joker is generally viewed as an agent of chaos while Batman strives to establish control and security. In The Killing Joke the goal of the Joker’s crime is to convince Commissioner Gordon and Batman that the average man can become mad at any given moment therefore being good all the time is really pointless.*

[Editor’s Note: This is best summed up by an infamous Joker line from this book:]

“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”

The same dichotomy I talked about a few lines ago that shows the separation between the Joker and Batman actually operates like a mirror image, a unifier as much as a divider. When the man who becomes the Joker enters the factory dressed as the Red Hood and a gun fight with police ensues. Batman arrives stating,”I’ll take care of it my way” implicating his approach is less destructive. When the man sees Batman approaching he panics and asks GOD, “What have you sent to punish me?”. He jumps off the side landing in a pool of water contaminated with factory chemicals. Upon emerging we see how he becomes the Joker but it should be noted that the chemicals are not what drives him insane. His skin is burning and only when he removes the red hood and sees his reflection does he act like a lunatic, laughing maniacally. We can read his insane behaviour as a consequence of having seen his ghastly appearance but the image again is what is portrayed nothing else.

This flashback also introduces two new elements to the Batman-Joker relationship. First, it reveals that the Joker is in part a creation of Batman because of Batman’s mere presence encouraging villains to challenge him. Had the police continued to shoot at the Joker, he would probably have been killed, instead Batman intervened and the subsequent pain and madness ensued. Batman’s decision unifies and segregates reason and madness. Joker and Batman are mirror images of one another, opposite but the same, madness and reason are forced apart but a force that is always separating them but also always uniting them. In another scene Commissioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara discuss the commissioner’s newspaper clippings of Batman and Catwoman. Just before opening the door to a gun-toting Joker, we see a clip of Batman and the Joker meeting for the first time – a bit different from that shown in The Killing Joke though. The factory scene that is shown in the novel is not the same as the picture in Gordon’s scrap-book. They had met before this, they share some foundation. Joker explains to Batman, “I can tell you had a bad day, and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a flying rat? You had a bad day, and it drove you as crazy as everybody else…only you won’t admit it. You have to keep pretending that life makes sense, that there’s some point to all the struggling”. The difference is Batman chooses to dress up and is not permanently changed like the Joker. As shown in panels, Joker’s name is unknown to Batman, and because Batman believes the two have not met before, he does not know the Joker’s origin. To Batman he is a man with no origin and he is not mad as much as he is vengeful.

The Joker seems to embrace the randomness of this fateful day and spread his chaos. After wounding and paralyzing Barbara, he disrobes her so that he can take pictures of her naked body that he will force her father to look at. The liquor he drinks Plaisant Farcuer is translated as, “Pleasant practical Joker”. Like the camera, Joker isn’t the agent, it’s the liquor that’s the punchline. The liquor allows him to move beyond a simple violent act to one intended to invoke madness in others. Joker operates against social order but from a position within it, still relying upon its logic. He attempts to undermine sanity and reason with a sane and responsible plan. His rationale is rational. It doesn’t show weakness in the Joker, but a limit no character could exceed no mater how diabolical. He speaks against sanity but his silence in the book many times is a condition of pure madness. Such focused actions also belie the Joker’s supposed madness. When preparing Gordon for his ride through the fun house full of naked pictures of his daughter he advises him, “Memories can be vile, repulsive little brutes. Like children, I suppose. But can we live without them? Memories are what our reason is based on. If we can’t face them, we deny reason itself. We aren’t contractually tied down to rationality. There is no sanity clause”. Joker though proves incapable of following his own advice. His first flash-back of his wife talking about their financial situation ends with his wife smiling and reaching out to him. While the Joker advises Gordon to abandon reason by shutting the door on his memories, Joker himself fails at forgetting. He would love to step outside of memory and reason but we see in his flashbacks that it’s not possible. Even though he is an unreliable character he grants us a look into his mind and it’s not the mind of a madman just painful memories. His whole motivation is to prove that one bad day can drive anyone mad. Despite his many claims to have chosen madness he also hints at awareness that reason and madness cannot easily separate. When Gordon asks Joker for clarification of what is happening, the Joker answers, “You’re doing what any sane man in your appalling circumstances would do. You’re going mad”. While Gordon’s supposed demented turn makes sense, the Joker must distinguish himself from the process of going mad because it has an origin and a logical motivation, thus removing it from the category of insanity.

Joker is not the only character who struggles with this, Batman does as well. We seem him as a do-gooder who won’t step out of line of the law, except he does at the end even when told by Gordon, “By the Book”!! He desires a conversation in which he and Joker can talk and discuss their differences. After being thwarted by Joker, Batman launches himself at him after what seemed like rational conversation. Expressing his desire to avoid death of them, he offers the Joker help, to rehabilitate him. Joker offers the most logical response in this conversation when he says, “No it’s too late for that. Far too late”. Crazy as he might be, the Joker realizes that the two could never pull off such an insane plan. Joker’s ability to distinguish what would and would not work is not an insane man’s talk.

As this article winds down a bit I found that Joker doesn’t really appear to be insane but rather sane enough to hatch plans so extravagant and time sensitive. Joker represents insanity but uses logic to proselytize. He is not an agent of madness and Batman is not an agent of order, what I talked about earlier, and they need an audience (third-party) to get the joke. The reader is the butt of the joke if he or she expects a clear solution. According to the Joker his status as insane will last a lifetime, that is the man after having the chemicals spilled onto him. Has this state he’s in left him mad? Possibly but I’m not so sure.

While he cannot behave sanely, he also cannot seek to impose insanity on anyone else. The joke therefore lies in the irony of it all: pure sanity and insanity occupy the same place, the abyss of two mirrors, The Joker and Batman. We can conclude then that The Killing Joke does not really pull the mask off the eternal question: is Joker or Batman insane but it leaves it to the reader to debate!!

One last topic I’ll throw in is the ending of The Killing Joke. Many people have their own interpretations of what actually happens. I personally don’t think Batman kills Joker. Another point of The Killing Joke is what I already stated and Joker wanted to show what a bad day could do to you. If Batman kills him imagine would his guilt would be like. Imagine after all he’s gone through with the Joker to just end it there. Joker is trying to prove to everyone how alike we all are. It’s why Gordon says to Batman, “bring him in by the book”. Gordon doesn’t want Batman to have that blood on his hands and wants to prove that his way works. Remember it’s Gordon who is the victim here, not Batman. I also think the artwork spells it out clearly that he doesn’t kill him. From the hands around the sternum area, to them laughing together, I believe Batman feels sorry for him and just wants to help even though the Joker isn’t having it. That’s my take on Moore’s masterpiece, let me know yours!!

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