The Killing Joke is the Sisyphean boulder that has trapped the character of Batman and DC Comics as a whole in a deep dark hole that they’ve just begun to see the light out of.
For those of you who aren’t fucking nerds, I’m referring to the original graphic novel, but more pointedly to the recent DC Animated release of an adaptation of said graphic novel that’s sparked a bit of controversy.
While my support, or lack thereof, means nothing apparently, I feel the need to scream loudly at the void about my distaste for the historical course of this work.
Before we begin, you should know, I think The Killing Joke is great. But it came out in 1988 and it should absolutely be left there.
One more note, this isn’t about the Batgirl controversy, wherein the movie version has Batgirl (Tara Strong), the Bat-Family daughter, have sex with the Batman, the Bat-Family patriarch, due to her deep romantic feelings for him in the most fundamentally misguided and boneheaded adaptation decision I’ve ever seen a work make. This isn’t about its misunderstanding of character dynamics, storytelling, or gender politics. Rather, it’s about the mentality it represents. Let’s go back a bit.
The original Killing Joke is a graphic novel one-shot written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland. It was originally intended to be a one-off work, especially given the ambiguous ending that may have involved Joker’s death as well as the recurring subtext that this would be the final showdown between Batman and Joker. But DC liked it and its immense popularity confirmed that it would be integrated into mainline DC continuity. This meant that the book’s most controversial event, the crippling of Barbara Gordon became mainline.
The work quickly passed into canon, not just in the aforementioned timeline integration, but in the critical annals of comic book history. The Killing Joke won an Eisner in 1989 and critics lauded praise onto it for its complex character work and strong, literary writing with psychedelic art. Anything that good is going to have a lot of influence going forward.
And it did! Batman, the record-smashing Tim Burton blockbuster that sent Batman into the stratosphere of the pop culture world, claimed a basis in The Killing Joke. And just around 20 years later, The Dark Knight, the record-smashing Christopher Nolan blockbuster that sent Batman into the stratosphere of the pop culture world, claimed a basis in the exact same story. Countless comic book writers too have claimed influence by this, and even if they haven’t, they should.
The Killing Joke is a part of the trifecta of stories that launched comic books into respectability, alongside Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. These books are incredibly complex deconstructions of the superhero medium and the Batman character that hit it big in the mainstream. They are the predecessor of every idea of the comic book as a respectable literary medium and the biggest guidebook for superhero writing, especially at DC since.
The biggest problem being that they shouldn’t be guiding a single damn thing.
I’ve spoke at length about Watchmen here and perhaps before the release of Ben Affleck’s The Batman, we can have a chat about The Dark Knight Returns. But now it’s time to explain why The Killing Joke has had its point missed in the misguided pursuit of respectability and as such has sunk a particular venom into the history of DC Comics.
Fundamentally, The Killing Joke is about three things. The two are the most obvious because they’re fundamentally text. It’s about Batman and Joker as equally insane mirror images of each other, the idea that they share an illness and that they almost need each other. The other is insanity, and the resilience of good men against it. That first idea is pretty much the modern Batman/Joker relationship, almost invariably.
The third is one that gets lost because occasionally comic book fans like to ignore the more difficult to reconcile parts of comics, namely the ones that criticize its heroes. The Killing Joke is a story about the damage that Batman has, on Gotham and on the people around him. Batgirl’s crippling, Gordon’s kidnapping, the creation of Joker are all in someway implied to be Batman’s fault. It’s a vicious deconstruction of the character.
Which gets at a fundamentally missed point to often. You can’t construct from a deconstruction. When your ideal version of the character is based in a version that destroys the ideal, it seeps in a cynicism to the character. DC in general works at its best with mythologized version of its characters, and mythology isn’t cynical in its constructions.
To para a phrase from All-Star Superman (and Man of Steel) we race behind them and we stumble. Our goal is to one day join them in the sun. They’re fundamentally aspirational characters, and starting from a place of darkness misses that ideal.
In fact, the darkness is the other woefully missed point. The Killing Joke is intended to be a one-off dark story, an escalation of the Joker that we hadn’t seen before. The Joker’s crippling of Barbara, combined with his (at the time) recent brutal murder of Robin, made Batman’s vendetta personal and the Joker the greatest monster of the DC Universe.
However, I think it puts the universe in a particularly bad spot. When you’re building from a point of depravity and darkness, you can’t just let it maintain. Escalation, ever more craving attitudes demand that the story gets worse, and that the rest of the universe changes around it to answer.
Essentially, The Killing Joke made the whole universe darker because a generation of writers thought they had to escalate from and make their own version of and answer to The Killing Joke.
So, how does all this relate to The Killing Joke‘s movie adaptation?
For starters, it’s why they made the Barbara Gordon decision. The Killing Joke introduced the idea that the Joker must always get worse, more psychopathic. Why not have him cripple Batman’s lover?
More, because (obviously) this story has affected no one more than Batman. It’s trapped him in the popular imagination in an endless cycle of being brooding and dark and violent because the most famous works have been based on this story, as if there was no other way to tell his story.
That’s why the LEGO Batman is possibly the most beloved recent interpretation of the character, because it actually dares to take him in a different direction. It mocks the Killing Joke idea and takes such the piss out of it that “Darkness, No Parents” has become a Batman grim and gritty shorthand in almost no time.
For me, seeing The Killing Joke reinforces that all too dominant ideal of Batman, that he is a character who can only be told in grim darkness, and in a universe that is cynical and mean and violent where it could be an ideal to strive towards.
If there’s a day I can see it without supporting it? I might take a look. But for now, I refuse to support making a character I love live in a world that I don’t.
Also, that animation sucks.