Full disclosure: I am a Batman nerd. I fell in love with the characters when I was 13, but as a child I was not aware of the dark places to which these characters could–and did–go. Content at the time with Jack Nicholson’s campy take on the murderous clown we all know and love as The Joker, I was much older before I read books like the brilliant Arkham Asylum, an exploration of Batman’s very own brand of psychosis. And so I was beyond thrilled to find The Killing Joke on my syllabus. Comic-book nerd or not, nearly everyone is familiar with the super-villain known only as The Joker. Employing the writing talents of the peerless Alan Moore, The Killing Joke presents us with The Joker’s origin story. Maybe. Preferring that his past remain multiple-choice (a tactic memorably used in The Dark Knight film as well, through Heath Ledger’s mind-blowing portrayal of The Joker), the scenario presented in the book may very well be, as artist Brian Bolland notes, just one of many pasts concocted within The Joker’s brain.
What is the nature of insanity, and aren’t we all just “one bad day” away from going crazy? A recurring theme in this class has been the dangerously thin line that separates ordinary citizens from those who have been driven, by whatever means, to committing crimes so vile that no word but “psycho” seems adequate to describe them. If you believe Alan Moore, this is what happened to the man who would become The Joker. If you’ve read any Batman comic or seen any of the films, you know that witnessing his parents’ murders has made Batman equally crazy (you’d have to be to devote your life to vigilantism dressed as a bat). Batman’s commitment to fighting crime is, in the end, an endless loop of torture inflicted upon himself for being too young and too frightened to save his parents. This would seem to confirm, as did Detective Somerset in Seven, that even those of us out to do some good in the world have to become a little crazy in order to appropriately understand and deal with the madness that surrounds us.
When The Joker tells Batman, “It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for…It’s all a monstrous, demented gag!” he is directly echoing another of Moore’s famously nihilistic characters, that of Watchmen‘s Comedian. “It’s a joke. S’all a joke,” The Comedian tells Moloch when he breaks into his apartment one night, having accidentally learned of Ozymandias’ plot. “I mean, I thought I knew how it was, how the world was. But then I found out about this gag, this joke…” When we’re having a truly bad day, or something goes horribly wrong in the world, who among us hasn’t thought that it all has to be the punchline to some cosmic joke? On my bad days (and I admittedly have many due to an anxiety disorder) this is the first thing I typically think. The Comedian is a world-class jerk, but few of us would equate him with The Joker. And yet he, like Batman, has far more in common with this ostensible psychopath than either of them would surely care to admit.
By any legal definition, The Joker is not insane. Arkham Asylum posits the theory that, quite the opposite, The Joker is exhibiting “super-sanity”: “A brilliant new modification of human perception, more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century…That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day.” Clearly a person operating under the legal definition of insanity would have no hope of becoming a criminal mastermind on par with The Joker. Combined with Moore’s implication that The Joker chose the path of madness, it would appear that he is indeed operating at a level of self-awareness that most of us would fear to attain. This leaves us with the disturbing question at the heart of The Killing Joke, and that of this term’s class: What is crazy? Who is crazy? Is it really as subjective as many of these texts would have us believe? And if The Joker of all people isn’t insane, what does that say about the rest of us? Why do we continue to pretend that the world makes sense?
There are no easy answers to the questions asked above. Alan Moore’s consistently accurate commentary on our society is a difficult and often frightening concept with which many of us grapple on a daily basis. Reality, as The Joker shows us, is a scary place, and to retreat into one’s own mind is a perfectly valid response; Moore himself believes that “the imagination is just as real as reality.” So, lest we despair, remember that there is always another option available to us: “Just go loo-oo-oony“!
Moore, Alan and Brian Bolland. Batman: The Killing Joke: The Deluxe Edition. New York: DC Comics, 2008.
Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1986, 1987.
Morrison, Grant and Dave McKean. Batman: Arkham Asylum 15th Anniversary Edition. New York: DC Comics, 2004.