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The Killing Joke
The Killing Joke
Publication Information
Published March 1988 (Original)
March 2008 (Deluxe Edition)
Executive Editor Jenette Khan
Cover Artist(s) Brian Bolland
Writer(s) Alan Moore
Inker(s) Brian Bolland
Letterer(s) Richard Starkings
Editor(s) Dennis o' Neil
Alternate Covers
The Killing Joke (Deluxe)
Brian Bolland


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Gallery of Images · Main Discussion

Batman: The Killing Joke is an influential one-shot superhero comic book written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland, published by DC Comics in 1988. It has in its original form continuously been held in print since then. It has also been reprinted as part of the DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore-trade paperback

In 2008 it was reprinted in a deluxe hardcover edition, which features new coloring by Brian Bolland, meant to illustrate his original intentions for the book, with more somber, realistic, and subdued colors than the intensely-colored original.

SynopsisEdit

The story begins with two pages of complete silence, depicting Batman heading to Arkham Asylum on a rainy day. He passes by Commissioner Gordon, who follows him to his destination - The Joker's cell. Inside the cell, The Joker is waiting for Batman, sitting at a table with a deck of playing cards spread out. As the card game starts, the narration of the story provides the first line of the story's underlying theme: "There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum..."

Batman informs Joker (who stays silent the entire time) that he had come to talk; he believes that eventually, the two of them will kill each other in one of their battles. He continues on to say that he is doing this so that he'll know he made a genuine attempt to avert this outcome, and becomes impatient at Joker's silence. Furiously, he grabs the Ace of Knaves, only to find white makeup on his gloves; the "Joker" facing him is a fake. Batman furiously grabs the fake and demands The Joker's location.

The real Joker, meanwhile, is on the outskirts of a decrepit amusement park, along with a real estate agent whom he is considering buying it from. Joker names many of the park's faults, but then proceeds to state his fondness for it. As the agent begins to mention the price, Joker brushes the thought away, stating that "Money really isn't a problem. Not these days".

The story then depicts a brief flashback from the Harlequin of Hate, depicting him before he had become the man he is today. The nameless man who would become The Joker is seen talking with his pregnant wife about his latest act, which was almost certainly a failure. In fury and despair, the failed comedian snaps at his wife, before collapsing to his knees and apologizing, stating that she is suffering enough, what with "being married to a loser".

The comedian then states his desire to move out of the dilapidated house that they live in, and into a decent neighborhood. Unfortunately, he lacks the money needed to do so. His wife laughs at an unintentional joke that he throws into his monologue, and tells him not to worry; if nothing else, he knows how to make her laugh. The flashback ends as husband and wife reach out toward one another, depicting Joker performing the same action with his own reflection in the window of an animatronic clown.

Joker finds the real estate agent on a "kiddie ride" near the park's entrance, and informs him that he had been convinced to buy it. He slaps the man on the back with his hand, before revealing the needle in his palm. He then proceeds to tell the agent that he would not be paying for the "purchase", as his "colleagues" had "persuaded" the real estate agent's partner to sign over the documents an hour ago, meaning that the property is his already. He concludes the "conversation" by marveling at just how glad the agent looks, and makes a few black-humored jokes before leaving, but not before telling the agent to stick around - an action that the agent (killed by Joker Venom in the needle) has no choice but to obey.

Inside the Batcave, Batman sits at the Bat-Computer, inspecting all of the information about Joker that he has gathered. After a while, Alfred arrives with his refreshments, and as he leaves, Bruce confides in the butler that he has no idea what Joker is up to, and expresses his confusion at how two enemies who hate each other so much know so little about each other.

Over at the Gordon household, Commissioner Gordon is seen cutting out a newspaper article detailing The Joker's latest escape. Gordon laments at how he hates the atmosphere that surrounds a Joker escape, but is alleviated slightly by Barbara's appearance. Father and daughter share a bit of classic family dilemma dialogue, before Barbara goes to answer the door. As she does so, Gordon looks over one of his scrapbooks, and reminisces about the first encounter between Batman and Joker. Barbara comments that Gordon had described Joker's appearance to her as a child, and that she had been terrified by the description.

As the door opens, Barbara comes face-to-face with the Ace of Knaves himself, gun in hand. Barbara barely has the time to react before Joker fires, shooting her in the abdomen and knocking her to the ground. The commissioner himself proves to be no match for Joker's hired muscle, who beat him into submission while Joker pours himself a glass of wine and makes several more black-humored jokes. As his goons carry the commissioner away, Joker grabs the camera hanging from his neck and grabs Barbara with his other hand, promising her that "I'll take some snapshots to remind him of you". Barbara rasps out her question: why is Joker doing this? Joker casually responds that he is doing this to prove a point.

The story then cuts to another flashback, depicting the no-name comedian sitting inside a bar along with two mobsters and enjoying a bowl of shrimp. The comedian tells the two mobsters that he wishes to prove himself as a husband and father, and that he had once been a lab assistant; he had quit in confidence of his comedy talent, but failed miserably. One of the mobsters tells him to calm down, and the comedian apologizes, his outburst having been a result of the alcohol. The mobsters assure the comedian that he will not be connected to the robbery that they are planning, and that they need his expertise on the chemical plant where he once worked - they intend to break into the playing card company next door. They then show him a picture of a large red dome-like hood, and tell him that he will be wearing it during the robbery to remain totally anonymous.

The comedian connects the hood with "That Red Hood guy who robbed the ice company last month", to which the mobsters inform him that the "Red Hood" does not exist; a number of different people had worn the hood, all of them pretending to be the same man. The comedian continues to express doubt, but one of the mobsters reminds him that to back out means to raise his child in poverty. The comedian is convinced, deluded by dreams of wealth, and the mobsters inform him that the heist is to take place the next Friday night at 11 P.M. He gleefully states that after the robbery, "Nothing's going to be the same. Not ever. Again."

In present day, meanwhile, a doctor inspects the shot Barbara Gordon, now inside a hospital. The doctor informs the only two people present at the scene - Harvey Bullock and Batman - that the bullet had went through Barbara's spine, and that she may be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. As the doctor leaves, Bullock tells Batman that it had been Colleen Reece - a friend of Barbara's - that had found her, and that she had been in state of undress. He then goes on to state that a lens cap had been found near her naked body, and that it did not fit any camera in the Gordon household, meaning that Joker had probably taken pictures of Barbara's naked body. Batman voices his wish to be left alone - a wish which Bullock fulfills. As soon as Bullock leaves the room, Batman comforts Barbara, but finds her hysterical and teary-eyed. Barbara warns Bruce that Joker is taking things to the limit, and that he wanted to prove a point. As the two of them embrace, Barbara states that Joker had something planned for her father, and desperately asks Batman what is happening to Jim.

At Joker's carnival, meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon wakes up to see three grotesque dwarves in female clothing stripping him of his clothes and affixing a bondage collar to his neck. The dwarves force him to his feet with a taser, and, watched by a multitude of "circus freaks" (fat lady, contortionist, conjoined twins, etc.) lead him to Joker's "throne". Joker gleefully informs Gordon that he is doing what's natural for someone in his position to do: going mad. Joker then goes on to state that memory is a dangerous thing, and that at any moment, memory can lead one to remember horrific things that they had hoped to forget. Memory might be what reason is based upon, he continues as Gordon is forced into the haunted house by the dwarves, but why must they follow rationality in the first place? Madness, he reasons, is the emergency exit - when one is trapped in a horrific train of thought, forced to dwell on painful past memories, they can simply step outside into madness and lock everything away. Forever.

The story is then interrupted by yet another flashback, this time depicting the comedian inside the same bar, talking with the same mobsters, on a Friday afternoon - the heist is to be pulled that very night. Two police officers call the comedian aside, and inform him that due to a freak accident involving a baby-bottle heater, his wife had died. The comedian is wracked with grief, and finds no more reason to go through with the heist, but the mobsters strong-arm him into pulling the crime. The story abruptly flashes back to present day, depicting Gordon riding through the haunted house on the train and being tormented by the dwarves even further. To add to the situation, every inch of the haunted house's walls are covered with TV monitors, depicting Joker performing a song-and-dance number about the advantages of insanity in the face of despair. As the train enters the next room, Gordon sees his worst nightmare plastered to every wall - pictures of Barbara, naked and bleeding on the floor.

As Gordon's torment continues, Batman is hard at work, questioning anyone he can find - street hoods, mob bosses, The Penguin, prostitutes, etc. about The Joker's whereabouts. The interrogations, however, are a complete failure, and by nightfall, he still has no leads. Eventually, he is summoned to the police station by the Bat-Signal, and is given an envelope by Bullock. Inside, he finds a ticket to the Bonus Brothers Amusement Park - the carnival that Joker had purchased - and leaves immediately. Over at the amusement park, Gordon's ordeal through the haunted house is over, and at the end of the train line, he finds himself greeted by Joker. Joker continues to taunt the commissioner, but is given no response, and comes to the conclusion that Gordon had turned into a "turnip". He orders Gordon to be locked up in a cage, "to reflect upon life and all its random injustice."

The final flashback begins, showing the comedian standing outside of the chemical plant on the night of the heist, along with the two mobsters. The hood is donned, and the three men begin to make their way to the playing card company next door, but the plan goes awry almost immediately - a security guard (which the comedian claims to have been added after he left the plant) spots the three, and draws his gun. In the ensuing firefight, both of the mobsters are killed, while "Red Hood" himself flees onto the catwalk. At this moment, Batman arrives and confronts Red Hood, who panics at the sight of him and leaps off the catwalk, into the chemical-filled processing tanks below. Eventually, Red Hood finds himself carried into a nearby river, and climbs onto the bank. Feeling burns on his face, he quickly removes the hood, and spots his reflection in a nearby puddle: his hair has been turned bright green, his face chalk white, and his lips ruby red. He then slowly begins to chuckle, before breaking into outright hysterical laughter.

As the various circus freaks look on, Joker begins showcasing Gordon (locked in a cage) as "the most rare and tragic of nature's mistakes" - the average man. He goes on to mock the physical mediocrity, deformed set of values, bloated sense of self-importance, and club-footed social conscience, and withered optimism of humanity in general, before concluding the "presentation" by stating that many average men, given the harsh and irrational world, go insane, but also adds that any other response would be "crazy". Suddenly, the Batmobile crashes through the circus, sending all of Joker's circus freaks scattering. The Ace of Knaves himself, however, stay put. As the two archenemies lock glares, Batman's lines from the beginning of the story - about how he and Joker are going to kill each other in the end - are repeated.

Batman tackles Joker to the ground, and in retaliation, Joker sprays acid on his arm and retreats into a nearby funhouse. After treating himself, Batman goes over to comfort Gordon, who, despite all of the torture that Joker has inflicted on him, is still sane as ever. Batman tells Gordon that the police are on their way, and offers to stay with him, but Gordon insists that he go after Joker, and adds that he wants him brought in "by the book" to "show him that our way works". As Batman walks along the corridors of the funhouse, Joker's mocking voice is sounded throughout every wall, telling Batman that even if he were caught, it wouldn't matter; Gordon had been driven mad, and he had proven his point: all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. As he enters the hall of mirrors, he goes on to state that Batman is living proof of this - why else would be dress up like a "flying rat"? But, he continues, Batman won't admit it; he won't admit that the world makes no sense, and that lunacy is the only way to survive in it.

As Joker continues to offer "evidence" of the lunacy of the world, Batman suddenly crashes through a mirror behind him and punches him through another mirror. The Dark Knight makes swift work of Joker, informing him that he had proved nothing; Gordon was fine, so "Maybe ordinary people don't always crack. Maybe it was just you all the time." Though Joker puts up a good fight, he finds himself still no match for Batman, and is soon knocked out of the funhouse, completely out of weapons. Only now does Joker acknowledge his defeat, and asks Batman "Why don't you kick the hell out of me and get a standing ovation from the public gallery?" Batman coldly responds that he's "doing this one by the book", and also that he doesn't want to. He repeats the speech that he had given the fake Joker at the beginning of the story, offering Joker one last chance to rehabilitate himself before the two of them wind up locked on their suicide course. Joker tearfully declines the offer, telling Batman that it is far too late for him, and begins to tell a joke that the situation reminds him of:

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum... and one night, one night they decide they don't like living in an asylum any more. They decide they're going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light... stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn't dare make the leap. Y'see... Y'see, he's afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea... He says "Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!" B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says... He says "Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!"

As he finishes, Joker begins to laugh at his own joke. Batman looks on, then gives out a single "heh", before exploding into laughter himself. As the police sirens draw closer and closer, the two men continue to laugh with each other. In the last frames of the comic, the line between the two, creating by the approaching police headlights, is blurred and then completely washed away by the continuing downpour - for one moment, there is nothing at all that separates the Dark Knight from his most dogged antagonist.

Another interpretation of the ending is that Batman actually snaps the Joker's neck. Grant Morrisson insists that this is the ending that Alan Moore snuck by readers in his interview with Kevin Smith.


ThemesEdit

The exploration of the Joker's origin and the hopelessness that belies his "evil clown" persona is affected toward adding more depth to the character. It should be noted, however, that this background story may not be the authentic telling of the Joker's origin, as the villain himself admits to harboring conflicting memories about his past.

Another theme explores the possibility that Batman is just as insane as the criminals he faces, but manifests insanity in a different way. In an interview, Moore summarized the theme: "Psychologically Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other."

Says critic Geoff Klock: "Both Batman and the Joker are creations of a random and tragic "one bad day." Batman spends his life forging meaning from the random tragedy, whereas the Joker reflects the absurdity of "life, and all its random injustice."

The Joker's underlying motive is to illustrate the inherent insanity of Batman's mission: dressing up as a bat to fight criminals ("You had a bad day once, am I right?... Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?"). It is only when Batman renders the Joker helpless and his extended assistance is rejected that the Dark Knight comes to appreciate the madman's aim, reacting just as the Joker would: laughing hysterically.

The Joker also serves as an unreliable narrator. He admits to his own uncertainty as he has disparate memories of the single event ("Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another...If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"), accentuating the comic's depiction of "a world unraveling toward relentless urban violence and moral nihilism...." (as stated by David Leverenz)

Critical reception and legacyEdit

Although The Killing Joke was a one-shot, it had an extraordinary impact on the DC Universe. Most significant was Barbara Gordon's paralysis, which ended her career as Batgirl and eventually led to her role as Oracle in the Birds of Prey series and other DC Universe appearances. (Birds of Prey was also adapted into a TV series of the same title, which incorporated Killing Joke elements into its continuity.)

Hilary Goldstein of IGN Comics praised The Killing Joke, calling it "easily the greatest Joker story ever told", adding that "Moore's rhythmic dialogue and Bolland's organic art create a unique story often mimicked but never matched."

James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate called The Killing Joke "one of the greatest comics of the 20th century, period." Aaron Albert of About.com said that "Moore's writing [is] spot on" and praised Bolland's artwork, calling it "realistic and downright creepy in a few sections." Van Jensen of ComicMix said, "Each time [I read The Killing Joke] I'm amazed all over again at how Alan Moore and Brian Bolland teamed to pack such intensity, ferocity and humanity into those pages. B.L. Wooldridge of Batman in Comics called the graphic novel "an incredible story, with Moore at his best and awe-inspiring art by painter Brian Bolland."

Andy Shaw of Grovel had a more lukewarm response to The Killing Joke, saying that while it's "wonderfully executed", it "suffer[s] from its reliance on the rules of the superhero story." Seb Patrick of Den of Geek also had a mixed response, calling The Killing Joke "one of the most revered and influential Batman stories ever written and arguably the definitive Joker story", but added that it's "not at the level of [Alan Moore's] true masterpieces [such as] Watchmen, V for Vendetta, [and] The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen]'."

Despite its popularity, Moore himself would later find much fault with his story, calling it "clumsy, misjudged, and [devoid of] real human importance." Moore, trying to present far more relatable, human characters, found that Batman and the Joker were just presented as characters and said, "I don't think [The Killing Joke]'s a very good book. It's not saying anything very interesting."

In his introduction to the story in the DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore trade paperback, Brian Bolland disputes the widely held belief that the story was originally a Batman annual story and ended up a prestige-format book. Bolland recalls that the idea for a one-off Batman story focusing on the Joker—with Batman more of an incidental character—was his. Bolland says that in 1984, DC editor Dick Giordano told him he could do any project for DC he wanted, and Bolland requested to do a Batman/Joker prestige book with Moore as writer. Bolland has also expressed dissatisfaction with the final book, and regrets that its impending schedule for release meant he couldn't color the book himself (John Higgins was the colorist). Bolland says that "the end result wasn't quite what I'd hoped. I don't think it rates with some of the highlights of Alan's career." March 2008 saw the release of the artwork as Bolland intended it: the twentieth anniversary hardcover edition of The Killing Joke is completely recolored by Bolland himself.

The book made the New York Times Graphic Books Best Seller List in May 2009.

Influence in other mediaEdit

Tim Burton claimed that The Killing Joke was a major influence on his film adaptation of Batman: "I was never a giant comic book fan, but I've always loved the image of Batman and The Joker. The reason I've never been a comic book fan - and I think it started when I was a child - is because I could never tell which box I was supposed to read. I don't know if it was dyslexia or whatever, but that's why I loved The Killing Joke, because for the first time I could tell which one to read. It's my favorite. It's the first comic I've ever loved. And the success of those graphic novels made our ideas more acceptable."

Before Sunsoft's game "BATMAN" appeared on the NES, it had all different cut-scenes than the ones in the released version. Some of the pictures in the removed cut-scenes are a direct translation of panels in "Batman: The Killing Joke"

Director Christopher Nolan has mentioned that The Killing Joke served as an influence for the version of the Joker that appeared in The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger, who played the Joker, stated in an interview that he was given a copy of The Killing Joke as reference for the role. The film lifted the concept of the Joker trying to drive a well-regarded person insane.

The Joker's torment of Commissioner Gordon in the ghost train was parodied by South Park in episode 201, wherein the role of Commissioner Gordon was played by Eric Cartman, and the Joker by Scott Tenorman. The positions of the panels showing the Joker, and the angle of viewing was lifted directly from the comic. Scott Tenorman, like the Joker, was intent on driving Cartman insane.

Influence on the Joker's originEdit

This was not the first time the Joker was given an actual origin. Moore's rendition uses elements of the 1951 story "The Mystery of the Red Hood" (Detective Comics #168), which established the concept of the Joker originally having been a thief known only as the Red Hood, and whose real name was unknown. The tragic and human elements of the character's story, coupled with his barbaric crimes as the Joker, portray the character as more of a three-dimensional (if irredeemable) human being. Quoting Mark Voger: The Killing Joke "provid[ed] the Joker with a sympathetic back story as it presented some of the villain's most vile offenses."

Much of the Joker's story from The Killing Joke is also confirmed in 2004's "Pushback" (Batman: Gotham Knights #50-55; reprinted with #66 as Batman: Hush Returns [ISBN 1401209009]), where the events are observed and reported by an impartial third party: Edward Nigma, better known as The Riddler. Nigma recounts that the Joker's pregnant wife was |kidnapped and murdered by the criminals in order to force his compliance. In this version, the pre-accident Joker is called "Jack". In The Killing Joke, he is not given a name.

Deluxe editionEdit

In March 2008, a deluxe hardcover version of the book was released, featuring recoloring of the book by Brian Bolland. The new colors featured black and white flashbacks, as opposed to Higgins's colors, along with one or two items per panel colored in pink or red, up until the helmet of the Red Hood is revealed. In addition to recoloring the pages, Bolland also altered some facial expressions and added minor artwork. Also included is a colored version of Bolland's "An Innocent Guy" (originally published in Batman: Black & White), an introduction by Tim Sale, and an epilogue by Bolland.

Critical reaction to the new coloring has been mostly positive. Aaron Albert of About.com said that "the washed-out tones of the flashback sections help to make the transitions between the sections more fluid" and that "the first reveal of the Joker after his transformation has more impact." Van Jensen of ComicMix said that "the new colors really do improve the book, giving it a subtlety and grimness not present in the original."

James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate said that the original version "is outdone by Bolland’s recoloring", which he said "gives the comic a more timeless quality." Seb Patrick of Den of Geek had a lukewarm reaction, calling the recoloring of the flashbacks "superb" but commented that "some of the [other] changes seem to have less of a point—increasing definition for the sake of it, but giving the book too much of a present-day feel rather than looking like it was printed in the 1980s."

A comparison of the original coloring and the deluxe hardcover edition coloring can be found here.

The deluxe edition also makes a change to the front cover: where the original edition's speech bubble had the Joker saying "SMILE", with no punctuation, the newer cover adds an exclamation point: "SMILE!"

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