Killing the Joke

Alex M. Parker

Alex Parker is a policy writer in Washington, D.C. with 15 years of journalism experience.

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17 Responses

  1. DensityDuck says:


    for all that Simone seemed very very angry about Killing Joke (and got a bunch of white knights to agree that they were angry, just like the woman, because they were good allies, not like those other assholes) she certainly did seem happy to use it as meat for her own table.

    like, I’m sure she was angry at Yet Another Rape-Revenge Story, but you don’t make things go away by repudiating them or reimagining them or doing a “next morning” story.Report

    • Well, I disagree.

      But for what it’s worth, I actually asked Simone about this at a comic-con earlier this year. She described how it happened–DC actually came to her about writing Barbara as Batgirl again. She said she insisted on doing it this way–she didn’t want to “wave the magic wand” and erase the story, she thought that would be disrespectful to the work others had done to transform Barbara into Oracle, the wheelchair-bound persona she adapted after the attack. (I wish I had explained this more but my blog post was already too long.)Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Alex M. Parker says:

        That’s the thing, though–Fixing It means you’re accepting that it was broken in the first place, and if you think that it getting broken was a bad idea inspired by wrong thoughts then why accept that? Why not wave the magic wand and say “this misogynistic garbage should be erased from history”?

        I mean, if you want to say “the outcome of this story really bothered me and I’d like to explore how this character could move on”, sure, go for it, but that’s still accepting this moral transgression that you’re speaking out so strongly against. The rhetoric isn’t that the story was bad craft, the rhetoric is that there was some deeper issue at work which made the story problematic in a way that had nothing to do with the characters.

        I guess it just seems like trying to have your cake and eat it too; to get the moral high-ground of Calling Out Problematic Stuff but then still mining that problematic canon for your own benefit.Report

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Good piece, though as someone who doesn’t think there is any ambiguity in the ending, a lot of the complaints about the story have to do with the Batman yucking it up with the Joker after the Batgirl mutilation. I think the desire to find ambiguity is in reaction to breaking Batman.

    (Somewhat related is the issue of the story being treated as in continuity, unlike Dark Knight Returns, and the Joker is still appearing in the comics as if he’s just gone through the Arkham turnstile without getting the Lennie treatment. This meant the story was supposed to be reflected in future stories.)Report

    • Alex M. Parker in reply to PD Shaw says:

      Yeah, I’ve thought about doing a blog post just on this. I think you’re probably right that the ambiguity wasn’t intended by the authors, but I just can’t escape it whenever I read it. Not just how they show the last scenes but also how it references the beginning, where Batman literally talks about killing the Joker. And the title–who is getting killed in “The Killing Joke?”

      Funnily enough, I’m also adamant that Tony Soprano *didn’t* get killed.

      The ending of TKJ is extraordinary in how it shows a shared moment of recognition between Batman and the Joker, something you’d never expect to see. It goes against everything you know about the characters but somehow Moore pulls it off.Report

  3. Doctor Jay says:

    I never read The Killing Joke, but I did read The Dark Knight Returns and loved it. I was used to a comic book industry that gave me stories about Superman’s dog and horse, and Supergirl’s cat Streaky. No, really.

    I thought it was interesting to revisit how the superhero thing might work. Frank Miller brought in a female Robin, too. That seemed to work great.

    And then the world decided that everything was going to go dark and gritty and full of heroes who needed to be bad in order to do good. I tired of this before the filmmakers did. We’re pulling out of that Iron Age now, but we aren’t the same. We aren’t going to go back to stories about Streaky. We’re not afraid to put in a scene where a time-travelling Tony Stark discusses fatherhood with his (unknowing) father, and take it seriously. Films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ragnarok can have moments of deadly seriousness and lightheartedness all mixed together.

    It was, and is, totally fair for people like Simone to point out problems they had with something that was written or drawn. Writing and drawing stories about women superheroes is important work for our time. I do have a bit of a problem with the sort of rhetoric that assumes moral inadequacy in the readers and writers of that art.

    If you do not understand, if you do not attempt to understand those that went before you, you will very likely end up repeating their mistakes. “I don’t like that” is something quite different from “you’re a terrible person”. In the end, we’re all terrible people, but some try to do better. And one of those that tries to do better is Bruce Wayne.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I always thought the idea in DKR was that being a hero can never make sense, you just need to choose a kind of not-making-sense that you can live with. The story portrays Superman as a dupe, but the thing I figured was that he knew it, him being a tool for the American government was as much a choice as Batman not killing people. Obviously there are still wrong things about the world that could be fixed by someone without that intentional limitation, but without limitations you aren’t a hero; you’re just the biggest gun, and that only plays until someone else makes a bigger one.Report

      • North in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Well yeah, really good point about Superman. I think you’re right about that and more over the comic itself is very… kind… if you will, to Superman and the choice he makes. *spoilers* He is vivid, bright, and solid when contrasted to the other characters. Age has barely scratched his physique. He deflects a nuclear weapon and, on the verge of death and blocked from sunlight he pleads with the living earth herself to release its stored sunlight and empower him: and the earth DOES IT. The humans use him and out of love for his parents principles Superman lets them do so but the meta-narrative of the comic is really reverent towards the choice Superman makes and his own inherent nature.

        The succeeding story arcs are less kind and more fearful, but eh.Report

      • Jay L Gischer in reply to DensityDuck says:

        And with your first sentence you connect DKR to existentialism and absurdism, which were staples of non-comic literature in the 70’s. Life doesn’t make sense, and a leap of faith is needed to impose sense upon it.

        I mean, yeah, that works. The superhero films I love the most always have an answer to the question, “What makes you a hero?”Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    There was an interesting take on The Killing Joke that I saw and have been chewing on for a while now:

    Like the guy says in the thread, I wonder how comics would have changed if it were Two-Face instead of Joker.

    And, yeah, that brings me to how much Killing Joke changed. It changed everything. Two-Face is also a dark image of Batman. Two sides of the same coin, if you will. I reckon they would have evolved Two-Face into being a Batman/Punisher amalgam. Bringing justice to people who have been denied it by the corrupt system. No! You’re not supposed to root for him! You sickos! He’s wrong and it’s obvious that he’s wrong! Quit saying he has a point!

    Hrm. maybe it’s just as well.Report

    • Alex M. Parker in reply to Jaybird says:

      Well in a literal sense, as mentioned above, Bolland began the project because he wanted to do a Joker story and asked Alan Moore to write. Of course, it’s possible Moore had this idea for a Two-Face story and changed it to Joker.

      I doubt it, though. I think the idea of a duality between two extremes is what attracted Moore. Batman and Two-Face don’t seem as extreme because they actually share some of the same goals. Also, there’s a duality within Two-Face so it gets kind of confusing.

      Still, interesting ideas. I wish there were more good Two-Face stories, IMHO he’s drastically underused.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    I recommend the alternate Joker Origin Story “Lovers and Madmen“… wait… fifty bucks!!! check it out from your local library instead. (I feel less bad about spoiling stuff now.)

    It’s an alternate take on the Joker’s Origin that doesn’t have him start as a failed everyman who had a Very Bad Day. Instead, Jack is a gifted sociopath who has everything come easy to him and when he wants something it just falls into his lap. He made a lot of money as a sociopathic businessman and it was too easy and then he becomes a sociopathic criminal and *THAT* is too easy. Like, he hates life because it’s too easy. He’s thinking about ending it all until, one day, he sees Batman.

    He says to himself something to the effect of “Holy Crap. A guy dressed as a giant bat. That’s… that’s so absurd…” and Batman finds one of the security guards near where Jack was with a note stabbed into his lifeless body: “Thanks. You made my day.” Smileyface.

    And it’s from there that Jack puts on a red hood and fights Batman and gets punched into a batch of chemicals.

    25% less fridging (Jack harms a woman dating Bruce Wayne at one point) so it’s not exactly the perfect origin story to replace the previous one…but if you’re looking for a Joker Origin that will sit with you a bit better than Killing Joke, you really ought to check out Lovers and Madmen.Report

  6. blake says:

    I haven’t read it, but I have to imagine that:

    >> Joker’s birth in a chemical vat is the most obvious plot influence in Burton’s “Batman,”

    was on some 3×5 card used to pitch the movie in the first place. I mean, it was the canonical story for decades and the first origin for the Joker.Report

  7. Mikkhi Kisht says:

    I’m convinced all the various Joker origin stories are true. He’s chaos & trying to define chaos to one source would be like trying to find the logic in the poem ‘The Jabberwock.’ Each version is as true as it needs to be at that moment, to explain the unexplainable.

    I’m also convinced Batman did not kill Joker at the end of The Killing Joke. They shared a laugh over the flashlight joke, then simply walked away. Nicholson’s Joker was right after all. Batman needs his Joker, so Bruce can pretend the world will make sense if he hits it hard enough.

    The Killing Joke is disturbing. Arkham Asylum; A Serious House on Serious Earth is worse. There was that span of years when even ‘cute’ Joker stories (Mad Love comes to mind) were not meant for children.Report

  8. Dark Matter says:

    Good post…

    It’s weird that we object to Barbera’s treatment. Joker is a monster. By definition, monsters do monstrous things. Typically we see him (and the rest of his sociopathic fellows) abuse Red Shirts. However Red Shirts are people. The only thing that seperates Barbera from the rest of the Red Shirt herd is we know her name, her parentage, her goals, and so forth.

    Joker has killed probably thousands of people on stage now. Off stage that figure is more. If we count attempted mass murder then it’s much more. If we count alternate worlds where he was successful then we’re into the millions just from when he mixed Kryptonite and the Scarecrow’s fear gas and did one-bad-day on Superman.

    So are we saying Joker level monsters shouldn’t rape/maim/torture? Does that only apply to main characters?

    Is TKJ really the same if Joker had greatly victimized some random created-to-be-a-victim character who was forgotten after we closed the book? Would we think of the Joker the same? Would Barbera’s future successes be the same?

    Superman did sacrifice a red shirt in a story. In High School he and Lana were passengers of a friend who was drunk driving and ended up in a wreck. Lana survived and Clark was uninjured, but the driver put himself into a coma and died a decade or two later. So it was supposed to be your “big, life changing event which proves something”. However the character wasn’t heard from or mentioned before or since. The event is never talked about in our real world, effectively the character never existed. In order to be serious they’d have to have sacrifice Pa Kent.Report

  1. April 5, 2020

    […] Eagle-eyed readers will notice references to both authors throughout the issue, as well as clown imagery invoking Batman’s most famous enemy, who poses the same fundamental quandary. […]Report