Lunatics in Costumes: Madness, Power and Violence in Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke
Every reader of a Batman comic knows that in the end the superhero will finally defeat the bad guys and bring them to justice. Many fans of the series, therefore, claim that the stories in the universe of Batman are not interesting to read because Batman will win, but because of how he will win.
Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke is considered a milestone in the history of comics and graphic novel culture and is often referred to as one of the best graphic novels of all time. What makes the novel more special is that it ”was actually supposed to be non-canon, but it was so impactful that it was incorporated into the DC Universe“ (Rector).
Moore provides the reader with the story of how an average nobody transformed into the villain who is throughout popular culture known as Batman's greatest foe and the embodiment of chaos and destruction. It is revealed that Joker is the product of a sequence of tragic events that turn a loving and caring husband into a murdering psychopath who wants to hold up the mirror to the world and society. But the story goes way beyond that as it also sheds a light upon the way Batman feels for his opponent, how Barbara Gordon became the mastermind behind Batman's high-tech and questions the way of how we as readers have to interpret the dazzling figure of the superhero Batman and his actions. Moore's novel adds a new layer of perspective on the figure of the hero as well as on the villain - and thus blurs the strong contrast between the good and evil sides of both protagonists - resulting in a grey mélange. The picture of Batman which is nowadays portrayed in some graphic novels is extremely different from the two-dimensional superhero a few decades ago, and Moore's work has its share in the psychological immersion. But how can we understand the major topics of madness, violence, and power which are common in all Batman comics and superhero franchises and especially in Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke ?
Following Joker's statement in The Killing Joke and calling Batman a madman in a costume, we get a completely new perspective on the two opponents and society portrayed in the Batman Universe as a whole: unlike Batman, Joker's alter ego did not have an almost infinite amount of money. Basically, it was a social necessity and financial problems driving the Joker to join the gangsters in the first place, and then to become a criminal himself through this acquaintance. Batman's fate to watch his parents get shot by a criminal may have been hard, too. But in contrast to his enemy, he had an intact family in the person of the butler Alfred, who always took care of him from the day his parents were murdered. In addition to that, Bruce Wayne had the enormous fortune of his parents and in this sense never the harsh reality of one of the 99% in Gotham.
Batman walks on an extremely fine line, which only requires one wrong decision at the wrong moment to turn Batman himself into a villain in regards to state and law. The fact that Batman sometimes lets his own anger at the world and 'evil' take over is a frequent theme, especially in the graphic novels of the last decades. In Hush, for example, Batman almost beats the Joker to a bloody pool of pulp before he can be stopped by Commissioner Gordon. It is also Commissioner Gordon who advises Batman to stick to the rules - instead, he and his daughter have been tortured by the Joker and Gordon does not know if his daughter will survive the attack of the Joker. But is this faith in the law and institutions not also somehow twisted?: Gotham's institutions are often corrupt and inefficient. While the police can't keep up with fighting crime and it takes a Batman to keep the streets safe, the mental institution produces killers rather than cures them as ”the villain is treated, but treated in a way that is harmful to his mental state rather than helpful“ (Bullins 149).
Much of Moore's story keeps us as readers guessing as to which Batman we're dealing with and how we're supposed to classify his actions and the ending of the graphic novel. This means that for example the Batman we see in Hush (2009) is defined by his creator Jeph Loeb as a Batman who has almost perfected his abilities and is at the peak of his superhero career. In contrast to the early Batman who is still in the process of learning the craft of a superhero and who ”has an uneasy alliance with the Gotham police force“ Loeb's Batman has ”inspired a Robin or three, Nightwing, two Batgirls, and an Oracle“ interpreting the city as his very own area and feels closely connected to it as ”Gotham City is now his to protect“. Moore's Batman, on the other hand, has meanwhile allied himself with the police and established a familiar relationship with Commissioner Gordon and his daughter1 and reacts extremely tense and increasingly aggressively to the mad capers of his arch-enemy. This trope of a Batman who can not control his anger and/or his feelings is often picked up in other works and has become one of Batman's biggest flaws.
From a capitalism-critical perspective, it is also »insane« that a rich multimillionaire, who is often referred to as a playboy in the Gotham City media, takes the law into his own hands and enforces his power on the streets of the metropole. This idea of the traumatised and aggressive young millionaire is taken further in Batman: The Imposter in which Bruce Wayne/Batman is characterised by his former school psychiatrist as a risk to himself and others.
Batman and the Joker are inextricably linked and mirror each other or as Peaslee and Weiner (xix) suggest: ”Batman needs the Joker, and the Joker needs Batman“. For the Joker the whole conflict between him and Batman is just a game and as Batman can not kill him without betraying his own motivations the rivalry will continue to exist. This is also one of the reasons the Joker tortures Gordon and shoots Barbara as he has to surpass himself and his atrocities again and again in order to get the attention from Batman and infuriate him. The Joker wants to be the ultimate treat to Batman and focuses on ”continuance rather than victory“ (Carter 51). The one and only foe he has to fight against and destroy him in every sense. Joker's opposition to the state and its institutions becomes more complex when we interpret his doubt that he can be cured as someone who has already seen Arkham Asylum from the inside. And in fact in Arkham Asylum, the offenders are only detained and ”being cured does not really seem to be an option“ there (Bullins 149).
What makes this enmity so special is that Batman can not win the game as he has to play by the book. Otherwise, he would completely betray himself, his ideals and everything that the figure of Batman stands for, and the Joker would have finally achieved his goal. So for Batman, his ideals are basically more important than getting a serial killer out of circulation. Batman is the embodiment of order, justice but also self-control. The Joker, on the other hand, is chaos and is himself unaware of how many bullets are in his own gun and just acts as he sees fit in any situation. Money is not important to the Joker. He just uses it to manipulate and influence other people and he is not interested in becoming wealthy. The Joker is a trickster and his character is more ”a wildcard, a force of will, a compelling power that finds creative ways to unleash chaos“ (Peaslee and Weiner xvi).
In addition to that, The Killing Joke tells as story in which Batman himself was to a large extent involved in the creation of the Joker by pursuing the robbers and thus driving Joker into the toxic chemicals that are responsible for his clownish appearance and his mad behaviour. The joker itself is born out of toxic chemicals and is toxic towards society and especially Batman. The two characters are often described as complete opposites: dark and colourful, order and anarchy, evil and good. However, The Killing Joke paints a picture that blurs the line between the two opponents. And precisely because the graphic novel was not conceived and constructed as part of the canon, it is even completely unclear at the end whether Batman merely arrests the Joker or even kills him in a fit of madness that spreads on him. The end of the graphic novel stays unclear and it is up to the reader to decide how the story finally ends. Only the rain puddles in the last panel which resemble the rain puddles in the very first panel of the novel might indicate that the never ending war game of justice and chaos between the Joker and Batman will go on as it did before.
Besides chaos, manipulation and confusion the most powerful weapon of the Joker is his ultraviolence. This violence is directed not only towards Batman and the other heroes but also against each and everyone in Gotham.
There are numerous examples of Batman stories which contain a scene where Alfred is patching up his master after the battle. Wayne's body is badly affected by all the fighting and scars can be found all over his body. One could argue that Batman uses the pain to distract himself from the pain inside. While Batman projects the pain inside and has strong masochistic tendencies, the Joker is a sadist who takes pleasure in the suffering and degradation of others. However, what both characters have in common is that they use violence to get their way. Just like the Joker, Batman also uses his physical superiority to intimidate other people and to quickly reach his goal with physical and verbal violence. However, what both characters have in common is that they use violence to get their way. Just like the Joker, Batman also uses his physical superiority to intimidate other people and to quickly reach his goal with physical and verbal violence. In The Killing Joke, the Joker uses extreme physical and psychological violence to break Commissioner Gordon and his daughter - and thus ultimately Batman. What is not shown in the novel, but implied, is that the Joker probably rapes Barbara to gain ultimate power over the two all good characters in the novel. As the good characters are embodiments of state, society and and law his rape is at the same time a rape of society and its laws.
1 In Batman: The Killing Joke it remains in unclear whether Barbara Gordon is Batgirl but the novel provides the story of how she became Oracle.