Guest Writer: Michael J. Miller
In 1988, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland gave the world Batman: The Killing Joke, a graphic novel unique in both its depiction of depravity and the emotional toll it takes on the reader. At first glance, a Batman comic may seem an odd choice for an article on a horror blog. Yet, I’d argue no other piece of literature (comic book or otherwise) delves into the sadistic depths of darkness and evil quite like The Killing Joke. In all I’ve explored of the horror genre proper, there are few works that make me cringe like this and even fewer that leave me as disturbed. In The Killing Joke, the reader encounters an unflinching portrayal of evil. And you can’t remain unchanged after reading it.
In a previous post Kalie wrote, “Horror, as a genre, exposes us to the darkest realm of existence.” Her definition of horror stuck with me and I’ve spent much time pondering it. Again and again, when I think of her words, I think of The Killing Joke. Granted, The Killing Joke is not considered to be a horror comic in the way The Walking Dead or Preacher is. But it certainly exposes us to the darkest realm of existence better than most films or stories that officially carry the title of “horror.” As I investigate the horrific nature of this story, spoilers will abound.
Full disclosure – I hate clowns. I always have. I still have a vivid memory of a Halloween from when I was five or six. Finished with my trick-or-treating, I was at home handing out candy with my parents. Some kid came to our door dressed as a clown and I was gone. I darted behind a chair in our family room where I hid for the next hour or so (realistically it was probably ten minutes but, in my memory, it feels like an hour or so). My parents lovingly assured me I was safe and the kid was long gone but I was not coming out. Years have made the memory far scarier than the event was, I’m sure. But the memory has stayed with me nonetheless. So when we’re talking of things that personally scare me, clowns are at the top of that list. For that reason I’d always dreaded Stephen King’s It. Just the mention of the title or the sight of the book or movie would be enough to make me shiver. It seemed like King had crafted my worst nightmare and I wanted nothing to do with it. However, when I finally brought myself to watch it earlier this year I was surprised at how little it scared me. A demonic clown that brutally killed children and adults should mess with my head more than anything! But it didn’t. It was scary, sure, but overall I was fine. I wasn’t certain why until I realized – I’d already met the Joker. Poor Pennywise just doesn’t cut it next to the malevolent monster that is the Clown Prince of Crime.
In all of fiction, the Joker is a unique character. His motives and methods are more twisted than your traditional comic villain bent on world domination. He’s also far more sinister than your average horror movie monster. The Joker is characterized as insane in the comics and when Batman defeats him he is held, not in prison, but in Arkham Asylum. Kalie has written before (here and here) about how often the mentally ill are unfairly portrayed as evil in the horror genre. However, I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. It’s not that the character of the Joker is mentally ill and that is portrayed as evil. Rather, I’d argue the character is in fact evil personified. The Joker is called insane because we have no other category that fits. Nothing makes sense as we stare into the face of evil incarnate, so we say it must be madness.
This is best illustrated not in The Killing Joke but in a scene from Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece, The Dark Knight (which was heavily inspired by Moore’s book). When the Joker makes his offer to the mob bosses, Gambol tells him, “You’re crazy.” The Joker replies slowly, and with menace, “No I’m…I’m not.” He doesn’t see himself as crazy even as he leaves a playing card behind as the way to contact him. He is not acting as he is because he is unhinged, disturbed, or mentally ill. He is acting this way because he is evil and he resents any assertions to the contrary. The Joker knows who and what he is, even if we don’t always see the point.
The Killing Joke begins with Batman arriving at Arkham to talk to The Joker. He’s wrestling with the fact that unless they figure something else out, their constant struggle can only end with one of them killing the other. Batman wants to prevent that…but he finds The Joker has escaped the confines of his cell yet again. Evil it appears, can’t easily be contained.
Loose once more, The Joker sets about proving the truth of his dark vision of society. Again we can turn to The Dark Knight for a succinct summary. As Batman interrogates the Joker in the film, the Joker tells him, “See, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show ya. When the chips are down these uh, these ‘civilized’ people they’ll eat each other. See I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” In the graphic novel, the Joker targets Commissioner Gordon to prove this twisted point.
At home with his daughter Barbara, Gordon is contemplating the Joker’s escape. There is a knock at the door and Barbara opens it expecting to find her friend waiting to go to yoga class. Instead she sees the Joker who shoots her through the spine, paralyzing her. The sequence is graphic and deeply unsettling. There is no dialogue or word bubbles on the page. There is only the horrifying images. Moments before Barbara told her father how, as a child, his descriptions of the Joker gave her nightmares. In one horrific instant he proves how fully he is the stuff of nightmares, as much as any Insidious spirit or minion of Bughuul.
The Joker kidnaps Gordon and then proceeds to strip the injured and still conscious Barbara naked and take sexually provocative pictures of her. Whether or not the Joker rapes her is unclear. The story doesn’t clearly imply that he does but it fits the fear and feel of the narrative more closely than is comfortable. At the very least, it leaves the reader questioning, with their skin crawling.
Gordon awakes in a macabre version of an amusement park, held in chains by monstrous versions of little kids. (If children are our future, the Joker lets us know that future is a dark one indeed.) They strip Gordon and take him through a fun house filled with the pictures the Joker took of his daughter, with the Joker narrating all the while. The Joker wants to break Gordon, to make him go insane. It is twisted and, as a reader, it makes me beyond uncomfortable. I read a lot of comic books as a kid and I’ve never seen anything in any of them that was half as disturbing as this. In fact, I’ve hardly seen anything in any medium as disturbing as this.
Of course Batman arrives and frees Gordon. As he pursues the Joker into the funhouse Gordon cautions, “I want him brought in…and I want him brought in by the book!” Batman replies, “I’ll do my best.” Gordon yells after him, “By the book, you hear? We have to show him! We have to show him that our way works!” This is what’s at stake here. Who’s vision of human nature is correct? Gordon is desperate, even in light of all that’s happened to him, to hold on to human goodness. But as Batman pursues the Joker through the funhouse the Joker taunts him, “I’ve proved my point. I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy! That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.” Of course Gordon doesn’t snap…but the implications of the Joker’s idea are chilling. Is he right? Are we all capable of that?
On this note, one of the more controversial things the graphic novel does is provide an origin for the Joker. Fans are divided about knowing his past. On the one hand, a concrete origin story lets us sympathize with the Joker and it warns us that any of us have the same potential for malevolence inside of us. On the other hand, even Brian Bolland posits (in the conclusion he wrote for the deluxe edition of the graphic novel) that perhaps this is just one of many pasts the Joker creates in his madness. In the story the Joker does say, “I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another…if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! HA HA HA!” This version affirms evil comes from a place we can’t ever understand or fully know, making it all the more scary.
With our inability to understand the evil we have the potential to become in mind, we reach the end of the graphic novel. The final page of The Killing Joke is something of an iconic moment in comic book history. What makes it so intriguing is no one knows exactly what happens – and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland aren’t telling. Here is that famous final scene.
The big discussion is whether or not Batman kills the Joker. If nothing else, it seems implied. The laughter stops. For some reason Batman and the Joker fall silent. The beam of light from the car also disappears, evoking the story the Joker just told where one asylum inmate kills another by turning off the flashlight. Is that what happened? Did one crazy person kill another?
In addition to giving comic fans fodder for endless debate, it also ends a dark tale on the most frightening note possible. If Batman killed the Joker, then the Joker won. He was right. We all are just one bad day away from becoming just like him, even the best of us. Is this story bleak enough to tell us that good is always destined to fail in the end? Or is it saying that any triumph over evil is at best shadowy, ambiguous, and never able to last for long? Either way, it’s a dark and unsettling ending that sits in the pit of your stomach, churning. Hope, if it exists at all, is tenuous at best.
If horror “exposes us to the darkest realm of existence,” then the Joker is horror’s favorite son and The Killing Joke his magnum opus. He happily forces us to confront the darkest depths of human depravity, all with that maniacal smile on his face. He is unapologetically evil. He illustrates the absolute worst that may be lurking inside each of us. All that, of course, is nothing new when it come to stories about the Joker. But where The Killing Joke took the readers was new ground. It disturbed me deeply and has haunted me ever since I read it. I’m content to never read it again. The Killing Joke doesn’t need to be reread. The impression it leaves is indelible. You can’t shake it even though you want to. If that isn’t horror, then I don’t know what is.