"Two Guys in a Lunatic Asylum": The Killing Joke

Some people love Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke. Hilary Goldstein says it’s one of Alan Moore’s best works. Some people hate it. Kurt Busiek calls it “a bad story from an excellent writer,” and Alan Moore himself has criticized it on at least three occasions. Most criticism of the book rightly centers on its treatment of Barbara Gordon, and there’s no reason to rehash that here. What I’m more interested in is its treatment of Batman.

Moore’s take on Batman begins to become clear at the very beginning of the book: Batman goes to see the Joker in Arkham and he says he knows that one will inevitably kill the other.

They are inextricably linked, he knows – they are somehow the same. How this works crystallizes as the book goes on. The Joker has escaped, Batman discovers, and from there two stories are woven together. In the present, the Joker cripples Barbara Gordon, abducts Jim, and conducts his macabre experiment on him. Interleaved with this is the Joker’s origin (or rather possible origin; the Joker himself admits that he’s an unreliable narrator).

He was a struggling stand-up comic, it turns out, with a pregnant wife. He used to work in a chemical plant, and some gangsters offer him money to help them rob it. Right before the job, the police find him and tell him that his wife and unborn baby have died in a freak accident.

Then, the gangsters threaten to kill him if he doesn’t follow through on the job. They say they’ll dress him up as the Red Hood so he won’t be recognized, but of course it’s really so that he’ll look like the supervillain mastermind if they’re caught. Of course, they’re caught. Batman gives chase; terrified, he jumps into the waters surrounding the chemical plant.

That’s how he becomes the Joker: one really bad day and some really bad luck – and the Batman. Part of the joke is that Batman tells him, “So, Red Hood. We meet again,” and inadvertently causes the Joker to be born. But as we’ve discovered from the gangsters, there is no Red Hood; such a villain doesn’t exist. They’ve just been dressing up patsies. They’re the real villains, only Batman doesn’t notice or care because he’s so obsessed with supervillains and supervillainy.

This is the experiment that the Joker runs on Jim Gordon: he subjects him to one really bad day to prove that that’s all it takes to produce someone as crazy as the Joker. He does this by shooting Barbara, taking pictures of her naked and writhing in agony, and torturing her father while he looks at the pictures. But, in a way, the Joker’s proposition has already been proved. After all, just as the Joker suspects, one really bad day was all it took to produce someone as crazy as Batman.

The real nature of Moore’s portrayal of Batman becomes fully clear in the closing pages. After Batman has rescued Jim, he pursues the Joker. They grapple, Batman wins. Then, Batman makes an unusual offer. They could work together, he offers; he’ll help rehabilitate him. But the Joker refuses, telling his famous joke:

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!

Batman is the first escapee, and he’s jumped across the precipice. His offer to help the Joker is like the escapee’s plan to help his compatriot cross the gap by walking on a flashlight’s beam. One is just as crazy as the other. Batman’s reaction to the joke on the last page of the book sums it up:

Batman’s stoic demeanor fades and he bursts into laughter. He has no thought of Barbara, not even any thought of Jim. In the middle panel, he reaches out and grabs the Joker’s shoulder. Maybe he is even embracing him. They’re both lunatics, and in the final three panels, we can even see that light beam separating them.

Some readers think that Batman is throttling or even stabbing the Joker in that middle panel (this ignores issues of continuity, but I think we can do that; the book wasn’t supposed to be in continuity in the first place, after all). In my edition, which is the edition these scans come from, I don’t see it. I discovered recently that a 20th anniversary edition of The Killing Joke was released with new coloring, and maybe Batman looks a little more violent in that middle panel:

(This panel was surprisingly hard to find online, by the way; there’s a band called The Killing Joke that kept skewing my search results)

But I think that’s wrong, and the implications are clear: Batman is on his side of the light beam, and he goes his way; the Joker is on his side, and he’s dragged back to the asylum.

In this take, the real superpeople are Barbara and Jim Gordon. They survived their one bad day mostly intact, but the trauma of Batman and the Joker’s one bad day warped them into something inhuman. The Joker is a killer and Batman isn’t, but that’s largely chance or coincidence. We root for Batman and lionize him because his madness manifests in a way that looks like justice, but it’s deceptive. He’s like Rorschach: he’s been broken by his life’s traumas. He’s uncompromising and even sociopathic, and he can only see in black and white, and therefore will never actually be able to fix the world. He’s obsessive, and when he sees a supervillain, he forgets about everything else. He’s a man-child, frozen psychologically at the moment of his trauma and forever living out his childhood dream of being a superhero. Being Batman functions precisely the way Joker says his own madness functions – it’s an emergency exit.

This is, of course, wholly contrary to Grant Morrison’s reading, which we have been exploring here lately. There, Batman is the god of processing trauma and confronting evil, and, there, becoming Batman means that Bruce has healed. It’s villains like the Joker, Two-Face, and Mr. Freeze who have experienced trauma and failed to transcend it; they are abortive Batmen (or Batman abortions).

Above, I mentioned that Moore doesn’t like this book very much, and some of the reasons he has given are pretty interesting: in one place, he says, “You’re never going to meet somebody remotely like either of those two people. You’re not going to meet people who have been driven mad in that way.” In another, “Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they’re just two comic book characters.” These sentiments are strange coming from Moore, because he of all people has spent so much time celebrating the importance and materiality of imagination. Consider, for instance, Promethea or the ending of The Black Dossier, where his opinions on fiction seem to approach Morrison’s. We may never meet Batman, but he may be more influential on our lives than many of the people we do meet.

Of course, I would never want to meet this version of Batman, nor would I ever want to be him. Like the superheroes in Watchmen, he is a scathing critique of superheroes and superheroism and is an argument against them. But fortunately, The Killing Joke is an ending. It’s the last critique of this kind that Alan Moore would write, and his subsequent work with superheroes, particularly on Supreme, celebrates them. This Batman is nothing but a dead end, and Moore knew it. Thankfully, Batman has moved on – and how far he’s come.

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4 Responses to "Two Guys in a Lunatic Asylum": The Killing Joke

  1. Pingback: “When You Live in a World with the Joker”: Gotham Central | Fourth Age of Comics

  2. Pingback: “Some say Batman died and came back as a kind of god”: More Batman, Inc. | Fourth Age of Comics

  3. ethanbundy says:

    Reblogged this on my broken id and commented:
    I just finished this comic, and enjoyed this post-read analysis

  4. Orcus says:

    Good analysis. I’d just like to add that I don’t think even Barbara survived her one bad day mostly intact. This is more apparent if we examine the continuation of her story as Oracle. I think Commissioner Gordon is the one who survived his one bad day mostly intact.

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