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Batman: The Killing Joke

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Quote1 I'm not exactly sure what happened. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Quote2
-- The Joker



Appearing in "The Killing Joke"

Featured Characters:

Supporting Characters:

Villains:

Other Characters:

  • The Joker's carnival freaks

Locations:

Items:

Vehicles:

Synopsis for "The Killing Joke"

The plot revolves around a largely psychological battle between Batman and his longtime foe the Joker, who has escaped from Arkham Asylum. The Joker intends to drive James Gordon, the Police Commissioner of Gotham City, insane, in order to prove that the most upstanding citizen is capable of going mad after having "one bad day." Along the way, the Joker has flashbacks to his early life, gradually explaining his origin.

The man who would become the Joker is an unnamed engineer who quits his job at a chemical company to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, he agrees to guide two criminals into the plant for a robbery. During the planning, the police come and inform him that his wife has died in a household accident involving an electric baby bottle heater. Grief-stricken, the engineer tries to withdraw from the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his commitment to them.

At the plant, the criminals make him don a special mask to become the infamous Red Hood. Unknown to the engineer, this disguise is simply the criminals' scheme to implicate any accomplice as the mastermind to divert attention from themselves. Once inside, they almost immediately blunder into security personnel, and a violent shootout and chase ensues. The criminals are gunned down, and the engineer finds himself confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance.

Panicked, the engineer deliberately jumps into the chemical plant's toxic waste catch-basin vat to escape Batman, and is swept through a pipe leading to the outside. Once outside, he discovers to his horror that the chemicals have permanently bleached his skin chalk white, stained his lips ruby red, and dyed his hair bright green. This turn of events, compounding the man's misfortunes of that one day, drives him completely insane and results in the birth of the Joker.

In the present day, the Joker kidnaps Gordon, shoots and paralyzes his daughter Barbara, and imprisons him in a run-down amusement park. His henchmen then strip Gordon naked and cage him in the park's freak show. He chains Gordon to one of the park's rides and cruelly forces him to view giant pictures of his wounded daughter in various states of undress. Once Gordon completes the maddening gauntlet, the Joker ridicules him as an example of "the average man," a naive weakling doomed to insanity.

As Batman arrives to save Gordon, the Joker retreats into the funhouse. Gordon's sanity is intact despite the ordeal, and he insists that Batman capture the Joker "by the book" in order to "show him that our way works". Batman enters the funhouse and faces the Joker's traps, while the Joker tries to persuade his old foe that the world is inherently insane and thus not worth fighting for. Eventually, Batman tracks down the Joker and subdues him.

Batman then attempts to reach out to him to give up crime and put a stop to their years-long war. The Joker declines, however, ruefully saying "It's too late for that... far too late". He then tells Batman a joke that was started earlier in the comic, which is funny enough to make the normally stone-faced Batman laugh. While they are laughing, Batman reaches across to Joker. The picture moves away from the two foes, and Joker's laugh stops abruptly while Batman continues laughing, leaving the reader wondering what happened to the Joker.

Joke

The joke told by the Joker is a common one:

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 on to the roof, and there, just across the narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in moon light... stretching away to freedom.
Now the first guy he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren't make the leap. Y'see he's afraid of falling... So then the first guy has an idea. He says "Hey! I have my flash light with me. I will shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk across the beam and join me." But the second guy just shakes his head. He says... he says "What do you think I am, crazy? You would turn it off when I was half way across."

Theme

The exploration of the Joker's origin and the hopelessness that belies his "evil clown" persona is effected toward adding more depth to the character.

Another theme explores the possibility that Batman is just as insane as the criminals he faces ("You had a bad day too, once, didn't you?" The Joker asks him), but manifests insanity in a different way. For the decade or so following publication, this theme became central to Batman's character in mainstream stories but, following Infinite Crisis in 2006, has been downplayed in favor of a more heroic motivation.

The Joker's underlying motive is to illustrate the inherent insanity of Batman's mission: dressing up as a bat to fight criminals. 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.

Notes

  • Batman: The Killing Joke is a one-shot squarebound graphic novel published under DC's Prestige format.
  • This issue was published with a second, third and fourth printing. Reprint editions are easily distinguishable by the varying colors of the cover logo. A first printing edition of Batman: The Killing Joke has a green logo.
  • This story also appeared in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.
  • With this story, the Joker's origin is revamped for modern readers. While maintaining many elements of the Silver Age mythos, new material is added which may or may not be considered part of the canonical Joker origin. As all additional material is supplied by the Joker himself, the information itself cannot be considered reliable.
  • When originally published, Barbara Gordon had already retired from being Batgirl, but this issue is often regarded as her final appearance as the costumed hero. Shortly after this story, she adopts a new covert identity - Oracle.
  • 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. The late Heath Ledger, who appeared in the film as the Joker, stated in an interview that he was given a copy of The Killing Joke as reference for the role.
  • Several different other Joker origin stories have been published since The Killing Joke's debut:
  • In the story arc "Pushback," running through Batman: Gotham Knights #50-Batman: Gotham Knights #55, a different version of the Joker's origin story is told, which borrows themes from "The Killing Joke," but strays notably in some places; for example, the Joker's wife was murdered by a corrupt cop. It has been guessed that such divergences were partially Moore's intention in writing such an ambiguous story, so that other writers would be able to continue freely adopting the Joker's origin to the needs of their story, instead of only being tied down to one concrete story.
  • Another version of the Joker's origin is presented in the "Lovers & Madmen" story-arc running through issues Batman Confidential #7-Batman Confidential #12. However, the events from that storyline completely contradict with the events chronicled in "The Killing Joke," setting the Joker up as a depressed hitman.
  • The second compiled edition of "Batman: Black and White" provides yet another origin story titled "Case Study," this time written by Paul Dini and illustrated by Alex Ross. Naturally, it contradicts all the others as well.
  • In 2007, as a backup feature for "Countdown" DC began writing new two-page origin comics for Super-villains to define their chronology, similar to the Heroes' origin stories in the back of 52. The Joker's can be found here.
  • Joker's Body Count = 1


Trivia

  • When first conceived by writer Alan Moore, "The Killing Joke" was intended to take place outside of mainstream continuity.
  • This is one of the few projects where artist Brian Bolland provides interior artwork as well as cover design. Typically Bolland only produces cover artwork.
  • A version of Batman: The Killing Joke was reprinted in the Netherlands in 1989.
  • The 2009 video game Batman: Arkham Asylum adapted a post-The Killing Joke timeline, where Barbara Gordon feeds Batman information as Oracle. Several references to the story are also made in the game; the Joker's makeshift throne made of mannequins at the end of the game is almost identical to the one in the graphic novel. During the game, it is also revealed that the Joker had been using e-mail under the alias "Jack White," which Batman identifies as "one of Joker's oldest aliases." The Joker even personally makes a knowing reference to the story: "There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum... Oh hell, you've heard that one before, haven't you?"
  • In the 2011 video game sequel to Arkham Asylum, Batman: Arkham City, when the Joker's interview tapes are found, he retells his origin from The Killing Joke. In this version, he reveals that the two thugs worked for Carmine Falcone, and apparently blames Batman for what happened to him. Hugo Strange then accuses him of having fabricated a series of events in order to conceal the truth about his condition, as he has read twelve different accounts of his past, all different, except for one detail: Batman. He then paraphrases a line from the book: "I like to keep things interesting. A wise man once told me that if you have to have an origin story, you're better off making it multiple choice."
  • In the 2013 prequel to the two aforementioned video games, Batman: Arkham Origins, a young Joker pokes both the Dark Knight and the viewer with several references to The Killing Joke, such as saying he bathes in acid. There is an entire section in the game that is a reference to the graphic novel, where it shows Joker as a failed stand up comedian; he asked a Harleen Quinzel if she's ever had a "really bad day". In a dream-like sequence, he is forced to walk through a chemical factory while wearing his famous red hood and suit, and is "thrown" into an acid vat by the Caped Crusader himself.
  • During Zero Hour, a Batgirl of an alternate timeline appears who was never shot by the Joker. In her timeline, Commissioner Gordon was murdered that night and she grew on to a healthy older career, and even a romantic relationship with Batman himself.[1]
  • In Booster Gold (Volume 2) #5, Booster Gold is sent back in time by Rip Hunter in an effort to prevent the Joker's attack against Barbara Gordon. According to Hunter however, most historical events are immutable despite however many times one might attempt to manipulate the timestream, and the crippling of Barbara Gordon is one such event. He had been trying to teach Booster a lesson in temporal mechanics.
  • The Killing Joke is referenced in "Harley's Holiday", an episode of the Batman (1992 TV Series). When Harley asks him why he tried to save her when all she had ever done was torment him, Batman replies "I had a bad day too, once", referencing the Joker's out-pour to the Dark Knight.
  • James Gordon, Jr. makes a reference to the events of The Killing Joke in the Black Mirror story arc. He mentions having been in a cell in Arkham Asylum adjacent to the Joker's, and hints at having given the Joker the idea to attack his sister. This is never further elaborated upon, and may have simply been a tease on the part of James's character, rather than an actual retcon of events.

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