One Killer of a Joke: A Review

Aiden Petter, Contributor

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Everyone has pain in their lives; it is what one does with their pain that defines who they are. The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore, drawn and colored by Brian Bolland and lettered by Richard Starkings, is my favorite graphic novel ever written, and it directly deals with this concept of coping with pain. It has many fantastic qualities, such as a good story, engaging visuals, and griping themes. While each one of those points deserve their own paper, what makes this story the best in my eyes is how the characters’ minds work and how they interact. (A warning, The Killing Joke is a dark story with many mature, dark themes. These include rape, attempted murder, and mental torture of a character. While these topics will not be covered here, they are in the original story, so read it at your own discretion.)

In the story, The Joker, a mentally ill criminal, does some terrible things all to prove a point to Batman. The Batman catches the Joker, and when the Joker is in Batman’s captivity, Batman explains that if they both keep going on like they are, fighting every day or so, then one of them will eventually kill the other. To prevent this outcome, Batman says he would help the Joker rehabilitate. Somberly, the Joker explains that it is too late for that and says that the whole situation reminds him of a joke. The joke goes along the lines of this: there were once two asylum inmates. The two inmates decided they did not like the asylum, and they wanted to escape together. They got to the roof, where they could jump a small gap to another roof, and ultimately, to freedom. The first inmate jumps across and lands on the other side of the gap, but the second does not as he is afraid of falling. The first guy suggests he shines his flashlight across the gap so the second guy could walk across. The second guy responds, “Wh – what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was halfway across!”

Now that’s a lot to unpack, but it explains the dynamic between the Batman and the Joker perfectly. One one side, you have the Batman, surrounded by morals. Someone who refuses to kill despite the fact that it may save more people in the long run. He makes this choice not to kill, as he does not want to become what he fears most, his parents’ killer. He doesn’t want to become Someone who takes a life leaving the people closest to the dead feeling totally alone and helpless. Feeling like he did in the alley his parents were killed in. So instead, he becomes a man that uses that tragedy and fear to fuel his vendetta against crime, to stop others from being affected the same fate. On the other hand, you have the Joker. A madman that decided the best way to deal with his pain is to ignore it. A man with no purpose, that is, until he meets the Batman. The Joker obsesses over Batman because he can not understand why Batman thinks the way he does, so he tests the Batman’s morals.

It is this duality of one who uses their pain, and one that ignores it that is best exemplified here.

Throughout the story this duality pushes the characters to fight against one another every chance they get. That’s why the ending of The Killing Joke makes it one of the greatest graphic novels ever written. Batman acknowledges that he and the Joker are in this endless feud that can only end when one kills the other and offers a solution, but the Joker turns him down. The Joker says he is too far gone for redemption, and tells a story, but, instead, it is not just about two inmates escaping from an asylum, but the Batman and the Joker dealing with their pain. Batman takes the place of the inmate who jumped across to freedom, while the Joker is the inmate who would not dare to leap. Batman extends a helping hand out to the the Joker, but much like the flashlight in the joke, it is a false help whether Batman knows it or not, leaving the Joker on his own, fascinated by how and why the Batman went through the effort to make the jump, fascinated by how and why Batman acts the way he does, fascinated by how anyone can face their pain, fascinated by why he can’t do that.

Character work in The Killing Joke makes it one of the most interesting stories written to date. It offers great takes on morals and ways with dealing with pain. It gives the reader insight on two different sides to the same story, and because of that, provides a personal experience like no other. While not a humorous graphic novel, it does pack a punch, and let me tell you, that joke is really a killer.

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