Try to Take Over the World: The Killing Joke
I love villains, and I don’t suspect much of what I enjoy (comics, action films, pro-wrestling) would function without them. Batman without the Joker is…kind of depressing. Hulk Hogan without communism isn’t going to fill an arena. Arnold Schwarzenegger without some faceless global conglomerate/psycho ex-comrade-at-arms is just your everyday overmuscled construction worker. Bad guys give my heroes purpose, but what gives bad guys purpose? Like Pinky and the Brain, they’re usually driven by the need to take over the world…or something smaller. It’s just that their devious plots aren’t always the greatest. Try to Take Over the World aims to look at some of the more ridiculous attempts by villains to get what they want. As DC Comics reboots this week and undoes the ramifications of this particular comic, I thought it’d be good to look back at one of The Joker’s most famous stories, The Killing Joke.
- Villain: The Joker
- Goal: Render Jim Gordon Insane
- Plot: S&M Carnival Rides
There’s no denying the Joker’s status as an iconographic pop culture villain, much like there’s no denying The Killing Joke’s status as one of the best Batman stories of the 1980s. Maybe it’s Alan Moore’s writing or Brian Bolland’s pencils or the book itself being one of the defining moments of the Batman mythology, but The Killing Joke has remained in print since 1988. There are few comic book fans who’ve not read the book, and fewer still who, unlike Alan Moore, can admit to the books flaws. The fact that most praise of the book comes with the superlative “Greatest Joker Story Ever Told” immediately diminishes it–The Killing Joke isn’t just a great story, it’s a great superhero story, and since it’s a great superhero story featuring maybe the biggest hero and the biggest villain in all comicdom, there are rules and regulations as to how things must go, rules so ironclad that even Alan Moore can’t magik his way around them.
The law governing the Joker is, obviously, that he’s the clown prince of crime and, as such, must commit his nefarious acts under the guise that they’re a joke. This, as you may expect, has led to umpteen stories where the Joker resides in an abandoned circus (kind of hard to abandon a moving camp, right?) or amusement park, or where he’s trying to put smiles on people’s faces. A lot of these stories are good, a great deal of them classic, but the obvious caveat to all this is that there’s no way in hell any of them are going to actually work. It’s gotten to the point now that when the Joker does something, it’s not so much an exercise in evil as it is an attempt at pushing Batman’s buttons.
The Killing Joke, however, is one of those stories where the Joker’s threat at first seems absolutely, horrifically real. Few things in comicdom last, but the ramifications of the Joker’s shooting Barbara Gordon have been felt for over 20 years, and it isn’t until DC’s upcoming line-wide relaunch of its universe that Barbara will reprise her role as Batgirl.
If you’re willing to look past the Joker’s ridiculous-even-by-his-standards vacation get-up, the above three panels are as effective and chilling as mainstream superhero storytelling gets. The entire page, where Barbara is shot and lies bleeding at her father’s feet, has had some unfortunate repercussions–it seems like the easiest way to garner shock/outrage for a major event these days is to slaughter a formerly fun-loving female sidekick–and, worse, is quickly discarded in favor of the book’s main act of violence: the bondage and torture of Jim Gordon.
I think this is where Alan Moore’s charge that The Killing Joke was “devoid of any real human importance” comes in, as the book fails to follow up on Barbara so Batman can go off and chase the Joker down, rescuing his friend Jim from the horrors doled out by the Joker and his troupe of circus freaks, including the Road Warrior looking midgets putting the strap to Jim in the panels above. Once Jim has his bearings about him, he finds that he’s in the Joker’s personal amusement park, where he is strapped into a car on the Tunnel of Love and is made to watch as the Joker gloats about his accomplishment and the certainty that all this will surely be too much for poor ‘ol Jim, who’ll have to make do with going mad.
And there’s the matter of the Joker showing Jim the pictures of Barbara, now naked and put into various poses for the explicit purpose of further torturing our erstwhile chief of police. It seems to me that, stripped of the carnival, the act of showing a father pictures of his daughter, blood-spattered and naked, would be enough to send a guy over the edge. It’s a lot like the “Singing in the Rain” scene from A Clockwork Orange–seeing something like that would scar a person, and it doesn’t take much to trigger an emotional response to a scarring event.
The problem, of course, is that subtlety isn’t the Joker’s style, hence the Willy Wonka ride and the intense lecture. The point of this ruse, it seems, is to prove that random circumstance can turn anybody mad, even a gentleman as upstanding as Jim Gordon. To prove his point about random circumstance, the Joker shoots the daughter of somebody he has an established adversarial relationship with, takes him to an amusement park that he’s had renovated so the rides have the potential to kill/traumatize, and forces him to ride a roller coaster rigged with video screens showing arranged photos of his intended victim’s now-paralyzed daughter. He’s also apparently paid a fortune to hire a troupe of circus freaks to drag Jim around and laugh at him while he cowers in a cage. Unlike the event that turned the Joker into a raving lunatic, there’s absolutely nothing random about it, and Jim looks to have recovered in fairly short order.
Naturally, the Joker gets his ass handed to him before Batman gives him a severe talking-to, leading him right back to the asylum where he started. It’s not that the story changes nothing about Batman, Jim Gordon or the Joker that bugs me, or even that nobody thought to figure out what happened to Batgirl until later. It’s the acknowledgement that Batman and Joker are in complete lockstep that deadens any impact The Killing Joke would have had. Sure, Batman seems to know that one day he and the Joker will kill each other, but up until then the Joker will continue springing ridiculous traps on Batman in an attempt to unseat him from his moral pedestal, and no matter how great, devious or vile that plan is, it will fail and he’ll end up back in Arkham. But it isn’t even the Joker’s inability to win that makes this particular plot stupid–it’s his inability to lose properly. That is, of course, unless the Joker just wanted Batman to laugh at one of his jokes while a personal friend lay crippled across town. In that case, mission accomplished.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.