Friday, November 9, 2012

That Joke's Not Too Funny

I'm a Marvel fanboy and have never cared much for the DC universe. Batman is my favorite hero from DC, though, especially considering The Dark Knight trilogy. The Killing Joke, however, did not live up to the stellar reviews and blurbs on the cover. It wasn't the worst read ever, but it felt generic, uneventful, and lackluster. I felt nothing while I read it, which is a bummer when I was expecting great things. The book does present some interesting ideas, though, and when being analyzed from the Joker's perspective, not Batman's, there are some fascinating issues to ponder.

This really was the Joker's tale, and one of the lines that stuck out to me was when the Joker tells Batman that he's not exactly sure what happened to make him lose touch with reality, that he remembers his story in different ways at different times. Admitting this nullifies the whole history readers are presented. Readers assume those scenes--the comedian looking for a job, the comedian working on a crime, the comedian's wife dying, the comedian falling into chemicals and becoming the Joker--are accurate. They make sense; the comedian's wife dies is a joke of an accident, which sets him off in the wrong direction, but being doused with the chemicals pushes him over the edge. However, since the Joker says he remembers his issues in different ways, readers can assume what they just read was a lie, too. Maybe it holds some truth, though. The point is, readers can understand that something tragic, yet absurd, happened to the Joker.

The goal of the Joker in this comic was to prove anyone can be driven insane. Although I think he's correct, one day isn't long enough. This reminded me of Stephen King's Pet Sematary, in which the wife of the protagonist fears and hates her sister who died when she was a child. The protagonist mentions that the sister was sick and in a lot of pain, so she was probably insane by the time of her death. And wouldn't being in pain for months on end, while a person watches his family slowly come to despise him, be enough to drive anyone insane? I think so. I think the Joker was right; it just takes longer than a day and more than a modified tunnel of love to do the trick.

And I can't leave off the finale: the joke. The Joker's last words tell the story of the patients who escape an asylum. While on the roof, one jumps to the next building, but the other is too nervous. Apparently planks connect the buildings, but the scared patient won't cross, claiming he's not crazy--he knows the other patient will turn his light off and leave him to die when he makes it halfway across. This is really a retelling of the tale of the frog and scorpion, in which the scorpion stings the frog while crossing a river, killing them both, because it's in his nature. The point is that if the Batman and the Joker tried to work together, it's in their natures to turn on each other. They're both pretty crazy--one just fights for good and the other for evil--but it's their nature to battle. They're not so crazy as to neglect their true natures. The premise is interesting and the joke works, but I couldn't help but feel it wasn't tied into the story enough. I was left struggling to apply meaning to it. Of course, I just analyzed it, so I must have found meaning in it, but I have to wonder if I forcibly applied that meaning or if the meaning was there to be found. I'm not sure.

Between not being a fan of DC superheroes and wishing there was a little more emotional impact and meaning filling the story, I didn't fall in love with The Killing Joke. I appreciated it, though, and admire the complex dynamics between the Batman and the Joker. I'd even recommend this book to fans of Batman, but I was left wanting a little more from it.


  1. " what happened to make him lose touch with reality, that he remembers his story in different ways at different times." That's very much like the Joker in Dark Knight. Different stories about how he got those scars. That's what makes him a great villain for me. He's just crazy enough that I wonder if even he can remember the truth. But just sane enough to terrify others.

  2. Two great points here. You've brought up the fact that the Joker is unreliable in the telling of his background and that it nullifies the whole thing. Great observation there. While it may have been a gimmick so that other backstories could remain true, it does add a sense of doubt to the tale. The other point I liked, was the joke you broke down. I didn't think of it that way, and I love your insight on it. Great work!

  3. I loved the Joker's admission that his memories of his past changed—combined with his admission that he *liked* it that way. It's the same push-pull between sane and insane that we've seen in some of the best psychos we covered this term, notably John Doe. I can easily hear the Joker saying Doe's line, "It's more comfortable for you to label me as insane." It is easier to believe in insanity than true evil.