I rarely read comics, let alone Batman comics, but Batman: the Killing Joke (BTKJ) is one of the rare exceptions, as well as Watchmen and V for Vendetta comics. Should you ask why this one is special, I would prompt you to notice that the writer of this one-shot Batman comics is Alan Moore, who is also the writer of Watchmen and V for Vendetta. Should you don’t know Alan Moore, Watchmen, or V for Vendetta, I would say that this short story provides the clearest and deepest description for the motivation and the mentality of the famous Batman villain, Joker, and that in this book Batman is revealed to share much similarities with Joker. The movie, the Dark Knight (TDK), featured a Joker which has been highly influenced by the one in the Killing Joke.
Among all the villains, obviously Joker possessed a demonic charm which other villains lack. He is not some random lunatic whose madness is just induced by accidents or the result of an evil plan. Instead, his madness is existential. The justification he gives for his crime cannot be ignored and is highly related to the things that drive him mad. His frightening vision of the world is so unbearable that not much sane people can live a normal live while being aware of it.
Batman is also a very dark hero. Who the hell will dress up like a bat flying in the dark… Considering the way Batman goes out from the dark and attacks people, he is deliberately inflicting both pain and fear on his enemies, i.e. he is explicitly exploiting the fear of others. Bruce Wayne feared bats, and it is tempting to think that he discovered the power of fear from its childhood trauma.
The story of Joker’s going mad has several versions, but they should share the same nature. In TDK, there is no much hints about Joker’s becoming mad except some very vague sentences (How do I got this scars?), but Killing Joker offers a much more elaborate story. Before going mad, Joker was a lab assistant in a chemical plant, but later he thought he had talents in telling jokes and he quit the previous job and decided to be a stand-up comedian. His new career turned out to be a disaster and made his and his wife’s life very difficult. Under tremendous economic pressures, Joker reluctantly agreed to act as an accomplice for two other people who planned to steal from the chemical plant where Joker worked before. Just before the real action, while Joker was not at home, his wife accidentally got a electric shot and died. Sad as he was, he still had to participate in the action. The plan went wrong and Joker fell into a chemical pool, leading to his insanity. The genuineness of the story is surely in doubt, and in fact Joker himself admitted that sometimes he remembered one way sometimes the other. Anyway, all the points are there in that story. As Joker put it, “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy”. Joker’s wife’s tragic and arbitrary death, along with the depression inflicted by his unsuccessful career, was so unbearable to Joker then that he couldn’t live with it anymore. He went mad. He is one victim of contingency.
It might be helpful to elaborate on madness in the existential sense. Some experiences are so traumatic that the integrity of the self is in threat. When the self fails to incorporate the experiences in ordinary way, it undergoes dramatic changes at the cost of losing some grips on the reality. In Joker’s case, he cannot recall the genuine memory of the time before he went mad. This is madness.
Bruce Wayne is also a victim of contingency, or “one bad day”. His parents died of robbery and the subsequent murder. The worst part is, had Bruce not demanding early exit, his parents would have been saved. This demonstrates Joker’s point, “life is random injustice”. Suffering without meaning. How can people live with such a vision!
Both Joker and Batman, after experiencing their horrible bad days, became obsessed with their sufferings. Normal lives are impossible for them. They are searching for meanings of their sufferings. Both of them have a point to prove, though the the points are quite different. In some sense, a meaning is a perspective on an event. Batman sees the injustice he suffered from as a preventable incident, so he fights against every villain to prove his point. In contrast, Joker sees his going mad an inevitable consequence when facing with the reality, so he is always busy setting up a drama in which people will go mad under some extreme circumstances. In BTKJ, he shot and tortured Barbara (commissioner Gordon’s daughter), and later put the naked Gordon in a cage in order to drive him mad. In TDK, Joker successfully drove Dent mad but failed to have the people on the two boats blowing up each other. By the way, in light of the BKJ, the point of the two ships set-up is to drive the survivors mad as much as to horrify the public.
One last question is why Joker, as well as Batman, is so obsessed in proving a point? Especially, in the two ship set-up, why didn’t Joker play some tricks on the bombs or the ships so that one of the two ships will blow up whatever the passengers do? In that way Joker could have inflicted maximum horror on the public. It seems that Joker also wanted to prove it for himself. Logically, to prove his point Joker needs to driving everyone in the world to madness, but in real life we just see that many people are so convinced of the inevitability of their personal experiences that they don’t bother discussing them with other people. Why is Joker so apparently unconfident about his point so as to go a great length to put so much people to madness? If all other people who go through the suffering of Joker all go mad, then it is fine. However, if some of them survive, then it is possible that Joker’s going mad is not so inevitable as he claimed and that to some degree he chose to go mad. Now we touch the thing people are afraid of: our own freedom. When we choose we are aware of that there is an alternative and hence the transcendental values of our situation which many of us are accustomed to depreciate. In other words, the feeling that our situation has a solid meaning will be gone if we realize that we can choose and hence assign subjective meaning to our situation at the cost of the transcendental one. Joker is surely afraid of that his madness is chosen by him and that his meaning of suffering will flee from him. This is Joker’s deepest fear. The thing that is more unbearable than one’s suffering is the awareness that his suffering is meaningless.