Moore and Bolland, Miller and Varley, Morrison and well… a lot of different people. Three creative teams. Three definitive takes on the Joker.

Part 2 here

Prior to The Killing Joke’s publication the Joker was ahistorical except in a strict continuity sense. Post TKJ the character had if not a definite origin, the possibility of one. A less thoughtful writer might have failed to understand the importance of keeping history at one remove from the Joker, and a less skilful one might well have struggled to introduce its shadow into the Joker’s world without anchoring the character to specifics, but it’s with his usual elegance that Moore manages to maintain some distance between the origin and its subject.

But while Moore’s Joker explicitly rejects a straightforward origin story, he also suggests that past events and the memories associated with them made him what he is. It’s the fear of “somewhere dark and cold filled with the damp, ambiguous shapes of things you’d hoped were forgotten” that has driven him to seek refuge in insanity, and Moore binds the Joker to a flashback narrative that looks suspiciously like the sort of thing that could have caused such a break. The point being that whether or not the story of the tragic comedian is the truth doesn’t matter, something of its logical form is. Moore makes it clear that there is terrible pain at the heart of the Joker, equivalent to losing your wife and unborn child and being hideously scarred; or watching your gutshot daughter twitch abject, helpless and dying, with you powerless to do anything but watch for hours on end; or indeed seeing your parents gunned down in front of you.

ghost-train

It’s the humanising force of this tragic component that Moore and Bolland put to work in an effort to reinvigorate the Joker. The flashbacks, with their impressionistic edge, reveal not simply possible facts but a meaningful and cogent emotional landscape. In conjunction with the character’s actions and dialogue they describe a Joker motivated by a desire not simply to cause destruction and misery but to demonstrate something to the world and presumably *himself*. This Joker isn’t simply monstrous, or Batman’s arch enemy, or a crazy guy, but a genuine character with an inner life.

behind-the-eyes

The comic fits a great deal of straightforward if well crafted plot into its slight, 46 page frame, but the focus remains resolutely on its protagonist. In that way TKJ is an intimate portrait: it asks who the Joker is, what he wants, why he is the way that he is, it explore his relationships with Batman and Jim Gordon. In some sense it recreated one of the comic book world’s most memorable villains from scratch, no wonder the readership were stunned back in the late 80s. But Moore went even further, his Joker isn’t merely given an inner life, motivations, and something approaching a past, he’s allowed to articulate his feelings and thoughts in those small ways normally reserved for characters who beg our sympathy. This Joker is capable of complex emotional responses: he laughs at the absurdity of his relationship with Batman, and that laughter quickly turns to – yes – tears (in the rain). Before TKJ almost any kind of emotion would have sat uneasily with the Joker by the end of it the character is capable of being seen to move through emotional states as he considers Batman’s redemptive offer, an offer which would have made no sense prior to Moore’s gift of interiority.

But a more human Joker is of course both a virtue and a problem for TKJ. While I agree with Moore that his slight story doesn’t justify its nastier components, I don’t feel that the characters can’t sustain the kind of heavy psychological baggage and themes that his younger self lavished upon them, mainly because I don’t think sustainability is the issue. My objections with TKJ start with the clichéd tears of a clown, behind this smile there’s tears concept and from there run headlong the plausability of Moore’s efforts to psychologize the Joker, a real problem when you consider how much of the plot is predicated on that aspect of the book.

To begin with people don’t just have one bad day and go mad. Madness isn’t like that. Madness, and I speak as someone who has some first and second-hand experience with it, is slow and steady and extremely unglamorous. Moore’s Joker’s (and I’m specifically targeting Moore here, for reasons which shall become apparent a bit further below) insanity doesn’t look remotely like any I’ve encountered, or I suspect any that actually exists, instead it resembles sensationalistic conceptions popularised by grand guignol theatre (to which TKJ would appear to these ignorant eyes to be very indebted), freak shows, and, yes – shock horror – Batman comics, in case for some bizarre reason you hadn’t already struck upon the clearly intended parallel between the Joker’s bad day and Bruce’s Wayne’s.

In Moore’s efforts to paint the Joker’s impressionistic world as overwrought with feeling and sensation, there’s a persistent push towards othering the unusual, the strange or the socially problematic. We are actively encouraged to view obesity (the fat lady), and disability (the midgets) as alien and disturbing, yet at the same time asked to understand the Joker in psychological terms. Moore wants us to go with unexamined revulsion in the first instance, but somehow elicit something approaching our sympathies in the second. Of course the fat lady and co double as outward representations of the Joker’s inner sickness, and that sickness is necessarily unpleasant, but there’s still an awkward tension between the embodied reality of these bit part players, and what’s expected of us as readers if we’re to buy into Moore psychological thrust.

Perhaps worse for fans of the genre, by trying to give the Joker humanity, even if it’s of the theatrical mad man variety, the comic brushes close to bathos. There’s a sense in which having a painful inner life robs the character of power, reducing him to mere tragic baddie status rather than unencumbered madness and evil. I don’t deny that there’s a compelling quality to a character too scared and broken to come back from the brink, which is the understanding that Moore leaves us with, but its hard to argue that something hasn’t been lost when a chap like the Joker becomes quite so knowable, which brings me to a deeper question: is it even possible to know this guy?

joker-fizzing-eyes

Amypoodle doesn’t think so.

“I never felt entirely satisfied by the explanation commonly trotted out for the Joker’s origin, that upon glimpsing the clown leering up at him out of the chemical goo his psyche somehow imploded, transforming him into the super-psychotic we know today. It just didn’t ring true, even if you did add all that Alan Moore stuff about dead babies and living in a rundown tenement…

…the only element of the Joker’s origin story we can *rely* on is the image of him staring down into the whateveritismysteryliquid, but, like with a David Lynch film, this imagery doesn’t have to be taken literally, it could be viewed as a profound, soul shattering encounter with the psyche…”

Excuse me while I get my Mindless on. Sean Collins avert your gaze.

Amy’s reading takes in accusations of implausible psychology, but it doesn’t stop there. It relies on the intuition that the scene below is the true original moment, that it stands alone, complete in itself. This is largely explained by its existence prior to TKJ – having first made an appearance waaaaaaay back in Detective Comics 168 it was pretty much all we knew of the Joker’s origin for 37 years and had consequently seared itself onto the consciousness of every bat-geek. But as I’ve noted TKJ goes further, while it insists upon terrible tragedy in the Joker’s past, it judges the details to be unreliable; the only elements that remains consistent are the flight from Batman, the accident and the encounter with its results. By duplicating the 1951 scene and, thanks to Bolland and Moore’s skill, adding to it’s aesthetic richness the text can’t help but privilege it above everything else in the book. If one thing is lasting and true, TKJ seems to be saying, it’s this.

joker-madness

I’ve mentioned my dissatisfaction with the explanatory power of Moore’s bad day, but my complaint runs deeper than a gut feeling that its psychological dimension owes more to fantasy than fact. It has to do with the strength of the art on this page. I think it’s fair to say that for most readers the Joker reaches his iconic apotheosis under Bolland’s brush. It’s *The* Joker there on the page, in as much as it ever has been, in all his mythic glory, and it’s hard to a imagine a psychological story that could possibly account for that hideous grin and those lightning eyes.

There’s also the sense that this moment is an example of monstrous transformation in the vein of Jekyll and Hyde, the Wolfman, or the Hulk. Physical pain and emotional distress, hands clasped over the face, the shocking moment of revelation are features common to scenes where the human is replaced by the inhuman: a change that transcends psychological description, so powerful that it contorts mind and flesh into something new and terrible.

In my view the inadequacy of one bad day is right there in the imagery Moore and Bolland use to hammer home their vision. It’s for that reason that I’m less than keen on much of the retouched colouring. Washed out flashbacks make a boring sort of sense, and I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that Bolland occasionally puts the updated colour scheme to good use, but the high contrast colours of the late 80s bring a weird atmosphere to these panels that hackneyed contemporary tricks like adding colour elements to black and white can’t touch.

magic-mirror-3

The sickly psychedelia of the image above is completely abandoned by Bolland in the deluxe edition of TKJ, replaced by a dull determination to clearly delineate flashback from present day. In the process we lose part of the strange magic of Poodle’s “whateveritismysteryliquid” to straightforward black and white. From my point of view especially unfortunate when you consider how those chemicals could be read as as standing in for Jekyll’s potion, Banner’s gamma radiation, etc… a magic catalyst of irrevocable change. A fanciful but not entirely absurd reading, after all Moore intended liquid to haunt the book; the past is wet, wet, wet, all rain and pools and chemicals fluids; the present starts with raindrops and ripples across a puddle, builds to a soaking climax, and ends as it began. This constant reminder and elevation of the process that birthed the Joker, his Weird baptism, can’t help but lend these liquid elements a quasi-supernatural feel, especially when rendered in a garish 80s pallette. By binding memory and fantasy with reality, by smothering the book with the Joker’s teary tragedy*, they inject a subtle sense of fate into the comic, and suggest a Joker who isn’t merely the product of a psychological mechanism but rather an inevitability. A view of the world echoed in Batman’s concerns about their final fatal confrontation, inarguably, at least in TKJ’s terms, brought one step closer by the book’s bleak conclusion.

*The two instances where Moore sets up ambiguity between tears and rain could also be seen as conflating the Joker’s sadness with all that moisture. Bit of the old pathetic fallacy at work. It’s worth noting that no-one else’s tears, and there’s quite a few of them, are treated in this way.

These arguments imply a disjunct between Moore’s intention – to sell us on the idea that psychology underpins the Joker – and some key representational aspects of the book. Moore wanted to have his cake and eat it. He wanted to write a human story about an inhuman character but in order to do so he had to create a bridge between the man the Joker was and what he becomes. The deep problem for Moore is that it’s hard to see what *could* adequately explain the character, let alone Bolland’s iconic demonic vision. If Moore had been working with a creator more given to naturalism, or indeed had been inclined to write a comic of a more naturalistic bent rather than one shot through with an impressionistic, fantastical sensibility, then perhaps the psychological explanation would have more weight, although its hard to see how the best aspects of the Joker could survive a more grounded character study.

tears-in-rain

None of this is to say that I dislike TKJ, just that I consider it to be slightly confused in what it’s trying to do. Even if you discount my more subjective readings, TKJ is self evidently tragic and tragedy is usually bigger than psychology. Tragedy, certainly as TKJ appears to define it, includes factors beyond the protagonist’s control. We are never given the slightest reason to believe that the comedian, who is after all barely an agent, could have averted his fate. It’s always there waiting for him as in the image above (note the crooked smile and rain echoing the chemical and tears that will later drench him). Neither are we given the impression that the Joker could have done anything other than reject Batman’s offer, not with all that lashing rain insisting that the tragic process that birthed him is perpetually ongoing and irreversible. In this more generous analysis it’s not that the psychological underpinnings Moore wants us to buy into are unfit for purpose, just that the text can’t help framing the deeper reality as grander and that creates a tension that the book struggles with.

And it’s in that struggle that The Killing Joke manages to salvage something. The gap between the power of the character and Moore’s efforts to provide him with an inner life and give an account of his origins might well plague the comic, but it’s also in that gap that the character’s power is most conspicuously evidenced and articulated. If Alan Moore with all his skill can’t connect the Joker with his humanity, if all that plot burns up his glare, if the only thing we know for sure is this

joker-madness

Then isn’t that all we need?

Click here for my thoughts on Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s Joker.

[Addendum: Sean Witzke points out below that the flashback story mirrors Eraserhead. I'm a complete dunce for not picking that up. Thanks, Sean]

29 Responses to “Three fools – Part 1: Moore and Bolland’s Joker”

  1. Shiny Jim Says:

    I really don’t care about how psychologically realistic The Joker’s origin is – “Something bad happened and I learnt the world was not how I thought it was” is pretty much every superhero and supervillian’s origin ever. My issue is that Moore clearly realizes that this a cliche and points this out, but he fails to break down why it’s a cliche or link it to any deeper meaning – as opposed to Morrison.

    I’m curious as to your take on Miller’s – for me, the definitiveness of DKR is exclusive to the first issue, and The Joker is not really a highlight of the rest.

  2. Sean Witzke Says:

    It’s interesting to me that Moore was attempting to create a psychologically sound version of the Joker, he builds it on the iconography (and plot) of Eraserhead. And when he breaks from that story at the same point it unhinges to hit the point where the Joker snaps – I think that the Joker saying that it’s how he remembers it sometimes, that he’s filling in the gaps of his memory with other things – I always felt like the Joker was an unreliable narrator (even though he’s not narrating) because of that.

  3. RetroWarbird Says:

    I’ll get to reading this in a moment … but thanks a bundle for using images from the John Higgins colored version. The recolored new stuff loses a lot. Original intent is cool and all, but Higgins imbued the whole damn thing with psychedelic, chemical haze … and the old printing lent itself to how much grit and dirt were needed as well. It’s like what Hell would look like if you showed up there in the middle of an acid trip. (Not to mention Joker is much more terrifying when the whole thing still feels like it’s happening in a late-Silver Age comic where crippling people, nudity, and murderous stuff is taboo.)

  4. RetroWarbird Says:

    Ah, there it is. You’ve actually addressed that very thought.

    I realize the fellow gets shot through the head in the flashbacks … but to my mind, I always felt like “Pre-Joker” in the flashback could just as easily have been the tall, thin gangster with the mustache, pushing the “Red Hood” gimmick on some poor chemist. Or even the clownish looking man in the restaurant who laughs at the chemist’s frustration after the lunch meeting.

    So spot on regarding the “one bad day” fallacy, though. One bad day didn’t make Batman. It was 11+ years of isolation, loneliness, misery and brooding – starkly contrasted against the innocent, healthy, nurturing days prior. And going from a fearless kid, to one basically living every day in fear … for years … until Bruce’s training got him over it. The only way it makes sense in Joker’s mind is if he spent every day pre-acid an acute coulrophobic. Terrified of clowns. I’ve always speculated that’s why Scarecrow’s fear toxin doesn’t work on Joker (Gimme some of that old-time fear gas!)

    Joker’s dedication to his craft, routine, and impressive range of showman and observational skills peg him as coming from, perhaps, a stage background. The carnivalesque, the macabre … stage magic … Shakespeare references … Pierrot references … comedy routines. He’s an avant-garde performance artist.

    But his mastery of every criminal endeavor seem to indicate more than suddenly “going criminal” out of desperation – they show a real life-long set of trade skills. The two are not mutually exclusive. Con-artistry … has “art” right in the name. Street cons, bluffs and tricks are technically performance art. So is forgery.

  5. Zom Says:

    Personally I don’t think anything (with the possible exception of myth) adequately describes Batman or any other superhero/villain for that matter, especially not psychology. It’s part of what makes them such compelling fantasy figures.

    It’s interesting to me that Moore was attempting to create a psychologically sound version of the Joker, he builds it on the iconography (and plot) of Eraserhead.

    That’s a VERY good point that I’m furious with myself for missing.

    It’s self evident that the Joker is an extremely unreliable narrator, the text even goes so far as to have him tell us that he is (first pic). Not only that but much of the imagery of the ‘flashbacks’ is, as I’ve noted, impressionistic and strange. It’s quite obviously not meant to be how things looked, or indeed how they happened. It’s, in line with Eraserhead, about how they felt.

    Shiny, I think Miller’s take on the Joker was maybe definitive, but more to the point I think it was interesting and muscular, especially in light of what Moore tried to do a few years later.

  6. plok Says:

    The proto-Joker relected in the psychedelic gammaliquid is real interesting, isn’t it? Just look at those letters: that’s a reflection with a point of view, the reflection’s definitely cued-up as being on the surface of the pool. Then the typical post-Watchmen juxtaposition of the dialogue: “quit DAYDREAMING”. Yeah, it’s nothing but fate that makes the Joker, the “one bad day” thing is just a misdirection. It’s that liquid that does it, and the liquid is the only fact — everything else is hallucination, or if it isn’t it still doesn’t matter. I felt really disappointed by TKJ when I read it, as awesomely brought-off as it was, but if this is the picture that really counts it starts to look quite a bit better now, at least to my eyes. That’s the Joker’s Dr. Manhattan moment right there, except very possibly nothing about it is real except the feeling of predestination itself. Deja vu shit and prophetic-dream shit is baked right into modern comics as it’s baked into film…now I’m thinking this was a pretty nifty exploitation of it after all, just because maybe it plain didn’t happen that way.

    And as pointed out above, it won’t really explain how the Joker gets to be the Joker anyway, will it? Not explain it…I mean at least Bruce Wayne went to ninja school and learned how to pick locks, the Joker’s just a “criminal mastermind”…

    Lots to think about here!

  7. Zom Says:

    Plok, you *get* what I’m trying to say!

  8. Illogical Volume Says:

    Beautiful stuff Zom. Sod psychology and sod Joker Academy too, the “whateveritismysteryliquid” is where it’s at.

    I didn’t think of the (obvious now Sean’s mentioned it!) Eraserhead connection either, probably because it’s been a while since I read The Killing Joke. Maybe I should give it a go with this reading mind, see if I can open myself up to the ace chemical process?

  9. RetroWarbird Says:

    Props to a few incarnations of the character, for making the Clown Prince of Crime have started out as just the regular “Prince of Crime” … making the Pre-Joker a Jack, having a go at being an Ace, and getting dealt the wild card.

    At least all the absurdly layered Monarch Playing Card references are a thematic way of exploring the man that doesn’t have to be linked to him in retrospect, having been part of his symbolism since the beginning. The narrative is inherent. You start out at the bottom as just a number in some gang (Suit) and become a Face Card. Then the chemical baptism comes in.

  10. Zom Says:

    Ha. Gotta love that ace chemical process

    I see the whateveritismysteryliquid in the same category as, I dunno, Medusa’s gaze or something…

  11. plok Says:

    Thank goodness, Zom! I couldn’t'a stood the sound of crickets…

    I guess I’m guilty of going overboard on what’s compacted in images a lot of the time, but…that mirror-lettering really gets to me, you know? The usual way of reading something like that is just strict inversion, upside-downness (hey, like playing cards!), but the psychedelic slick reads “film on water” and the mirrored lettering doesn’t make sense as upside-downness, it makes sense as what you see reflected off the surface, from where the proto-Joker is, down to the plane of the liquid, angle-of-incidence back up to where your perspective is. You never do get in to the pool, though at first glance it looks like you do…I mean, not that there’s anything mindblowing about how reflections work that way, we see it every day, it’s the commonest double-vision thing there is…but it’s neat to recognize it in a comic as something that someone took the time to draw in. After all, the letters don’t have to be there, do they?

    More and more, I think Christopher Nolan is a much more skillful reader of comic-book images than he lets on…

  12. Linkarama@Newsarama Says:

    [...] Joker: Check out the first part of a three-part series examining different portrayals of The Joker, beginning with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. It’s a great [...]

  13. RetroWarbird Says:

    Of course, typically, the Joker is the only face card in a deck that doesn’t have an inverse/reflection of itself below its waist.

    But I’m loving that chemical mirror polish concept … because clowns wear makeup, and underneath the carnivalesque, grotesque or macabre mask, they’re secretly humans. Joker’s makeup is bone-deep. You could say his stage makeup has seeped into his genetic makeup.

    Oil slick clown.

  14. Emmet Says:

    Fascinating stuff. I have nothing to add, apart from nice Blade Runner reference!

  15. was Smitty is now J_Smitty_ Says:

    Retro,

    You just made DC VERY happy.

    “So spot on regarding the “one bad day” fallacy, though. One bad day didn’t make Batman. It was 11+ years of isolation, loneliness, misery and brooding – starkly contrasted against the innocent, healthy, nurturing days prior. And going from a fearless kid, to one basically living every day in fear … for years … until Bruce’s training got him over it.”

    So much for needing a Smallville replacement show. There it is. We’ve seen Batman Year One ad infinitum. Let’s see Bruce Wayne – Year One.

    It’s practically too perfect for words. When they want to wrap the show up the last episode is Bruce getting tossed in the prison from the start of Batman Begins.

    A globetrotting, no powers, super-spy type education as he falls in and out of relationships with various characters who are educating him along the Batman Maturity / Life Lesson mission tree.

    Patent Pending, Warbird – just need to get my agent’s percentage.

  16. plok Says:

    “Of course, typically, the Joker is the only face card in a deck that doesn’t have an inverse/reflection of itself below its waist.”

    A-HA!

    I’ll tell you the truth, it makes me think of Amy’s Batman 666, like it’s the secret origin of all that stuff: the moment where Batman stories as we know them, and all their future possibilities, are picked from the pack of all the possible ways Batman stories could’ve gone otherwise.

    Hmm, had something pithy to say on that score, actually, but now can’t quite remember it…

    Oh well!

  17. Anton Says:

    In my fevered mind,since ‘RIP’, the “whateveritismysteryliquid” which creates the Joker has been Morrison’s ‘Magic Mirror’stuff from ‘The Invisibles’. Jack fell into the super-consciousness and re-entered the game as a wild-card.

  18. tam Says:

    couple of things…

    Firstly, in case you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth reading Moore’s script of the it, or at least, the bits that have been published. You can see that here

    http://fourcolorheroes.home.insightbb.com/killingjokescript.html

    Secondly, much as I like the character, as you point out he’s got absolutely bugger all to do with real ‘madness’. It’s maybe worth mentioning that if you want to see mental problems addressed properly in comics, in a sensitive but entertaining manner, you can’t do better than Lisa in Peter Bagge’s Hate…

  19. Linkblogging For 14/03/11 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] Zom has a look at the Joker in The Killing Joke [...]

  20. Zom Says:

    I have read that script, but thanks anyway, Tam. Never read Hate, one of the many gaps in my comic book education

  21. The Great Geek Manual » Geek Media Round-Up: March 17, 2011 Says:

    [...] Mindless Ones vs. The Joker: Check out the first part of a three-part series examining different portrayals of The Joker, beginning with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. It’s a great [...]

  22. Geek Media Round-Up: March 21, 2011 – Grasping for the Wind Says:

    [...] Mindless Ones vs. The Joker: Check out the first part of a three-part series examining different portrayals of The Joker, beginning with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. It’s a great [...]

  23. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Three Fools - Part 2: Miller and Varley’s Joker Says:

    [...] The second of three post’s looking at seminal takes on the Joker. Part 1 here. [...]

  24. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Three fools – Part 1: Moore and Bolland’s Joker - The Winsome Scholar Says:

    [...] Three definitive takes on the Joker.” A little fortuitous given our discussion today. via Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Three fools – Part 1: Moore and Bolland’s Joker. {0} [...]

  25. RetroWarbird Says:

    Anton, perhaps Moore should’ve rephrased Joker’s whole diatribe to Gordon, from “All it takes is one bad day” to the much more accurate “All it takes is one bad trip.”

  26. demoncat Says:

    nice article for i could not sum up better what Alan was trying to do with the joker in the killing joke. since its one of the few stories where some one tries to flesh out and figure what could have caused the joker to be the pycho he is. not to mention the story also proves truely why the joker is truely fictions greatest socio pychopaths epcialy the reason the joker does what he did to Barbera in the story.

  27. Gokitalo Says:

    @Shiny Jim- I think Moore WAS trying to make a larger point about the “one bad day” origin. Bruce Wayne and Joker’s alter ego both transformed after having “one bad day,” but Gordon didn’t. Moore proved that the “bad day” or “learning that the world isn’t what you thought it was” isn’t what defines a hero or villain. It’s how they decide to deal with it.

    And I agree with RetroWarbird, the original coloring just adds so much more to the work. The recolored version’s not bad, but it’s a little more… bland, for lack of a better word.

  28. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Three Fools - Part 3: Morrison’s Joker Says:

    [...] 1 here (The Killing [...]

  29. A. Pennyworth Says:

    Interesting read. Personally I don’t share the dislike towards Moore’s version of the Joker (although dislike might be too strong a word, because I see that you’ve none the less treated TKJ with a lot of respect).

    To me Miller and Morrison’s Jokers, who to me are like pure embodiments of (in Morrison’s case ever shifting) chaos and evil are far less interesting and frightening than the joker who is a man and has the heart to heart with batman.

    I can agree that the interpretation of how madness comes about is a little ham-fisted but to me TKJ is all about that last scene where Batman extends his hand and the joker doesn’t bite it but sadly averts his gaze.

    This human joker has more impact for me than the disembodied avatar.

    Now I’m going to go sink my teeth into your other two write ups!

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