March 10th, 2011
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.
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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
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]