The Killing Joke

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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"All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once. Am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed."

Back in the day, Alan Moore actually wrote for mainstream superhero comics -- and not just for Swamp Thing. He wrote Superman and Batman stories, too...stories such as this one.

The Killing Joke, first published in March 1988 and drawn by Brian Bolland, tells one possible version of the story of how The Joker became The Joker, while simultaneously telling how he paralyzed Barbara "Batgirl" Gordon.

What follows is a particularly effective Motive Rant from The Joker about how pointless the world is, an admission of Joker's inability to figure out why he is the way he is, and a legitimately funny joke.

The Killing Joke is widely considered by critics and fans to be one of the best Batman stories ever written; it heavily influenced both of Tim Burton's Batman movies and Heath Ledger's take on The Joker in The Dark Knight. It was also heavily referenced in two consecutive Season One episodes of Batman the Brave And The Bold, which introduced The Joker in the series. John Ostrander and Kim Yale transformed Barbara Gordon into Oracle after the events of this story crippled her.

This comic is not to be confused with the proto-industrial rock group Killing Joke (although the title could be a Shout-Out).

Tropes used in The Killing Joke include:
  • Actually Pretty Funny: The Joker's joke, which is an analogy of how hopeless it is for one insane man to try and save another insane man. It's so sadly relevant, Batman can't help but join the Monster Clown in bitter laughter.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Gordon is saved and the Joker is carted away, but Barbara is paralyzed (and will remain so for several years). Alan Moore intended this story to be a non-canon one shot, but it proved so popular, it was incorporated into the mainstream continuity -- along with all the trauma and heartache that went with it.
  • Black Comedy: The Joker describing Barbara after he just shot her in the back and sent her flying onto a glass coffee table.

She thinks she's a coffee table edition... Mind you, I can't say much for the volume's condition. I mean, there's a hole in the jacket and the spine appears to be damaged.

  • Book Ends:
    • The story starts and ends in the rain.
    • Batman's monologue.
    • The first words are "There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum", the beginning of the joke which Joker tells at the end.
  • Circus of Fear: The Joker's carnival.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture
  • Collective Identity: In the (maybe-)flashbacks, the villain Red Hood is actually a mask which members of a robbery gang take turns wearing to confuse the police.
  • Creator Backlash: Not so much of a "backlash", but Alan Moore personally doesn't think it's as great as most people say it is.
  • Deus Angst Machina: "All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy."
  • Disposable Woman:
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Alan Moore insists Joker didn't rape Barbara, though it certainly looks possible on a casual reading. Moore did suggest, in one interview, that it's possible to read Joker having three circus midgets strip Commissioner Gordon as implying his rape.
  • Driven to Madness: The Joker tries to do this to Commissioner Gordon, but he fails.
  • Elseworlds: A number of fans believe Moore originally intended for the story to be a one-shot non-canon story and Executive Meddling integrated it into The DCU; it certainly would explain why Batman has a picture of Pre-Crisis Bat-Girl and Batwoman on his desk. Word of God says The Killing Joke was always intended to be in continuity, however.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Most accredit this story as the one that establishes Joker's murderous modern-day characterization.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: "God, you make me want to puke."
    • "Why aren't you laughing?"
  • "Everybody Laughs" Ending: A much darker use of this trope than usual.
  • Eye Scream: The twentieth anniversary recoloring makes Joker's eyes bleed when he comes up from the chemicals.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • During Commissioner Gordon's Willy Wonka-ish roller coaster ride, a collection of photographs are projected displaying Barbara after being shot. Among other things, the photographs show Barbara's fully exposed breasts with little censorship, in a manner not usually seen outside of a Vertigo comic.[1] As interesting as this would normally be, the fact Babs is covered in blood and in obvious agony tends to belay any sexual connotation.
    • When being dragged before Joker after regaining conciousness, a full frontal of Gordon is given. While he's mostly obscured by shadow, it appears that the artist left in a bit of detail.
  • Freak-Out: Despite going through one, Gordon manages to avoid going crazy.
  • Freudian Excuse: Maybe.
    • Subverted. After telling Joker about his failure to break Gordon -- and mindful of his own "bad day" -- Batman asks Joker to consider if he was wrong: "Maybe ordinary people don't always crack. Maybe there isn't any need to crawl under a rock with all the other slimy things when trouble hits... maybe it was just you all the time."
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Joker was (at least in this story) a failed stand-up comedian who wanted to make a little money to support his family. Now he's Batman's greatest foe.
  • Go-Karting with Bowser: At the very end, between Batman and Joker.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Joker does this after "one bad day" (to be fair, it was a really bad day). He also tries to bring this about in Commissioner Gordon, who resists Joker's torturous plans out of sheer willpower.
  • Hall of Mirrors: The final showdown between Batman and Joker takes place in one.
  • Hawaiian-Shirted Tourist: Joker dons this outfit for maybe a page and a half when he shoots Barbara Gordon -- but it's remembered to the point where it's one of his alternate costumes in Lego Batman.
  • Heroic Resolve: This is what enables Gordon to resist going mad.
  • Humanity Is Insane:

The Joker: Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this... any other response would be crazy!

  • Last Second Chance: Batman offers Joker a sincere chance at redemption at the end.
  • Laughing Mad: Joker, anyone? Heck, look at the trope picture.
  • Match Cut: This is Moore's specialty. It's incredibly effective at tying the flashbacks into the current events to create a united narrative.
  • Mind Rape: This is what the Joker does to try and drive Gordon insane.
  • Motive Rant: Joker's explanation of why he's torturing Gordon is one of these.
  • Monster Clown: Guess.
  • Multiple Choice Past: Joker is the Trope Namer, and it comes from this comic.
    • Later comics had The Riddler pop up as a possible witness to the "bad day" which birthed The Joker -- only to tell a different version of the story (one which isn't considered canon, too).
  • Nameless Narrative: Neither Batman or Joker are referred to by those names throughout the story (save for Batman looking up Joker's info in a computer). In newspaper headlines, it's "Disfigured Homicidal Maniac" and "Bat-garbed Vigilante"/"Crimefighter".
    • The French translation, Rire et mourir -- "Laughing and dying", "To laugh and to die", or "To laugh and die" -- botches this trope in the first scene when Batman, having discovered an impostor in Joker's cell, shouts "Vous n'êtes pas le Joker! (You're not the Joker!)".
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Joker qualifies here.
  • Nothing Up My Sleeve: Joker lied -- there's a knife.
  • Not So Different: As seen in the page quote, Joker accuses Batman of being equally as insane as he is -- even if Batman won't admit it.
  • Not So Stoic: Batman laughs at Joker's joke at the end.
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: Batman gives one to The Joker in response to his "one bad day" monologue.

I spoke to Commissioner Gordon before I came in here. He's fine. Despite all your sick, vicious little games, he's as sane as he ever was! So maybe ordinary people don't always crack. Maybe there isn't any need to crawl under a rock with all the other slimey things when trouble hits. Maybe it was just you, all the time!

  • Prequel: An issue of the team-up series The Brave and the Bold (#33 of the 2007 relaunched series) featured a team-up between Zatanna, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl, as Zatanna apparently decided to go clubbing with the others after a vivid dream. Zatanna and Diana repeatedly reiterate the need for Barbara to enjoy the night and not to spend all her time preoccupied with crime-fighting, particularly making a point of having her dance. The story is touching and beautiful and funny (including what appears to be a karaoke rendition of Beyoncé's Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)) -- until the night ends and Diana asks if Barbara has ever heard of oracles. Zatanna's dream was a prophecy; she knew Barbara would be paralyzed, and since she could not change the future, she decided to give Barbara one final night of normalcy before her life was irrevocably changed. The final pages of the issue feature a re-creation of the pages from The Killing Joke where Barbara was shot (including the conversation she was having with Commissioner Gordon at the time) and end with The Joker shooting Barbara as she opens the door.
  • Redemption Rejection: The Joker has enough humanity left to be sad about what he's become, but he bitterly admits he can never be a good person again, no matter how much he actually wants to be one deep inside.

"No. I'm sorry but...No. It's too late for that. Far too late."

  • Rule of Symbolism: Joker's final joke is an obvious parallel between himself and Batman -- it's a tale of a man who's insane but functional (Batman) and a man who's completely off the deep end (Joker).
  • Sad Clown: The finale displays this when both Joker and Batman hysterically laugh at the cruelty of their lives, which drives in how deeply both these men have been hurt. Joker must substitute laughter for tears, or the ponderous weight of his sadness would crush what little will to live he has left.
  • Sanity Slippage
  • Shut UP, Hannibal: Once again, Batman delivers one to the Joker (a running theme between these two).

Joker: It's all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for... it's all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can't you see the funny side? Why aren't you laughing?
Batman: Because I've heard it before... and it wasn't funny the first time.

  • Single-Issue Psychology: This is subverted -- and since this is a Batman story, the subversion is rather shocking.
  • Slasher Smile: This one's mandatory; it's The Joker we're talking about here.
  • Stuffed in The Fridge: Babs gets this treatment in Killing Joke, but her ultimate fate subverts this trope. John Ostrander and his wife Kim Yale, horrified at her treatment and determined to fix it, had Babs take a level in Badass in order to become the uberimportant cyber superhero known as Oracle.
    • To his credit, Moore felt bad about what he did to Babs and wanted to restore her ability to walk in order to make her Batwoman -- but since she'd already become Oracle by the time he suggested the idea, it was scrapped. Babs would later return to the role of Batgirl when DC rebooted its entire line with "The New 52".
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Gordon tells Batman to bring the Joker in alive to "show him that our way works."
  • Trauma Conga Line: This is what Joker might have went through during his "one bad day." He throws away a stable career working at a chemical factory to pursue his dream of becoming a comedian, but fails miserably at it. After falling into serious financial trouble, he agrees to lead a couple of mafia thugs through the factory in order to provide for his wife and unborn child. On the day when he's supposed to do the job, his wife dies in an accident, rendering the job meaningless. The thugs fake sympathy for him, but force him to go through with the job -- and tell him to use the money for a funeral for his family. He leads the thugs through the chemical plant, but they're soon spotted by security and shot to death. Batman shows up, believing the man who would be Joker to be Red Hood (since he's wearing the Red Hood costume). He proceeds to jump into the polluted water and swims to safety, then realizes that his skin is burning. When he takes off the hood, the first thing he sees is his reflection in a puddle: green hair, pale skin, yellow teeth, and bloodshot eyes. At this point, he just starts laughing.
  • Unreliable Narrator: This trope goes hand-in-hand with Multiple Choice Past and is also one possible explanation for what actually happens at the end. This is The Joker we're talking about, after all.
    • Batman's outfit, as detailed during the flashback, is considerably more demonic-looking than any previous rendition (and certainly don't match the "normal" outfit Batman wears in Present Day) -- which means the flashbacks are clearly told from Joker's POV.
      • The demonic costume is closer to his original costume, however, which could make this a Continuity Nod.
  • Updated Rerelease: The 2008 twentieth-anniversary edition was completely recolored: new details such as the Joker's eyes bleeding were added, the flashbacks were made Deliberately Monochrome, and the yellow oval around the Batman insignia was removed (bringing the costume into line with The Dark Knight Saga, which was heavily influenced by The Killing Joke).
  • The Villain Must Be Punished: The Joker invests a lot of time in tormenting Commissioner Gordon, intending to break him and prove that "one bad day" would drive anyone crazy just as it did him. Batman saves him, after which Gordon insists that Batman go after Joker and bring him in without stooping to the Clown's level.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Killing Joke features a clever little inversion: the breakdown itself is how Joker became the villain.
    • The end of the comic arguably counts: when Joker learns his attempt to break Gordon failed, he seriously considers Batman's offer of a possible redemption before declining. The Joker actually becomes sane for a few brief moments.
  1. If you don't see it, look behind Joker's speech bubble in the middle panel. It was hidden well.