The Joker has been one of the most iconic comic book villains since his inception. His random acts of chaos have caused more harm to the citizens of Gotham City and more frustration to Batman than nearly any other character. However, is one’s evil measured by the depravity of their acts, by the motivation behind them, or something else entirely? Can a person even be evil, or is it only their acts that can be judged? Allan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” leads readers to ponder these questions through the Joker’s rhetoric. The Joker emphatically proclaims that the only difference between him and anyone else is “one bad day.” He’s saying that the right combination of unfortunate circumstances can lead anyone to “losing it” and becoming a murderous psychopath like the Joker. He also wants to prove that he and Batman have far more in common than Bruce would be willing to admit.
Moore gives us a tragic tale of the Joker’s previous life in which he lost everything he loved. He loses his pregnant wife and is forced to go through with a criminal act that he only agreed to commit because he believed it would help feed his family. Even though his motivation is gone, his new motivation is that he will be killed if he doesn’t follow through. To top things off, he is knocked into a vat of chemicals by his soon to be archnemesis, Batman, which ultimately transforms him into the Joker, inside and out. I could not help but feel sorry for the maniac and empathize with him. We all think that we would handle this situation differently, but very few of us are ever tested to this extreme to find out. Moore makes it even more enigmatic by having the Joker claim he’s not even sure if this is his true origin story.
More does a fantastic job of forcing the reader to think deeply about these characters. Once you’ve read this story, it will change the lens through which you see Batman and Joker’s relationship in any subsequent story, even if they are totally unrelated. As we read “The Killing Joke” we want the answers so badly. We feel the torment both of these behemoths are riddled with.
Just as we cannot decide whether the Joker is a pure evil monster that needs to be put down, or just a terribly ill individual created by society, or somehow both, Batman has the same internal struggle. He goes back and forth between considering the inevitability of one of them killing the other and his empathetic desire to help a sick man whom society has failed. Their relationship is one of terrible abuse, yet you can’t help but see there is love there, as twisted, and crazy as it may be.
Even with all of the gore and cruelty inflicted by the Joker on Commissioner Gordon, Barbara, and many others, we are still left questioning how to “fix it”. Is the Joker truly an agent of chaos or just a victim of society’s cruelty and neglect, especially to the mentally ill? Can someone like the Joker ever be redeemed? It’s difficult to picture, but so was the idea of Apocalypse being redeemable prior to HOX/POX and X of Swords. Granted, that is Marvel, an entirely different comic universe, but those writers regardless of their comic domain, all live and get their inspirations from the same world as we (the readers) do. Society sees its own reflection through its art.