Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Unending Joke - Examining the Over-Extended Significance of a Good Comic Book Story

It needs to be said right off the bat (no pun intended) that Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke is a work of superb craftsmanship and storytelling.  No one can reasonably argue against the book's artistic merit or the fact that it has had a far-reaching influence on the Batman mythology since its publication in 1988.  However, it is also a nasty, mean-spirited story that seeks to deconstruct and undermine what it means to be a hero, and that same far-reaching influence has perpetuated a fairly one-sided view in both fans and creators of Batman and his family of characters ever since. 

Without a doubt, Batman has always been a darker character of varying degrees over the decades since his debut, but Moore added a different dimension to this aspect by telling a story in which Batman's sanity and integrity as a hero are brought into question.  Fans latched onto this concept, which made Batman soar in popularity.  Subsequent writers, influenced by Moore as well as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, carried those ideas into the mainstream books.  For all intents and purposes, Batman slowly evolved into a borderline sociopath as his dark psychology became the focus instead of his role as a hero.

In this assessment, only the monthly comic books are included and to some extent the first film series (although they eventually fizzled out into fetishized camp).  The 1990s animated series remained immune from this narrative leaning, probably because the showrunners, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, had children in mind as the show's core audience and therefore had to strike a balance between the dark and light aspects of the character in order for it to be deemed acceptable for broadcast.  However, the monthly comics through a deluge of writers and artists with an older audience in mind and a far-too-healthy reverence for Moore's (and Miller's) work did not always strike that necessary balance, and the Batman's power as a character has suffered as a result.

Before explaining further, it is also important to note that this darker trend was not unique to the Batman books.  The rise of grittier, more violent versions of some characters cropped up in the late 80s/early 90s and increased the industry's movement away from younger, naive readers towards older, but not necessarily more discerning readers.  This was an audience that looked to Moore's work (particularly Watchmen and The Killing Joke) as a standard for content rather than quality.  Essentially, they wanted more of the grit and violence, regardless of how it may tarnish or atrophy other qualities inherent in the characters.

The attack on Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl)

The problem has been and continues to be that this complete misunderstanding of what Moore was accomplishing with The Killing Joke and its inappropriate use as a benchmark have limited what writers have been able to do with Batman and his related characters for decades.  And, although Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns cannot be discounted for its influence on the Batman mythology, it is Moore's story that has had the most direct and longest lasting effects on the mainstream books.

In considering The Killing Joke specifically, it becomes clear that the story not only escalates the violent nature of the Joker but also deconstructs Batman's standing as a hero.  While the Joker's violent actions are front and center in the narrative, the story can also be viewed as a series of failures on the part of Batman to do what a hero is supposed to do: protect the innocent.  In the opening scenes, Batman fails to realize the Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum.  That failure leads to the next, which is his not stopping the brutal attack on Barbara Gordon and the kidnapping of Commissioner Gordon.  Ultimately Batman's final and biggest failure is the Joker's rejection of his efforts to reach out and end their conflict, potentially sparing future innocents.

Batman reacts to the Joker's "joke."

The most telling part of this deconstruction is Batman's reaction to this last failure.  In the now famous and much discussed final scene of the story, the Joker tells a joke that is an allegory for the relationship between him and Batman.  Lost in the absurdity of their doomed association, the Joker begins to laugh.  Typically, it would be at this moment that the hero would handcuff the villain or deliver a knockout punch or simply walk away as the police rush in to make the arrest.  Instead, Batman begins to laugh as well, seemingly in agreement with the absurd view of their situation. 

The central discussion about this final scene has always been whether or not the rendered art depicts Batman killing the Joker.  This is certainly a valid point to discuss as compelling evidence is available for either side of the issue.  But, those who get too wrapped up in that debate have missed the significance of Batman's laughter.  This peculiar reaction to everything that the Joker has done as well as Batman's failures to stop any of it completes the dismantling of Batman as a hero.  He has given up on his trademark stoic demeanor - a symbol of his heroic perseverance - and gives in to insanity by laughing.  Even if one says it is laughter through tears, an effort to stave off complete despair, the oddity of his laughter and its close association with the Joker cannot be denied.
The Joker's Sympathetic Life

A far less obvious and more clever component of the deconstruction is the depiction of an origin for the Joker.  In giving the Joker a detailed background laced with tragedy, Moore introduces a level sympathy the character has never had previously and, as some might argue, does not rightfully deserve.  The result is that the reader identifies with the Joker in such a way as to make him the protagonist of the story, at least on an emotional level.  This effect renders the Joker's actions in a new light - he is tragically driven insane by the loss of his wife and unborn child, so his wanting to inflict pain on others is understood, if not justified.

Without question, The Killing Joke brings depth and multiple layers of characterization to the Batman universe.  In a very real sense, Moore wrote a Batman story for adults and levied onto the characters a sense of psychological realism that dismantles all previous notions about them.  Batman isn't a hero - he's a lunatic vigilante who dresses up as a bat and beats up criminals; the Joker may be a homicidal maniac, but there is a level of humanity in him.

All of it is extremely adults.  But, child readers do not need the same level of psychological complexity.  For them, it is enough to know that young Bruce Wayne watched his parents get murdered and, as a result, was inspired to fight crime to protect innocent lives.  The Joker is one of the crazy bad guys who Batman has to stop.  End of story.  Unfortunately, in elevating the influence of this one story, comic book writers and artists forgot about Batman's role as a hero in the eyes of these young readers and have since lost much of the character's ability to be a morally good inspiration.

The 1990s animated series kept this idea intact, and the finished work produced some of the best Batman stories ever, ones that capture a timeless quality by keeping Batman first and foremost a hero.  The Christopher Nolan films walk that tightrope as well, although they skew a bit more to an adult sensibility, by accentuating Batman's heroic qualities.

But, the comics have by and large kept Batman dark and the Joker even darker.  In recent years, Batman has become cold, calculating, and even manipulative of those closest to him.  He has shown outright disdain for characters with heroic qualities and distrusts their sincerity. And the Joker, in an escalating series of one-upmanship among writers and artists, has gone from one heinous act to the next, culminating in him slicing off his own face to make himself even more frightening.

No one should argue that comics are just for kids and kids alone and that adults should not have stories geared towards them.  But, why is so much of that necessary?  Especially when there are proven examples of Batman stories that do not always have to venture over that edge.  And, "adult" stories do not have to equal dark tone and nihilistic attitudes  At best, such narrow approaches to the character serve a niche audience and keep him from reaching broader audiences on a deeper level, children and adults alike.  The Batman audiences got in the Batman V. Superman, for instance, looked the most like the dark and gritty Batman of the comics than any other cinematic version thus far, and the movie sank under the weight of its own ponderous lack of heroism and goodwill.

Batman needs to be dark, to have an edge.  It is how the character was conceived and how he works best.  But, Batman also needs to be a hero in his mainstream setting.  He needs to be on the side of good unwaveringly.  Such qualities may not seem like obvious companions, but they can co-exist and have kept the character interesting and relevant since his first appearance.

Note: This was pretty much an off-the-cuff assessment of what I believe has been wrong with the character of Batman for a very long time.  Although I know other trends and circumstances have had an influence, I think most fans would agree that KJ was a turning point in how the character was depicted in his main family of books more so, I would argue, than even Frank Miller's work.

At some point, I would like to properly research what I've said here and support it with more concrete examples, examples I know are out there because I remember reading them.

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