Batman: The Killing Joke Predicted the Bleak State of Superheroes

The new Joker feature is based on a 1988 graphic novel that's memorable for its darkness.

Warner Bros.

On first glance, the film Batman: The Killing Joke—which swings through theaters on July 25 for just two days before going to DVD—looks like it should’ve been consigned to afternoon television, with its choppy animation. But this new Batman feature isn’t for kids. The Killing Joke explains the origins of the Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis, and plumbs beneath the face paint for a pathology. It’s sourced from a specific pool of graphic novels that were authored by one of two men—Frank Miller or Alan Moore—between 1986 and 1988. Their mission: to make superhero comics visible to adults by dialing up the darkness.

The dial, of course, got stuck. Acclaimed graphic novels like Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987) as well as Moore’s Watchmen (1987) and Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) introduced a gloom that never quite lifted. They recast spandexed superheroes as violent vigilantes, and lowered them into atmospheres fraught with gravity, like the Cold War. “Miller and Moore are often credited with helping the superhero genre grow up,” wrote Jeet Heer recently in a smart piece for The New Republic, “although their idea of maturity at times seemed mainly to mean including explicit scenes of torture and rape.”

But it’s wrong to tie the thoughtful Moore too closely to the reactionary Miller. Moore’s celebrated series V for Vendetta posted a warning about Thatcherism and supplied the Occupy movement with a face. He turned a repudiated horror comic, Swamp Thing, into a repudiation of Reaganism. In 1988, he went so far as to form the publishing imprint Mad Love so that he could bring out a comic protesting homophobic English legislation. Compared to the rest of his work, then, The Killing Joke marked a regression. The last of the much-lauded graphic novels of the late ’80s, it exemplified traits that continue to bedevil the superhero genre today—misogyny, nihilism, and sadism for the sake of fanboys.

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The Killing Joke was not a project instigated by Alan,” writes the artist Brian Bolland in the afterword to the 2008 edition, “nor was it, as far as I know, a labor of love for him.” This is an unsurprising revelation. By the late ’80s, Moore, arguably the biggest name in comics, had stretched the concept of men in spandex as far as it could go. His 12-issue series Watchmen was looking a lot like the genre’s Citizen Kane, its Ulysses. Moore seemed to have consolidated everything that had come before, from Golden Age propaganda to pulpy ’50s horror, demonstrating effortless facility with the medium and its history, while reversing superhero cliches. “I’m not a Republic serial villain,” says the villain toward the end of Watchmen, in his Antarctic lair. (He’s been cornered by the heroes, who assume they’ve foiled his plot.) “Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?” Unbeknownst to the heroes, he’s already wiped out New York.

In the superhero movies of today, of course, violence is a non-event. Cities are routinely incinerated, their faceless occupants vaporized out of frame. (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a particularly egregious recent example of this.) But the obliteration of a major American city at the end of Watchmen was moving precisely because the previous 11 issues had acquainted readers with its citizens. Moore wisely reserved plenty of panels for the non-superpowered civilian, who doesn’t keep spandex under her clothes. It was at this point that the illustrator, Dave Gibbons, broke the nine-panel grid, the book’s dominant style, and used whole pages to pan across piled corpses. The images were devastating; form exploded to accommodate content’s blast radius.

The Killing Joke dispensed with such thoughtfulness. Batman’s nemesis, it turns out, was a struggling comedian who lost his pregnant wife the very same day he plunged into a vat at the local chemical plant—conveniently located next to the local playing-card company. (“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy,” explains the Joker.) Running parallel to this over-determined origin is a present-day plot in which the Joker conspires to illustrate the “random injustice” of life. He shoots the character Batgirl in the spine, then trusses her father up in bondage gear, taunting him with photographs of his naked, paralyzed daughter. When the time came for his editor to sign off on the maiming, Moore recalled him saying, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”  Later, Moore admitted, “It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.”

You can trace the easy nihilism of many contemporary comics and movies—from Spawn to Kick-Ass—to cynical products like The Killing Joke. It’s the nihilism of a third-rate Nietzsche, the kind of starter-kit philosophy that compels adolescents. That Batman eventually gets his man and restores order is beside the point. Whether drawn by Bolland or played by Heath Ledger, the Joker, one senses, is the real draw of the story. Post-Moore, he became postmodern, the personification of moral relativism, of pure chaos. Post-9/11, he became an opiate; as Stephen Metcalf suggested at Slate in the wake of the Aurora shooting, the “charismatic malevolence” of characters like the Joker has become dangerously addictive in American culture.

Bolland, for his part, banged out a series of irresistible illustrations, including the iconic cover: a close-up of the Joker aiming a camera at the reader. The implication is that the reader occupies the position of the naked, crippled Batgirl. It’s the sort of iconography that’s best quarantined in dorm rooms, next to Scarface and Fight Club posters. Nevertheless, The Killing Joke attracted industry awards and admirers. Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s cinematic Jokers, played by Nicholson and Ledger, respectively, sprang like paper dolls from the pattern set by Moore. “I loved The Killing Joke,” Burton said. “It’s my favorite. It’s the first comic I ever loved.”

But read between the panels, and it’s hard not to feel the pressure of an unvoiced word balloon, inflated near to bursting: Moore’s own exhaustion with the arid genre he had helped terraform. Eventually, he disavowed The Killing Joke. “Brian [Bolland] did a wonderful job on the art but I don’t think it’s a very good book,” Moore told Barry Kavanagh in 2000. “It’s not saying anything very interesting.” In the ’90s, Moore labored over intricate graphic novels for adults, about anything other than superheroes. He researched Victorian England, and explored a conspiracy theory about Jack the Ripper and the Royal Family. He relocated Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy (of Wonderland, Neverland, and Oz) to an Austrian hotel on the cusp of World War I, and crafted an epic, controversial tome of erotica. When he finally returned to men in tights, he made a point of directing his energies to more innocent characters like Tom Strong, who radiated the warmth of the Golden Age of comics. Moore had innovated once again; “kids’ stuff” was no longer a knock against quality.

Moore’s disavowal, however, hasn’t exactly dissuaded paying customers. To meet demand, over 300 theaters have been added to the two-day showing of The Killing Joke, bringing the total count to 1,000 screens. Meanwhile, the graphic novel has already enjoyed the deluxe treatment; the 20th-anniversary edition comes swaddled in an introduction, afterword, rough sketches, and other dissertation aids. That’s the real joke, and it’s a killer: The man who helped create the conditions for cynical blockbusters like The Killing Joke was the first to reject the product—and did so decades ago. It turns out the superhero genre’s greatest hero was also in some ways its greatest villain.