The Killing Joke
One of the most famous Joker stories, The Killing Joke gives a glimpse into the psyche of the Joker.
This one-shot comic book was so well received that it ultimately was accepted as canon by DC. What makes it so great? What consequences did it have for the future of Batman comics?
The story starts with Batman reaching Arkham Asylum where Commissioner Gordon is waiting for him, and leads Batman to Joker's cell. We see the Joker playing with some cards. Batman tries to reason with him, and tells him that they both are on a collision course, and that sooner or later, their animosity will lead to either (or both) of them dying.
Batman discovers that the Joker in the cell is just a decoy, and the real Joker has escaped. Joker is shown talking to a person regarding buying a dilapidated amusement park. He of course, kills the person and sets up base in the park. In a flashback, a glimpse of Joker's past is shown when he was a failed stand-up comedian named Jack, and was struggling to make ends meet and support his pregnant wife.
In further flashbacks, interspersed throughout the story, we get to see how the Joker becomes the psychopath he is. Even before becoming a failed comedian, he used to be a lab assistant at a chemical factory in Gotham. Now, down on his luck, he talked to some criminals (from a gang called the 'red hood gang' - notorious for a string of robberies in Gotham) who ask him to assist him in a robbery at the factory. They give him a red colored mask to wear so that nobody can identify him.
Just then at the bar, a policeman informs him that his pregnant wife died in a freak accident. Emotionally devastated, he tells his accomplices that there is no point continuing with the robbery, as the reason he wanted the money is now no more. His accomplices say that now there is no turning back, and that with the money, he could give his wife a good funeral, at least.
When they reach the factory to do the robbery, they are surprised to find out that the security is not as lax as it was previously. The other criminals implicate Jack as the main ringleader as he was wearing the red hood. Batman arrives on the scene, and chases after Jack.
Absolutely frightened by the sight of Batman, he jumps into a vat of chemicals in the factory to escape him. The chemicals burn him and change his skin into a permanent white, his hair green and his lips a bright red. He starts to laugh at what has happened to him, and finally tranforms into the Joker.
In the present day, we see Batman wondering what the Joker could be up to, and expressing exasperation on how completely unpredictable he is and how after all these years he still doesn't know him. He wonders how two people who don't know each other can hate each other so much.
Next we see the Joker arriving at Gordon's residence, where Barbara Gordon and Jim Gordon are nice father-daughter moment. The Joker catches Barbara by surprise and shoots her, paralysing her in the process. Joker's thugs beat up Jim Gordon, and take him away. The Joker begins to strip Barbara and clicks some obscene photographs of her.
Joker then leaves and Barbara is hospitalized, and Batman arrives to ask of her and Jim. Barbara is extremely traumatised by what the Joker has done, and of what he plans to do to her father. We see Jim Gordon at Joker's amusement park. Joker's minions strip him naked and chain him up and drag him across the park to Joker. The Joker tells him that Gordon is going mad.
The Joker tells him that sanity is not the only option. In order to lock away the pain of a traumatic memory, madness is the only relief. Then he shows Jim the obscene pictures that he clicked of his daughter, pushing Jim to brink of horror. The Joker once again asks him to give in to madness, and goes into a diatribe of how frail human sanity is, and how it snaps the moment any weight (that is, any trauma) is put on to it.
Meanwhile, Batman searches for where the Joker can be, and finally arrives at the park. He finds attacks Joker, but he escapes. Batman then finds Gordon, rescues him and offers to stay with him till the police arrives. Gordon instead says that he's okay, and that Batman should go and catch Joker, but to do everything by the book in order to show the Joker that he hasn't managed to drive anyone insane.
Batman tracks down Joker, where the Joker once again goes on about the absurdity of the world, and the randomness of it all. He says that Batman himself must have undergone a deep traumatic event, and that he too went something like that (though he doesn't remember exactly what it was). He asks Batman why he isn't like him. Batman answers that its so because he's heard his arguments before, and he wasn't convinced of it earlier as well.
Batman (after a small fight) argues with Joker that consider leaving crime, and that he can help get the Joker treatment and rehabilitation, otherwise they both are set on a course where very quickly it will lead to the death of one of them. The joker declines Batman's offer.
He says that its too late now for him. It reminds him of a joke where two inmates are trying to escape the asylum by jumping across a narrow gap from the roof. One manages to do so, but the other stays put. The first inmate then says that he will flash a light on the gap between the buildings, and he can just walk on the beam of light. The second inmate declines the request because he thinks that the first imnate will turn off the light when he's half way across.
Both Batman and the Joker share a laugh at that joke. Police sirens grow in the background. Then we just see the Joker and Batman laughing, followed by the puddles of water being hit by rain.
About the Artwork and story
Brian Borlland has been universally praised for his art on this story. Before we further analyse the artwork, the first thing to say is the art is just beautiful. The characters, the backgrounds, camera framing, expressions - all are absolutely precise and stunning.
One more thing to note is that Brian Bolland was not happy with the coloring that was done in the original book. The deluxe edition contains the story with the coloring as Brian Bolland imagined and intended it to be. If you are new to the Killing Joke, or are planning to buy it, then I would recommend to buy the Deluxe Edition rather than the original comic. The original comic, with coloring by John Higgins, contains extremely psychalelic colors, which often work in some cases, but in some other cases, especially the flashback scenes, often detract from the intention of the frames. The deluxe editions have the flashback scenes in (mostly) black and white, which makes a bit more sense.
The comic also uses a lot of juxtapositions of the past with the present. It does a great job to highlight a lot of what has changed and what things have remained the same.
In fact, these pieces of reflective imagery seem to be a visual theme during the entire comic. At times, it points to the cycle of nature and the fact that some things never change - and sometimes it is meant to comment on the nature of reflection itself and to compliment it with one of the narrative questions asked in the story - that the Batman and the Joker are just reflections of the same kind of insanity.
The raindrops in the puddle convey a major significance in the story. It starts and ends with it. IMO, it is meant to portray the random nature of violence in the world. Just like the raindrops are hitting the puddle in a completely random way, causing chaos in the puddle, disturbing its order - violence also hits people the same way, causing the same effects. The puddle also allows the viewer to reflect on himself, which is also used in the story by characters (especially the Joker/Jack) to reflect upon his actions.
What Happened at the end?
The ending was intentionally left ambigous. The story starts with Batman wondering how the enimity between him and the Joker can stop, as the only end he can see is one of them killing the other eventually.
When Batman confronts the fake joker as well as the real joker in the story, he tries to talk some sense into the Joker. The Joker, by the way of the Killing Joke, tells Batman its he's too far gone; That they are both insane in their own ways, but Batman has found a way to salvation and managed to escape the tortuous insanity that plagues him. Just like the first inmate in the joke, Joker tells him that his offer of helping him is flawed as helping him become sane again is always going to be futile.
Whether the Joker chooses remain insane or is genuinely incurable is a question left to the audience. In the end, both Batman and the Joker share a laugh. As police sirens become more loud, Batman grabs him and the panels after that are left ambiguous to the what happens next. Writer Grant Morrison believes Batman indeed does kill Joker in the end, realizing that he's beyond help.
That's actually a pretty valid and understandable way of explaining the ending and how Batman kills the Joker in the end. Especially if you see that the light beam also abruptly cuts off in the final panel.
However, my personal opinion is that the Batman does not kill the Joker in the end. One of the reasons cited that Batman kills Joker is that Batman reaches out and snaps his neck. However, lets' look at the final panels again.
My opinion is that Batman's arm is actually at Joker's shoulder. This means that Batman is actually sharing a light moment with the Joker and each is just laughing at their insanity. This moment is in contrast to the earlier moment where Batman wondered how they could hate each other so much - in the final panels, they manage to see through this and for a moment, just share a laugh like only two inmates can.
The light beam cutting in the end could be a signal that both Batman and Joker finally find themselves at opposite ends, neither in a position to bring them back to the other side anymore. Just like the inmates in the joke after the first one escapes.
One more reason why I think Batman did not kill the Joker is because of Jim Gordon. Gordon explicitly told Batman to capture Joker, but to do it by the book. Considering Batman's enormous respect for Gordon, and the fact that they both share a deep level of trust, it seems out of character for Batman to destroy all of that and kill Joker.
Furthermore, parts of the story have been made canon. This means that this story is not considered an Elseworld's tale anymore, and is actually part of the official Batman mythos. Keep in mind that this story gave way for Barbara to become Oracle later on, and this story has been referenced multiple times in various storylines in the past (even by the Joker himself). This would not obviously happen if the Joker died in the story.
The Impact of this story
This story has had an enourmous impact on the Batman mythos. The paralysis of Barbara lead to the eventual creation of the character of Oracle, which has grown to be quite a popular character from then on. The story also put a more nuanced and layered story to the Joker, and it has one of the more definitve origin stories of the character.
Most consider The Killing Joke to be the ultimate Joker story told. The Cover, as well as the panel where we finally see Jack turning into the Joker is one of the most iconic peices of art in Batman comics. The 'tourist' outfit worn by the Joker when he arrives at the Gordon residence has often been referenced in other comics and media. For example, the game Injustice: God's Amongst Us has an option for the Joker to wear that outfit.
Alan Moore, however, is himself critical of his work on the Killing Joke, as well as his decision to cripple Barbara in the story. Having said that, Moore being critical of his work like this is not really a surprise. One more thing to consider is that a lot of what is said in the story comes from the actual artwork from Brian Bolland.
Gail Simone's run on Batgirl also references the moment of her paralysis at times.
Gail Simone's take of Batgirl often features her recounting that experience and coming to terms with the trauma of that incident in a way that shows her being both vulnerable and brave at the same time.
The above panel in Gail Simone's Batgirl run ends up making some changes to the original story. One of Joker's thugs, impressed with seeing Barbara's strength and resilience, ends up calling the police shortly after the incident, telling them the exact address for them to come and rescue Barbara in time.
The Killing Joke is an extraordinary story between two of the most iconic character in comics. It comments on a lot of complex topics, and really makes us think and ponder about certain things we take for granted in life. It had an enormous impact on not just future comics, but also future comic book readers, artists, directors and actors. Tim Burton praised this book highly and quoted it as an inspiration when making his 1989 Batman movie. The Killing Joke, along with other copies, were also given to Heath Ledger when he was preparing for this role as the Joker in the movie The Dark Knight.
Perhaps, the following quote says it best.