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Author: B.L. Wooldridge
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Batman: The Killing Jokeis to many fans the seminal Batman story. Itís almost simplistic in terms of story: The Joker escapes Arkham Asylum and then The Batman hunts him down. Weíve all read that story a hundred times, but on a much closer examination, The Killing Joke is a much more complex, darker, and ultimately, frightening story.

Writer Alan Moore is perhaps the finest psychological examiner of fictional heroes, sometimes to the point of over-exaggeration. Just read his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mini-series, and youíll see how screwed up some of our literary heroes come off in the eyes of Moore. In TKJ Moore shines that scathing psychiatric spotlight on The Batman and his greatest nemesis, The Joker.

TKJ is really the Jokerís story, and a possible origin of The Clown Prince of Crime. The story begins with The Batman in Arkham, meeting with the Joker, and urging him to seek rehabilitation, because The Dark Knight fears that if they continue to clash, one of them will die. Soon enough, the Batman realizes that the ďJokerĒ is actually a stand-in, and the chase begins.

While the Dark Knight searches for his homicidal foe, the reader gets a glimpse into a young man with a pregnant wife who struggles in a dead-end job while attempting to become a comedian. He is neither funny or successful, and with a child on the way, his need to provide for his family, he is lead to a desperate act. He agrees to aid in a robbery on the chemical plant in which he had previously worked, and his criminal cohorts coerce the young man to don the disguise of the Red Hood, a criminal mastermind who is actually many different men. The young man questions the job, but then learns that his wife has died in a freak electrical accident, and with a little persuasion from his partners in crime, the young man is fully on board. The robbery quickly becomes botched, as security guards fire on them, killing the young manís accomplices. The Batman, not very long into his crime-fighting career, arrives to capture the Red Hood, but the scared young man decides to leap to his death. He falls into a vat of chemicals and lives, his skin bleached white, his hair green, and his mouth contorted into a demonic, red-lipped smile. He is now The Joker.

The Jokerís ďoriginĒ is done in flashback, interspersed with the Batmanís search, and the Jokerís horrific plan. He takes possession of a dilapidated amusement park, complete with its own cavalcade of sideshow freaks, and then in one of comic book historyís most disturbing sequences, arrives at the apartment of Commissioner James Gordon, and at point blank range, shoots his daughter, the former Batgirl, Barbara Gordon. While the commissioner is incapacitated and captured by the Jokerís henchmen, the Joker strips Barbara and takes horrible photographs of the nude and severely injured woman. The Joker takes Commissioner Gordon to his carnival lair and sets about in his ultimate plan: to drive Gordon insane. And utilizing the horrid pictures of Gordonís now-paralyzed daughter, the Joker might have succeeded if not for the arrival and intervention of the Batman. A garish chase ensues, and The Dark Knight finally catches the Clown Prince, and handily beats him into submission.

The two adversaries have a conversation, not unlike the one The Batman had had earlier in Arkham Asylum, with the Jokerís stand-in. The Batman wants to rehabilitate the Joker, but he tells The Dark Knight that it is too late. The Joker then tells Batman a joke about ďtwo guys in an insane asylum,Ē and the story ends oddly and ambiguously with the Joker laughing and the Batman joining in. There is even a panel where it appears that the Batman is affectionately clasping the psychopathic murdererís shoulder as they chortle together. It is a strange, somewhat disturbing ending, having our hero having a good laugh with the man who just maimed one of his friends, and nearly forced another friend into a psychotic break. Iíve always wondered why Moore wrote it that way.

The Killing Joke is an incredible story, with Moore at his best (at least until the ending), and awe-inspiring art by painter Brian Bolland. Bollandís characters are grotesque and terrifying, but there is a realism to his art that makes it all that much disturbing. TKJ also marks another origin story of sorts: the birth of Oracle, the paralyzed Barbara Gordonís information-broker secret identity. Yet, what always bothered me was that when Bruce Wayne was paralyzed, his writers were able to quickly restore his health, while the same was never attempted with Barbara. Itís neither respectful or realistic, but this is the D.C. Universe weíre talking about here.

I prefer TKJ to THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Frank Millerís anti-social, futuristic take on the pre-Crisis Batman. Alan Moore ďgotĒ Batman better than Miller in this case, although I do find Millerís BATMAN: YEAR ONE highly enjoyable and superior to both.

Now having said that, what do I believe to be the seminal Batman story?

Well, honestly, to me, I do not think it has been written yet.

B.L. Wooldridge is a graduate of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He currently resides in Barry, Texas, where he does very little besides surf the Internet, write short stories, read comics, and watch an exorbitant amount of cable television.

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