The last laugh
Who doesn’t like a book fair? Don’t answer that. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you do. The book fair at Pragati Maidan happens to be where I satiate most of my comic book cravings; and it is at that fair that I found Batman: The Killing Joke (at 40 per cent off). I had, of course, read the book before through questionable means on the Internet, but to hold the work in my hands, see the visual narrative move from underneath my palms, was, and continues to be, an altogether different experience.
Alan Moore has been responsible for writing some of my favourite works, and characters, Swamp Thing (the creation of Constantine), and Watchmen to name a few. Here, Moore takes on Batman, like never before, through explorations, or should I say expositions, of death, identity, laughter, madness, sanity, and the very nature of reality itself.
“Look at him now, poor fellow. That’s what a dose of reality does for you. Never touch the stuff myself, you understand. Find it gets in the way of the hallucinations.” The joker as an idea has existed since the beginning of time itself. The joke has changed, and so has the joker, in how we imagine its characteristics. Some would go on to say that one could even look at Socrates, as a joker. In this book, however, one finds a certain idea of the ‘joker’, where the creation of laughter is part of a certain theatricality that is both subversive, while at the same time being immersive in a certain language of solitude. A popular claim to the idea of the joker as a tragic, and solitary character can be found in several places, from the idea of the “tears of a clown”, to the famous joke about a man who goes to a therapist for his depression, only to be told to go see a world famous clown, recently in town, who guarantees laughter in the audience members who come to see his act, only to reveal to the therapist that he is that very clown.
In the book Moore and Bolland articulate these connections with the character of the ‘Joker’, a super-criminal in the DC comic universe, placed as a foil to the vigilante ‘Batman’, whose sole purpose is to create a rupture in everything that Batman holds dear in the city: the idea of justice, and a serious predilection to a certain gravitas. Like all alter-egos, the Joker and Batman are destined to be eternally linked in their shared occupation of ‘Gotham City’, and their unspoken similarities to one another regardless of varying ideologies, and methods. Both share a tragic past, from which they each emerge, masked (one with a cowl, and the other with make-up) in order to make their ideologies a reality – to make Gotham function in the way they believe to be what the city needs.
What differs is not their notion of ‘justice’ – both believe the city, and its systems and procedures, to be unjust – but the way in which they deal with that notion. Where (the) Batman tries to provide a sense of justice through his crime-fighting activities, the Joker tries to un-sense whatever little notion of justice the city has. One of the most wonderful articulations of the closeness, and at the same time distance, between the two is articulated on the last page of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.
Here, it is laughter that links, and perhaps bridges the distance between madness, and death. Batman does not kill. And the Joker never kills the Batman. There of course have been exceptions to this in the history of both characters. The Joker generally kills through indirect means – through the use of laughing gas, etc. A few pages back, the Joker takes out a gun, points it at Batman, to only have a flag with the words “bang bang” pop out of the tunnel. In the ambiguous uncertainty of the end of this particular comic, the reader watches as in between the laughter shared by both the characters, Batman’s hand stretches out in the middle section seemingly to kill the Joker, but there is no closure, no eventual ‘act’ of murder, or dying. There can be no Batman without the Joker, and vice-versa.
This relationship was, of course, captured magnificently in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), in an immensely popular recent on-screen adaptation. What places this particular story apart from most other Batman related stories, is the intensity, and sensitivity with which Moore writes the origin story of the Joker. It is through the reader’s constant engagement with this that the end of the comic can gain such poignancy.
The Joker is not just another criminal, in a string of super-criminals, whom Batman has to face in his work in Gotham city. He is the counter-myth to the myth of the Batman. Keeping that in mind, the last page visualises the connection between the two characters, the distance seemingly, at first, being bridged by the laughter that ensues, which is of course ruptured by Batman’s outstretched hand, only to lead to their unusual disappearance from the site of their final confrontation in the comic – the rooftop terrace – where all that remains in the last panels is the rain filtering down on the terrace floor.
It’s not just about the Batman and the Joker as DC characters representing two sides to the human psyche. This book attempts at taking its readers towards a particular narration of the origin of a now iconic character - a super villain, in order to understand the thin line that divides what one perceives as reality, the line which some claim rests between empathy, and apathy, or sanity, and madness. But in this book, once you are done with your reading, what becomes clear is that it’s not so much about the age old debate between “good” and “evil”, or not even, as the recent Comic Con panels attempt at gesturing towards, “Bad” vs. “Evil”, but something else entirely. What this book tries to expose is the falsity of the line itself. The line doesn’t exist. What makes reality bend to our whims, and our choice of perception(s) is, perhaps, instead, where we decide to draw the line, and that makes all the difference. The last laugh is always the joker’s.