Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Psychology of an unfathomable mind- An introduction to the madness of The Joker by Edward Brophy

Interesting bit of insight into a comic book icon by BAN comics buff and key contributor Edward Brophy . Any feedback on this article please email us on bornagainnihilist@gmail.com. Thanks for reading!

Psychology of an unfathomable mind.

A critical analysis of the portrayal of The Joker in two modern graphic novels.

“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to LUNACY! That's how far the world is from where I am, just one bad day.”

This is the famous (at least amongst readers of Batman) 'one bad day' speech that The Joker delivers to The Batman at the climax of Alan Moore's 1988 graphic novel 'The Killing Joke'. This was the first time in almost 40 years that ANY comic book writer had attempted to explore the 'human' side of the character who has been described as having the most complex mind in all literature. The Joker, ever since his first appearance in 1940, has evolved from a thieving trickster to a sadistic serial killer and beyond that! In this essay I will be comparing the two contemporary graphic novels that I think have made the best attempt to explore and achieve an understanding of this character that some say is not meant to be understood. These are the aforementioned 'The Killing Joke' by Alan Moore, and the 2008 book by Brian Azzarello simply titled 'Joker'.

The Medium of the Work

The term 'graphic novel', many people think, is simply a term invented in order to make comic books sound as if they have more merit. And.........they're right! There is no real difference between what are called graphic novels and what are called comic books. The only difference in reality is that often 'graphic novel' refers to a collection of comic books that are sold as a single book. My point is that comic books already have the merit. Without going into too much detail and drifting away from the essay, modern comics have an equal amount of strength as a traditional novel to explore a complex theme and much more power in their imagery than film.

The appearance of Joker invariably means that sanity and insanity are bound to be brought into question during the course of the story. In the very beginning his tricks and deception were meant to make you question how a criminal might operate; doing seemingly crazy things in order to achieve an end. But having said that, the end was always the same; an assassination, a robbery, etc. The Joker we have been exposed to for the past 20 years or so however is not nearly as simple as this. The modern Joker is out to prove a point. The question is, what is the point? Sometimes there is a clear answer, but often there is not.

How do our texts tackle the question? Both books are relatively short, ('Joker' is 128 pages and 'The Killing Joke' is only 48 pages) and both tell the story of a short turn of events that take place in a matter of just a few days. This quick and brutal aspect is rather common with Joker as I will explore further later.

Alan Moore's 'The Killing Joke'

Let's establish a profile for the two variations on the same character that we are dealing with and set the context in which they are operating.

The Joker we see in 'The Killing Joke' (KJ) is essentially a 'traditional' Joker with a sinister twist. Moore made him more vicious and murderous while retaining his sense of dark humour and his physical appearance. (Although the credit for his appearance might have to be given to artist Brian Bolland who illustrated the work).

The story opens with the Batman paying a visit to the infamous 'Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane' to talk to the Joker who is being held there. It quickly becomes clear that the Joker has escaped, he has hired a body-double to fool the staff into thinking he is still there. During this time he acquires an abandoned amusement park and assembled a few grim workers.

His only other port-of-call is to police Commissioner Jim Gordon's house. On arrival Joker shoots his daughter Barbara, paralysing her, and kidnaps Gordon. Gordon wakes up in the amusement park, is stripped and subjected to a psychological torture ride. He is brought into a converted 'tunnel of love' where he sees images of his crippled daughter having also been stripped nude, all the while the Joker is speaking to him about the nature of insanity. Finally Batman appears and stops the proceedings before Gordon looses his mind. While pursued by Batman, Joker delivers his 'one bad day' speech and Batman counters by making the point that despite his efforts, Jim Gordon is still sane, so perhaps the Joker is alone in his condition.

The final pages see Batman appealing to Joker, saying he can rehabilitate him. Joker says its too late for that and goes on to tell a joke, after which he erupts into laughter. Batman also begins to laugh and the final panels show the two characters laughing, Batman gripping the Joker by the shirt. An ambiguous ending that puzzles many fans. It is important also to mention that throughout the book we see certain events in the Joker's life that culminated to turn him into what he is; the 'one bad day' of his is revealed in a comic for the first time since 1951.

This Joker is;

· Quite violent
· On the run
· Out to prove an idealistic point
· Forced to reveal his sensitive side by recounting his past

Brain Azzarello's 'Joker'

This book came in the wake of Chris Nolan's 2008 film 'Batman The Dark Knight' in which the modern Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger' is first introduced to a movie going audience. As a result, many fans expected Azzarello's Joker to be predictably similar to Heath Ledger's, but they were surprised. It is alleged that the book was planned before the film was released and the only influence the film had was on the appearance of the Joker; a scruffy low-life figure with a shuffling walk and a scared face.

This book gives us a very extreme Joker indeed. It is narrated by 'Jonny Frost' a hired henchman who desires glory and respect so believes that teaming up with Joker will provide that. The book opens with a mob boss named 'Monty' asking who will pick up the Joker, who, for reasons unknown, is being released from Arkham Asylum. Monty and his gang were one of many who worked with the Joker when he was active and are fearful because of his unexpected release. All the old bosses have divvied up the money that Joker acquired. Jonny volunteers, thinking that getting involved with the Joker may be his big break. Joker, with Jonny as his driver, begins a campaign of picking off his underground enemies one by one beginning with Monty, who he skins alive in a bar in front of his associates!

About 10 others are taken care of before a tip off the Batman receives from Harvey Dent ('Two-Face') gives away Joker's next move. Batman takes the chance to intervene.

Reaching the climax, Jonny cannot believe what he has got himself into. The Joker's extreme, and above all, unpredictable acts are beginning to disillusion Jonny. In the final pages Joker realises that Batman is “pulling the rug from under” them. He finds that Batman has already visited the safe house of the gang leader 'Killer Croc' and inexplicably Joker decides to burn it down, proclaiming, “THIS BELONGS TO ME!” to the city around him. Jonny, who has been shocked by every act of violence so far, begins to laugh. Joker, who has laughed at every act so far, punches Jonny to the ground for laughing.

The last panels depict Joker holding Jonny hostage criticising him for his 'obviousness' and lack of charm, while Batman approaches. His criticising is then directed at Batman. When asked why he allows part of his face to be seen despite the fact that he is trying to look like a monster, Batman replies, “to mock you.” Which infuriates Joker who shoots his hostage through the jaw. Jonny's last narrated words describe Joker in terms of a disease which has no cure.

This Joker is;

· Contradictory
· Needlessly violent
· Possessive
· Not always laughing
· Looks for no approval or understanding

Previous Works

Before getting into an analysis of these books I think it would be best to talk about a previous work from Alan Moore which I believe can give us a better understanding of what he was trying to achieve in KJ. In 1985 he released a 12 part comic called 'Watchmen'. This series was revolutionary and established a permanent place for Moore in the comic book industry.

Watchmen was unique in that although all it's main protagonists are or at some time were 'super-heros', the story is not a super-hero story. It is a complete social commentary. It is long been known that it is dealing with the subject of the Cold War. However, what is relevant to us here is the fact that Moore completely undermined the concept of the traditional super-hero by making them totally human by stressing aspects like age, fallibility, changing social climate and how things become trivial under the shadow of potential war. The majority of the first half of Watchmen tells the story of how they came into fashion in the 1940's and became famous. Some became government agents, some retired, some died. The point is they are all human (with the exception of one or two super natural characters, we'll call that 'sci-fi licence').


The different shades (rather than sides) of the Joker we see in these two graphic novels are striking. How they attempt to examine a mind that refuses to conform to any logic is brave and they both yield interesting, entertaining and certainly disturbing results.

Moore's Joker is arguably the easier of the two to understand. Or at least it appears that way. Moore did an interesting thing in that he enabled us to empathise with a character with whom we were not meant to be able to empathise. He did so by 'revealing' the Joker's past. However, each time we see a moment from the past, the panel transition suggests that it is from the Joker's own memory.

The significance of this lies in the fact that near the climax of the book Joker says; “Something like that happened to me, you know. I...I'm not sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another...If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha Ha Ha!” So how reliable is Joker's memory?

Earlier I gave a short description of Moore's work on 'Watchmen'. I made mention of how he undermined the concept of the super-hero and I think perhaps he may be doing something similar here except that here it is the villain that is humanised and awarded raison d'etre. This, I do not think is Moore's prime objective. In an internet review of the book called 'This book is no laughing matter', Hillary Goldstein masterfully writes;

“The Killing Joke isn't about how the Joker came to be, its an examination of human nature. If Joker can turn his captive, Commissioner Jim Gordon, into a raving lunatic, then its proof that any man in Joe Kerr's (the young Joker) position would have gone a little nutty. However should Gordon survive with sanity intact, it serves as proof that there is something buried deep within each lunatic, a nugget of insanity, that is simply waiting for the right moment to spring forth. Is it the horrors of a particular event that make a man insane or is it something deep within the man himself?”

(http://ie.comics.ign.com/articles/618/618658p1.html. Accessed 21 April 2010)

Despite the fact that the deeper one reads, the less clear Alan Moore's Joker seems to become, by comparison, Brian Azzarello's Joker is still harder to make any sense of. This character seems to do things without reason, even if it is sadistic reasoning. I must admit, my first reading of this book left me quite baffled. A review by Dan Phillips entitled 'The darkest tale featuring the Clown Prince of Crime might also be his best', helped shed some light on the problem for me;

“Azzarello's Joker is a school yard bully who long ago traded nooggies and dead-arms for torture and dismemberment. At the same time, he's more vile and depraved than any one of us, let alone Johnny Frost, his henchmen and the story's narrator, could possibly comprehend.”

(http://ie.comics.ign.com/articles/918/918936p1.html. Accessed 21 April 2010)

This opinion I think can be supported with reference to the text. For example when Jonny Frost recounts the story of how he once killed a pet frog he had as a child rather than allow bullies to do it. Somehow the fact that he destroyed it himself made it more acceptable. This story he compares to Joker's abuse of Gotham City which as I mentioned before, he proclaims, belongs to him.

Also I referred to the final scene where the Joker is infuriated when Batman says he allows his actual face to be partly in sight in order to mock him. My reading of this moment is that Batman is saying 'although I try to play the part of a monster by wearing a mask, I allow my humanity to be in plain sight so that it is understood that I am only a man. You, however do not wear a mask (depending on which Joker origin story one prefers, there is an understanding that the powder white face and green hair are not make up but the result of disfigurement) you ARE a monster, and it is plain to see for all'. And of course, like a true school bully, Joker doesn't like the truth about himself.


I have been reading several Batman graphic novels over the past few months and have noticed how fascinating the Joker can often be. So much so that ever since KJ was released some writers prefer to write stories where Joker is the main protagonist and Batman is a supporting character. And this is only two examples of many possibilities. In Grant Morrison's 1989 book 'Arkham Asylum, a Serious House on Serious Earth', the idea is introduced that the Joker is not insane at all(!) but that he is a new type of personality that has evolved for life in desolate cities like Gotham, that he recreates himself each day based on his surroundings and has no personality of his own. Heavy eh? This opportunity to explore this dark maze of a mind for myself I have found fascinating in itself. And I hope I have managed to write a piece that can offer the reader a better understanding of the Dark Knight's greatest foe.


Hillary Goldstein


Dan Phillips


Batman - The Killing Joke

1988, Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Titan Books

Batman – Arkham Asylum

1989, Grant Morrison, Dave McKean, Titan Books


2008, Brian Azzarello, Lee Bermejo, Titan Books

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