The cult story by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, which is considered a part of the comic canon, is not only a nihilistic thriller but also an extremely mocking revenge of the "V for Vendetta" author on DC Comics and superhero (pop) culture.
"This graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is several things: grim, ugly, provocative, brilliant [,] and the ultimate Joker story," says the editor and writer of Batman comic books, Denny O'Neil, in one of his editorial columns from June, 1988. "The story that will finally crystallize and define this most intriguing and enduring of villains [ ... ] But precisely because it is so good, because Alan and Brian have done their work so well, The Killing Joke will probably disturb many people. It contains some extremely graphic violence and a bit of nudity, and it asks questions for which there are no easy answers. So all I can do is suggest that if you're a parent, you thumb through the book before buying it for your children and consider whether your particular kids are likely to be upset by what you see. And if you're thinking about buying The Killing Joke for yourself, be aware that it is absolutely nothing like what you've seen on the tube. You're alerted." [ J. Darius, "And the Universe so Big: Understanding Batman: The Killing Joke," 2012, Sequart Organization, p. 40.]
An exaggeration? Not even a bit. We are discussing the defiant comic par excellence, one which, beside A. Spiegelman's "Maus" or A. Bechdel's "Fun Home," is considered as a masterwork of the comic world. The story that changed superhero comics in the Dark Age of American comics, an inspiration for audiovisual creators (especially directors like Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan) even today. Controversial in its message, "The Killing Joke" is connected with the awe of Batman fans, hate from the feminists, and not very flattering reflections from the writer, Alan Moore, himself. What we have here is Moore's sheer prudery, as he knew full well what he was about to unleash by writing the cynical comic story. What is more, he did it cold blooded, which is understandable, knowing the circumstances of the creation of this unique comic.
The British SensibilityAlthough "The Killing Joke" was first published in 1988, Alan Moore's script was written as early as in the mid-80s, more or less when Moore was beginning his work on "Watchmen" with Dave Gibbons. The story with the psychotic clown as the antagonist was written on the request of Brian Bolland, one of the most expressive script editor of the "Judge Dredd" comics, who, after the success of the miniseries "Camelot 3000," was offered the possibility of developing his own personal project. This hyperrealistic artist wanted to create a universal Joker story written by Moore specifically, whom he knew very well from collaborations for the British comic books market. At the time, Moore was already a significant name known, for example, for his "Swamp Thing" saga; he later achieved popularity and the name of the flagship representative of the so-called British Invasion on comics "Made in USA." During this process a large number of well-known writers and script editors of English, Scottish, or Irish origin (cooperating mostly with "2000 AD" publishing house) started their constant collaborations with DC Comics.
Drawing the 48-page comic book took Bolland almost 2 years and the process of the creation of the story itself can be compared to the work culture of the pictorial story on the Frankish market. Meanwhile, DC Comics managed to strain relations with Alan Moore, who wanted to keep his copyright for the characters created in the "Watchmen" series. The publishing house gave him a clear signal that the success of this comic series was based not on his talent, but rather, on the marketing campaign and the use of the "graphic novel" term to achieve better sales. Disgusted and offended, Moore decided that from now on he will not have anything in common with DC Comics, later defining them as "gangsters." The only exception was his work on "The Killing Joke," which he treated honorably, remembering his promise given to Bolland. Not mindful of the consequences, the creators decided to come up with a plot for the Batman which would be different from all others. With a need for revenge, Moore created a masterpiece that is brilliant in its simplicity, even if during interviews he states that "The Killer Joke" is in fact shallow and about nothing important or even real.
When Two Madman MeetIn "The Killing Joke" all the revisionist mechanisms created under the influence of the superhero mythology of "Watchmen," with the formal graphic treatment or even musical motifs, have been confronted with Gotham's saga. In the beginning of the first edition of the comic book the reader is invited to a rain-bathed Gotham city, with a depressing setting tweaked by live, or even narcotic colors of orange and violet. This specific motif invokes the impression of a connection between the reader and the events that take place during the hot summer night, with the unceasing rain. In this God-forsaken place the grim avenger disguised as a bat visits the asylum to convince the green-haired antagonist to stop the fight, which is leading only to total annihilation. Wanting to save himself from the upcoming tragedy, the Dark Knight tries to convince the duke of crime to end the meaningless acts of violence. To the reader's surprise, it comes out that the protagonist of the story is actually talking to an impostor, while the real Joker is currently planning his new, sick idea. However, this time he does not target a bank, a school, or a police station — this time he tries to prove that in the end, he really is a normal man who responds to the severity of life in a natural way — by ... madness.
Another plot twist seems to reflect the beginning of Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" rather than a typical superhero comic book. With the help of some street thugs, Joker breaks in to James Gordon's apartment, paralyses his daughter by shooting her straight through, and kidnaps the police officer after beating him up. What is more, Joker undresses Gordon's helpless daughter and makes photos of her to later mentally torture James by showing him the pictures he took. By driving him insane, he intends to prove that one particular day could change a decent man into a lunatic. At this moment the reader understands that the cult and precise picture that is used as the cover of the comic book shows a very unpleasant, unfunny, and rather obscene situation. This "ironical" use of the cover was yet unparalleled in American comics.
The Devil's HumanityThe critics of Moore and Bolland's comic book (such as Timothy Callan, author of the book "Grant Morrison's Early Years") accused the creators of taking the path of least resistance — referring to one of the early, classic Batman comics "The Man Behind the Reed Hood!" from issue no. 168 of Detective Comics vol. 1. "The Killing Joke's" authors also face the accusations of attacking the reader with sadomasochistic violence that has no deeper meaning. Indeed, "The Killing Joke" would be a significantly shallow story about the psychopath's oppression if not the retrospections showing one of the probable ways of creating the Joker identity. Probable, although not certain, because the clown as the narrator of the flashback admits: "I'm not exactly 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!" This quote, however, is placed near the end of the comic book — until this very moment the reader's emotions face a character that loses everything and everyone that he has, and is the character is forced to break the law because of his life situation. Batman appears on the crime scene, but even the hero in a black cape cannot save this unfortunate man from his destiny, which pulls him closer and closer to existential nihilism.
Joker's philosophy completely lacks the idea of a better future — Gotham's universe is driven by chaos, justice does not exist and even if it does, it is realized in a completely random, obligatory way. With a feeling of the complete lack of safety, in an atmosphere of constant fear, callousness, and paranoia, a man can lose everything that is dear to his heart in one moment and it will not have any sense. The only rescue is to use the emergency exit in the form of madness, which frees people from social conventions and culture — the source of pain. No matter then that this type of Nietzschean Ubermensch in its pure form (acquiring hedonistic pleasure from causing pain to others and infecting them with his warped worldview) hates the Kantian Batman, who, in his mighty crusade, realizes his categorical imperative. Although Bruce Wayne is a dissenter too, and has survived his tragedy by becoming aware of the ruthlessness of the world, he nonetheless stands on the other side of the barricade.
As the convention requires, in the very last moment the superhero stops his nemesis from performing his intended evil. Later, there comes a fight from which the Batman comes out as a winner. "What are you waiting for?" Bruce is asked by the Joker. "God damn it...it's empty! Well? What are you waiting for? I shot a defenseless girl, I terrorized an old man. Why don't you kick the hell out of me and get a standing ovation from the public gallery?" In this very moment an ambiguous situation takes place — Batman, trying to obey the law in his honor code, gives up under the self-control mechanisms and asks the Joker the same question as he had before in the Arkham Asylum. Despite the bestiality of the evil jester, Batman still believes in his rehabilitation and being able to make a great comeback to become a healthy member of society.
The Ending with a Cursed ProphecyAfter some reflection, Joker responds that it is already too late for redemption and sneeringly, tells the Dark Knight a joke: "See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum...and one night, one night they decide they don't like living in an asylum any more. They decide they're going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight...stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren't make the leap. Y'see...y'see, he's afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea...He says 'Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!' B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says... he says 'What do you think I am? Crazy? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!'"". When finished, Joker immediately bursts into laughter about the curious situation and, quite unexpectedly, Batman has a laugh, too. The characters' silhouettes fade in the neon of police car lights and the comic's perspective heads to a puddle, being the mirror between the rightful defender in the skin of the demon, and the mighty murderer in the skin of a jester.
The climax page of "The Killing Joke" is considered not only as a piece or comic art, but of art in general — it is immensely simple and mysterious, therefore one could say primitive, but yet it gives the reader multiple ways of understanding the final message of the whole comic book. This particular motif allows Moore and Bolland's work to remain relevant even 30 years after the publication date. Every reader sees something different in the end of this short graphic novel, depending on the actual state of mind — one could see Batman patting Joker on his shoulder while beginning to realize the absurdity of this sick Tom-and-Jerry-like game, which seems to have no end. Others may see the Dark Knight stabbing the antagonist with venom, defending himself from the attack of a psychopath. It might just be that he really did kill him or understood that his own weapon does not work on him while observing the clown laughing about his weakness. Whatever the outcome would be, the Joker will succeed, which itself may be the "Joke" from the title, the joke that kills not the Batman, but the values that he believes in.
It is probable that the authors' intention was to finally break Bruce, which would grant him the humanity which fans craved. Although even Alan Moore did not believe in that scenario — he did not think about Batman as an example for younger people to follow, or a regular human being that could live quite happily and healthy in a modern society. From Rorschach's point of view, Batman is in the situation of losing his beliefs, making himself an obsessive maniac. Bolland, however, changes the situation by adding some additional information, ipso facto complicating the plot. When one looks at the drawings being the travesty of Moore's script and later again looks at the final version of the comic, one could see some significant differences. These subtle inaccuracies have been outlined in the deluxe version of the comic book, the most important version of the comic these days. Bolland improves the comic book so that it can be compared to the ideal back from the 80s. He used to say that the first colors, made by John Higgins, made his work rather shabby looking, while also overcoming the inspirations he took from, for example, David Lynch's "Eraserhead." This piece of information can be found in Julian Darius' analysis entitled "And the Universe So Big: Understanding Batman: The Killing Joke," in which the literary critic from Illinois talks through all the aspects of the comic book.
And when the curtain falls ...One could therefore speculate, putting the comic book back on the shelf, that Moore and Bolland's idea was to destroy the battlefield on which all the wars between Batman and the thugs took place. But are there literally no other options of interpretation? What if The Joke was not directed toward the Batman, but us, the readers? The people that consume and create pop culture? What if Batman and Joker laugh at us, the wild hordes wanting nothing from our lives but food and fun? As Julian Darius suggests: "But there's another, deeper meaning to the title. Perhaps the Joker's theories are right. Perhaps his worldview has some merit — we have already seen it does. Perhaps the real joke is our own sense of identity, the notion that we are so different from the madmen and lunatics we condemn as irredeemably nuts." [J. Darius, "And the Universe so Big: Understanding Batman: The Killing Joke" 2012, Sequart Organization, p. 38.]
The readers are so busy looking for the underlying message of the comic book, they forget the fact that maybe it is like looking at raindrops running down the window. People like to escape to the dark and violent world not for escapist reasons; not even because of the similarities between Gotham and the real world. Maybe readers like "The Killing Joke" because in this short story hiding under Joker's insanity there is the notion of everyday life and the problems we, the readers, have to struggle with. A particular frame from the comic seems to come to mind at this very moment, staggering by its suggestiveness. Here he is, Gordon, locked naked in the cage, next to the furious Batman and the smiling Joker, in the heavy rain. Is it not the best image of the battle between the Freudian superego and id, which takes place in our minds during moments of crisis? Maybe a valuable life is lived by a man who has these kinds of moral battles inside? But who has the courage to live by these rules in our world — full of opportunities and refusal of solving problems that may never be solved? Especially that now we live in times when the old rules have been shattered and the new ones haven't yet been invented? Finally, in the society of high risk, where universities do not guarantee a job in the future, and a woman on Facebook with a Chewbacca mask becomes a celebrity and a media authority in one day.
The situation gets even more curious when "The Killing Joke" is read in an intertextual way in the context of the last few years of DC Comics, reheating the old literary motifs and using them to their limits with the use of Bolland's narration and using Moore's ideas as a trash can, in which the corporate rats rummage to create another comic book bestseller. If the Joker is a free and unlimited imagination with More's creativity, and the Batman is a conservative guardian of DC values, therefore the author of "From Hell" is not only a great writer but also a clairvoyant. Over the years DC was trying to force Moore to come back. However, he consequently mocked both these attempts and the whole superhero culture — he even decided that it is a cancer growing on the whole world's culture, killing it by its shallowness and recurrence. The publishing house, however, started swallowing its own tail by the realization of prequels of "Watchmen," even joining them to the official DC heroes' universe. Some may think that Alan Moore is not happy about it, which is possible, but I think that deep down inside he laughs on the whole comic book industry in the knowledge that it cannot create any new identities cut off from his inheritance. He mocks them, because without his help, DC has to repeat all the old ideas and does not evolve into anything new or creative. In the end, without him they are no one. Either they will give up to the evolution and create something different from the clown, or they will die quietly.
One could paraphrase the Joker from "Batman Beyond. Return of the Joker" animation: "I know ... I'd laugh if it wasn't so pathetic....oh what the heck, I'll laugh anyway!" The point is that the modern pop culture erodes because of the need to stay in the comfort zone, using nothing but the old solutions. Even George Lucas, during the criticism of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" said that the great media empires are afraid of new ideas, because they are always a financial risk. It seems better to make prequels and sequels of well-known brands that fans have been waiting long enough for; and it's not the problem of movies and comic books only, but literature and TV series, too. The motifs from "The Killing Joke" are present even in up-to-date television productions, such as British "Sherlock," "Mr. Robot," or even some "Doctor House" episodes. "The Killing Joke" hits the reader in the face with a simple, but immensely hard to answer question — what are you doing with your life? Why are you dosing your happiness? Do you believe that there is anyone to help you?
… and the curtain fell.
Michal Chudolinski is a movie and comic book critic. He graduated from the Department of Sociology at Poland's Collegium Civitas, where he founded the Comics Club. He is the creator of the blog "Gotham in rain" and publishes regularly at 2+3D.
Gary Oldman plays British politician Winston Churchill in the first trailer for Focus Features’ “Darkest Hour,” which explores Churchill’s attempt to rally a nation while Nazis roll across Western Europe.
The trailer begins with the appointment of Churchill as Prime Minister in 1940. Soon, it becomes clear that Churchill must face one of his most difficult decisions yet: negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany, or fight against them.
As a threat is imminent, Churchill makes a decision that the public, and the King, did not see coming.
“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Churchill tells his advisers.
One of Churchill’s greatest speeches, which served as a great inspiration for the British, is included in the trailer as well.
“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” he says.
Directed by Joe Wright (“Atonement”), the film also stars Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, and Ben Mendelsohn. It was written by Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”).
“Darkest Hour” will be released in select cities on Nov. 22.
Watch the video above.
17 Movies We're Dying to See in 2017, From 'Beauty and the Beast' to 'Dunkirk'
Scan TheWrap's list of our most anticipated movies of the upcoming year
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March 17: "Beauty and the Beast"
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April 14: "The Fate of the Furious"
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May 3: "Logan"
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July 21: "Dunkirk"
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July 28: "The Dark Tower"
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Dec 25: "The Greatest Showman"
For fans of P.T. Barnum or anything circus-related, "The Greatest Showman" will be the biographical drama to look out for in 2017. And for fans already deprived of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine... well, he's in this movie!
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"Black Swan" and "Requiem for a Dream" director Darren Aronofsky helms this movie with his girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence starring. It's about a couple whose tranquil life gets disrupted when guests arrive at their home uninvited.
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2017: "Paul Thomas Anderson Untitled Fashion Project"
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