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Two Lunatics: Sanity and Insanity in The Killing Joke

By Eric Doise

“Strictly speaking, we do not know what we are laughing about.” —Sigmund Freud1

In 2008, Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated The Dark Knight hit theaters. The hype surrounding the film had only grown after Heath Ledger, who plays the Joker, committed suicide before editing of the film was complete. Speculation followed regarding how his experience of playing the Joker might have contributed to his death. Despite high expectations, the film satisfied moviegoers and critics alike. It grossed over $1 billion worldwide, at the time the highest box office gross for a comic book adaptation and fifth on the list of all-time highest grossing films.2 In addition, film reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Review-aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports a ninety-four percent approval rating from all reviewers; ninety-one percent of those reviewers were considered top critics. Similarly, Metacritic reports a score of 82 out of 100 based on thirty-nine reviews.

Due in large part to the popularity the film gained in spite of its dark tone and the morbid events surrounding it, the film has since received attention from cultural critics and scholars. Slavoj Žižek, for instance, in Living in the End Times, asks, “Does The Dark Knight‘s extraordinary popularity not then point towards the fact that it touches a nerve in our ideologico-political constellation: the undesirability of truth?” (ch. 1). This question comes from his claim that “the only figure of truth in the film is the Joker, its supreme villain,” a character who Žižek claims “lacks any clear motivation” (ch. 1). Such a situation is odd, to say the least. The comic book superhero tends to occupy, even if it is a sometimes troubled occupation, the place of truth and goodness. A film that opposes this tendency rarely makes it to the screen, much less succeeds at such a high level both economically and critically. A more in-depth investigation of Žižek’s claim would be a worthy endeavor as his analysis is a small part of the text. However, in this article, I would like to investigate whether we can apply his label of the Joker as the figure of truth to a graphic novel closely connected to the film: Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.

The Killing Joke is a one-off, released in 1989, which was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. As a one-shot, the original intention was likely for the story to exist outside of the franchise’s continuity. However, it proved to have a great impact on the larger storyline of the Batman series. Most notably, Barbara Gordon’s injury ends her career as Batgirl and leads to her taking on the persona Oracle. Its cultural impact has also been significant, as evidenced by its influence on Batman films—both Nolan and Tim Burton have cited it as influencing their adaptations—and sales that led DC Comics to produce a deluxe edition nine years after its original release.

This leap (of applying Žižek’s reading of The Dark Knight to The Killing Joke.) does not spring solely from the fact that both narratives feature Batman and the Joker. Rather, The Dark Knight takes The Killing Joke as its departure, as evidenced by Nolan having Ledger use the graphic novel to help him prepare for the role: “The Killing Joke is one [comic] that was handed to me [as research]… So I think [the film] is obviously going to be a bit [about] the beginning of the Joker” (qtd. in Collura, “The Dark Knight: Heath Ledger Talks Joker”; the last two addenda are original to the source). Because The Dark Knight‘s origin story can be traced back to the comic, it might follow that Žižek’s appraisal of the film version of the Joker can be applied to The Killing Joke‘s version as well. In order to determine if this claim holds for the graphic novel, I will examine whether Moore’s Joker does (like Ledger’s Joker) lack a clear motivation, thus differentiating himself from Batman, by investigating the text’s portrayal of madness and sanity, particularly as they are related to representation. Furthermore, I will examine the Joker’s many claims that he has chosen insanity, even recommending it to other characters in the comic. By examining the manner in which representation functions, the relationships Batman and the Joker have with reason and madness, and the defining characteristics of madness, I will argue that the graphic novel presents the Joker as having a clear motivation: to drive others mad, but to a madness that cannot exist outside the confines of reason.

Representation and Madness

The cover of The Killing Joke, which portrays the Joker pointing a camera at the reader and instructing him or her to smile, sets the scene and instructs us how to read what follows. A few important conclusions can be drawn from this initial image. The first is that the text incorporates the reader into the comic from the start. In a foreshadowing of Barbara Gordon’s fate, we, the audience, are being captured and shot. In order to make a successful joke, our inclusion is necessary, for as Sigmund Freud notes in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, wit “often requires three persons, and the psychic process which it incites always requires the participation of at least one other person. It must therefore band itself to the condition of intelligibleness …” (286). Freud later notes that “this third person is indispensable for the completion of the pleasure-bearing process” (288). These characteristics of wit raise two issues that I will address below: (1) Who in The Killing Joke is this audience that is necessary for wit to occur? (2) Can the Joker, who, we will see shortly, is closely associated with wit, be mad if wit requires intelligibility?

The Joker, it should be noted, is not the agent, not our capturer. Rather, that role belongs to the camera, a camera whose name is “Witz.” This apparatus, not its operator, carries the name “witzmacher.” To be more specific, this image of an image-maker has been christened “the joker.” Before we even open the book, we find ourselves confronted with the issue of representation. As we will see, the matter of representation presents itself repeatedly throughout the text through mirror images, characters presented as mirror images of each other, and photographic images. Of course, any comic represents objects and people, but The Killing Joke‘s frequent use of images that are representations of characters, or representations of representations, particularly invites an analysis of the process of representation. Because of these many layers of images, we can read the text as commenting on the process of not just representation, Vorstellung, but also what Jacques Lacan calls Vorstellungrepräsentanz, which refers not to a simple standing-in for something but instead denotes “that which takes the place of the representation” (“Tuché and the Automaton” 60). We could also refer to vergegenwärtigung, which Jacques Derrida explains in his analysis of Husserl as representation that “takes the place of, what occupies the place of, another Vorstellung” (“Meaning” 49). These terms, both of which use tenant lieu in the original, refer to a representation of representation in that they (Vorstellungrepräsentanz and vergegenwärtigung) take the place of representation. In standing in for representation, this substitution conceals its absence. The camera, then, points to the misleading process that is presentation and thus associates its holder with deception. With the opening image of the novel being an image of a machine that allows one to re-present images, the importance of the issue of representation is clear.

As I noted, this taking-place of representation is alluded to throughout the text. The images found on the front- and back-inside covers replicate one another. The same holds for the images on the first and last pages. Because these images re-present each other, they reinforce that the text’s concern is with representation as a substitution of another representation. In addition, they imply that, despite the events within the novel, nothing has changed. We end where we began. Whatever revelation we find in The Killing Joke will not have altered the world or how it works but will have uncovered the machinations of representation’s re-presentation. If we will find the joke funny, it will have been because it was and is true. It is not a kill joke. Rather, the joke is killing, has been killing. Whatever the punch line, it will reveal that which has always already been killing, or taking place.

These duplicate images (on the front- and back-inside covers and the first and last pages of The Killing Joke) differ from most of the other images we will inspect in that they reproduce each other perfectly; however, they function similarly in that they complicate the re-presentation process. For example, the narrative opens with Batman arriving at Arkham Asylum to visit the Joker. Upon entering his cell, Batman sits across from the Joker as the latter plays cards. The first six panels of this page imply that the Joker and Batman are mirror images. The first two panels present a shot-reverse shot that have the two in nearly identical positions; the next four portray the two similarly. The central image of the page, central both spatially and thematically, emphasizes their parallelism via a side shot of the two through the door window, with a bar bisecting our view of the table and with Batman and the Joker occupying equal spacing and seated in the same posture (Figure 1, The Killing Joke 4).

Figure 1

Here, we must remember that Lacan describes the mirror image as accurate in that it presents essentially the same image as that which stands before it but misleading in that it presents another version of this image, including a reversal of the “original” image. The implication, then, is that while the two are opposing forces, on different sides, they share the same origin. As Moore notes, “psychologically Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other” (“Alan Moore Interview”). They are the two sides of Two-Face’s coin.

This revelation, however, appears to be nullified when Batman grabs the Joker’s arm and finds white make-up has rubbed off on his gloves, revealing that the person he thought was the Joker is another prisoner in disguise. To emphasize this revelation, the joker card that had been visible throughout the verbal exchange can no longer be seen. This prisoner is a counterfeit Joker, a substitute whose presence briefly conceals the Joker’s absence. As we have already seen, however, this deception is not specific to this situation but illustrates the concealment that marks representation as re-presentation. As Derrida notes, “what is represented in the representation is a presentation (Präsentation) as Vorstellung. We thus come … to make the Vorstellung itself, and as such, depend on the possibility of re-presentation (Vergegenwärtigung). The presence-of-the-present is derived from repetition and not the reverse” (“Meaning” 52). Whether we realize it or not, representation represents a repetition of representatives. The counterfeit Joker not only leads us to believe that the Joker and Batman are parallels but in doing so also points to the concept of a simple and direct representation as misplaced. The Joker and his stand-in, then, are simply links in this infinite chain, indicating that representation has no beginning and ending point. Awareness of this never-ending process is enough to drive one mad. However, that same awareness also reveals that faith in a simple representation ignores “reality” and thus requires a kind of madness to function. We witness this insanity in Batman’s shock and anger over the revelation that he is not conversing with the actual Joker. On the diegetic level, Batman is crazy for not suspecting the Joker is up to hijinks. Given that the cover exposes the problems of representation, we also find a lack of reason in Batman’s understanding of representation. The Joker he knows is always already a stand-in for the Joker.

This repetition and re-presentation in The Killing Joke are not isolated to the figure of the Joker. In a flashback, we read one version of the Joker’s origin. Upon learning his wife is pregnant, a fledgling comedian arranges to help two criminals break into a factory where he once worked in exchange for money he feels pressured to earn because of his impending child. The criminals inform the comedian that he will be wearing a red hood with two-way mirror glass. When he protests, saying he does not want to be confused for Red Hood, the masked villain associated with the helmet, one criminal explains, “Smarten up. There ain’t3 no ‘Red Hood.’ There’s just a buncha guys, anna mask.” His partner responds, “Right! It doesn’t matter who’s under the hood” (14). In other words, it is not the individual who is important but the position the individual holds. If we remember reality is dependent upon images that stand in for the representation they represent, we can conclude that this hood, with its reflective vision, is the hood of reality. All individuals occupy this place, an occupation made all the more significant because, as we will see, the hood plays a crucial role in this man becoming the Joker.

How, though, are we to make sense of this reality that is not a respecter of persons when we consider Batman and the Joker, two characters who seem to occupy opposite sides of a dichotomy? As we have seen with Žižek, the Joker is generally viewed as an agent of chaos, a prankster who seeks to make reason untenable. Batman, meanwhile, aims to establish control and security in a Gotham often ravished by crime via everyday criminals such as bank robbers, muggers, and murderers, as well as super-villains like the Joker, Two-Face, and others. His work with Commissioner Gordon, who advises him to bring the Joker in “by the book,” seems to place him on the side of law enforcement, peace, and order. On the other hand, the Joker’s actions are not simply crimes but seemingly senseless crimes. For example, while he essentially steals a carnival, he does not benefit from this theft in any tangible way. He makes no money and his future is no more secure than it was before the caper. The goal of the crime is to convince Commissioner Gordon and Batman—the lead agents of order and reason—that the center cannot hold. This criminal act is nothing more than part of an elaborate rhetorical act.

Reason and Madness

The origin story alluded to earlier, however, shows that the dichotomy that supposedly separates Batman and the Joker operates like a mirror image: a unifier as much as a divider. When the man who becomes the Joker enters the factory dressed as the Red Hood, a shootout ensues with a security guard. After the two non-hooded criminals have been shot, Batman arrives and pursues the man wearing the Red Hood disguise, instructing the police to stop shooting because “I’ll take care of it my way” (28). The implication is that Batman’s method is less destructive, more reasonable. However, when the-man-who-would-be-the-Joker sees an approaching Batman through the two-way mirror in his helmet, he panics, asking God, “What have you sent to punish me?” (28). He proceeds to jump off the railing, landing in a pool of water contaminated with run-off from the factory. When he emerges, we see that he has visually become the Joker, the pollution turning his skin white and his hair green. However, it should be noted that it is not the chemicals that drive the Joker insane. When he first exits the body of polluted water, he only complains of his skin burning. Not until he removes the hood and sees the reflection of his new appearance in a puddle does he react as a lunatic, laughing maniacally. We can read his insane behavior as a consequence of having seen not his new, ghastly appearance but the image of it, of a re-presentation that occupies the place of representation.

This flashback also introduces two new elements to the Batman-Joker relationship. First, it reveals that the Joker is in part a creation of Batman and his crime-fighting methodology. This concept has been explored throughout Batman comics and movies, Batman’s mere presence encouraging villains to challenge him. However, The Killing Joke provides a much more direct connection between the Joker’s birth and Batman. Had the police continued to shoot at the Joker, he likely would have died or escaped. Instead, Batman’s more logical strategy results in the Joker’s panic and subsequent plunge into madness. This connection can be linked to Derrida’s analysis of the origin of the reason-madness split in his work on Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. He points out that Foucault’s “the Decision”:

through a single act, links [lie] and separates reason and madness, and it must be understood at once both as the original act of an order, a fiat, a decree, and as a schism, a caesura, a separation, a dissection. I would prefer dissension, to underline that in question is a self-dividing action, a cleavage and torment interior to meaning in general, interior to logos in general, a division within the very act of sentire. (“Cogito”46)

This Decision both unifies and segregates reason and madness, and it can be no other way if they are to determine one another as dichotomous concepts. Like Batman’s attempt to save the man-who-would-be-Joker, the Decision is a violent act: the French infinitive lier does mean “to link,” but it also means “to tie up” or “to bind.” We find a similar clash of meanings within “cleavage”: despite the division of this cleavage, the two opposites still cleave to one another, a clinging made necessary by the fact that this division comes from within meaning. They are split but from within and thus still reside within the entity that is meaning, logos. Just as the Joker and Batman are mirror images of one another, opposite but the same, madness and reason are forced apart but by a force that is always separating them, thus always touching them, and thus always uniting them.

This inextricable link is reinforced by another image of an image. Earlier in the text, Commissioner Gordon and Barbara discuss the commissioner’s newspaper clippings of Batman and Catwoman. Just before Barbara opens the door to a gun-toting Joker, we see a clip of the first time Batman and the Joker supposedly met (Figure 2, The Killing Joke 8).

Figure 2

While the clip shows Batman having captured the Joker, The Killing Joke provides no evidence that Batman arrests the Joker at the chemical factory. Furthermore, the failed comedian arrives to the heist in a solid-black tuxedo and emerges from the toxic water in his customary purple suit. In the newspaper photograph, though, the Joker dons a pin-striped suit. Although one panel in The Killing Joke does seem to portray the Joker as wearing pinstripes during the factory break-in, this image portrays the Joker plunging into the water and so could be seen as a depiction of the water blurring our view of the Joker. The discrepancy between the official first meeting of the two and an encounter that precedes that meeting tells us that their history predates their history. They have always already been connected to each other. The Joker and Batman met before the Joker even existed.

Because the two characters have always already determined one another, they must share some foundation. It is no surprise, then, that we have already seen them mirroring one another. The Joker once again hits on this shared foundation as he explains to Batman, “I can tell you had a bad day, and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a flying rat? You had a bad day, and it drove you as crazy as everybody else … only you won’t admit it. You have to keep pretending that life makes sense, that there’s some point to all the struggling” (36). The difference between the two is that Batman chooses to dress as Batman; Bruce Wayne elects to have a persona. The Joker, on the other hand, has been permanently changed into the Joker. As Žižek notes, speaking of the Joker in The Dark Knight, “he is not a man without a mask, but, on the contrary, a man fully identified with his mask, a man who is his mask—there is nothing, no ‘ordinary guy,’ beneath it” (ch. 1). Batman, then, keeps pretending life is sensical because he can. This option no longer exists for the Joker, who cannot remove a mask in order to take a break from life as the Joker. As shown by his file and the flashbacks, the Joker’s name is unknown to Batman, and because Batman believes the two did not meet until after their encounter at the chemical plant, he does not know the Joker’s origin. With his wife’s death, all personal ties to his life before the chemical scarring have been cut. To Batman, the Joker is a man without origin, without home. He is a mad nomad. Readers, however, have an origin story for the Joker and thus are able to trace his development and motivation. He is not mad so much as vengeful.

As the Joker argues, Batman is driven by a “bad” day, the day his parents were murdered, but he seeks to fight the meaninglessness of his parents’ death in a random mugging by restoring order through crime-fighting. The Joker, on the other hand, seems to embrace the randomness of his fateful day and spread this chaos. For example, after wounding Barbara, he begins to disrobe her so that he can capture the images of her naked body that he will force Commissioner Gordon to look at. The liquor he drinks as he carries out this attack is called Plaisant Farceur, which can be literally translated as “Pleasant Practical Joker” or “Funny Practical Joker.” The phrase also sounds like the English “pleasant forcer.” As with the camera, the Joker is not the agent, not the practical joker forcibly spreading the seed of his mad laughter. Rather, it is the liquor, operating in a manner similar to wit, which Freud describes as “mak[ing] possible the gratification of a craving (lewd or hostile) despite a hindrance which stands in the way; it eludes the hindrance and so derives pleasure from a source that has become inaccessible on account of the hindrance” (146). The liquor allows the Joker to move beyond a simple violent act directed toward one person to, as we will see, one intended to invoke madness in others.

Of course, the liquor’s influence does not free the Joker from blame, suddenly rendering his actions as ethical or pardonable. Rather, the necessity of the liquor indicates the Joker has not been able to completely break with the social order in his attempt to spread madness. He operates against the social order but from a position within it, still relying upon its logic. The liquor does seem to have done its job effectively as evidenced by Barbara Gordon. Barbara’s grimace when she informs Batman that she remembers what the Joker did calls to mind the face of the other insane characters throughout the comic. Directing his chaos-inducing actions towards the commissioner and Batman belies the Joker’s actions as horrible but reasoned. He attempts to undermine sanity and reason with a sane, reasonable plan, his targets not randomly selected but representative of the ostensible order of civilization that the Joker hopes to undermine. His rationale is rather rational. This failure to break with sanity does not reveal a weakness in the Joker but a limit no character could exceed no matter how diabolical. As we will see, while the Joker speaks out against sanity, silence is a condition of pure madness. As Derrida notes, when

… one attempts to convey their silence itself, one has already passed over to the side of the enemy, the side of order, even if one fights against order from within it, putting its origin into question… . The unsurpassable, unique, and imperial grandeur of the order of reason, that which makes it not just another actual order or structure (a determined historical structure, one structure among other possible ones), is that one cannot speak out against it except by being for it, that one can protest it only from within it; and within its domain, Reason leaves us only the recourse to strategems and strategies. (“Cogito” 42)

Doomed to reinforce the logic he seeks to undermine, the Joker’s every plan works against his desire to induce madness by destroying order precisely by being an ordered plan. The Joker’s intent precludes that intent from being realized, but the absence of that intent would render him unable to actively oppose reason.

Such focused actions also belie the Joker’s supposed madness, revealing his speeches encouraging others to go mad to be the product of something other than insanity. When preparing Commissioner Gordon for his ride through the fun house full of pictures of his wounded, naked daughter, the Joker advises him:

Memories can be vile, repulsive little brutes. Like children, I suppose. Ha Ha. But can we live without them? Memories are what our reason is based upon. If we can’t face them, we deny reason itself! Although, why not? We aren’t contractually tied down to rationality! There is no sanity clause! So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness. Madness is the emergency exit. You can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away … forever. (18)

The Joker, however, proves incapable of following his own advice. The first flashback, of the pre-Joker and his wife discussing their financial situation—a discussion that will inspire him to join the criminals for a big pay-out—ends with his smiling wife reaching out to him, while his reflection peers back at him from behind her. The next panel parallels the first with a reflection of the Joker reaching out to himself, his hand occupying the same position as his wife’s hand, the rest of his body mirroring his own reflection. In the second panel, his wife is replaced by a smiling clown inside a glass case (Figure 3, The Killing Joke 9).

Figure 3

The flashback picks back up just after the Joker holds a glass of Plaisant Farceur, the next panel presenting the pre-Joker in the same position with a drink as he and the criminals discuss their heist. The following episode of the flashback ends with the pre-Joker’s head on the table, his hands crossed over the top of his head in despair after he has learned that his pregnant wife has died but the criminals will force him to go through with the crime anyway. The next panel, after the flashback, shows Gordon in the same despairing position as his car proceeds through the fun house, the Joker looking on.

While the Joker advises Gordon to abandon reason by shutting the door on his memories, the villain himself fails at forgetting. He would like to simply step outside of memory and reason, but his memories will not be drowned. Much as he would like, he is unable to completely escape reason. Some scholars have noted that because the visual markers for the flashback denote the Joker, not the narrative itself, as the source for this look-back, and the Joker is an unreliable character, we cannot know the validity of this story. Mervi Miettinen, for example, writes that “the visual cuing implicates him as the source, while the textual narrative actively denies this, creating a strong dissonance that causes the reader to become aware of the problematic nature of the origin story and to question the source of these ‘memories'” (12). While Miettinen is correct to note this dissonance, no character narrates the story to us or other characters. We seem to have been granted access to the Joker’s thoughts. Because no evidence suggests the Joker narrates this flashback, no evidence that he can mislead us exists. Certainly, a deep-rooted trauma may have caused him to misremember his origin, but if he is not relaying the story to us, he cannot plan to deceive us. His memories, then, while surely not fool-proof, are more reliable than his words, the textual narrative.

This issue is one where Nolan’s and Moore’s Jokers diverge. Žižek notes that the former’s character “lacks any clear motivation … [and] tells different people different stories about his scars, mocking the idea that some deep-rooted trauma drives him” (ch. 1). In The Killing Joke, despite the Joker’s attestations to the contrary, we are given one version of his history. Furthermore, the Joker’s motivation in The Killing Joke is clear: to prove that a bad day can drive anyone mad.4 The Joker uses this line of reasoning on Gordon after the latter emerges from the fun house ride seemingly broken, telling him, “That’s what a dose of reality does for you. Never touch the stuff myself, you understand. Find it gets in the way of hallucinations” (25). Again, the text undermines his claims through the portrayal of his past through his memories.

Despite his many claims to have chosen madness contra sanity, the Joker also hints at an awareness that reason and madness cannot be so easily separated. When the commissioner finds himself in the Joker’s hellish carnival and asks for clarification on what is happening, the Joker answers, “You’re doing what any sane man in your appalling circumstances would do. You’re going mad” (17). After locking up Gordon following the fun house ride, he comments, “Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless, one in eight [humans] crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this … any other response would be crazy” (30). The Joker, then, acknowledges a certain method to madness. However, he still clings to his ability to occupy the place of pure madness by referring to average humans as “them.” While Gordon’s supposed demented turn makes sense, the Joker must distinguish himself from this process of going mad because it has an origin and a logical motivation, thus removing it from the space of unadulterated insanity. He understands that the existence of a locatable beginning to madness imbues a certain reason to it, contaminating it with logic, even if he cannot escape his own origin.

Madness and Reason

The Joker, however, is not the only character who battles with the inseparability of reason and madness. Batman, too, struggles with the fact that these two seemingly opposite states are inextricably linked. Throughout the comic, Batman behaves as we expect him to. We have already seen examples of this in his attempt to apprehend Red Hood in what he thinks will be a less violent and thus more reasonable manner. He attempts to follow Commissioner Gordon’s instructions and bring in the Joker “by the book,” a futile attempt. In his encounter with the impostor Joker and the beginning of his encounter with the Joker, he opens by saying, “I came to talk” (4; 30). He desires a calm conversation in which the two can discuss their differences and come to a reasonable understanding. We have seen the first attempt thwarted by the fact that he is not talking to the actual Joker, a revelation that sends him into a rage. In the latter conversation, Batman launches himself at the Joker even while he begins what seems to be a rational conversation. He cannot resist the madness-inducing anger the Joker evokes long enough to take a level approach, resulting in the simultaneous presence of evidence of uncontrollable wrath and mature reason, a mad position if there ever were one.

After chasing down and subduing the Joker, Batman begins the above conversation. Expressing his desire to avoid the death of either of them, he offers to help the Joker, to rehabilitate him, an insane request given the history the two share. The Joker, the one who seems to be the least sane, offers the only logical response to such an outlandish question: “No. It’s too late for that. Far too late” (40). Crazy as he might seem to be, the Joker realizes that the two could never pull off such an insane endeavor. Batman, ostensibly the agent of order and reason, has issued a proposal so absurd that the supposed agent of madness realizes how mad the suggestion is. The Joker’s reasoning is telling: time is not on their side. The past poses too great an obstacle for them to cooperate. Once again, we see that the Joker cannot follow his own recommendation to close the door on unpleasant memories because he cannot escape reason, no matter how tenuous his hold on it is.

Much as the Joker has a troubled relationship with the past, Batman cannot seem to handle his own back-story. After he finds that the Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum, Batman visits the Bat Cave to research the Joker, hoping to find clues for his next move. Upon first arriving, he throws down the Joker card from the asylum in front of a picture of a younger Commissioner Gordon, his butler Alfred, Robin, and the Bat-family, all appearing as they did in 1950s comic books (Figure 4, The Killing Joke 10).

Figure 4

The card bears the signature of Bob Kane, credited as the creator of Batman. The image is peculiar not only because of the signature but because some of the characters in it had been retconned out of existence in 1984’s Crisis on Infinite Earths and not reintroduced until after the publication of The Killing Joke.5 One could chalk up this image to a wink from Moore and the other creators of The Killing Joke, an inside joke that has no significant bearing on the plot of this issue, and such a reading is not unjustified. Comic book characters with as long a history as Batman tend to have a multitude of alternative story lines created to adapt to each period’s cultural concerns and mores or to rid the writers of a character or plot line that has grown stale or was ill-advised. Later comics will often allude to these dormant or altered plot lines in a manner that does not affect the plot of the current issue. This tendency might be especially appealing in the case of The Killing Joke, which, as we have noted, was not intended to have much or any impact on the series’ continuity.

However, we can also see this photo as an eruption of Batman’s own carefully scripted development arc. His motivation for becoming Batman seems clear-cut: a way to avenge the deaths of his parents and honor their philanthropy. On a deeper level, as has already been mentioned, his secret identity provides a means of controlling a world that seems chaotic and unreasonable. While the Joker seeks to close the door on those memories that haunt him, Bruce Wayne/Batman aims to force those memories to serve a purpose most useful to him. This characteristic is revealed in Batman’s reaction to the time-out-of-joint photograph: no reaction. He does not recognize anything odd about a photograph of people who no longer have existed or the signature of his creator who occupied another world because his approach to his own history forces him to abandon the idea of continuity and reality while pretending to remain consistent to them. Batman seeks to make the past into what best suits him no less than the Joker does. The difference lies only in the particular strategy for imposing that control. This variation hides that in both cases the past has been constructed to fit an established narrative that does not necessarily follow history. In other words, any continuity that seems to exist between Wayne’s past and Batman’s present slips away the moment we think we have grasped it. The Joker, speaking of his origin, explains, “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!” (37). The picture of the Bat-family shows that Batman shares this preference.

While one could use this statement to question the legitimacy of the Joker’s flashbacks, this would only highlight Batman’s creative perspective on his past. Even if the Joker does elect to create multiple pasts, he still chooses to have a past, an origin or origins from which his current actions spring, just as Batman chooses to create continuity with his past. Like the Joker’s failed attempt to oppose reason, which is not to say that he opposes reason and fails but that no such opposition can ever be realized, Batman’s disregard for a consistent progression from past to present cannot be avoided. Discussing Descartes’ Cogito, Derrida notes that

even if the totality of what I think is imbued with falsehood or madness, even if the totality of the world does not exist, even if nonmeaning has invaded the totality of the world, up to and including the very contents of my thought, I still think, I am while I think. Even if I do not in fact grasp the totality, if I neither understand nor embrace it, I still formulate the project of doing so, and this project is meaningful in such a way that it can be defined only in relation to a precomprehension of the infinite and undetermined totality. This is why, by virtue of this margin of the possible, the principled, and the meaningful, which exceeds all that is real, factual, and existent, this project is mad, and acknowledges madness as its liberty and its very possibility. (“Cogito” 68)

No matter how insane Batman’s perspective on his past is, no matter how unaware he is of the discontinuity his recollection of the past imposes on it, he still thinks, thinks of himself as thinking, and thus inhabits the land of reality. The madness of this condition, however, that one merely need think and realize one is thinking in order for that thought to be meaningful, reveals how dependent meaning and thus reason is on unreason. Batman cannot avoid insanity, at least not insanity that falls within reason’s paradigm and therefore does not completely oppose it, because the very conditions of sanity require a certain madness. Thus, when Deneb Kozikoski Valereto argues that “the Joker’s ‘madness’ traverses through reason to give reason another sense, one that is perhaps best understood as an epistemological mode where reason is maddened” (76), he also describes Batman’s “reason” traversing through madness. However, while Valereto argues that this quality opposes Derrida’s understanding of reason, he actually describes Derrida’s position with one exception: Derrida sees reason as always already having been maddened. The Joker does not give another sense so much as he uncovers the one that has always been there.

The same-yet-different quality Batman and the Joker share as figurative mirror images—and images of each other’s mirror images—culminates in the final scene of the text. Batman has corralled the Joker, offering to rehabilitate him. In order to do so, Batman crashes through one of the many mirrors in the fun house. This action echoes Derrida’s comment on Foucault, one of his teachers: “the disciple must break the glass, or better the mirror, the reflection, his infinite speculation on the master. And start to speak” (“Cogito” 37). One can argue whether the Joker is Batman’s master or vice versa. As we have seen in The Killing Joke, we most likely would conclude such an analysis with them determining one another, each mastering the other simultaneously and infinitely. Similarly, we could read this breaking of the mirror as a symbolic destruction of Batman and the Joker as opposing but fortifying forces. However, Batman’s shattering of the mirror and ensuing speech end with him back in the same position he has always occupied, for this breaking-through is immediately followed by Batman’s insane proposition to rehabilitate the Joker and the latter’s sane rejection of that proposition. Even were the Joker to accept this suggestion, the rehabilitation Batman has in mind would likely produce a Joker who behaves and views the world as insanely as Batman does. The Joker’s treatment would not rehabilitate him so much as alleviate his current symptoms while producing new ones.

The Joke’s on Whom?

As the narrative winds down, the Joker finally tells the joke his impostor started at the beginning of the graphic novel: two patients in an insane asylum seek to escape. The first patient jumps from the roof of the asylum to another building. The second hesitates, nervous about not completing the jump and falling to his death. The former informs the scared patient that he will shine his light across the gap, providing beams of light his fellow escapee can walk across, but his partner refuses, convinced the other inmate will turn the light off when he reaches the middle of the beams. At the conclusion of the joke, the Joker laughs maniacally; Batman reluctantly follows suit, a laugh escaping from his clenched teeth and grimace, before grabbing the Joker by the throat and strangling him. In the end, Batman fails to follow “the book” that Commissioner Gordon recommends. Instead of using an orderly and reasoned method to arrest the Joker, he erupts into madness and violence to accomplish his goal, just as the Joker does. His reaction calls to mind Freud’s estimation of wit and one’s reaction to it: “Every witticism thus demands its own public, and to laugh over the same witticisms is a proof of absolute psychic agreement” (233). Their shared laughter points to a shared perspective and mental state.

The joke, then, serves not just as an instigator of Batman’s uncontrollable violent streak but also as commentary on Batman, the Joker, and their relationship. When we first hear the beginning of the joke, Batman is visiting the Joker impostor in Arkham Asylum. The images of Batman and the Joker in an asylum accompany the set-up: two lunatics are in an asylum. Which inmate resembles which of the characters is insignificant. What matters most is that both inmates share the same view of the beam of light and the gap between the buildings. While ostensibly opposing sides, each inmate relies on the same logic. At the risk of belaboring the joke, I would like to point out that this logic results in treating the “beam” of light the same as a “beam” of solid material, thus relying on a double meaning of “beam” for its wit. Freud argues that in jokes that depend upon double meanings, “the wit contains nothing but a word capable of several interpretations which allows the hearer to find the transition from one thought to another …” (68). “Several” interpretations, however, does not seem to go far enough. Rather, the word play invites transitions from one thought to another infinitely. Once the connection-making between thoughts begins, it cannot be stopped. In the joke, “beam” substitutes for “beam,” but this substitution cannot stop there. It continues along a disorderly, infinitely expanding chain of signifiers. The two are caught up in the endless substitution that is representation. Both Batman and the Joker respond madly to the punch line because it illuminates the endless process that is representation and thus language and communication. If that were not enough to drive them mad, they must also confront the fact that this chain touches both madness and reason, uniting those concepts they have sought to both embody and destroy.

The joke makes the two aware of the impossible positions both inhabit. As Freud notes, “if wit made us laugh it was because it established in us a mood most unfavorable to reason …” (202). In this case, wit makes the duo aware that their positions, those reason created, are untenable. The Joker claims to represent insanity, but he must rely upon logic to proselytize. The catch-22 he finds himself in is that in order to convince seemingly sane people to go crazy, he must do so within the logic they share. His carefully planned approach to driving Gordon mad has its foundation in logical rhetoric, which is precisely why he fails. He cannot persuade others to leave reason behind if he has left it behind. He cannot be both a wit-maker and mad. As for Batman, he seeks to impose control and order on a system that will always be plagued by meaningless irruptions. Wealthy, philanthropic people will be murdered in random muggings. Some people will happen to have been born to these wealthy, philanthropic people while others will just happen to have been born in less fortunate circumstances. Like the Joker, Batman’s strategy originates from that which he seeks to eliminate. The random mugging and his arbitrarily assigned privileged status inspire his desire to restore order to a world gone mad. However, because this motivation springs from randomness and illogic, it will always be haunted by the chaos it seeks to drive out, has always already been haunted by it. This haunting is what allows him to operate based on a nostalgia that misremembers a reasonable world.

To answer an earlier question, the reader is the butt of the joke if he or she expected a clear resolution, but Batman and the Joker are also the joke’s target. We all share the logic of the inmates. However, because we all occupy an endless chain of signification, we are all also the third party necessary for a joke to exist. With this in mind, we must conclude that the Joker is not an agent of pure madness and Batman is not an agent of order. However, this conclusion raises another question: is there a purely mad character in the graphic novel? We have already seen that the Joker fails at driving anyone mad, even if he does succeed in encouraging Batman to react in a mad way.

The text does, however, show a person occupying pure madness. After touring the carnival, the Joker injects the former owner with a chemical that renders him mute. Catatonic, he rides a spring-mounted pink elephant, eyes and smile unusually wide (Figure 5, The Killing Joke 12).

Figure 5

According to the Joker, this status will last a lifetime. This speechless, uncommunicative, paralyzed man is the only one who possibly occupies pure madness. We cannot know for sure; his mad state could be restricted to that part of his body visible to others, leaving his brain fully functioning. Regardless, madness is often judged based on visible actions, and this man is stuck with one action: a mute stare. Foucault’s Madness and Civilization links madness and silence throughout its text, so this analysis is not without precedent. Derrida argues “madness is indeed, essentially and generally, silence, stifled speech, within a caesura and a wound that open up life as historicity in general. Not a determined silence, imposed at one given moment rather than at any other, but a silence essentially linked to an act of force and a prohibition which open history and speech” (“Cogito” 65). Because the silence imposed on this man is produced via an act of force (the infinitive lier again appears in the original where “linked” appears in the English), it is a determined silence, but its status as such serves only to illustrate the impossibility of representing an original silence. Representation of such a state is excluded by the very representative act that would seek to present it. Therefore, we can read the muteness as both an attempt to present this undetermined silence and a revelation of this attempt’s pre-determined failure.

In his analysis of Foucault’s book, Derrida notes that the etymology of the word enfant can be traced back to the Latin infans, meaning “speechless” (“Cogito” 36). We can trace this development in the English “infant” as well. This character, then, has been reduced to the state of infancy. He escapes the madness that lies within the realm of logic by being made an adult child, by maturing into an infant. In other words, the chemical upends the normal trajectory of life and removes him from all dichotomies, for all of them depend upon the same problematic logic the madness-sanity opposition does. Derrida explains that “silence plays the irreducible role of that which bears and haunts language, outside and against which alone language can emerge …” (“Cogito” 65). Unlike the Joker and Batman, who seem to emerge against one another but in fact are manifestations of the same logic, the speechless carnival owner stands for that silence that is necessary for speech to exist. It is not, then, as Valereto notes, that “the Derridean alternative … obstructs the Joker’s relation to madness from being radical beyond logos” (78). Rather, the Joker’s relation to madness is the obstruction. The carnival owner’s madness, which starkly contrasts the Joker’s supposed insanity, overcomes these obstructions. It is not the Joker’s relation to madness that “asks us to read beyond the contractual codes of logocentrism,” but the speechless, logos-less character’s (Valereto 78).

While the Joker delivers the injection that drives the man mad, the result is not brought about by him but by the chemical. The Joker’s rhetorical approach perhaps confined his targets to reason. The poison does not present a case or create a situation that logically should drive one to madness. It does not put the carnival owner into a situation where the only reasonable response is insanity. Instead, it occupies the space that the insanity-sanity dichotomy excludes from its relationship. It plunges the man into a condition so insane that its inhabitant cannot identify it as insane. This is madness at its highest degree. On the other hand, while insanity may render the man purposeless and speechless, in doing so, it closes off all avenues that provide a means of resistance to order. This is sanity at its highest degree. While he cannot behave sanely, he also cannot seek to impose insanity. The joke, then, lies in this irony: pure sanity and insanity occupy the same place, the abyss that the two inmates, the Joker, and Batman fear and thus seek to cross over.

If Žižek concludes that the popularity of The Dark Knight points to the undesirability of truth in contemporary society, what larger conclusion can we draw from The Killing Joke? Because the latter is the jumping-off point of the former, it seems likely that the same finding could be located in the graphic novel and that a similar conclusion about our society could also be drawn from it. I would like to argue that this determination is a shared one but perhaps not due to the cause Žižek uncovers. As we have seen, The Killing Joke‘s Joker has a clear motive for his “insanity”: to prove that even the most stalwart representatives of sanity are just one misfortune from a plunge into insanity. What the Joker instead reveals, perhaps unbeknownst to him, is both that he is not the agent of chaos he either believes he is or feigns to be and also that these bulwarks of order in fact unknowingly fortify disorder through their attempts to prove the efficacy and necessity of the established system.

If we return to a conversation between Batman and the Joker, we can see that these misconceptions hold up only through a refusal to break out of this structure. We have already seen that Batman’s offer to reform the Joker is a crazy one because it is proffered as if the pair’s history can be worked through. This suggestion fits what Lacan calls a symbolic exchange: one offers to do something with the understanding that the other will refuse. In Violence, Žižek notes that while such an exchange might seem harmless, great harm can be inflicted if one actually accepts such an offering: “Such a situation is properly catastrophic: it causes the disintegration of the semblance of freedom that pertains to social order”(162). We see yet again that Batman’s professed faith in the workings of a sane, logical method is a watered down one. He makes the suggestion knowing full well that it will not be accepted. More significant, however, is the Joker’s refusal. Were he to accept, he would, to echo Žižek, disintegrate the freedom the social order pretends to be built on, delivering the madness-inducing blow he claims to desire. Instead, his choice allows the semblance of the sanity-insanity dichotomy to persist by playing by the rules of symbolic exchanges. We can conclude, then, that The Killing Joke‘s Joker does reveal the undesirability of the truth. He does so not as an agent of truth, however, but as one who fails to seize the opportunity to pull the mask off.


[1] See Freud, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co., 1920) 1477.

[2] It currently sits at twelfth on the overall list and second in comic book adaptations as several films, including 2012’s The Avengers, have since surpassed it.

[3] All emphases in quotes of The Killing Joke are original to the text.

[4] In fact, I would argue that this motivation can also be located in Nolan’s Joker. Even Žižek notices this without noticing it. He writes that the Joker “wants to disclose the truth beneath the Mask, convinced that this disclosure will destroy the social order” (ch. 1).

[5] Thanks to Saara Raappana for pointing this out to me.

Works Cited

Collura, Scott. “The Dark Knight: Heath Ledger Talks Joker.” IGN. IGN Entertainment. 7 Nov. 2006. Web. 7 July 2012.

“The Dark Knight.” Rotten Tomatoes. <>.

“The Dark Knight Reviews.” Metacritic. <>.

Derrida, Jacques. “Cogito and the History of Madness.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. New York: Routledge, 2005. 36-76. E-book.

—. “Meaning and Representation.” Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Evanston, IL: Northwest UP, 1973. 48-59. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co., 1920. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “Tuché and Automaton.” The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1998. 53-64. Print.

Miettinen, Mervi. “Past as Multiple Choice—Textual Anarchy and the Problems of Continuity in Batman: The Killing Joke.” Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art 1.1 (Spring 2011): 5-25. Print.

Moore, Alan, writer. The Killing Joke. Art by Brian Bolland and John Higgins. New York: DC Comics, 1988. Print.

—. “Alan Moore Interview.” By Brad Stone. Comic Book Resources. 22 Oct. 2011. Web. 9 July 2012.

Valereto, Deneb Kozikoski. “Philosophy in the Fairground: Thoughts on Madness and Madness in Thought in The Killing Joke.” Studies in Comics 2.1. 69-80. Print.

Žižek, Slavog. Living in the End Times. London: Verso, 2011. Kindle file.

—. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. Big Ideas/Small Books. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.

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