Return the Joke

I am running a bit out of order this week. Please bear with me as I get reoriented and such. The good news is the cold from the depths is receding and I am able to get things moving properly again. The ugly news is, now I am digging out of a pit of things lost in the shuffle. But it is all moving along.

Return the Joke

“We must not remind them that giants walk the earth.” (Superman)

I had a mission. I wanted to see the cartoon for The Dark Knight Returns in order to see how much of it meshed up with what I could remember of the graphic novel. And then I reread the graphic novel to see how much of it meshed up with not only my memory but also the cartoon movie. Turns out my memory is off a bit.

For some time in my memories of this one I have it mixed with a different storyline. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I just have to find the story that fits the memory I have floating loose in my brain. But for now, there are a few bigger issues at hand.Return the Joke

The first thing is, if you watch the cartoon thinking you can save yourself some time and avoid having to read the graphic novel, well, then you are missing out. Basically what I find is, the cartoon is fairly close to the graphic novel. But it only covers two issues of the original storyline. The movie covers the mutant crises and the retirement of Jim Gordon, and of course the return of the Batman.

But the thing of all that is this, you are only getting half of the story when you do that. Sure there is drama and a story to be had and it is pretty damn good but we have missed so much more if we stop there. Because earth shaking Batman stories tend to have joker involved (yep, I am being a bit biased but he is Batman’s greatest foe). Through the first half of the book the Joker is essentially comatose in the psyche ward.

It is when we get to the second half, the last two comics of the series that the real story unfolds. Aside from just the Joker storyline we also have a Superman storyline. Each of them is pivotal to the flavor and nuances of the story. The Joker because well, The Joker. And the Superman storyline because it shares with the reader the reason for Batman’s retirement and the state of the world that the comic takes place in.

The quote that I started this piece with, from Superman, is one of the most profound within the storylines. Heroes have been sent into forced retirement, been forced to turn away from the roles they played within the world because standing up and doing the right thing isn’t something that should be considered. Not just that, but the methods used to do the right thing become the deciding factor in who is good and who is bad. Batman at his heart is a vigilante. He does the things that need to be done though not always in the most savory of ways.

There is a moment in the story when Gordon is talking to his replacement and trying to explain his belief in Batman (she wants him brought to justice). The story turns to Pearl Harbor and whether or not Roosevelt had prior knowledge that it would happen. At the time, the US didn’t want to get involved in the war, it didn’t concern us so far away from out shores. So many men and women died at Pearl Harbor, how could Roosevelt justify those deaths he could have prevented. But it had been that same attack that brought the US into the war and so many more lives had been saved.

And we are given a world with heroes, a world where they work outside the law to bring down criminals that our own justice system can’t contain. The world changes, the way we view our protectors’ changes. All these heroes are forced into retirement, forced to stand aside so that normal men and women can guide their own destiny, well, except Superman. For him, he becomes a government stooge, the boogey that does his job unseen and unknown. You can’t waste great assets like that can you.

Batman is Pearl Harbor. He is that catalyst that brings out the hero in others. A normal man standing up against odds that out match him in every way and he does the right thing. Granted he does it all a bit outside the law and his methods are a bit extreme but it is the things that the common man finds distasteful though it needs to be done.

And this brings us back to the Joker. I don’t want to spend all my time talking about plot and what not but really the comparisons here are interesting in an examination of how it all fits together. Batman’s war against the Joker and the new police commissioner is the opposite side of the coin of Superman’s battle against a possible nuclear war. (yep written during the height of the cold war so nuclear is always a common theme).

See as Superman is doing his thing and save the world from the threat of total war, he is moving quietly through the war zone. He is an unknown and unseen protector that does all his work without any thanks, without any credit. Where as, Batman’s entire storyline is talked about on the news, his movements are tracked and monitored. And he is demonized for his heroics. Through much of the commentary he is seen as evil as the Joker, even blamed for all the deaths that the Joker has committed. And the new commissioner is determined to bring him to justice as a menace to polite society.

Throughout the story the interplays of the elements like this give a great compare and contrast to build the tension and draw the reader into the greater storylines. And then there is the personal storyline of Batman himself.

Bruce Wayne is at least in his 60s at this point. And though he is in great shape he is in no shape to be doing the things that Batman is best known for. But the reader is taken a step further into this inner battle. We have his inner dialogue all through the stories and his thoughts on what is happening to his body and how much pain he is willingly putting himself into in the pursuit of the greater good.

So if you remember earlier in this piece I mentioned something about how the stories didn’t mesh in my head with specific memories. Well, after doing some more digging I figured it out I think.

Return the joke 2See around the time that The Dark Knight Returns came out we also had another story come out. This one instead of being a compilation of several comics was a single stand alone Batman title, The Killing Joke. There are a number of things that happened within this comic that have painted the comic book landscape outside of just the grim nature of the story.

Granted the story itself is grim, it’s dark, and it paints a picture of the world that changed comic books just as much as The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns did. But the legacy this particular comic leaves for the world is a much seedier version of the Joker and his affect on the world inside the comic and outside of it.

This is where it gets interesting if we look at the two comics side by side. With one we have a grim view of who and what the Batman is and with the other we see the true face of evil and why the Batman has to be the person he is. (Yep, this treatise is going to be longer than you thought).

Just to put it out there, one of the things that stands out the most about this story is the moment when the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon and cripples her. He then takes distasteful photos of her to torture her father. Some believe that he might have even raped her. Horror of horrors, the villain is a villain, not only that the villain is a monster. (side note: in no way is rape condoned or applauded it is a horrible thing but the stuff does exist in the world we live in). The interesting thing is, from the parts of the pictures we as readers are allowed to see it appears more that he took some nudies of her (ya, still bad but not nearly as bad as what we build up in our imaginations). If it were for this alone and the subsequent disgrace and humiliation of Jim Gordon, this comic would have shock value that reverberates for at least a little while.

But the thing of it is, we hear about and read stories like that all the time. Our minds have become numb to such things. If this was the only selling point of the story the comic would not have become such a strong part of the slipstream. We don’t see the things we don’t want to see.

Now with that out of the way, we move into some other pieces within this story and how it all matters. (again not to take away from the monstrous villain moment of the story but stick a pin in it because it plays into other thoughts).

I remember when the first Michael Keaton Batman movie came out. The movie rode the coattails of comics like The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke. Through the dark vision of director Tim Burton we had someone who could bring these dark storylines alive. And really that was a big step in moving the Caped Crusader from the campy underbelly he had been reduced to during the Adam West and Burt Ward years (though even those were great pieces of pop culture). At the time it came out the biggest reference for the film was to The Dark Knight Returns. In my mind I had combined both comics into one under that banner (this was during my time in the Marines, the movie had come out while I was in boot camp. So you can imagine that much of what I knew at the time was a bit blended).

This was where the biggest disparity came when I was trying to connect everything together at my more recent readings. In other words, I couldn’t figure out where I had seen the version of the Joker’s birth, while at the same time I was sure I had seen him dropped in a vat of chemicals in The Dark Knight Returns. I was wrong and the comics guided me out of the darkness. This particular origin of the Joker had come from The Killing Joke. Sure it wasn’t exactly the same but books and movies never really are.

Now here is something to think about, the first Michael Keaton Batman movie was a version of the origin story, Batman’s beginning in Gotham. At the same time, it was the birth of the Joker (and death as well since we can’t let villains live in movies apparently). The comics used as source material were essentially only tied by their dark nature. Sure we had the origin of the Joker and in one his death (Dark Knight Returns) but we also had Batman at the end of his career. He had already retired at the beginning of the Dark Knight Returns. So in essence we had Hollywood taking bits of folklore and creating a mish mash of a story based on the various elements.

I don’t know, but do you remember a time when Hollywood created original movies? Seems like we missed out on something there, but I digress…

Now then, remember the stick pin, the Joker being a monstrous villain. Here’s the thing, and this is something that they did really well with The Killing Joke, we have the Batman and this monumental lore associated with him (much like Chuck Norris but without the sarcastic side of the jokes). Simply by allowing the reader to build up an atrocity to superhuman proportions, Alan Moore was able to create a villain that matched the stature of the hero. Let that sink in.

Instead of the Golden Age heroes that could do no wrong and villains that only measured up in a cardboard dynamic, we now had a hero that had flaws and a villain that was so monstrous that it changed our perspective on the fight between good and evil. We saw an atrocity that forced us to look into the underbelly of life around us.

We take it a step further and understand that Alan Moore also gave us the Watchmen. Two different stories but something to think about with that. He essentially ended the Watchmen the same way he ended the Killing Joke. In the Watchmen we had a giant space squid crush New York and cause untold mayhem. Something so preposterous that it makes perfect sense in comic books. In the Killing Joke, we have Joker telling a joke to the Batman. The panels fade away to their laughter.

I can hear you saying that it doesn’t make any sense. Much like the giant squid in the Watchmen it ties the whole thing back into the idea of the comic book as a whole. See we have this monstrous villain who by all rights should be taken out with extreme prejudice (that means killed post haste), just like it happens in all of our action and adventure stories, but instead of that they share a joke. And it’s left at that. We are again asked to fill in the blanks on our own.

This is where the stories all tie together in a theme of sorts. All of these stories showed a slice of life in the real world through the eyes of a comic book. Villains tend to be monstrous, while at the same time they can be the hero in their own minds. The heroes are human with their flaws and they can make mistakes on the pursuit to do the right thing.

And the people hurt along the way, they pick up the pieces of the lives and do the best they can with what they have. Barbara Gordon had been cut down, crippled and disgraced. She later became Oracle, a hero in a way that didn’t require her to fight crime directly. That character featured in stories for a long time and even made it into some of the video games created since then.

I could go on with more and more but it all becomes just nerd-drools over great stories. So better to step back and let it all soak in a little. Spend some time with the stories. There is a reason these are considered some of the greatest graphic novels of all time. Like the Watchmen that came out roughly around the same time, these stories changed the face of comic books in a way that more than just the geeks were taking notice of them. These stories dig a bit deeper into the implications of what it means to be a hero and the fine line that all heroes must walk.


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