“Understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea. Understand that your morality is not law. Understand that we are you. Understand that if we decide to have sex whether safe, safer, or unsafe, it is our decision and you have no rights in our lovemaking.”
Yes, we have to talk about this one. Unlike the previous ones we’ve had to talk about, the reasoning for talking about this one has less to do with the themes and ideas of the comic and more to do with the background of Kraven’s Last Hunt. For The Killing Joke is why Kraven’s Last Hunt exists in the first place.
A brief production history of Kraven’s Last Hunt (told here so I don’t have to get into it when I could be talking about Kraven’s Last Hunt): the concept of the story began in either 1984 or ’85 (more likely ’85), as a Wonder Man miniseries. The series would be about Wonder Man being buried alive by his brother, The Grim Reaper, only to resurface months later. Suffice it to say, this was a crap idea for a story (not the least of which due to it being about one of the less interesting members of the Maximoff Family [the kind of family where being the Demiurge that will destroy the entire Marvel Universe and recreate it into something new makes you the third most interesting member]), with the only thing surviving into the final narrative being “the villain buries the hero”.
A few months later (definitely in ’85), DeMatteis is pitching a comic to the head editor of the Batman line, Len Wein. It’s a rather good idea (or, at least the kind of good idea that can go to shit if placed in the wrong hands): What would happen after the Joker actually succeeded in killing Batman? This of course invokes a rather famous Superman story where Lex Luthor, Genius: “Have Brain Will Travel” kills Superman. However that story ended with Luthor immediately caught by Supergirl with the future uncertain.
But what if Luthor got away with it? What if no one knew he killed Superman, but the world knew Superman was dead? What would he do next? DeMatteis’ pitch takes that pitch, applies it to the Joker, and comes up with a rather surprising answer: he’d go sane. The Joker would take off his mask, and be like everyone else. The dance would be over, and he would be at peace.
Wein rejected the pitch, citing that it was far too similar to another comic that was being developed. Some British bloke named Alan Moore submitted something called The Killing Joke that was well received by editorial and would be released… once the artist, Brian Boland, was finished doing the art for it. DeMatteis’ Batman/Joker pitch would be developed roughly 10 years later as part of the Legends of the Dark Knight series that was essentially the home to miniseries done by various writing and art teams who weren’t the main writers/artists of Batman or Detective Comics (the arc, fittingly called Going Sane, will not be covered in this blog series as I wish to keep this blog from discussing DeMatteis’ work outside of Spider-Man as little as possible [otherwise you bet we’d have an entry on The Piper at the Gates of Hell]. For what it’s worth, Going Sane is much better than The Killing Joke [though, that’s not saying much as it just has to be the kind of story that doesn’t make Joe Staton think, “you know, this scene of anguish needs Barbara Gordon’s tits”]).
Nonetheless, it was rejected. To salvage the pitch into being something that wouldn’t be as derivative, DeMatteis recalled a villain by the name of Hugo Strange who, for about two pages, donned a Batman mask. This got the writer thinking: what if Strange “killed” Batman and took over the mantel of the Dark Knight? Surely, this time it wouldn’t be rejected, right?
Between the two Batman pitches, Wein had moved on to more freelance work and the head Batman editor was Dennis O’Neil. O’Neil looked at the pitch, and promptly rejected it (if it means anything, the story sounds like the second and third acts of the ‘94 event series: Knightfall, of which O’Neil was a co-writer of, so perhaps the idea of a more vicious replacement Batman was brewing in O’Neil’s mind). Dejected, after having the story bounced three times, DeMatteis decided to stop pitching the comic story.
Cut to autumn 1986. DeMatteis is eating lunch with editor of the Spider-Man line, Jim Owsley (remember him?), and Tom DeFalco (the editor who bounced the initial Wonder Man pitch). They were trying to convince DeMatteis to be the writer of Spectacular Spider-Man, one of three books the webcrawler had at the time. Initially reluctant, DeMatteis eventually relented and began thinking of what his first arc would be. His mind drifted back to that “Buried Alive” pitch he had tried and tried again to work for Batman and Wonder Man.
And so, he decided to rework the pitch into being a Spider-Man story. He would come up with an all new villain for the piece, one who would truly test Peter’s abilities. When DeMatteis pitched the idea to Owsley, he was ecstatic embracing wholeheartedly the conceit. He loved the new villain, the idea of Spider-Man being buried alive, all of it.
As many a writer does, DeMatteis decided to take some time off before continuing to write his comic. While he was procrastinating, he, like many a fan, flipped through the Marvel Universe Handbook. For no particular reason, the writer turned to an entry on a rather dull Spider-Man villain by the name of Kraven the Hunter who was only notable because he once shot lasers out of his nipples. But DeMatteis, based on a rather minor trivia point that Kraven was Russian, realized that this joke of a villain would be the perfect antagonist for his Spectacular run. Owsley was hesitant, favoring the new villain, but allowed DeMatteis to do as he wilts.
Two final minor things: firstly Mike Zeck, artist of the comic book event series Secret Wars, was put on Spectacular Spider-Man, much to DeMatteis’ delight. This, in turn, inspired DeMatteis to add a deturantagonist, Vermin, to the storyline. And secondly, it was decided by Jim Salicrup, the editor who replaced Owsley in the time between DeMatteis’ hiring and Kraven’s Last Hunt, that the story be released over all three of the Spider-Man titles rather than just Spectacular. Here endeth the history (the longer version discussed, among other things, why Wonder Man was one of the less interesting members of the Maximoff Family).
You might have noticed that I just spent well over a thousand words talking about something that isn’t The Killing Joke. My reasoning is quite simple: it’s a stinker. It’s not painful to read like The Dark Knight Returns, but nonetheless is this a lesser outing on the parts of everyone involved. Other people have gone into the reasons why this was a stinker, the environment that allowed this to be a stinker, and what the fallout of this terrible comic was (in fact, I allude to one of these assessments in my adamant stance that the Batman/Joker pitch was done in 1985).
So instead of doing those kinds of analysis, I think I’ll go with asking the question “What if The Killing Joke were good?” Now, this isn’t the typical form of redemptive reading wherein I analyze the text close enough and create an interpretation of the work that makes the text good. Frankly, the ideas within the Killing Joke aren’t interesting enough to warrant that. Rather, I am going to look at the mechanics of the comic and try to create an entirely new story out of the parts of the old one (effectively, I am writing fan fiction [don’t worry, this’ll connect to the rest of the blog in a way that is both surprising and completely obvious]).
Let’s start with the core of the narrative: the relationship between Batman and the Joker. In theory the graphic novel’s about the relationship between the two, of how neither one of them could (or even would) survive long without the other, and their subsequent need for empathy from the other (be it by accepting treatment or dying). In practice, the narrative is more interested in the Joker and his banal backstory (made irrelevant by the more interesting “multiple choice past”) leaving the caped crusader as more of an inferred character, the lead left a ghost within his own comic, an archetype with minimal interiority. Why, for example, does Batman visit the Joker about being boxed into a place where the two must fight to the death?
The answer is that genre conventions dictate that their dance either goes on forever or one kills the other. It’s not that that isn’t something to be explored (for its time, now it’s extremely rote and assumed), but rather, as is the case of many failed postmodern exercises, it doesn’t reflect upon the real world in any meaningful way. Thus, for our new version to work, we must come up with a completely different answer… what if Batman and the Joker had a relationship prior to the events of The Killing Joke?
It could have been a friendship, they could have been lovers, but regardless they were close (since this is my fan fic, I’m going with they were lovers, because I’m a queer romantic at heart). What if something happened to them that broke their hearts and pushed them towards this path. What if this event was what turned the Joker into what the grinning loon we know him now? Since this is one of our parts, what if the bad thing was what happened to Barbara (though, not necessarily Barbara, just someone)? It doesn’t have to have happened directly in the comic (in fact, I think it would be better left out of the comic entirely as this it the part that pushes the comic to being the third worst thing by Alan Moore [it worked for The Dark Knight Returns]), but it happened and the two are trying to deal with it: a death that haunts the narrative.
The fallout of a traumatic death and how people cope with it is a common experience within humanity. Indeed, we could look at it from the context of a failed relationship. Even now, not many stories tackle the subject of someone’s death tearing people apart that this fan fic could. Given this turn of events, the two leads could be dealing with the death in unhealthy ways (as does happen in relationships). The person taking on the role of Batman could be dealing with the problem via repressing the emotions of the event, preferring to lash out at key moments. This could, in turn, cause him to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile the person behind the Joker’s smile could take this as a reason to lash out at those around him. Being both physically and emotionally abusive to those around him all the while trying to cope by replacing the person we call Barbara with someone akin to her (perhaps Harley Quinn could play this part). And neither one of them truly believes the relationship could be salvaged. The Batman character would be visiting his Joker because there’s still that glimmer of hope that maybe they could be saved.
Given that, perhaps we should have a third perspective, a feminine one (because this story is brimming with testosterone [though I suppose the role could go to Gordon… better yet, have Gordon be the one who died and Barbara… oh wait, never mind]) who was also within the relationship but is coping with the events in a much healthier manner. Furthermore, she is more willing to accept the possibility that the relationship could still survive this cruel and unjust tragedy that has befallen them.
This is perhaps the most substantial sign that the events could
only end in one way: Death. Note the lack of eyes when they were
previously used throughout the text as a key sign that something
was going terribly wrong with this Batman comic.
But alas, not everything is meant to be. Sometimes, we delude ourselves into believing that love can save us, no matter what. That all the crimes we have committed in the name of love can be forgiven if the right person (or people) love us. But our Joker analogue was, in many regards, a monster that used and abused the people around him. We could give him sympathy and pathos, but he was still an abuser. Sure, I believe people can change, that we can be better than we actually are. But the tone of the story doesn’t imply a pure happy ending where the leads ride off into the sunset. It leaves off in something ambiguous, with no clear-cut answers. It could be somewhat definitive, the character wearing the joker mask could die trying to redeem himself or by his own hubris. But the tone of the story tells of a sadness regarding these events.
All that is left to do is for the survivors to try to heal; to hold each other in the rain. I’m not a pessimist; I don’t believe the world will remain as is forever and always. I believe we can heal. It’s not going to rain forever. We can come in out of the rain.
(Next Time: The Remake.)
[Photos: Mister Miracle #1 by Tom King and Mitch Gerads]