Once in a while a book gets under your skin. In the case of comics, some panels are just burned into your brain forever even if you’ve only seen them once or twice and even if you have an almost non-existent memory like mine. I’ve encountered just a few of those stories and images. I remember the first page of Starman talking about Opal City and its hero. I can picture an image from Daredevil Yellow with Daredevil making an especially incredible acrobatic leap over police and crowds. I can see Valerie’s letter in V for Vendetta. And now, I close my eyes can see the horrific image of the Joker shooting Barbara Gordon in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.
I’ve heard about the incident of course. You couldn’t read about DC’s New 52 without hearing about Barbara’s paralysis being undone. I knew the Joker shot her when she answered the door. I didn’t know exactly when that happened or in which book. As soon as Barbara got up to open the door in The Killing Joke though, I braced myself. I knew. It still shocked me. It still slapped me across the face. I read a couple more pages, and I had to put the book down. I went to bed.
Yeah, that was stupid.
I suppose it doesn’t help that I have a bit of a thing with clowns. It’s not severe. I can see clowns on television or at the circus without experiencing panic attacks. However, they do make me think about nightmares and often make those bad dreams come to the surface. I blame all of this on seeing Stephen King’s It when I was nine or ten years old. I only saw half of the mini series, but it left a lifelong impression on me (reference the above about stories sticking with you).
The Joker has reminded me of that feeling of terror before. Until this point, I’ve mostly only seen the character on screen. He’s often painted as just a silly guy who has lost his sense of right and wrong. You know he’s a villain, you don’t know he’s a reckless and deadly force of bizarre. It wasn’t until Heath Ledger’s portrayal that I started to see just how dangerous and crazy the Joker is. Still. I really didn’t get it until I read this book. I’m sure other comics reinforce this image, but this just happens to be the first Joker-centric one I’ve read. I didn’t know. I didn’t understand how broken he was, how sadistic he was capable of being, how violent, how lethal and scary he is – and how sad it all is. Terrifying. Horrific. But also sad.
And even if the shooting or the way the Joker tried to break Commissioner Gordon down into a scarred pile of lunacy left me with unpleasant mental images, those weren’t the scariest parts to me. It was this panel:
Though it didn’t work in this case – Gordon didn’t go off the deep end – I don’t think it’s the wackiest statement I’ve ever heard. I see where Joker is coming from. Batman witnessed a horrible act. Was there ever a point when he could have tipped a bit too far? I mean, donning a bat costume is a little odd. I’m not saying I agree with the Joker’s theory, but there is a glimmer of truth there. Enough to rattle you and make you pause and maybe have the tiniest bit of sympathy for him. That’s scary, too. Like when you watch Dexter and realize that you’re rooting for a serial killer.
Another part of this story that left an impression on me is that Batman still has hope. He thinks he can help the Joker.
For a while, I could only focus on the darkness in the pages, but there’s optimism too. It stood out like a beacon. The ending isn’t completely clear; I believe that was intentional. I’m sure there’s plenty of discussion about what happened between them. For me, that part doesn’t matter. All I need to know is that Batman reached out and offered his hand.
I won’t be forgetting The Killing Joke for a long time. Maybe not ever.