Moral Truths Within ‘The Killing Joke’: Tragedy and Choice
It is generally accepted that Superhero stories function as a metaphorical mirror to humanity and culture. We define the stories as they define us, looking for imprints of our own faults and successes through the lens of fantastic and fusing our own ideas about a changing society with the fantasy world. Heroes stand as a personification of our potential to do good, and grapple with the maintaining of this goodness in the face of temptation and terror. They are a map to morality, serving as guidelines to overcoming our weaker selves. Even at their lowest low, heroes still burst with the potential to redeem themselves, representing a sound faith and the drive to do the right thing. They carry an important message about what we believe we can be, ceaselessly encouraging readers to try harder and overcome.
Villains are a personification of the exact opposite. They represent human weakness, and exaggerate the flaws that drive us to do wrong. In spite of any potential for good, they are the constant calling to the darkness, to giving up, and to letting go of who you are. Comic books and their blatant exploration of this polarity can be a useful tool to finding the strength to overcome real trauma, and offer perhaps not so subtle commentary on what can happen when we allow our darkest moments to define us for the worst.
The Killing Joke
In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, the Joker toys with the line between hero and villain, and what these two polar drives create in a person’s psyche. He and Batman stand on two ends of the spectrum, the representation of good and the representation of evil, both created out of a common experience: loss. The Joker recognizes the existence of both potentials within people, and tries to make the point that “one bad day” can push someone over the edge and inspire them to unlock a darker version of themselves. He kidnaps Police Commissioner Gordon; forcing him to watch as his daughter is paralyzed and assaulted while dragging him through a carnival of horrors. All the while readers are taken back into the Joker’s history and shown the “one bad day” in which he lost his wife and child, turned to crime, and became Gotham’s most volatile criminal.
It seems that the Joker makes this rule out of a need to justify his behabvior. Batman is the exception to the Joker’s rule, dealing with his own personal tragedy by tapping into his potential for good with the same vigor that the Joker tapped into his potential for darkness. This difference baffles the Joker, and sends him on a quest to prove that an ordinary man can be made into a monster by one traumatic experience. Though the Joker ultimately fails, his idea highlights an area in which the very basis of comics offers a critique of human nature.
Heroes vs. Villains: Growing Up vs. Giving Up
In nearly all superhero comics we see heroes choosing to do good, often out of a perceived inner compass fueled by trauma or loss. Batman watches his parents’ murder, as does Huntress. Spider Man fails his Uncle Ben when he neglects the responsibility of someone with superhuman powers. Heroes with histories like these are given the opportunity to turn their pain into a positive or negative motivator; to hate those that still have what they lost, or help others to never experience that same pain. On the other side of the same coin, villains often choose to do wrong out of a perceived inner indecisiveness fueled by trauma or loss. The Joker and Mr. Freeze lose their wives, Magneto survives the Holocaust, and Mirror (From New 52 Bat Girl) loses his entire family in a fire. They react to these traumas and losses by becoming hardened, angry, vengeful, or downright insane.
This idea delves directly into the most basic truths of human maturation. Children are seen as good, until the unavoidable loss of innocence. At that point we are faced with choices that will define the type of person we are and the kind of life we live. We morph from wide eyed hopefuls to wiser and more understanding adults, trading naivety for experience. The Joker’s theory does not just apply to the comic book world. This loss of innocence very often is a form of trauma, heartbreak, personal failure, or letdown; one that begins the process of maturation. Like the Joker and Batman, we can take this pivotal moment as means to push ourselves to being either a better or worse version of ourselves.
It is at this intersection of pain and progress that many people seem to find out who they really are. Experiencing a let down like a cheating significant other can cause a loss of faith. Trauma like death of a loved one can cause bitterness to those who have not experienced loss. As human beings we tend to see the world on our own terms, and thus are inclined to feel that no pain is greater than ours, nor is it understandable to someone who has not felt the same. To the hero, this is a reason to prevent others from experiencing that pain. To the villain, it is motivation to cause others pain that might be comparable, thus evening the playing field and restoring a cynical balance. Here we find the true depth of our personal morality, either abandoning hopefulness in favor or cynicism, or choosing to cling to the light. In this way comics serve as a moral motivator, and encourage those going through loss and trauma to keep hoping and keep trying.
Superheroes: A Moral History
We no longer see Nazis as a common villain in comic titles, nor do we see the anti-drug push of the 1960’s. These battles have become dated, fictional plot lines tied directly to a once present evil in our world. It is interesting that in spite of a changing cultural landscape the effects of loss and trauma are still a common theme in comic books. It suggests that these things are universal human experiences, and as our world evolves they remain present. This is another area in which comic books serve as a useful tool. Through tracking the history of superhero conflicts, we see what the culture of a given time period found truly threatening. We watch heroes fluidly transition from fighting Nazis, to organized crime bosses, to subtly combating underlying ideas of racism, sexism, and homophobia. The one threat that has remained constant is personal choice and how our own moralities define whether we are a positive or negative force in the world.
Even the most recent of comic titles stress the importance of doing what’s right even in the face of deep personal pain. Each generation that grows up with these stories is given a message: chose to do the right thing, come whatever. Characters that stress honesty, compassion, courage, and mercy relay personal virtues that readers can carry into their own lives. Batman chooses to never kill, which can easily be translated to a bullied teen never seeking revenge or turning to cruelty. This does not mean that heroes always have to do the right thing or be perfect examples of virtue. In fact, it is more effective to see heroes struggle, lose control, and occasionally fail. It gives us hope that even when we do the wrong thing there is redemption and healing on the other side.
At the end of The Killing Joke Batman struggles with breaking his rule of never killing, leaving it to the audience to decide whether or not he harms the Joker. Seeing Batman face this inner desire is crucial to understanding what makes him good. He, like all of us, faces doing the wrong thing and pushes himself to turn away.
The Morally Ambiguous Characters
There are plenty of comic book characters that dance back and forth on the line between hero and villain. The Punisher is a perfect example. His identity as a vigilante is formed out of the loss of his family. Though he chooses to become a defender of the innocent, he gives in to bitterness and anger, thus making his view of what is and is not innocent flawed. He kills, tortures, and maims; living by his own moral code.
While he may not have become the sort of text book villain that searches to create chaos, The Punisher proves that giving in to a darker and more cynical self can blur the lines of right and wrong. He does not represent the same mercy and courage as a vigilante like Batman. He toes the line, somewhat unbalanced and halfway immoral.
Another character that closer favors the villain side is Rorschach from Moore’s Watchmen. Like The Punisher, Rorschach considers himself a defender of the innocent; however, he has a very limited view of innocence. Rorschach’s traumatic childhood leads him to view any wrongdoing as a death sentence. He kills lightly, foolishly equating imperfection to evil. Rorschach is just as likely to murder a pedophile as his is to murder a common shoplifter. Though many still consider him a commendable hero, he does not represent the same sort of goodness in the face of imperfection as Batman. Batman may make wrong calls, terrify villains, and lose his temper, but Rorschach lacks the discipline and compassion necessary to be a true moral role model. He is a personification of how dangerous extreme views can be, even when they extremely favor what is perceived as good.
The Joker and Batman may battle each other into the next century; both fighting to prove that the world is the sort of place their trauma has lead them to see it as. In their representation we find ourselves, the damaged and flawed reality of humanity with endless potential to change the world. As we stare into the horizon of a new era of comics, many fans question what sort of messages writers should be including in their stories. Readers have begun to push for diversity and inclusion; which raises the question of how much moral responsibility comic writers, and fiction writers in general, have to their readers. We wonder what sort of society our generation of comics will reflect back to those that come after us, and worry about fiction shaping moral consciousness. As long as heroes stand on the side of fighting to do the right thing it seems that comics are on a good path. Over and over again we have seen characters have “one bad day” as readers experience their own ‘one bad day’ in real life. Fortunately, our heroes have never let us down completely and continue to combat trauma and loss with conviction; carrying a message of moral tenacity to the masses.
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