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How do you take your average orphan and turn him into a lunatic in a fetish-bat costume?

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The Joker, of course, has a theory:

Bad day - the killing joke
But his version, from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, is only technically correct.  Bruce Wayne did have “one bad day,” yes, but it was different from the “one bad day” the Joker had:

Bad day - killing joke 02
The difference could be that wives and children can be replaced—for tax purposes, if not in our hearts—whereas birth-parents cannot, but while that’s true, that’s not the most significant difference.  The most significant difference—the one that, despite not knowing the secret identity of the Batman, the Joker deeply understands—is that “one bad day” is far worse when, instead of being told of a death secondhand, you witness it yourself.  Hence, his plan:

Bad day - the killing joke 03
The Joker could have chosen to abduct Barbara Gordon off the street and dump her in the river, but instead he waited until Commissioner Gordon visited her apartment, because he knows that losing someone you love is one thing, but witnessing that person’s death causes psychological trauma of a far greater intensity.*  In short, without knowing that Bruce Wayne is the Batman or how he came to be the Batman, the Joker knows exactly how to make a Batman: make the victim watch.

Lest you think that either the Joker or myself are pushing this argument too far, consider the visual history of the Batman’s formative moment.  It was first represented in Detective Comics #33:

Bad day - detective comics 33
There’s almost a duo-specific word-picture relation coursing from the first panel to the next.  The text of the first declares that “[t]he boy’s eyes are wide with terror and shock,” and the second depicts the boy’s eyes, wide with terror and shock.  The focus, textually and visually, is on Wayne’s eyes.  On what he sees.  The second, and first fully fleshed out, representation occurs in Batman #47:

Bad day - batman 47 02
How significant are the young Wayne’s eyes in this panel?  They’ve been isolated from his head and framed with anger.  It’s not the “one bad day” that changes Wayne into the Batman, because there was “something about young Bruce’s eyes [that] made the killer retreat,” and that “something” consisted of a combination of awful accusation and eidetic memory, though even that is not enough to transform the owner of those disembodied eyes into the Batman.  (Many a poor soul has witness many a beloved one murdered, after all.)  But there is “something” to those eyes, as here they are again in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One:

Bad day - batman year one 02
They have, I grant, been shoved back in his head, but they’re still isolated in an extreme close-up.  Miller and Mazzucchelli follow Batman #47 in having young Bruce’s eyes directly address the readers’ so that they might see what Joe Chill sees above.  Only not.  Chill’s already fleeing in Year One, so the attention of those eyes is even more focused on something outside or beyond the frame, almost as if Wayne seeks communion through eye-contact with an unseen audience.  “You understand why I had to become this,” those eyes seem to plead.  But no matter how you interpret that third panel above, it patently belongs to this tradition of believing that “what Wayne was seeing and how he was seeing it” is more important than “what happened to Wayne on his ‘one bad day'” to the future development of the Batman.**  While we’re on the subject of his future development:

Bad day - Planetary Batman 02
Here’s the futuristic, Platonic ideal of the Batman from Warren Ellis’s Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth.  Note the isolated eyes in the inset panel.  Doesn’t take much to guess what was depicted on the previous page:

Bad day - Planetary BatmanThe eyes in the first panel of the Ellis align with those of the second in everything except what they’re looking at. As I noted in the post linked above:

Look at that bullet in the bottom panel.  Look how it hangs there—sans speed lines—between the whites of young Wayne’s eyes.  The presence of [Black, the crumbled figure from the first Ellis panel] suggests that this is no flashback.  This bullet the child never saw—could not have seen—frozen in the middle of a locked stare.  But who is Wayne staring at?  I put my money on the guy in the [first Ellis panel].

It’s the look that links the orphaned child to the caped crusader.  Purely visually, the dark circles around young Wayne’s eyes resemble the mask around those of the older, futuristic one.  There seems to be a continuity to the representative mode employed when depicting this moment, so it makes sense that when Nolan re-re-re-re-boots the franchise in Batman Begins, he’ll partake of it.  We start mid-scene, with a close-up on the young Wayne after Joe Chill’s approached:

Batman begins00853
Note the level of framing here: Nolan’s camera is building sympathy with the young Wayne by shooting him straight on instead of angling down on him.  Nolan then cuts to:

Batman begins00855
The level of framing remains the same: this could almost be a first-person point-of-view shot from the young Wayne’s perspective.  There’s even a hint of a low angle of framing, which makes the gun seem even slightly more menacing—as does unbalanced framing, which indicates where the bullet will be headed, and the extremely shallow depth of field.  The only item in the shot that’s in focus is the gun, because the foreground and the background are mere inches apart in an almost literal representation of Elizabeth Loftus’s theory of “weapon focus.”

Except!  Loftus’s theory argues that “the presence of a weapon adversely affects subsequent eyewitness recall performance such that memory for details such as the perpetrator’s facial characteristics and clothing is impaired,” whereas the above demonstrated that “something” in the young Wayne’s eyes allowed him to focus both on the weapon and the facial characteristics of the man wielding it.  It’s not a superhuman power, but neither is it a sign of the hypertrophied intellect that so many generations of writers have attributed to the Batman … but it’s more of a superpower than a sign of unparalleled brilliance.  But I digress, as I was attempting to prove that Nolan belongs to the representational tradition sketched out in this post.  Here’s the final shot of young Wayne:

Batman begins00950
I take that back.  Nolan’s a dogged originalist.  Flip it around and crop it:

Bad day - batman begins
And it’s a virtual ringer for the first representation of young Wayne’s reaction in Detective Comics 33:

Bad day - batman begins - detective comics
I’m not sure what to make of this, if only because the tradition Nolan’s bucking is such a powerful and evocative one, but I’ll leave it up to my students to work through this one.

*Which, granted, calls into question why the Joker’s psychological problems run as deep and wide as they do, since he was merely informed of his pregnant wife’s death, but that’s a whole different post entirely.

**This dynamic is even apparent in the draft of this post, which looks like this.

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  • DocAmazing

    You’re probably well aware of it, but there was a hero of the pulp magazines, both contemporaneous with and in anticipation of Batman and the Joker, called The Avenger ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Avenger_%28fictional_character%29 ) a man named Richard Henry Benson saw his wife and child murdered and suffered so great a psychological trauma that his hair and face were bleached white (hmmmm…)and his face left immobile (but abble to be manipulated and made up to resemble anyone).

    The stories were credited to Kenneth Robeson, the pseudonym of the author of my inspiration, Doc Savage. Robeson obviously was impressed by the damage one bad day could do.

    • SEK

      I could be wrong, but didn’t Ellis allude to Benson early on in Planetary? Even if I’m wrong in fact, I insist I’m correct in spirit. (Ellis’s, that is, which is, I mean, I’m not sure I want to have any part of.)

      • Halloween Jack

        If you’re thinking of Axel Brass’ Secret Society, no. (That was the main pulp reference in the book; most of the others throughout the series referred to characters in that issue.)

  • Rob

    Is it telling that while Batman’s origin has always been fixed, the Joker’s origin has always been in flux?

    This also ties back into the origins of the Robins. Though I’ll admit I gave up following DC closely when they decided to completely screw up Tim Drake’s life because they’ve written a dead end on a variety of accounts so I’m not sure where he is right now.

    • Joel Patterson

      I don’t know if it is “telling” that Batman’s origin is fixed–if a writer is going to reimagine an origin, they need to do it better, and it is just plain hard to come up with a better origin for Batman.

      It is traumatic, it is motivating, and it is simple.

      • SEK

        Is it telling that while Batman’s origin has always been fixed, the Joker’s origin has always been in flux?

        Batman’s origin hasn’t always been fixed: he went for six issues without one, and Chill wasn’t introduced until that panel up there with the disembodied eyes, which is from the ’50s. That said, Moore certainly fixes an origin for the Joker, and it’s a damn fine one … it’s just that too many other writers have been too enamored by the idea of him as a “trickster,” despite that role more properly belonging to, you know, the Riddler.

        • SEK

          I don’t know if it is “telling” that Batman’s origin is fixed–if a writer is going to reimagine an origin, they need to do it better, and it is just plain hard to come up with a better origin for Batman.

          And that’s at the heart of this course: if you can’t change the content, how do you make its presentation more compelling?

        • Rob

          But even Moore isn’t wiling to commit to that story. He allows for different origins for different days.

          And isn’t the Trickster the trickster? (Flash villains, second rate Batman villains for one of the most powerful superheroes in the universe…

          • SEK

            Touché!

  • Bill Murray

    And I thought that one bad day when everything changed was when your dad gave you Atlas Shrugged for your birthday

    • Fighting Words

      I think the “one bad day when everything changed” is when you accidentally read a comic called “Liberality For All,” which has G. Gordon Liddy and a bionic Sean Hannity save America from the horrible liberals in charge. It makes one yearn for the subtlety and sophistication of Ayn Rand.

  • Never noticed before that the Joker shot Sarah Palin.

  • Ginger Yellow

    Any thoughts on the contrast between Moore’s approach in Killing Joke, where we actually see the murder (over several frames, no less, and with the firing weapon and entry wound shown in the same frame) and his approach in Watchmen, which you dissected before? The reader isn’t murdering anyone this time.

    Another thought: Gordon’s eyes are obscured throughout the sequence, first by Barbara’s head and then by the viewing angle from behind his head.

    • Mr. Trend

      I never read this as the Joker trying to kill her, though; in fact, given where he shoots, I thought he was intentionally trying not to kill her, but to make her suffer an agonizing tragedy in front of her father. Admittedly, an abdomen shot could still kill, but it seems based on where he aimed/where she’s hit, the point was not so much “quick murder of a loved one before Gordon’s eyes” as it was, “protracted suffering and possible (but far from certain) death of a loved one before Gordon’s eyes.” That would certainly have a different kind of traumatic impact on the psyche, the kind that I think the Joker was looking for for Gordon.

      (And full disclosure: I had only read The Killing Joke as a teenager, after it became clear that it was clear Barbara Gordon, now paralyzed, was “Oracle,” and I admit that later narrative arc may have colored my reading of the above shooting. That said, I still think looking at it now that it’s far from clear that Joker was trying to or successful in killing her.)

    • Hogan

      Another thought: Gordon’s eyes are obscured throughout the sequence, first by Barbara’s head and then by the viewing angle from behind his head.

      And perhaps related: Gordon disproves the Joker’s theory. There’s something about Bruce Wayne and the Joker that made them “one bad day away”; but it’s not universal.

      • SEK

        The reader isn’t murdering anyone this time.

        No, it’s definitely on the Joker’s shoulders in this sequence. I think that’s deliberate because he wants the causality to be clear-cut … and because the emotional heft of the scene in Watchmen is that the figure of the reader, Manhattan, is powerful enough to stop it, but does nothing.

        I still think looking at it now that it’s far from clear that Joker was trying to or successful in killing her

        Well, given that the Joker’s “one bad day” involves the of his child, it makes sense that he’d try to replicate that in his “experiment.” An “experiment” which, as Hogan notes, Gordon’s not cracking would seem to indicate was a failure. Then again, the Joker did fail to replicate the deadly initial conditions …

  • Woodrowfan

    I wish I could take this course!

    • SEK

      Thanks! It’s been quite a bit of fun to teach so far.

  • Am I nuts, or are the streetlights behind young Bruce in the most recent version evocative of eyes? White eyes against a black background?

    • Jonathan

      I was just thinking that. Also, the way it’s framed and out of focus, the background looks something like a face.

      • SEK

        It does … but of what? A cold and uncaring God who lets the children of good people watch them being murdered?

        • I was thinking they were an echo of Bruce’s own eyes, or perhaps an allusion to Ellis’ artwork.

  • Jay P

    You also have to remember that the Joker says that he likes his history as Multiple choice. It may be what happened, but it may not be.

    “Killing Joke” is one of my favorite comics from Batman. I wish I could take this course!

    • SEK

      You also have to remember that the Joker says that he likes his history as Multiple choice.

      That’s something we debate in class: are the flashbacks to the Joker’s “origin” his own memories, or third person omniscient accounts of what actually happened. There are a few moments that strongly support both, e.g. the movement in and out of the flashbacks that occurs at the amusement park on page 10 (the reflection in the “LAUGHING CLOWN” booth matching to the action in flashback).

  • jrd

    It’s true that Moore’s Joker origin story has become canon – see Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs and Matt Wagner’s Monster Men and Mad Monk, among many others. But I think that the other commenters are right to note that Moore himself disrupts the stability of this origin story and that Nolan’s refusal to fix it is very much a strength of his presentation of the Joker mythos.

    There is also something unfortunately consistent between The Killing Joke and pretty much all of Moore’s work: the compulsive and very traditional employment of violence against women marked “good” and “bad” (the good Barbara Gordon and, indirectly, the Joker’s bad putative wife – who, remember, only loves the Joker because he is good in bed) as the benchmark against which both villainy and heroism are measured. For all that Moore gets labeled “visionary” and even “post-modern,” he is, in this very important respect, simply channeling Birth of a Nation sensibilities.

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