The allegorization of myth is hampered by the assumption that the explanation "is" what the myth "means."-- Northrop Frye, ANATOMY, p. 341.
"There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum..."-- first words in Alan Moore & Brian Bolland's KILLING JOKE.
The first line of the "two guys" joke, with which KILLING JOKE begins, is told in full at the end at story's end, in keeping with scripter Alan Moore's well-known love of symmetry. At said conclusion Batman and the Joker, having fought one of their many battles, atypically collapse into laughter. This isn't because the asylum-joke itself is especially funny, but because it has supposedly defined the characters' mutual absurdity. Hero and villain are just two guys arguing over the best way to break out of an asylum.
In the last twenty-plus years, there have been both plaudits and pans for Alan Moore's 1988 KILLING JOKE. For convenience's sake I'll refer to the work as Moore's alone; whatever influence artist Bolland may've had upon the finished work, the general structure is indubitably Alan Moore's conception. That structure, in which Moore ventures to explain the myths of Batman and the Joker in an allegorizing fashion, is the subject of this essay.
This essay came about because I had to consider whether or not JOKE qualified as a work of plurisignative mythicity, as do certain other comics-stories that pit the obsessed Caped Crusader against the chaos-loving Harlequin of Hate. My verdict that it is in fact monosignative, but in a different way than a Batman/Joker story that's simply mediocre, like the equally-famous Starlin/Aparo tale "A Death in the Family."
There's no question that Alan Moore was aware of the symbolic status that Batman and the Joker had assumed over the years. To be sure, though, Moore's Batman gets short shrift in that department, coming off most of the time like a weary costumed cop, the "straight man" of the comic duo, saying things like, "How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?" In contrast, the Joker gets so many good lines describing how he embraces a world of inescapeable nihilism that Moore might've done better to title the work "Sympathy for the Joker." Moore's own expression of sympathy for the philosophy of nihilism, then, results in a work that demonstrates what happens when, as noted above, the explanation of the myth becomes what the myth "means." Frye defines allegory as "forced metaphor," and in many respects the two opponents have been forced into metaphorical roles that do more to spell out Alan Moore's philosophical views than to emulate the free play of myth.
"It's all a joke!" declares the villain, trying to lure Batman over to the dark side, "Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for... it's all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can't you see the funny side? Why aren't you laughing?" The Joker gets much better lines than Batman, but I'm not sure his myth is any better served than Batman's by being bound in a philosophical strait-jacket. Moore's revisionist origin for the Joker posits that he was once just an ordinary schlump, a would-be stand-up comedian, who lost everything in a manner analogous to the way his bat-garbed enemy did. This take on the Joker's history didn't become accepted canon for the various ongoing Bat-serials, and it's not hard to see why: the origin gives the Joker a humanity that's at odds with his more traditional blackhat-villainy. In fairness Moore crafts his story so as to apply that the Joker's memory of his "origin" may not be true in all details, so Moore gets points for realizing that others might not care to follow his lead in playing with DC Comics' "toys."
Further, a single origin for the Joker reduces him to the level of a conventional villain, out to take out his grievances on a vulnerable world. Ironically, Moore earlier gave the Joker the presence of a mythic entity in SWAMP THING #29, in which a mystical plague causes worldwide distress. To illustrate the plague's pervasiveness, Moore's script has one Arkham Asylum attendant ask another if he wants to see something scary, to wit:
"The Joker's stopped laughing."
That one line has more mythic power than anything in THE KILLING JOKE.