Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

“There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 21, 2010

Originally Published at PassionforCinema.

Book: Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Boland and coloured by John Higgins.

Movie: The Dark Knight (2008), directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, starring Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaon Eckhart and Gary Oldman

I’ve liked as well as disliked The Dark Knight for various reasons, chief among them (for both sides) being that it never seemed to be clear on its own morality. Today, however, I may have come across the thing to perfectly demolish any hopes that movie ever had of coming over once and for all to my good side, something that may well mean that that movie will remain eternally in my disdain, and that thing, dear reader, is this:

That, dear sirs and madams, is a page from Alan Moore’s scary twenty two-year-old Batman: The Killing Joke. And, having read it only once, I feel convinced that this is the Batman interpretation. Why? Well, the reasons are various, and convoluted.

So, in keeping with the form the reasons have taken, let me start at the second act: for me, the strongest moment in The Dark Knight was this one:

Filched from Jim Emerson's site

No, it wasn’t because the Joker was enjoying himself. Let’s zoom in:

Yes, we must all stare at the arm, for it is the arm wherein lies the ultimate difference between comic and film.

And like all ultimate differences, it only bears mention for one reason, that it is this difference when looked at hard enough and from the right angle that gives way to the ultimate similarity between the two works of art.

Yes, ultimate similarity, for book and film – though neither is rehash of the other – are the same work of art. Or, rather, they are the product of the same vision. Not just a fuzzily similar sort of vision, but the exact same vision.

Okay, now the first act; let us go back to the remote days of childhood, days of darkness in which the only reason I took recourse to art was because I was bored, having no idea, no conception even of what was to come ahead. It was then that I first encountered the Joker, on TV, a white-coloured man with green hair wearing a purple suit. Funnily enough, I never remember having laughed at him, or having been scared of him; like most lasting memories from my childhood, I barely gave him a thought back then.

But, now I realise, I must always have had a morbid fascination with him, for how else would he be so much clearer in my head than other cartoon characters I spent infinitely more hours watching? Back then, I didn’t know the word, but in retrospect I can say that the characteristic of this apparition was that he was gaunt. And I mean Gaunt, like an anthropomorphic personification of the characteristic.

The reason he was like that, dear reader, is because he was designed that way. He was an evil maniac or whatever, but if Batman’s hand got to him, we knew it was over. Later, much later, as I would be going through my revival in comics, I understood that he needed this weakness; without it, he was too strong. I also understood that the gloomy environs were nothing more than a literalisation of the Batman’s innards.

I also understood that a superhero comic wasn’t just any old story, it was a mythos, a mythology endlessly told and retold, each time by a different fool, each time suffering from a newly thought up neurosis, what some would like to call a zeitgeist, if a zeitgeist could exist on a personal level.

See, we’ve been in the third act for a while now, for the third act is my return to comics, in June 2010.

And it is in this third act that I’ve suddenly come across a flush of some of the best novels I’ve ever read: a rediscovery of the beautiful intricacies of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, a surreptitiously acquired second-hand copy of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, being so profoundly disturbed that I was punching the side of a bus for an hour after reading Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass, and now… today! Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke.

Every interpretation I’ve ever seen of Batman has used the city to reflect the insides of Batman, and the Joker has always been this Gaunt Menace (another thing he’s the anthropomorphic personification of). Twenty two years ago, a man called Alan Moore, the very man who brought superhero graphic fiction to some iota of respectability with his seminal 1986 novel Watchmen, sought to re-imagine that trope, and in doing so bring to the forefront a few relationship dynamics that had always been simmering beneath the surface. Two years ago, an admittedly talented filmmaker and his brother re-imagined the same trope, and made the same statement with it, and were hailed as progressive genii for it.

Well, I don’t particularly mind the wrong person being hailed as the progressive – for it is a fact that it is the second much more often than the first to conquer new territory who is so hailed – and that’s without even taking into account the fact that he brought back vitality to a flagging yet unassailable genre in his industry.

No. What I really mind is that the hailed progressive was not a fraction of the real one.

See, both of them started with the same basic idea, however they may have framed it: what will happen if we give the Joker more power? Interestingly enough, both made exactly two major changes to the landscape of Batman.

The Nolan brothers, first they made the Joker a bulky, superhumanly strong nut job with big, beefy arms. Then, they castrated Gotham, as fellow blogger Stephen Russell-Gebbett once so ably noted in passing (if you don’t believe me, count the number of scenes that happen in the day with insane amounts of almost blinding light).

The Moore man, first he gave the environs to the Joker (look at the colour combination on the above shown page), and then he made the Batman vulnerable (making for a truly heart-wrenching climax).

See, both explore the same idea: that Batman and the Joker are aspects of each other. Yes, one does it in the world of allegory and one does it in the world of comics, but – as I’ve already said – comics are nothing but a mythos, an idealised, anthropomorphicised reflection of the real world; after the existence of The Killer Joke, The Dark Knight is no real achievement (except, and this bears repeating, in the particular cultural context in which it was made).

The Killer Joke has two sets, Arkham Asylum (which, I found out firsthand a couple of days ago, is named after something from H. P. Lovecraft’s world) and the Joker’s amusement park. These two sets, which appear the second after the first, are framed by the action of ripples, and the trickeristic play of light – deterministic, non-chaotic, yet unpredictable, action-consequence relations – and a joke, but there’s no use talking about that and spoiling it for you. The first humankind we see is the Joker’s hand… but it has spikes! The next panel reveals it to be a trick of the light on the Batman’s hand.

Arkham Asylum is the old comic-order, dark moody lighting. But lit by bright, harsh-bright, yellow. The amusement park is the same except there’s no shadow, and … details. This is a tableau infinitely more frightening in its dullest moment than anything the Nolanistic epic has to offer us, even including Heath Ledger dressed as a Joker dressed as a nurse throwing a tantrum that the bomb isn’t going off.

See, the problem with the film was that it gave its Joker physical strength, and a singular, expositioned motive; because, first of all, the Joker’s powers must lie in the mind, in the paraphernalia, in the visceral details that all but the Batman will miss, for otherwise he is a castrated Joker. Also, is there any villain more supple in nastiness than Iago, who has not one but three contradictory motives for being a bad guy, and is there anything more of an affront to the senses than a self-proclaimed Lord of Chaos? Assorted readers might think back to the sixth book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, whose eponymous Lord of Chaos proclaims himself so, but then they would be forgetting that that proclamation says as much about the character himself as it does about his position, unlike in the case of the Nolan’s Joker.

A castrated Batman, a castrated Joker… and you get a movie that is, even if well-directed, at its heart balless. And balless is one accusation that can never be laid at the feet of Alan Moore’s graphic novella.

In fact, it has, at its heart, one of the ballsiest movies ever made. Half an hour or so in length, it must be hand-animated, drawn by the same pair of Brian Boland and John Higgins who created the panorama that is this book, it must be in glorious 4:3 tall-screen, for this is the sort of paraphernalia that hangs over us, threatening to fell lest we do anything suspicious, the Joker ought to be played by the sort of voice we got to hear in those cartoons of yore, performed now without much laughing, the Batman performed by a Sylvester Stallone like voice except without the accent… and everything a but hurried, hiding away the secrets of the surroundings, exactly like in the book, in need of constant pausing so that it can only be truly enjoyed, again exactly like the book… and finally, sublimeness – even sublimation, if you should so wish – will be achieved.

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8 Responses to ““There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…””

  1. litdreamer said

    I’ve been meaning to get my hands on that book for a while now. If you want some other fantastic graphic novels, might I suggest The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and The Dark Phoenix Saga,/i> (with another gut-wrenching ending) by Chris Claremont and John Byrne? I even had my mom read The Dark Knight Returns. I think she liked it.

    Your comments about the Wheel of Time remind me of yet another book I have to read, once Sylvia Plath is done–The Gathering Storm. And R.I.P., Robert Jordan.

  2. Reading The Dark Knight Returns, and loving it. Will have to check out the other one, though.
    And as far as recommendations go, I’m planning to work my way up this list (Done with no. 1 and 3, halfway through number 2 and 4, and have laid my hands on three or four down the list). Also, there’s this guy called Sarnath Banerjee, whom I recommend whenever a discussion of graphic novels comes up, especially to non-Indian readers. Absolutely a master of the non-superhero graphic novel. Some samples.
    Oh, and last one, I promise: DC Comics’ Sandman series, by Neil Gaiman.
    Sorry for going out of control. 😛

    Did you know that Darren Arronofsky was originally roped in to reboot the franchise by directing the adaptation of Miller’s Year One? Much as I like Batman Begins, I very much wish I could have seen Year One instead, especially now that I’ve finished the comic. And later he was to make Moore’s Watchmen. Admittedly, that movie turned out pretty good (no movie that begins with a fight scene set to Louis Armstrong can be truly called bad).

    And sadly, if I want to read Gathering Storm, I have to buy it in an unlovely bulky edition instead of which I coul buy a better book. In other words, it’s going to be a while before I read that book.

    Oh, and finally, thanks for mentioning me in your last post. You’ve been no less inspiring.

    • litdreamer said

      You’re welcome, and thanks for the compliment back.

      I used to collect comic books when younger (I wouldn’t be surprised if many of us bloggers did), but now my tastes have wandered to more “adult” fare, like Watchmen or (for non-superhero graphic novels) Blankets. I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying that I have bookmarked that page on the best Batman graphic novels and will be checking out those books as soon as I put more time into finishing Sylvia Plath and less time checking out the features on wordpress. 😉

  3. Oh, and finally, anything designed by Dave McKean. He does this pastel-like colours thing that look really, really good.

  4. Stephen said

    Very interesting and well-written, Ronak.

    Your blog always takes a different angle, and brings in all manner of genres and ideas.

    I was just passing and about to comment and was shocked to see my name (thanks for the compliment)!

  5. Thanks, Stephen.
    And if it wasn’t for that comment about Gotham in TDK, I might never have written this post. Somehow, that little idea turned up in my head after reading The Killing Joke, which made me finally gain some access to why I’d always been somewhat ambivalent, to say the least, about the movie.

  6. […] any one writer can offer, for any mythological figure. I love other Joker-explanatory novels, like Alan Moore, Brian Bolland and John Higgins’ The Killing Joke, Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum and Bob Hall’s I, Joker […]

  7. […] his batman trilogy, while actually ambitious in a good way, is very messy, unsubtle and inelegant (here is a comparative review of The Dark Knight and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke); in terms of […]

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