Dodano: 17 August 2016
Blinded by Freedom
Blessed are those who can laugh on thyself, for they shall have the laugh until thy day will come.
I thought that everything about “The Killing Joke” has already been said; the topic seemed completely worn-out. I have never been so wrong… The critics’ accusations of shallowness and simplicity of “Batman: The Killing Joke’s” plot are understood. In my previous essay – published on Business Insider – I tried to prove that Alan Moore did not rise to the occasion as the writer of the comic book since his need to revenge on DC Comics and all the plot twists and nuances are made by Brian Bolland (who on most of the convents states the comic book to be “his”). However, both opponents and fans of “The Killing Joke” seem to miss an important message in the history, if analyzing it from the perspective of freedom, coercion and wealth.
Nobody seems to ponder on freedom anymore. One simply has it or has not. Since the considerations of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin the problem seems to be definitively settled; it was Berlin on the Oxford University to introduce the two contradictory concepts of freedom, being the base of the western civilization even today. First one, named the negative freedom, is the freedom from any coercion, while the latter is called positive freedom, being the right to act according to one’s own will.
According to Berlin, trying to achieve the negative freedom is the aim of humanity. People want to develop in a limitless world. The positive freedom does not allow it – “the freedom to…” requires coercion – it does not matter whether it’s the coercion of one man, the whole society or the consequences of the random events. Although Berlin’s reflections started discussions, with time nobody seemed to undermine the Berlin’s division of freedom or especially its “negative” section with the meaning of being a human.
It’s hard not to consider both Batman, and Joker as the representatives of both of the variations of freedom. Their histories share the same beginning. They both witness a tragedy which will leave a scar on their souls. Their reactions on these traumatic events, however, are completely different.
Joker, convinced of the absurdity of his life, concludes that justice does not exist. As a manifest of his freedom he starts to explain his bestiality by ignoring the cultural and social norms. I am not a civilizational rigor’s slave therefore I am free. I can do whatever I want to do and I feel satisfied by it.
The ruthlessness of the world had a significant influence on Bruce Wayne. Just so nobody will have to live through a similar trauma, he decides to fight the crime and rescue people from the hands of criminals. The boy who, with time, evolves into the Dark Knight, falls into the trap of becoming the slave of his own oath, which becomes his obsession. He decides to leave the fancy life of the heir of Wayne’s fortune and starts traveling through the world, learning martial arts from the masters and meeting scientists on all of the universities. By his decisions Wayne states his freedom to realize the war on crime which gives him the acquiescence to be the master of his life by achieving perfection in both mental, and physical strength. The price of his decision is the abandonment of happiness, or even love (which he believes not to exist).
Some may say it is nor interesting or revealing. It’s simply a comparison of two pop cultural characters with Berlin’s philosophy and there is no important outcome of the analysis except the fact that everything fits nicely. It’s just that Berlin’s concept, despite being generally accepted and praised, is only theoretical, not to say defective. A man is free to do anything he or she wants only when having livelihood or, by simple deduction; to earn more, one needs to requalify – this means educating oneself once more and buying specialist books. One needs to buy them, just as food and drinks to live. The fact of being free to live without financial independence does not mean anything. The concept we know is an illusion hiding the ruthless realism that rules the world. It covers the inequality and injustice, both passively accepted by the society.
Batman and Joker’s wealth is the deciding factor of the characters’ behavior. Before Everyman became a madman, he tried to raise funds to live happily with his family. It was the lack of alternative ways that forced him to pick crime. The person shown in the retrospection seems not to realize that there can never be a success that does not come with a price to pay. One cannot do something from nothing. Despair and the need to do harm supported by existential nihilism makes Joker fail to realize that he escapes the truth into a mental chaos.
Batman’s wealth problems somehow do not exist since Wayne never felt like Joker before. It is hard to blame him; he is disgustingly rich. He is a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. With the use of his fortune, he manages to build a high-tech complex under his mansion to make it his secret headquarters. His social status and the prestige makes it hard for him to understand other points of view, including the understanding of the world from somebody’s perspective, especially that in “The Killing Joke” he states his beliefs and values as somehow better.
This way one comes to the importance of the final scene of Moore and Bolland’s comic book. Batman, being sure of his righteousness, proposes Joker resocialization and a possibility of a normal life. However, Joker believes it to be too late and… tells Batman a joke about two madmen escaping an asylum. By his squib he wanted to mock Batman, to laugh on him, to humiliate him. To show that deep down inside – they are similar.
However, something unexpected happens. Batman, instead of attacking Joker… laughs with him, but not to show his acceptance of Joker’s behavior, but to show an allegorical enlightenment. Deep down inside he has realized that he is a prisoner of his own rules and social norms made by society and civilization. Is it not true that only 5 minutes after being born one obtains certain features – identity, origin and religion – which we try to defend and share, even though almost none of us chose them by ourselves? Culture, as the source of pain, is responsible for the creation of the lunatics like him and Joker. The Dark Knight realized that they both are the two madmen trying to escape the asylum known to them as our world, the mad men trying to put into life their very own visions of justice. They believe in it despite the fact that convincing oneself to the inexistence of justice – which is clearly culturally invented by men to relief the weak – would relieve them of their manias.
When Batman spoke about the peace he did not know that there are people who want Joker and him to fight themselves to death, living in fear for the rest of their lives – these were the readers that desire nothing but bread and circuses. The perversity, however, is based on our (even mine, by writing it) hypocrisy. We cannot admit to our darker, uglier “inner us.” We prefer to see ourselves as the heroes, noble and obliging, discouraging and hating the concept of evil, but we still seem to have a problem with it – we sympathize with the victims of terrorist attacks in France on Facebook or by attending to protests, but we seem to forget about the dead count in Abu Gharib or Bagdad. We like to think about people as better and worse, even though none of us has any moral rights to do it; all in all, we are equal. On the last page of the comic book Batman and Joker, understanding their vanity in a spectacle for dissemblers, laugh on the readers of the work. Look closely at the last frames of the comic book. Who knows, maybe the courage of life means to look on the nothingness of the world, slowly conceding to it, waiting for it to turn us like a card? Who knows if it is not us being the dark secret?
“The Killing Joke,” like every outstanding piece of art, asks the readers important questions on the surrounding world, the meaning of freedom the society agrees with and whether who, if anyone, has it. By the use of fictional characters, the comic book ruthlessly reflects the reality, the rules by which it is governed and its intransigence. It proves that the only exit from this sick situation is by waking up, realizing the mechanisms of repression. It shows that one should expect nothing more that realization of his or her dream, and even those should be constructed well, because one day, they may come true. This fact itself is a good premise to read the comic book, because it is a thing of genius in the comic universe.
Michal Chudolinski is a movie and comic book critic. He graduated from the Department of Sociology at Poland’s Collegium Civitas, where he founded the Comics Club. He is the creator of the blog “Gotham in rain” and publishes regularly at 2+3D. This article was translated from Polish by Sebastian Kownacki.