Death and The Batman

Yesterday some nomark shot up a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. You know this, of course, people are talking about nothing else. What makes the whole thing so unthinkable is the shooter's lack of motive or other insane ideology. The story may change over the coming days, but currently it appears that it happened because the limit of this guy's dreams was to put a mask over his mouth and shoot up a Batman film. 

The fact that his appearance and weaponry matched the look of the character Bane and Christopher Nolan's aesthetics, and that his behaviour mirrored that of Batman villains, brings to mind the reason why Alan Moore dismisses the modern comic industry. He says that all it produces is "revenge fantasies for the impotent." On a subconscious level the fact that it was a Batman film feels relevant, as if Batman's fictional universe had spilt off the screen and into the real world. There is an unspoken suspicion that this couldn't have happened at, say, a screening of a Spiderman film.

The tragedy brings to mind the other death that lingers around the Dark Knight films, that of Heath Ledger. This caused me to drag out the text below, about Ledger's death, which I wrote a couple of years ago for a (since abandoned) book about the British post-punk band Killing Joke. I'm struck by the reference to the character "wanting to pull others down to his level." I'm still not entirely comfortable that putting it up as a blog is the right thing to do, at a time when all thoughts about the incident should be about the victims. I may still change my mind and take it down. My gut feeling is to put it up now, however, so here we go.


The Joker first appeared in 1940, in the very first edition of Batman comic. Green haired, white skinned and with a crazy red grin, his appearance was modelled on the Joker in a pack of playing cards. Of all the hundreds of villains in the decades that followed, the Joker became the most prominent and is considered to be Batman’s ‘arch enemy’. Wizard magazine voted him number one in their 100 Greatest Villains of All Time list. The Joker has changed over the years, however. Although originally a homicidal maniac, the character was softened and spent much of his first few decades as an eccentric prankster thief. This is how he appeared in the 1960’s Batman series, played by Cesar Romero, where he plotted comedy-themed heists such as turning the city’s water supply into jelly. The major turning point for the character, the moment when the silliness was replaced by insanity, chaos and total amorality, was a 1988 comic written by Alan Moore called The Killing Joke.

The character of the Joker, as he has appeared on film, owes everything to The Killing Joke. Tim Burton has spoken of it’s importance to his Batman movies. “I loved The Killing Joke”, he said, “It’s my favourite. It’s the first comic I’ve ever loved.” Heath Ledger, who had not read Batman comics and who wasn’t a fan of comic books, explained that “The Killing Joke was the one that was handed to me. I think it’s going to be the beginning of The Joker.” 

The book gives an origin story for the Joker, an unsuccessful comedian who cannot provide for his pregnant wife. Desperate for money, he agrees to help a criminal gang gain access to a chemical plant. Just before the job, he learns that his wife has died. The raid is then foiled by Batman, who causes him to fall into toxic chemicals that turn his hair green and his skin white. Turned mad by the days events, the heart-broken comedian becomes the insane Joker. Tim Burton based his Joker’s background on parts of this story, but it is only one of a number of origin stories for the character. As the Joker admits himself in The Killing Joke, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” This idea is echoed by Heath Ledger’s Joker, who makes a number of contradictory claims about his past during the film.

The book uses this background to underscore the Joker’s basic argument in the book; that the only difference between a homicidal maniac such as him and the average law-abiding citizen is one bad day. In this it positions the Joker as a dark image of Batman, a character who is also the result of one bad day. Batman is just as insane as he is, argues the Joker, for how else can you explain the behaviour of a man who dresses as a bat? The difference is Batman hasn’t realised that he is mad, and still clings to the belief that he can somehow do good or make a difference. That belief is hubris, argues the Joker. The world is random and meaningless, and the only honest way to relate to it is to embrace this and go insane. To prove this, he kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, and keeps him naked in a cage in a dark, disturbing funfair, guarded by fetish-gear wearing freaks and dwarfs. Gordon is then lead through a twisted fun house where he is presented with naked images of his daughter, who the Joker has shot and paralysed. The Joker believes that Gordon will be sent insane by this ‘one bad day’, but Gordon does not crack and he does not choose to deal with the horror by escaping into madness. Indeed, he insists that the Joker is captured “by the book”, in order to show him that “our way works."

The director Christopher Nolan described this well, when he discussed the influence of The Killing Joke on his film The Dark Knight, “I definitely feel the influence of "The Killing Joke," not so much in the specifics as in constructing some sense of purpose for an inherently purposeless character. That is to say The Joker is an anarchist. He's dedicated to chaos. He should really have no purpose but I think the underlying belief that Alan Moore got across very clearly is that on some level The Joker wants to pull everybody down to his level and show that he's not an unusual monster and that everyone else can be debased and corrupted like he is.

Alan Moore’s Joker, then, is a figure of chaos, one who’s sanity was snapped by the cosmic joke. Given his book’s name and the fact that it was published in the late 80s, there has been speculation as to what inspired it. To quote the occult blogger Christopher Knowles, “My personal take on Batman: The Killing Joke was that it was Moore's admirable but not-entirely successful attempt to translate the very powerful musical and iconographic energies of the British band, Killing Joke.” Looking at some of the imagery in the book, such as the Joker sat on a throne of mannequins and doll parts, and considering the philosophy espoused by the Joker, it is not hard to see how this conclusion was reached. In the period before Moore's book was written the band used very similar imagery, in particular an evil mannequin character.

Knowles, however, goes further. He points out the similarities between the visual design of Ledger’s Joker to Killing Joke's vocalist Jaz Coleman. In the Hosannas From The Basement of Hell video, for example, Jaz wears his usual white face paint with long, greasy hair very similar to that worn by Ledger. The red ‘glasgow smile’ lipstick Ledger wears, emphasising a knife wound, is similar to that worn by Coleman in, for example, performances like this. The dark energies that Jaz and Killing Joke created, and which Moore funnelled into the Joker via The Killing Joke, were at the heart of the blockbuster film and took as their focus the actor Heath Ledger.

Jaz himself has alluded to this in a number of interviews. Discussing the protective role of his stage make up with the journalist Justin M. Norton in December 2010, he says, “If you don’t take the mask off, you take that world into your own life. Take Heath Ledger, for example. We are well aware of the energies that surround us in Killing Joke and the peculiarities. The mask isn’t for other people’s benefit. It’s for my own protection.”

Heath Ledger died on January 22nd, 2008. It was a major shock; well liked and hugely talented, Ledger was only 28 years old. It took a few weeks before the official cause of death, accidental acute intoxication caused by a combination of prescription drugs, was announced. During those weeks a number of strange stories started circulating, as shocked, grieving people tried to make sense of what had happened. Ledger had finished playing The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Batman blockbuster The Dark Knight three months earlier, and the persistent rumour was that it was this role had lead to his death. So deeply had the actor emerged himself into this dreadful, evil character, it was said, that he was unable to emerge from it.

He had given an extraordinary performance. Wally Pfister, the film’s cinematographer, said Ledger seemed “like he was busting blood vessels in his head,” he was so intense. “It was like a séance, where the medium takes on another person and then is so completely drained.” The review in the New Yorker said that "His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss." The role would later earn Ledger an Oscar, only the second time an actor has won posthumously and the first time an Academy acting award was given for the portrayal of a comic book character. Certainly Ledger didn’t seem well afterwards. "Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night. ... I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going" he told Sarah Lyall of the New York Times. He admitted to taking a number of sleeping pills, but claimed that they did not help. Michael Caine, who played the butler Alfred, remembered that on set “He was exhausted, I mean he was really tired. I remember saying to him, ‘I’m too old to have the bloody energy to play that part.’ And I thought to myself, I didn’t have the energy when I was his age.” We know now that Ledger had suffered from insomnia for some time before he took on the part, and a number of his friends and colleagues have insisted how much fun he had playing the role. But in the first days and weeks after his death, as people tried to come to terms with this awful, unexpected loss, the idea that his fate had that something about the energies of the Joker, and the depth he immersed himself in them, made a strange sort of sense. A cryptic remark by Jack Nicholson, who had played the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, didn’t help. 

“Well,” drawled Jack, “I warned him.”


After I posted this yesterday James Kelleher informed me via Twitter that Jack Nicholson was referring to warning Ledger about the sleeping pill Ambien. This, of course, makes far more sense. However it has also been reported that the Aurora killer had died his hair red and told police that he was 'The Joker'. God knows where this can of worms will lead, no doubt there will be further revelations in the days to come. 

We have seen plenty of real-world vigilante superheroes springing up, and it appears that we now have a wannabe super-villain equivalent. Which, disturbingly, was exactly how The Joker character was introduced in Nolan's Batman films, as a reaction to the existence of superheroes in the world. 


  1. What will happen to the Killing Joke book?

    1. That was abandoned after the management decided that they wanted more money than the publisher was offering. Although I might stick some transcripts of a fantastic interview I did with Youth up on the blog sometime.


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