Alan Moore and Brian Bolland dish up a steamy, hedonistic, homoerotic tale of love turned sour in Batman: The Killing Joke. A tour de force akin to Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, the author and artist dig deep into the gestalt of modern, gay relationships in the large city and boldly face the issues of mental health, codependence, elder abuse, and misogyny through a uniquely gay lens. If such was not their intent, they should get a room and a vial of Ketamine and figure it out because someone wants to do something with someone else in this mess or my name ain’t Polly.
As my name’s not Polly, my entire thesis is flawed. But if you read this thing right, it sounds like gay romance or literary fiction. Consider Batman’s “talk” with the prisoner he believes to be the Joker at the opening of the book. If you read that dialog and you’re a fan of Neil Young or Tool (or even Guns N Roses) then some titles might naturally come to mind–songs about love and murder and the inevitability that one leads to the other. It’s an unfortunately common theme in art, in life, in the headlines. But it’s two men–or rather one man addressing the object of his unnatural fixation–and he presents the ultimatum: We can talk or one of us will die. The unspoken implication here is that if one dies, then “we” — “us” — the codependent nuclear relationship — ceases to exist as well.
Later we find Bruce Wayne in transition, coming out of his costume with the aid of the older, soft-spoken Alfred. Infatuated, Bruce plasters numerous monitors around the Bat Cave with larger-than-life images of the Joker’s face. He laments that even after all of the years they’ve been at one another’s throats, he still doesn’t truly know the Joker.
But Batman’s bad taste in men is almost as hideous as his taste in fetish wear (The hood I can understand, but a cape? Really? Atrocious!) The Joker’s past failures compel him to seek stability in a daddy figure–Commissioner Gordon. Barbara Gordon, the Commissioner’s biological daughter and Bruce Wayne’s fruit-fly / gal-pal, serves to remind the Joker that he can never have what he truly desires–an intimate yet open relationship with Batman. In a fit of misplaced, misogynistic jealousy, the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, transferring the rage he feels for Batman onto Batgirl.
The Joker abducts Commissioner Gordon and transforms the dignified, powerful civil servant into a naked, collared, beaten sex slave. That the Joker doesn’t attempt to penetrate his prisoner, but instead subjects the old man to a litany of crimes and worldly ills–rape, starvation, war–essentially blaming the man whose job it is to protect people from such things–the symbolism becomes clear: The Joker is the return of the (sexually) repressed, the generation of pantywaists every old geezer in a uniform fears. He is long hair on boys in the 1960s, pierced ears in the 1980s, and skinny jeans in the 2000s. He’s reruns of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and every queer-inclusive line of dialog from every Brit drama over the past two decades.
Batman, having read Iron John in his off hours, understands the importance of rescuing Commissioner Gordon. He visits old flames (the Penguin, to name one) in an effort to validate his feelings. Then he’s invited–the Joker wants to see him–and the Old Man needs saving.
Now before the cops arrive and confiscate my bongos and take Mr. McConaughey and me into custody, let me make a quick observation about what’s really going on here: The Joker wants Bruce Wayne to come out of the closet. When he grabs Batman’s cowl and tries to pull it off, Batman says, “No!” and makes himself vulnerable to attack. This symbolizes Bruce Wayne’s desperate need to remain closeted, to keep his forbidden love a secret from the public. The Joker acknowledges this by book’s end; the joke he tells reflects his understanding of what’s going on. The man who jumps from the asylum is the Joker–unafraid of the fall, of society’s condemnation–while Bruce Wayne is the lunatic who fears his friend will switch off the flashlight beam as he traverses the gap. That would be the death Batman fears at the book’s outset–the death of the lie that Bruce Wayne is straight.
The Killing Joke–Gayest graphic novel ever. QED.