Batman 49 is the Anti-“The Killing Joke”

by Patrick Ehlers

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

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Tom King and Mikel Janin’s Batman 49 gives Catwoman and Joker an opportunity to discuss the role humor plays in both their lives and the greater Batman franchise. Joker’s goal in all of this is to get a laugh out of Selina, and by the end of the issue, she obliges him with a joke of her own and a chuckle. Sounds like Killing Joke, right? Here’s the thing – King gets us there by trading in connection, nostalgia and shared history, where Alan Moore and Brian Bolland got there by trading in misery. The result is an inversion on the classic story, and an update on the storytelling values in Batman and in comics in general.

The set-up for “Joker tries to get Catwoman to laugh” is charmingly simple, especially when contrasted with Joker’s baroque machinations in The Killing Joke. The Cat and the Clown are squared off in a church, and Janin pulls an excellent psyche-out by delivering an extremely short blockbuster fight scene.

Janin keeps it simple and dynamic. Except for a bit of flooring or an odd column or pew, the background completely disappears, leaving only the two actively players in the scene. The solid white backgrounds are interrupted by red panels, which punctuate the fight with beats of specific violence. In this case, a throat-slice and a gun shot.

And that’s when the action of the issue slows way down. Joker and Catwoman spend the rest of the issue on the ground, holding their wounds, and reminiscing about “the old days.” Joker’s probing question: why does Selina never laugh? Joker, and the rest of the gimmicky idiots, built whole worlds and personas out of dissonance. Batman, and Gotham, and organized crime are all scary and gritty, so the enemies of Batman have to be the opposite. At least, that’s how Joker sees it. He’s very frank throughout this issue, stating all of the usual bullet points: Batman created him, his chaos gives Batman’s life meaning, all the villains actually love Batman, and so on. Joker, as Batman’s opposite, is a destabilizing influence, which makes Batman miserable, which is what Batman is all about.

Right?

Conflict is the heart of drama, so in some ways, being miserable is what Batman, the series, was all about. Joker sums this up succinctly: “He can’t be happy and also be Batman.” We heard this kind of rationale coming out of DC editorial in 2013, when J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman weren’t able to marry Batwoman to Detective Maggie Sawyer. Happiness and fulfillment are antithetical to what the Bat-family is. Or, at least, it’s antithetical to what the Bat-family was.

In fact, this whole issue is a rewriting of what a Batman story has to be. Batman can be happy. Just like Joker can get a sincere laugh out of an overly-serious character, not by inflicting psychological horrors upon their loved ones, but by having a lovely conversation about their shared experiences. It’s a post-deconstructionalist view of Batman – we don’t need to break down the centuries of comics history that make the character work, we can just enjoy the fact that he does.

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The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

One comment on “Batman 49 is the Anti-“The Killing Joke”

  1. How does Killing Joke not use connection, nostalgia and shared history? They are essential to Killing Joke’s very construction, built on the idea of being a story about the fact that there is a long, continuous history that informs everything. And endless cycle that has gone on and on. The attempted conversation at the start, the photograph with Batwoman, Bat Girl and Batmite, the fact that the first and last panels are exactly the same to reflect the endless cycle. How does Killing Joke not use those elements? Killing Joke is a story with massive problems, but let’s not lie about it to redeem King’s latest piece of toxic garbage.

    Because the comic most certainly doesn’t say that Batman can be happy. It actually says the opposite. Because it is built on the fundamental idea that nothing really counts. Having a loving father doesn’t count. Having children that he’s proud of doesn’t count. Saving a life doesn’t count. Helping someone in need doesn’t count. Seeing the success of philanthropy doesn’t count. It is the family that really hurts. King’s big message is that love doesn’t matter. Love doesn’t mean anything.

    There is no happiness. Just being miserable, or having a sexy lamp. King’s vision of happiness doesn’t involve anything but having a woman as property. It is just ownership.

    Love doesn’t matter. Because Alfred’s love doesn’t matter. The Robins love don’t matter. Selina’s love doesn’t matter, because she isn’t treated as a character, as someone with agency. Her feelings are never cared about, shes jsut ignored as an extension of Batman. Just as a prop.

    All that matters is marriage. All that matters, essentially, is “enforced monogamy”. And now we are quoting Jordan Petersen and getting into incel and alt right rhetoric, because that’s unfortunately what this book is.

    The big statement of King’s Batman is that Batman can never be happy. Because the only sort of happiness that exists in King’s universe isn’t actually happiness. Just heteronormativity. Stripped of any love that could redeem it.

    Which fits the grand unifying theme of King’s recent work. THe glamourisarion of suffering

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