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An Analysis of Batman: The Killing Joke, Fear, and Crime in the 1980s

Updated on August 9, 2016
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Popular culture in the 1980s often served as a discourse in the United States to promote change and growth within society. Sitcoms such as The Crosby Show and Growing Pains challenged traditional notions of family and race relations. The growing fame of musicians and the rise of cable television encouraged charity events like the Live Aid concert in 1985 that raised money for famine in Ethiopia. However, society possessed a darker side as well, which was driven by fear. Fear in the 1980s was characterized by the Reagan Administration's War on Drugs, the AIDS epidemic, and the threat of a nuclear catastrophe due to Cold War tension. Americans became increasingly aware of the chaos, disorder, and injustice within their society. This growing awareness fueled American fear. Popular culture started to reflect this rising awareness, as a shift towards emotional realism began, and discourse arose through these cultural mediums.

Comic books and graphic novels were forms of cultural discourse that portrayed a darker and more psychological tone to readers that immersed themselves in what Barbara Rosenwein termed an “emotional community.” The emotional community of comic book readers extended across class, race, and geographical boundaries. Moreover, members of this group did not necessarily identify with the selfish “Me” generation that characterized this decade. Readers of graphic novels and comic books often took exception to categories such as black and white, good and bad. Instead, they found complexity within society and often identified with failures in human nature. More importantly, as shown in the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, they used fear to explain the actions of inner-city criminals, the working and middle class, and the justice system to people who embraced the culture. Comic books expressed and reinforced their fears, influencing not only their emotions, but also their actions.

The graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke was published in 1988 by DC Comics and written by Alan Moore. The graphic novel was centered around the relationship between Batman, the figure of justice, and the Joker, the figure of anarchy. This relationship between the two characters and their place in the debate between justice and anarchy distinguished this graphic novel from others at the time. Based inside the fictional Gotham City, many inner-city problems were brought to the light, and fear was used as the central theme that drove the characters actions. The storyline was based around the actions of the Joker, who escaped from prison, and Batman's pursuit of him. This essay will look at the driving forces of fear in the inner-city that included gang affiliations, drugs, and violence. By analyzing these factors depicted in the comic, it will show how fear drove the actions of criminals, the working and middle class, and the justice system. To accomplish this task, I analyzed specific scenes that depicted a relationship between the graphic novel and inner-city life to readers.

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I. Gang Life and Fear

Gang violence in the United States was characterized by a group of people performing assaults, homicides, home-invasions, and robbery, but was not limited to these crimes. In Batman: The Killing Joke, the group of criminals were referred to as a mob. However, their activities were very much gang centered.

Proof of gang representation in Batman: The Killing Joke can be seen by how the criminals identified themselves through symbols, indicating they were all part of the same criminal organization. For example, in a flashback scene that involved a poor comedian named Jack, who would descend into a life of crime and ultimately become the Joker, a red helmet symbolized the Red Hood gang. When two members of the red hood gang are confronted by police, they tried to put the crime off on the Red Hood instead of themselves. They attempted to hide behind the gang's symbol for protection against authorities. Ultimately, the two members were killed, but the Red Hood escaped.

In the present storyline, the Joker distinguished his activities with a joker playing card. By leaving the card at the scene of the crime, the Joker took credit for the crime to show how far he was willing to go to prove anarchy had taken control of the city. In the graphic novel, authorities identified the symbols with the affiliated gang that the symbols represented. The symbols inscribed fear into the authorities that could not stop the crimes that the gangs were committing, even if they apprehended a few of the members.

There are various reasons that people joined gangs. For one, gangs provided them economic and social advancements that poor members feared they would not otherwise receive. These opportunities were typically achieved through criminal activities, like robbery. Robbery found its way into Batman: The Killing Joke as well. In the flashback sequence of The Killing Joke, Jack, the poor comedian, was forced into the service of a gang that intended to rob the chemical plant where Jack used to be employed. He participated because he wanted to get his pregnant wife out of the degraded environment they were forced to live in due to their financial situation. Yet, in this graphic novel, Jack was hesitant when deciding to participate. While meeting with two gang members, he debated back and forth about going through with the crime. Finally, his need for money drove his decision to rob the chemical plant. The graphic novel, therefore, expressed that his fear of failing to provide for his family was what finally drove his actions forward.

However, Batman: The Killing Joke pushed the notion of inner-city fear further, as Jack was forced to stay committed to the robbery even though he wanted to back out. When Jack's wife died, he wanted to pull out of the robbery because he no longer saw a point in carrying on with the crime due to the tragedy that had just occurred in his life. However, the gang members refused to let him out unless he wanted to be killed himself. Fear that led Jack into the situation forced him to remain committed to the crime, as it would for many working-class individual living in the inner-city during the 1980s. They found no escape.

Many working-class people throughout the 1980s found themselves in these situations. They struggled to obtain enough money for basic necessities. Therefore, they turned to crime for monetary supplement to purchase what they needed. The fear of failing to provide for their families drove their actions. Members often entered their respective gang because of the benefits the gang life provided them. Gang members grew up in poverty with limited opportunities to succeed. They could not afford the same commodities that middle and upper-class citizens purchased. For many working-class citizens, their only option was gang participation, which was depicted in The Killing Joke.

As a result of gang members trying to change their economic and social positions, they had to generate fear in those around them by commanding obedience. Gangs, therefore, developed more effective and more violent methods to do so. Batman: The Killing Joke utilized acts of violence to show the harmful effects of gang activity and the fear inducing quality of these violent acts. For instance, the Joker, the figure of anarchy in the story, traditionally used a knife for his villainous activities, but Alan Moore decided to give him a gun in Batman: The Killing Joke. The Joker used the gun to shoot Barbara Gordon before she or her father could react. The gun immediately made the situation more dangerous. Due to the presence of the gun, the gang was placed in a dominant position from the beginning, and her middle-class family had to obey the gang's demands. Therefore, the graphic novel depicted a middle-class family's fear of guns entering the hands of violent gang members who intended to use them to assert their dominance.

As stated, gangs were able to dominate their environment by producing fear through violent tactics. The rise in the number of handguns and other more powerful weaponry was one reason for the increase in violence. Guns sold in the United States increased by over 100 million between 1968 to 1990 due to the cultural importance of guns in American society and a push by groups like the National Rifle Associations to continue manufacturing new guns. The weapons ended up in the hands of gang members, typically young males, who used them in violent crimes. They produced fear in the environment that surrounded them to make a name for themselves. As shown, this production of fear and dominance was covered in The Killing Joke.


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II. Residents, Businesses, and Fear

The vulnerability of living in an inner-city residence was explored in Batman: The Killing Joke. When the Joker managed to enter the apartment of police commissioner Jim Gordon, he shot Jim's daughter in the spine, and other gang members assaulted the father. As a parent, Jim was unable to protect his daughter from the anarchy that terrorized the city. The comic pushed this notion of vulnerability further though, as the justice system could not protect the innocent either. Since Jim was the police commissioner, he failed both as a parent and as a cop. His middle-class family feared that there was no protection from inner-city violence, even in their own home.

The risk of violence in the inner-city influenced fear in residence, particularly residence from the middle-class. Riskier situations produced a higher sense of fear. The crime rates in the United States during the 1980s heightened the risk of violence. Crime rates were on the rise since the 1960s, as drugs like powdered and crack cocaine flooded the streets. Single-parent households were becoming more common, as divorce rates continued to increase throughout the 1980s. Single parents faced the inner-city alone as they raised children in a much more dangerous environment. The risk level on the inner-city streets was extremely high and fear was produced in much of the population that lived there. Considering the dangers of the crime on the streets, parents and other middle-class and working-class citizens believed their place of residence could protect them from the crime outside. However, due to drugs and the growing boldness of gang members, home invasions increased, leaving residence vulnerable to crime even in their own home. This heightened vulnerability was expressed in popular culture, as seen in Batman: The Killing Joke.

Sexual assault became another issue in the inner-city that was depicted in The Killing Joke. When the Joker broke into Jim's apartment and shot his daughter, he stripped her naked and took photographs to show to Jim later, while the Joker was torturing him. Prior to breaking out though, Jim and his daughter did not know where the Joker was or what his intentions were. Again, the notion that Jim, as a parent, could not protect his child from inner-city crime was evident. However, the comic continued to push this conflict even further. Jim was also stripped naked while being tortured as a form of humiliation. This implied that not only could he not protect his child from sexual predators, but he could not even protect himself from the same crime.

Prior to the 1990s, sexual assault was not given the same legal status that it would later obtain. In the 1980s, there was little access to information on sex offenders, as they were not required to register as sex offenders in most states. Citizens could not feel safe in their own neighborhoods because they did not know who around them might be a sexual predator that was after them or their children. The justice system was criticized for its failure to produce a firm punishment against those convicted of sexual assault. Citizens feared that the justice system refused to protect them or provide them with the necessary information to protect themselves from sexual predators in urban areas. The Killing Joke examined this problem in depth.

Fear of inner-city crime produced the desire for many working and middle-class residence to remove themselves from vulnerable urban areas. Their desire to move outside of the inner-city to protect their families was expressed in Batman: The Killing Joke. Before Jack turned to crime, he told his wife his desire to remove her and their unborn child from the slummy apartment complex they were living in. He wanted to move into an area where they could feel protected and that would give their child better opportunities outside of the street life. To get away from the struggles of the inner-city life, Jack had to turn to crime himself. He believed one opportunity would be enough for him to provide the necessary residence for his family to feel safe. Although Jack ultimately could not escape, as a working-class citizens, he still strove to remove himself from the problems in the inner-city. His fear of violence and crime drove this desire.

Middle-class and even many working-class citizens found that there were opportunities for them outside inner-city life, and those with the means left the city for suburban areas. However, they were not driven by economic advancement only. Inner-city violence was a very critical issue that shaped many of their opinions about living in urban areas. The rise of gated communities in the 1980s served as evidence. Families with children saw gated communities as an excellent barrier to guard against the violence on the streets. If they had the appropriate means, these families could distance themselves from the outside world. This distancing was derived from an anti-urban sentiment that was driven by fear of violence and crime in the inner-city. As shown, such anti-urban sentiment was depicted in The Killing Joke.

Businesses also feared the effects of inner-city crime and began moving outward into suburban areas. Batman: The Killing Joke served as an example of culture's recognition and depiction of the movement of businesses outside the city. In the graphic novel, a business owner was looking to sell his rundown carnival to a prospective buyer, who turned out to be the Joker. There was an important correlation between the two characters. The business owner, here, confronted anarchy in the city. The business had been destroyed by the poverty ridden customer base, and the owner was forced to leave it behind because there was no opportunity left for economic growth. The Joker, on the other hand, believed that the property possessed value, but not as a profitable business. Instead, it became a base to carry out crime. He took Jim to the rundown fair to torture him and bring Jim into the realm of anarchy. The business owner attempted to leave the city due to fear of financial failure, and those left in the poverty ridden city had to struggle with anarchy in areas filled with joblessness. Their fear then turned them into criminals, similar to how Jack, the comedian from the graphic novel, turned into the Joker because of the struggles he faced with poverty in the inner-city.

Crime in the inner-city sent businesses scurrying outside urban centers into rapidly growing suburban areas. Starting in the 1970s and moving into the 1980s, the manufacturing industry in urban centers began to shift towards service industry jobs. This meant jobs were only provided for low skill labor. However, the low-skill jobs departed the inner-city as well, which left citizens in the inner-city jobless and in poverty. Fear of business failure drove these jobs out of the city. As cities became ghettos, centers of poverty and violence, businesses found they no longer had a place in the city. Their clientele had moved outside the city to suburbs and the countryside. Therefore, their fear forced them to push outward into these areas so their business would not disintegrate.


III. The Judicial System and Fear

The pursuit of criminals and gang participants left law enforcement officers and courts in desperate need of a solution for this problem that they feared possessed urban areas. In their pursuit, therefore, the judicial system often alienated many that suffered due to poverty.

The judicial system feared urban violence and the improbability of rehabilitating all the criminals, who now over filled prisons. At the beginning of the graphic novel, Batman, our figure of justice, went to Arkham asylum, which is the prison for the story's criminals. His goal was to put a stop to an endless battle between himself and the Joker, between justice and anarchy. He wanted to help the Joker, anarchy, by rehabilitating him. However, he discovered that the Joker had escaped. Batman could never help the criminals in prison at a time when anarchy was present on the streets. He was tied into a struggle, controlled by fear, and had to alienate the criminals in prison.

The purpose of prisons was to remove criminals from the regular populace, where prisoners could serve their time for the crimes they committed. However, criminals were eventually released back into the same environment that forced them into a life of crime the first time. The judicial system had no process to rehabilitate criminals and prepare them to change their current circumstances and environment. Not only would a convict find their reintroduction into society difficult to face, but prisons developed into centers for gang association. Prisoners managed to maintain a network that allowed them to stay connected to gang activities on the streets. Prisons even turned into recruitment centers for new members who needed protection from violence while they were incarcerated. The failure of the judicial system to find an adequate solution to address gang activity turned many offenders into lifetime gang members.

Criminals recognized the seclusion of the working class and others who lived in less than working-class conditions from the wealthier members of society. Their recognition turned their fear into depression and eventually acceptance. In The Killing Joke, the Joker proved he had accepted his placement in society. He had been transformed from the poor comedian, Jack, who feared living in the inner-city, into a criminal who accepted his life. When the Joker was caught at the end of the story, Batman gave him the same speech of rehabilitation as earlier. In an iconic monologue, however, the Joker expressed that Batman's speech had come far too late. The judicial system, he said, had given up before rehabilitation could happen. The judicial system's only desire was to protect people, not help the criminals. Since they were driven by fear, they separated themselves and the middle-class from the poverty ridden urban centers and allowed the poor working-class to become criminals and enact violence among themselves.


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In conclusion, Batman: The Killing Joke demonstrated how a cultural product, such as comic books, placed fear at the center of popular culture in the 1980s. They depicted fear as the driving force behind society, from criminals, to the middle and working class, and even to the judicial system. Fear turned poor individuals living in lower-class conditions into criminals, who were often forced into gangs, where they induced fear on others to cope with their own situation. Fear, then, caused many middle-class residents and businesses to flee the city, due to the possibility of being victimized by potential crime and financial failure. Finally, fear drove the judicial system into a vulnerable position, where they had to alienate the lower classes from the upper classes by categorizing gangs and gang activity. Therefore, popular culture explained how this fear then resulted in inner-city violence, anti-urban sentiments, urban flight, and the inability of the judicial system to protect citizens and rehabilitate criminals. Ironically, this portrayal fostered the very feelings it denounced. Indeed, as Rosenwein argued, an emotion community of readers played a powerful role in influencing society as a whole. Batman: The Killing Joke, in the end, expressed and reinforced the fears of this emotional community.

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