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Comic Book / The Killing Joke

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There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum...
"I've proved my point. I've demonstrated there's no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up as a flying rat? You had a bad day and it drove you as crazy as everybody else...only you won't admit it! You have to keep pretending that life makes sense, that there's some point to all this struggling! God, you make me want to puke."
The Joker

The Killing Joke, first published in March 1988, is a one-shot graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland. The novel tells one possible version of the story of how the Joker became the Joker in flashback, while simultaneously telling the present-day story of Batman attempting to convince the Joker to end their feud once and for all, only to be immediately sprung back into action after the Joker ensnares Commissioner James Gordon and his daughter Barbara (Batgirl) in a horrific scheme.

Considered by many to be the definitive Joker story and one of the best Batman stories ever published, The Killing Joke has influenced or been incorporated into a considerable amount of Batman media. Among the noteworthy aspects of the novel's characterization of its two foiling lead characters are its thematic focus on the similarities and differences of the characters, which Batman directly acknowledges while contemplating their relationship throughout the story, as well as the portrayal of the Joker as a Tragic Villain.

The comic won the Eisner Award for "Best Graphic Album" in 1989 and appeared on The New York Times Best Seller List in May 2009.

This comic is not to be confused with the proto-industrial rock group Killing Joke (although the title could be a Shout-Out) or the Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch, "The Killer Joke".

An Animated Adaptation of the comic was made in 2016 as part of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies line. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill returned to their iconic roles.

The Killing Joke provides examples of:

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    A - H 
  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: The comic's a violent bloodbath, but is most famous for either what occurs off-camera or the quiet dialogue with the Joker at the climax.
  • Actually a Doombot: It starts with Batman visiting the Joker in Arkham Asylum. Batman realizes this isn't actually the Joker when some white body paint runs off on his hand.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: The Joker's joke, which is an analogy of how hopeless it is for one insane man to try saving another insane man. It's so sadly relevant, Batman can't help but join the Monster Clown in bitter laughter.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Despite all the bad things he's done, the Joker realizing he was wrong but saying it's too late for him is still gut-wrenching to read.
  • All There in the Script: The entire script for the comic has been leaked online, and it identifies certain small details such as the fact that the guy who does business with the Joker is a criminal who specializes in selling hideouts to supervillains. The script also identifies the real estate agent as Mitchum, the two mobsters in the flashback as Vinnie and Joe, and Joker's three terrifying dwarf henchmen as Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Notably, Moore's script gives a name to a character who appears in exactly one panel of the comic — the man seen retching in Joker's maybe-flashback is deemed "Lester".
  • An Aesop: For all of the Joker's talk about how "one bad day" can drive the sanest man to lunacy, that ultimately isn't true, and the story proves it. In fact, that sort of nihilistic detachment is actually kind of pathetic. As Batman points out, all of Joker's grandiose Motive Rants are just delusions of grandeur; in the end, Joker's just a Jerkass who hurts people because he wants to. As such, the ultimate message of the story is that nihilism and cynicism are foolish mentalities.
  • Arc Words: "One bad day." The Joker posits that this is all it takes to drive anyone as crazy as Joker is, as evidenced by part of his Multiple-Choice Past. Also, Joker intends to make Gordon have his own "one bad day" to prove the point to the entire world.
  • "Bang!" Flag Gun: Unlike most times, the Joker's gun turns into one when it's EMPTY; and the flag reads "Click Click Click", not "Bang".
  • Beyond Redemption: At the story's end, Batman offers the Joker a genuine chance to reform and come back to sanity. The Joker refuses the offer, believing that he's too far gone to be saved and that the world is such a horrible place that he wouldn't want to be anyway. Then, after the Joker tells a joke, Batman appears to accept the conclusion, and is forced to give up on him.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Just as Joker completes his insane derision of Gordon as a hopeless "Average Man," Batman roars onto the scene in the Batmobile and scatters Joker's minions from the mere sight of him.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Gordon is saved while retaining his sanity, and the Joker is carted away, but Barbara is paralyzed (and will remain so for several years).
  • Black Comedy: The Joker describes Barbara after shooting her in the stomach and sending her flying onto a glass coffee table.
    Joker: She thinks she's a coffee table edition... Mind you, I can't say much for the volume's condition. I mean, there's a hole in the jacket and the spine appears to be damaged.
  • Bookends:
    • The story starts and ends in the rain.
    • Batman's monologue, featured at the beginning and given a Dark Reprise towards the end.
    • The first words are "There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum", the beginning of the joke which Joker tells at the end.
  • The Cameo:
    • Two-Face appears briefly at the beginning as an Arkham inmate.
    • The Penguin briefly appears later in prison being questioned by Batman for the Joker's whereabouts.
  • Canon Welding:
    • This aspect is not quite well understood since it's usually seen as an One-Off and became part of the Post-Crisis continuity but Alan Moore wrote the comic based on the previous origin of the Joker, Detective Comics # 168 ("The Man Behind the Red Hood") which established the Red Hood and Joker's fall in a vat of chemicals.
    • This also stemmed from an attempt to resolve the contradictions of his characterization. In the first origin story, written by Bill Finger himself, Joker is a sane criminal mastermind who switched from one gimmick (Red Hood) to another (Joker) via a chemical bath. In the Bronze Age, Joker was made into a homicidal psychopath who was insane. As such, Alan Moore's origin balanced a latter-day interpretation of an insane Joker with the older origin of a sane criminal by emphasizing the transformation coming from a Trauma Conga Line and Joker's own memories of the incident having becoming fuzzy leading to the multiple-choice past aspect at the end.
    • The Batcave in its brief glimpse is comprised of elements from the Dick Sprang era, namely a photograph featuring Bat-Mite who would otherwise not be welcome in such a story. Both Batwoman and the first Batgirl appeared in the photo as well. While Kathy Kane exists in Post-Crisis, she was never Batwoman (until it was made canon again post-Infinite Crisis). Also, Betty Kane was revised as Bette Kane who becomes Flamebird instead.
    • Years later, Grant Morrison would use the non-canon Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth to propose Joker's counter-offer to Batman.
  • Central Theme:
    • One bad day can drive a normal man to madness, but we have the choice to stay sane when confronted with tragedy and suffering.
    • Truly evil people are often convinced that everyone is as bad as they are, and they'll go to extreme lengths just to prove it. That doesn't make it true.
    • Can you actually help the mentally ill by treating them? If you can't treat them and if you keep them alive knowing they will keep killing, can The Hero be considered saner than the villain who realizes the absurdity of the situation?
    • You can't help anyone who doesn't want to help themself.note 
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Arkham's receptionist takes one out, with her hands trembling so much that all the cigarettes spill from the pack, after Batman passes her desk.
  • Circus of Fear: The Joker's carnival. Gordon is locked in a cage, is stripped naked and abused by The Freakshow working for Joker and is forced down an insane rollercoaster where Joker performs a musical number about going insane and shows him photos of his abused daughter.
  • Classy Cane: The Joker totes one around (like he had since the 1970s), only this one has a head that squirts acid.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture:
    • The Joker shoots Barbara in the stomach and through her spine, paralyzing her. He then undresses her and proceeds to take pictures of her while she squirms in agony.
    • Gordon is stripped naked and forced to see pictures of his beloved daughter being tortured. He is then confined in a cage and put on display in a freak show.
  • Collateral Angst: Barbara's dialogue after being shot and sexually humiliated by the Joker is entirely devoted to worrying about how her father and Bruce will react to it.
  • Collective Identity: In the (maybe-)flashbacks, the villain Red Hood is actually a mask which members of a gang always give to the 'inside man' on their robberies, in order to confuse the police.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: Every time the original comic was reprinted, the front cover text would be in a different color (if you're looking for a first printing, the cover text is green).
  • Continuity Snarl: If there's one detail in the Joker's memories that casts doubt on its reality, it's that instead of jumping into a vat of chemicals he instead jumps into a nearby lake that was contaminated.
  • Cutting Off the Branches: Non-videogame instance. In the climax of the comic, the Joker admits that due to how utterly warped his mind is, the backstory we're shown may not actually have happened and even he doesn't know. Batman: Three Jokers, published 32 years later, we find out that the origin we were shown was the true one, albeit with some changes made. The man who would become the Joker was actually abusive towards Jeannie and she actually faked her death to escape him.
  • Deus Angst Machina: Joker believes in this.
    "All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy."
  • Disposable Woman:
  • Dramatic Spine Injury: As a key part of his plan to drive Commissioner Gordon into insanity, the Joker gut-shoots Barbara Gordon, the bullet hitting her spine and paralyzing her legs. She would go on to become the master hacker called Oracle and found the Birds of Prey. She had initially decided that she wouldn't seek help for her paralysis, medical or otherwise, but in Batgirl (2011) she has regained the use of her legs after spending three years using her wheelchair.
  • Driven to Madness: Joker believes he was at some point, and seeks to do the same to Gordon to prove how easy it is.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Most accredit this story as the one that establishes Joker's killing "because life is an absurd, cruel joke" characterization.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Joker knows that Batman has already had his "bad day" that changed him forever. What Joker doesn't understand is why Batman has responded with such a serious, unshakeable belief in justice:
    Joker: "Why aren't you laughing?"
  • "Everybody Laughs" Ending: A much darker use of this trope than usual. After everything Joker has done to the Gordons and refusing Batman's offer to rehabilitate his insanity, he tells an Actually Pretty Funny joke that encapsulates the insanity of the vigilante in the bat costume trying to help the Monster Clown treat his mental illness. It ends with the two of them laughing at the absurdity of it all in the rain as they wait for the police.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The story covers one eventful night.
  • Eye Scream: The twentieth anniversary recoloring makes Joker's eyes bleed when he comes up from the chemicals.
  • Failure Hero: Batman accomplishes very little in this story. He's busy brooding in the Batcave when Barbara gets shot, and arrives too late to even get her medical attention (Barbara's neighbor did so). After visiting Barbara in the hospital, he rampages across Gotham on an Interrogation Montage... and utterly fails to find the Joker until the Joker sends him a literal invitation. After that he rescues the Commissioner and subdues the Joker - victories, but unimpressive ones, given the lack of fight Joker and his gang put up, and the Joker politely (by his standards) but firmly rejects his offer of "real" rehabilitation. Subsequent comics made it even worse, portraying the whole story as an unqualified victory for the Joker, who cheerfully gloats about it at every opportunity.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • The elderly and overweight Jim Gordon is stripped naked and chained to a collar by Joker's minions as part of Joker's attempt to break his mind. When being dragged before Joker after regaining consciousness, a full frontal of Gordon is given. While he's mostly obscured by shadow, it appears that the artist left in a bit of detail.
    • During Commissioner Gordon's Willy Wonka-ish roller coaster ride, a collection of photographs are projected displaying Barbara after being shot. Among other things, the photographs show Barbara's fully exposed breasts with little censorship, in a manner not usually seen outside of a Vertigo comic.note  As interesting as this would normally be, the fact Babs is covered in blood and in obvious agony tends to belay any sexual connotation.
  • Forced to Watch: The Joker tortures Gordon by forcing him to look at naked pictures of his bloody, newly paralyzed daughter.
  • Freak Out: Despite going through one, Gordon manages to avoid going crazy.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Joker was (at least in this story) a failed stand-up comedian who wanted to make a little money to support his family. Now he's Batman's greatest foe.
  • Freudian Excuse: The comic shows the "one bad day" that turned the Joker into who he is today. Though Joker isn't sure that what we're shown is true, he's convinced that whatever happened to him, it was really horrible, and is convinced that "one bad day" is all it takes to twist a man into someone like him.
  • Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse: Batman, however, upon finding Gordon is still sane even after the sheer hell he went through, cuts through Joker's "One Bad Day" speech and gives a scathing "The Reason You Suck" Speech, where he accuses Joker of simply using his bad day as an excuse to unleash the monster inside of him.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Joker does this after "one bad day" (to be fair, it was a really bad day). He also tries to bring this about in Commissioner Gordon, who resists Joker's torturous plans out of sheer willpower.
  • Hall of Mirrors: The final showdown between Batman and Joker takes place in one.
  • Hawaiian-Shirted Tourist: Joker dons this outfit for maybe a page and a half when he shoots Barbara Gordon - but it's iconic enough to have made appearances in other media:
    • It's one of his alternate costumes in LEGO Batman.
    • The DC fighting game Injustice released a Killing Joke DLC, with new Joker skins in the Hawaiian shirt (camera shirt) as well as the rest of his costumes in the story.
    • It occurs again, Hawaiian Shirt and all in Batman: Arkham Knight, when the scene is shown in a flashback.
  • Heinousness Retcon: In a possible backstory before becoming the Joker, he was shown to be a loving and caring husband and one of the key things that caused him to snap was the loss of his wife and unborn son and Alan Moore's notes state he didn't think of the man Pre-Joker as abusive. Batman: Three Jokers presents this backstory as true for the "Comedian" Joker —and that he was indeed abusive to his wife, resulting in her faking her death, so she could leave him and raise their son without him.
  • Heroic Resolve: This is what enables Gordon to resist going mad after seeing his daughter shot in front of him and being tortured by the Joker.
  • Humanity Is Insane: The Joker believes so, and wants everyone including (if not especially) Batman to think that way.
    The Joker: Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this... any other response would be crazy!

    I - N 
  • Interrogation Montage: Batman goes through a silent one as he turns Gotham upside-down searching for the Joker and Gordon, hitting everyone from the highest Mafia dons to streetwalkers to The Penguin. It's especially chilling as it's intercut with scenes of Gordon's torture at the circus.
  • Karma Houdini: Joker. Batman barely even hurts him, forgives him, offers him help and Joker even gets to make him laugh... despite the fact that Joker got to torture the Gordons and crippled Barbara. However, this could be explained by the fact that Batman began this story with the goal of offering Joker one last chance to end their battle before one of them or both of them ended up dead. He truly did try to "save" the Joker, and to have him pull off something this atrocious might be what makes the Bat laugh so bitterly with him in the end, because he realizes that it's hopeless to even try.
  • Last-Second Chance: Batman offers Joker a sincere chance at redemption at the end.
  • Laughing Mad: Joker, after his "one bad day", starts laughing like a madman after seeing him own reflection in a puddle, signifying his mind breaking.
  • Madness Shared by Two: The Joker heavily implies this trope is the reason he and Batman are destined to continue battling each other forever. Illustrated by a joke he shares with the Dark Knight at the end:
    Joker: See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum...and one night, one night they decide they don't like living in an asylum any more. They decide they're going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight...stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren't make the leap. Y'see...y'see, he's afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea...He says 'Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!' B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says... he says 'What do you think I am? Crazy? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!'
  • Match Cut: This is Moore's specialty. It's incredibly effective at tying the flashbacks into the current events to create a united narrative.
  • Mind Rape: The Joker forces Gordon to see pictures of a naked, gravely injured Barbara in an attempt to drive him insane.
  • Motive Rant: Joker explains he's torturing Gordon to prove that "one bad day" is all it takes to cause an average man to lose his sanity.
  • Monochrome Past: The 2008 recoloring has the Red Hood flashbacks in monochrome with the exception of red.
  • Monster Clown: The Joker, clown-themed supervillain in top form for this story, tries to torture a man into insanity just to validate his own worldview.
  • Multiple-Choice Past: The Joker explains that the accident that turned him into a supervillain damaged his memory and his recollection of the past. This was used by Moore as a Hand Wave to why the origin of The Killing Joke differs in significant details from Bill Finger's "The Man Behind the Red Hood" (where the Red Hood is a criminal mastermind and former lab-worker who traded his old gimmick for a new one, rather than a good man who eventually became the Joker). Moore held that his origin story was welded to that rather than as a non-continuity story that outright contradicts it. Later comics had the Riddler pop up as a possible witness to the "bad day" which birthed The Joker - only to tell a different version of the story (one which isn't considered canon, too). In either case, the notion of a Joker as a good man before his fateful encounter with Batman and a vat of chemicals, which Moore certainly held to be true to his story, has never been established as definitive in later continuity.
  • Mythology Gag:
    • Gordon's scrapbook contains a newspaper article about the very first encounter between Batman and the Joker; the photo in that article is a reproduction of the cover to Detective Comics #27 (Batman's debut issue), only with the random thug swapped out for the Joker.
    • A pinup from 1961's Batman Annual #2 appears as a framed picture in the Batcave.
  • Nameless Narrative: Neither Batman or Joker are referred to by those names throughout the story (save for Batman looking up Joker's info in a computer). In newspaper headlines, it's "Disfigured Homicidal Maniac" and "Bat-garbed Vigilante"/"Crimefighter".
  • No Ending: Partial example. Though the story itself is wrapped up quite nicely, there is not a denouement, it's something of a Gainax Ending in fact.
  • No Pregger Sex: Played With. While the Joker's (possibly nonexistent) pregnant wife assures him that everything will be okay, she mentions that he is "good in the sack", but it isn't made clear whether or not they had sex while she was pregnant.
  • Nothing Up My Sleeve: The Joker tries to finish Batman off by lunging at the hero with a small knife which he had hidden in his sleeve.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: As seen in the page quote, Joker accuses Batman of being as insane as he is - even if Batman won't admit it.
  • Not So Stoic: Batman laughs at Joker's joke at the end.

    O - Z 
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Batman at the beginning when "Joker's" makeup rubs off on his hands and he realizes that he's talking with an imposter and the real Joker has escaped.
    • Barbara when she answers the door and sees the Joker leveling a gun at her.
    • Batman has another one at the end when Joker pulls the same gun on him, lined up for a perfect shot, only for it to be a "Bang!" Flag Gun.
  • Origins Episode: Moore intended "The Killing Joke" to serve as this, providing a radically new interpretation of Joker's past and his Monster Clown gimmick.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: One of the few instances where the Joker stops laughing and it really hits like a Wham Shot — he's briefly sane again.
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: Batman gives one to the Joker in response to his "one bad day" monologue.
    "I spoke to Commissioner Gordon before I came in here. He's fine. Despite all your sick, vicious little games, he's as sane as he ever was! So maybe ordinary people don't always crack. Maybe there isn't any need to crawl under a rock with all the other slimy things when trouble hits. Maybe it was just you, all the time!"
  • Pre-Insanity Reveal: The Joker was an ordinary comedian before he went crazy and became a supervillain.
  • Prequel: An issue of the team-up series The Brave and the Bold (#33 of the 2007 relaunched series) featured a team-up between Zatanna, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl, as Zatanna apparently decided to go clubbing with the others after a vivid dream. Zatanna and Diana repeatedly reiterate the need for Barbara to enjoy the night and not to spend all her time preoccupied with crime-fighting, particularly making a point of having her dance. The story is touching and beautiful and funny (including what appears to be a karaoke rendition of BeyoncĂ©'s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)) - until the night ends and Diana asks if Barbara has ever heard of oracles. Zatanna's dream was a prophecy; she knew Barbara would be paralyzed, and since she could not change the future, she decided to give Barbara one final night of normalcy before her life was irrevocably changed. The final pages of the issue feature a re-creation of the pages from The Killing Joke where Barbara was shot (including the conversation she was having with Commissioner Gordon at the time) and end with The Joker shooting Barbara as she opens the door.
  • Psychological Horror: The Joker uses the most disturbing images possible to break Gordon. He fails; Gordon remains sane.
  • Redemption Rejection: The Joker has enough humanity left to be sad about what he's become, but he bitterly admits he can never be a good person again, no matter how much he actually wants to be one deep inside.
    "No. I'm sorry but...No. It's too late for that. Far too late."
  • Rule of Symbolism: Joker's final joke is an obvious parallel between himself and Batman - it's a tale of a man who's insane but functional (Batman) and a man who's completely off the deep end (Joker). Batman is insane for fighting for a hopeless cause and in turn offering a false hope. The Joker is insane for believing in the false hope, but is too cynical and distrustful of humanity to take it.
  • Quality over Quantity: Subverted. Joker is more amused about the number of bad days it takes to anger/depress the sanest man into lunacy rather than how bad that day was.
  • Sad Clown: The finale displays this when both Joker and Batman hysterically laugh at the cruelty of their lives, which drives in how deeply both these men have been hurt. Joker must substitute laughter for tears, or the ponderous weight of his sadness would crush what little will to live he has left.
  • Sanity Slippage: Lampshaded by the Joker when he states in his monologue that one bad day can reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. However, the attempt to prove that on Commissioner Gordon fails, as Batman points out.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Likely because they were aware Batman would continue his warpath the moment he got out of the Batmobile, the Joker's troupe fled at the mere sight.
  • Shameful Strip: Joker does this to both Barbara and Jim.
    • He strips Barbara right after shooting her and takes several photos of her, naked and bloodied, and later shows the pictures to Jim in an effort to break him.
    • Joker's minions strip Jim naked after he's kidnapped, and they force him to parade around the carnival, seemingly just to degrade him.
  • Shared Fate Ultimatum: Batman's monologue, which serves as Bookends to the story, is an acknowledgement of this as a Mutual Kill outcome for Batman and The Joker and serves as an attempt to avert it. Joker, for his part, acknowledges Batman's point, but believes they're both too far down that path to turn back.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Once again, Batman delivers one to the Joker (a running theme between these two).
    Joker: It's all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for... it's all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can't you see the funny side? Why aren't you laughing?
    Batman: Because I've heard it before... and it wasn't funny the first time.
  • Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!: Batman's "The Reason You Suck" Speech to Joker is based on this. For all of the Joker's talk about how "one bad day" can drive the sanest man to lunacy, that ultimately isn't true, as both Barbara and Jim Gordon aren't broken by what happens to them. In fact, the lesson of the story (which Batman points out during said speech) is that the sort of nihilistic detachment that Joker continues to push is self-defeating, self-serving, and pathetic. As Batman points out, all of Joker's faux-philosophical Motive Rants are just delusions of grandeur; in the end, Joker's just a Jerkass who hurts people because he wants to hurt people.
    Batman: Maybe there isn't any need to crawl under a rock with all the other slimy things when trouble hits. Maybe it was just you, all the time!
  • Single-Issue Psychology:
    • Joker's "one bad day" is what turned him into a psychopath. This is subverted - and since this is a Batman story, the subversion is rather shocking. Batman tells Joker that there was clearly something wrong with him to begin with, and he should have looked for help.
    • Alan Moore stated that this was a major issue for him in why the comic is not a complete success in that while he strove to give Joker a motivation and origin with some amount of psychological consistency that fit with his general characterization, he ultimately felt that it didn't resolve itself completely because both Batman and Joker were comic book characters whose larger than life gimmicks overshadowed any attempts at realism.
  • Slasher Smile: The Joker's vicious smile is one of the clearest indicators of his mental instability and prominently displayed throughout the comic, highlighting his relish upon wounding or torturing his victims. One of the few moments when the Joker is not shown smiling is near the end of the story, when Batman's speech causes him to regain some of his sanity, at which point his expression changes to convey his sorrow.
  • Spanner in the Works: Commissioner Gordon, in an indirect sort of way. The Joker's plan was all about proving that it just takes "one bad day" to drive a normal man to insanity, but the fact that Gordon made it through his ordeal without losing it provides a huge counterpoint to The Joker's theory. This even makes The Joker take a serious moment of self-reflection when Batman throws this in his face near the end of the story.
  • Spikes of Doom: The only real Death Trap that Batman encounters in Joker's funhouse before he confronts the clown face-to-face is a trap door leading to a pit filled with spikes.
  • Start of Darkness: Joker wants to prove that anyone can be subjected to this, making them have "one bad day" as to make them go insane. Incidentally, a possible version of what may have driven the Joker to lunacy is presented as a flashback, and god, would it be understandable if that were true because he'd be already pretty low on life but in the span of a day lost his wife and unborn child, his home, committed a crime and ended up disfigured by chemicals.
  • Stealth Pun: Joker's cell in Arkham Asylum is the 0801. If we use letters of the alphabet, you get the eight and first ones: Ha. This one got lampshaded in issue 36, vol 2 of Batman.
  • Straw Nihilist: Joker thinks and wants to demonstrate that life is so ridiculously unfair that all it takes is "one bad day" to make any man a monster like he is. However, Gordon's example shows that no, some don't break under the pressure and that the Joker was in the wrong. To quote him, he states that "human existence is mad, random and pointless one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo".
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: The Joker is given one via his flashback scenes, revealing him to have been a failed comedian turning to crime to support his expecting wife. It goes From Bad to Worse as he suffers a Trauma Conga Line that drives him insane.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Batman wants to help his archenemy because he predicts the two of them are doomed to destroy each other if they continue fighting. Terrible as he is, the Joker is ultimately a lunatic who requires treatment and aid rather than execution, and Batman wants to help rehabilitate him if it's possible. He started the comic going to Arkham to make this offer and he still attempts it after the Joker's tortured Gordon and crippled Barbara.
  • Tears of Blood: The Deluxe Edition added bloody tears weeping from Joker's eyes in the famous Laughing Mad panel when he sees what the chemical bath did to him.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Gordon tells Batman to bring the Joker in alive to "show him that our way works."
  • Tragic Villain: By the end of the story, Joker knows he's been prove completely and utterly wrong...but he feels he done too much damage to come back and be rehabilitated.
  • Trauma Conga Line:
    • This is what Joker went (or might have gone) through during his "one bad day." He throws away a stable career working at a chemical factory to pursue his dream of becoming a comedian, but fails miserably at it. After falling into serious financial trouble, he agrees to lead a couple of mafia thugs through the factory in order to provide for his wife and unborn child. On the day when he's supposed to do the job, his wife dies in an accident, rendering the job meaningless. The thugs fake sympathy for him, but force him to go through with the job - and tell him to use the money for a funeral for his family. He leads the thugs through the chemical plant, but they're soon spotted by security and shot to death. Batman shows up, believing the man who would be Joker to be Red Hood (since he's wearing the Red Hood costume). He proceeds to jump into the polluted water and swims to safety, then realizes that his skin is burning. When he takes off the hood, the first thing he sees is his reflection in a puddle: green hair, pale skin, yellow teeth, and bloodshot eyes. At this point, he just starts laughing.
    • The plot is the Joker invoking this, trying to destroy Jim Gordon by giving him a particularly bad day by crippling his daughter and subjecting him to a horrific rollercoaster ride. It fails and Gordon remains committed to his job.
  • Uncertain Doom: Brian Bolland discusses this in the Deluxe Edition, complete with The Unreveal as he "runs out of words" just as he's supposedly about to explain it. Batman and the Joker are both laughing at the Joker's last joke, and Batman reaches out to place his hands on the Joker's shoulders. That's the last we see of of what they're doing, but the laughter cuts off abruptly, seemingly insinuating that Batman finally killed him. Alan Moore did eventually confirm that this isn't the case, which makes more sense considering the comic is canon.
  • Unreliable Narrator: This trope goes hand-in-hand with Multiple-Choice Past and is also one possible explanation for what actually happens at the end. This is the Joker we're talking about, after all. For example, one hint of this is that in one frame, his pregnant wife gives an unnatural, very Joker-like grin.
  • Updated Re-release: The 2008 twentieth-anniversary edition was completely recolored: new details such as the Joker's eyes bleeding were added, the flashbacks were made Deliberately Monochrome, and the yellow oval around the Batman insignia was removed (bringing the costume into line with The Dark Knight Trilogy, which was heavily influenced by The Killing Joke). Brian Bolland hated the original coloring, which is intentionally garish and jarring. He approved of the re-release on one condition: he had to be allowed to personally recolor it.
  • Villain Has a Point: Joker at one point accuses Batman of having had "one bad day" that shaped him into who he is. Joker has no idea just how right he is. Batman, however lets him know where he's wrong; he and Gordon handled it differently from how Joker did.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Killing Joke features a clever little inversion: the breakdown itself is how Joker became the villain. He was a regular man who suffered through a Trauma Conga Line that ends with him seeing his bleached, clownish face, which shattered his sanity and begins laughing at the whole lunacy of his situation.
  • Villainous BSoD: Joker goes through one once he realizes that in spite of every horrible action he did, Batman still offers him a chance for redemption and rehabilitation. He has actually becomes sane enough to contemplate on the offer, only to somberly realize he couldn't make up for his awful crimes and that Batman has to be crazy to think this will make up for everything he did.
  • Villain Song: The Joker busts one out when putting Gordon through the Ghost Train From Hell.
  • Wham Shot:
    • In-universe, seeing his reflection is the conclusion to the Joker's Trauma Conga Line, permanently driving him around the bend.
    • The image of Batman and Joker laughing hysterically in the rain together, before both vanish from view entirely.
    • Barbara opening the door and seeing the Joker, and the subsequent panel with her being shot, blood splattering everywhere.