The Killing Joke and Batman#1

Burton and Nolan's bible
December 15, 2008
With the DVD and Blu Ray release of The Dark Knight, the Batman buzz is revived. Hence i decided to take a closer look at how one of the best comic books to date directly gave birth and influenced Tim Burton's and Christopher Nolan's movies.

I love The Killing Joke". It's my favorite. It's the first comic I've ever loved
-Tim Burton

Director Christopher Nolan has mentioned that The Killing Joke served as an influence for the version of the Joker that appeared in The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger, who played the Joker, stated in an interview that he was given a copy of The Killing Joke as reference for the role

Yes. I would certainly point to The Killing Joke but I also would point very much to the first two appearances of the Joker in the comic. If you look at where the Joker comes from there's a very clear direction that fits what we're doing very well

-Christopher Nolan

Those two comic books inspired two of the best Batman movies, both which are to date the most successful superhero movies of all time, and both which brought the Batman craze to an unheard of level of popularity.
Both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan claimed that "The Killing Joke' was the main and primary source for their movies. It was this comic book that both Batman and The Dark Knight were heavily based upon, although both had drawn something different from it. Were there any specific comics you based your version off of?
LEDGER: Well, The Killing Joke is the one that's being passed around

Heath Ledger was also given the comic book to read over and over again and base his performance on this story. So what exactly did those movies take from The Killing Joke? That's what I decided to show, black on white. And the influence is extremely obvious and very heavy

The Backstory

Joker's first appearance

Batman was born in 1939, and Joker in 1940. We all know the basic story, but what some may not know is that Bob Kane isn't the sole creator of the character. Kane created the look, while Bill Finger created the story and almost all of the classic villains, and he kept writing almost every Batman issue for well over his first decade. So it's Finger who set all the icons in stone. Of course, let's not take anything away from Bob whose drawings and great visual presentation of Batman made it a success first and foremost.
It was Finger tho, that thought up Batman's origins and later on developed villains' origins as well.
In the beginning, no one had any backstory. Not even batman. They all just were - simply because it was 1930's and comic book stories weren't as complex. You never thought about origins of Gargamel right?

originally in the first appearance, Joker was someone with frozen grin, permanent white face and green hair in purple suit. His poisoned victims were left with hideous smile on their dead faces. So basically, not much has changed as far as the iconic Joker goes. Very soon, just like Batman, he had the same gadgets - Jokermobile, utility belt with powder and exploding cigarettes etc

Those were fairly simple stories, but not for long. In time villains were starting to reappear and became classic supervillains, and just like Batman, they were given origins as well (The first to get one was Two Face).

Decade after his appearance, we finally got to see Joker's origins in 1951's "The Man Behind The Red Hood" in Detective Comics #168, written by Bill Finger himself, and the artwork is credited to one and only Bob Kane.

The issue tells a story where Batman and Robin are asked to train young detectives/scientists and gave them the assignment that even Batman couldn't solve - the identity of an old villain who disappeared after he fell into pool of chemicals, Red Hood. One of the boys named Paul helped them solve the mystery and the red hood was a lab worker trying to steal a million bucks in a card factory. After his dive into chemicals, he became disfigured and his skin and hair were dyed, introducing The Joker!

"Finally, I reached my goal-by stealing from the Monarch Playing Card Company! My hood's oxygen tube enabled me to escape by swimming under the surface of the pool of chemical wastes, but at home I looked at myself with growing horror... That chemical vapor-it turned my hair green, my lips rouge-red, my skin chalk-white! I look like an evil clown! What a joke on me! Then, I realized my new face could terrify people! And because the playing card company made my new face I named myself after the card with the face of a clown-The Joker!"

The Killing Joke (1988)

The first 1988 printing

By the mid 80's, Batman underwent enormous transformation. The 80's introduced the darkest incarnation of Batman ever presented, respecting the established mythology, but updating it and making it darker and much more mature, definitely NOT for young readers!

Frank Miller started with "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Year One", and then "The Killing Joke" came out and reestablished the new tone.

Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, "The Killing Joke" retells the origins of Joker and presents him and the entire Batman universe in a very different way.
Joker breaks out of Arkham once again, more psychotic than ever. He kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and shots his daughter. He then takes her clothes off and takes pictures of her. Pretty sick, but necessary for the very deep and grim story. Barbara survives but she's now placed on a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Joker takes Gordon to an abandoned amusement park, strips him naked and forces him to watch his bloodied daughter naked pictures to prove a point, but more about it later. In the meantime, we get to see Joker's origins - a young failed comedian who loves his young pregnant wife above everything, but cant make the ends meet. He agrees to put Red Hood's mask on and help two gangsters rob the card factory just this one time. Ironically, right before he does it he finds out his wife has just died in an accident, but obviously with mobsters there's no turning back.

Batman's on their tales and in an act of fear, the young guy jumps into the rivers full of chemical wastes. When he gets out, he sees his deformed and colorized body and goes completely nuts.

Regarded as one of the best comic book works, "The Killing Joke" was re-released in March 2008 as a part of promotion for "The Dark Knight", since it's been its inspiration.

Here's the influence

BATMAN (1989)

Naturally, let's start with Tim Burton's classic first. Burton was the guy who not only made Batman so popular in the 90's, but also the one who brought black color into the guy, darkness, seriousness and turned Bat outfit into armor, completed with black makeup on the eyes. Those ideas are still successful today.


Let's start with the look first. Jack Nicholson was the 99.9% accurate, identical recreation of the iconic comic book Joker. Take a look below, the purple identical gangster outfit completed with purple hat, the identical laugh lines. Take a look at the eyes and the shot from classic Batman cartoon at the top and panels from TKJ at the very bottom - even the purple eyeshadow is there, and the pointy eyebrows!

The only thing is the weight - Joker was always thin as a toothpick. One thing I wanna add, Nicholson's Joker laugh is so creepy, even to this day it scares the crap out of me.


Only physical similarity here. Burton went with the classic approach cause he didn't believe a chemical bath would change a good person into a really bad guy, so he went back to the roots when he was a bad guy all along. The name of the Joker is never revealed in the comic books tho, and in the movie he's not a lab worker, nor the comedian - he's the part of the mob, a classic Al Capone-style gangster



A clear sign of insanity, Joker talks to a dead guy he just fried like he's really an active talker. Not only the buzzer scene and the talk, but also the common personality is evidenced here. This guy is just out there! And as was always the case with the classic Joker, there's this Duffy Duck twist to his personality. Not to point it all out separately, but the gadgets are all there in the movie as well - the acid spiting toys and such. Joker also did a dance singing and dancing with his crew while Gordon was going through the tunnel. That is of course mirrored in the movie's Museum scene when Joker makes his entrance dancing to the music along with his goons.


Pretty creepy and goes all the way to the beginning, to Batman #1. Very soon Joker's homicidal tendencies were abandoned and he simply became a crook and a thief instead

The original grotesque idea of a smile returned in the 70's and was restated in The Killing Joke and 'Batman' as well




The Dark Knight became a huge hit loved by Batman and movie fans everywhere. It went back to Burton's idea of Darkness and crime ridden city, but took a whole new approach - realism. The Batman universe underwent a transformation like never before - a translation into our reality.

Also heavily influenced by The Killing Joke and, maybe even more, by the very first issue of Batman from 1940, TDK is in some ways similar to the 1989 movie simply because of the same sources. This version doesn't stay true to the origins at all and is much younger than comic book version or any version for that matter, but preserves characters' original homicidal characteristics.
The Joker in The Killing Joke can be split in two, and it was. While Burton took one part - the classic part of the prankster who's a complete Looney Toon and stayed true to the visuals, Nolan took the other half - the sadistic and cruel side of a philosopher. Although visually nothing like Joker, Nolan took an interesting and gruesome take on the idea of permanent smile...

So here we go


BOF( I asked Chris about that earlier and he said that you pointed it out to him -- that what he and David had come up with was very similar to BATMAN #1.

JN:True (laughs). Midway through the process, I went back and looked at the first appearance of The Joker in the books. There certainly are a couple of moments in BATMAN #1 which are almost [identical to some scenes in] THE DARK KNIGHT. [It was] very gratifying to sorta reverse engineer your way back to what the starting point of the character.

In Batman #1, Joker announces his presence through radio. Joker declares his intention to kill a millionaire that very night at midnight and steal his famed Diamond. Despite the battalion of police guarding the millionaire, at the stroke of midnight the guy drops to the floor dead.

The next night he promises to kill another guy and steal his Ronkers Ruby. Guy's gets killed again. And then Joker announces another victim, but soon after that he encounters Batman. Surprisingly, he is quite a physical match for him and escapes after a fight.

He kills the judge, gets caught but escapes the very same night.

Sounds familiar? it is exactly what we got in TDK, with the only thing changed being a motif - the motif taken from the other comic book, The Killing Joke


"soon after that he encounters Batman. Surprisingly, he is quite a physical match for him"
"Batman arrives in the proverbial nick of time, and he and the Joker face off once more, with the Joker again coming out on top"


"gets caught but escapes the very same night"


"While the Judge seems safe, under the personal protection of Gotham's Chief of Police, things are not always what they seem"


A characteristic given to Joker in The Killing Joke. Although he proven himself to be a homicidal maniac before, it was never taken to such length and never really shown as something he enjoys to such sick level. In the movie it's done off screen, but the way he describes killing the police officers like describing a good meal from the day before truly shows his sadistic personality


BOF:I felt that the KILLING JOKE stuff was very subtle [in the film] and draws off of him saying - in the comicbook - if he's going to have an origin, he'd rather... be "multiple choice." You got that? Alright (smiles).



The whole purpose of Joker in TDK is to prove a point. In his theory, all the people under pressure go nuts and turn into killers or some other insanity, and everyone can be broken under pressure. That was a very interesting and thought provoking idea presented in The Killing Joke and no wonder it was exclusively used in TDK as well. And just like in the comic book, he's proven wrong and proven that he's really alone

The influence of the two comic books is very clear and evident in both works. So much different, yet so similar. Perhaps part of the success of both "Batman" and "The Dark Knight", aside from being dark and captivating stories, is the terrific source they used and how truthful they stayed to certain aspects of the stories and characters.
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