By John Restuccia
When analyzing comic book characters with stories that changed the medium, one character has had more groundbreaking stories than any other – Batman. Throughout the history of the character, Batman’s stories have pushed the boundaries of what comic books could be. What was once seen as just stories for kids became dark, mature stories that questioned morals and what really was good or evil. Two issues ago I wrote about Frank Miller and discussed his groundbreaking, as well as my favorite, Batman story: The Dark Knight Returns. However, now I wanted to explore my second favorite Batman story, one that holds a special place in my heart: The Killing Joke. I didn’t want to just look at what everyone has explored with the story already; I wanted to look at if there was any psychological merit to the argument the Joker makes in the story when he says that one bad day could make anyone, no matter how sane, as crazy as him.
For those who don’t know, the Killing Joke is one of the DC Universe’s most influential stories, which to this day has affected the DC continuities. The basics of the story goes as follows. The Joker wants to prove to Batman that one bad day can make any person go insane after revealing that one bad day turned him into the villian that everyone knows today. To do this the Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, one of the most grounded moral characters in the Batman Universe. In kidnapping the Commissioner, the Joker does something that is unthinkable to many comic book readers. He shoots the Commissioner’s daughter, Barbara Gordon, who is secretly Batgirl, in the spine. This cripples Barbara Gordon and he proceeds to strip her, beat her, and even take photos of her. This was one of the truly darkest moments in comic book history that to this day remains one of the hardest things to read for any fan of Batgirl. Afterwards, the Joker constructs an amusement park from hell, forcing Gordon to strip naked and making him view photos of his abused daughter. Eventually Batman comes in and saves Gordon, who remains sane. It is also revealed that Barbara Gordon is thankfully ok, and continues to be Oracle, an advisor to Batman even in her crippled state. The story is short but one of the darkest comics and deepest stories to ever be put onto pages. At the end of the story however, there is a dark realization that, in a way, at the end of the day Batman and Joker are two sides of the same coin. After all, Batman had one bad day of his parents getting mugged and killed that turned him into the vigilante he is today.
However, as stated before, I wanted to get to the psychology of the story to see if there is any weight to the argument on a scientific level. To do this I needed to ask for some help. I reached out to Cody Polack. Mr. Polack is a assistant professor in the Psychology department here at our very own Binghamton University. He specializes specifically in learning and memory. The first question I asked was if one day could really set some people off in such a drastic way. The answer was yes, to a certain extent. When using the example of Batman’s one bad day, a person has to look at the individual case basis. In a psychological explanation it would depend on the person’s life experiences and coping methods to anxiety they developed. In Jim Gordon’s case, being a police officer, he had dealt with intense stress throughout his job as well as life threatening situations, giving him a great support network in place to deal with the Joker’s torture. Meanwhile, the Joker on the other hand had lost his wife, who would have been his support system, causing him to be at his lowest point ever without any real prior coping techniques developed earlier in life. Bruce Wayne is in a very similar book to the Joker. Mr. Polack brought up the fact that Bruce Wayne’s tragic story happened to him while he was only a child. He had no one around him except a butler to help him cope with his pain and sadness. A point that was brought up is that Batman is almost as insane as the Joker is as well. No person in their right mind would just use their money to fight crime one by one. Instead Bruce Wayne could be using his money to fight crime with much more efficiency, targeting the systemic issues that create crime instead of what he is doing currently. It is almost as though Batman needs to fight and uses it to work through his deep seated emotional issues. The Joker is shown to never kill Batman no matter what. To the Joker, the challenge in fighting Batman is almost to get him to cross a line to kill and break his moral code. Batman almost needs the Joker as much as the Joker needs Batman to help cope with his own deep seated issues. This goes along with the story of Batman telling Joker that if they keep their fighting up one of them will end up dead. Batman doesn’t want to kill the Joker, he needs the Joker as much as the Joker needs Batman.
So can one bad day really make someone go insane? Kind of. The psychology behind the story proved to open up a wormhole of psychological issues in Batman’s psyche as well as the importance of having a coping system to help oneself as well as friends who can help you out when you have those really bad days. I would like to thank Cody Polack for his help when researching this topic. Without him, I would still be reading old Psychology Today articles trying to wrap my head around the science behind Batman.