The Dark Knight and Watchmen were born of comics that took the traditional hero stripped of his super powers and then rebuilt them as otherwise super. Of course, there were casualties.
Source: Warner Bros.
Being more human than super, Batman and all of the Watchmen both exist in the shadowy, moral grey area that interests us. That’s where the casualties always happen. Superman is super good and always wins. Batman killed the man that shot his parents – eye for an eye. Rorschach uses Gitmo-style torture tactics and an unflinching violence to dispense his own twisted vision of swift justice.
But this isn’t about either of those comics as a whole. It’s about two, specific characters. They’re two funny (but not ha-ha funny) studies in nihilism, anarchy, and ironic (yet functional) costumed adventuring. I’m talking about the Joker and the Comedian.
Being the anti-hero of the already-flawed Watchmen, the Comedian is far from good. But, for some reason, we raise him to hero status. The Comedian started young as a roughneck vigilante, then he graduated to costumed adventurer, and eventually became one of only two heroes in “Watchmen” to be tapped by the government as a soldier. He has, though, the darkest side of any hero in the book. He is a rapist and a murderer. After shooting a pregnant woman carrying his unborn child, he walks away in a rage. He famously laments “Once you realize what a joke everything is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense.”
But we find out through flashbacks that, indeed, the Comedian wasn’t just a rowdy character that murdered innocents. He felt remorse for certain of his deeds. He told the very much super-powered Doctor Manhattan: “Yeah. Yeah, that's right. Pregnant woman. Gunned her down. Bang. And y'know what? You watched me. You coulda changed the gun into steam or the bullets into mercury or the bottle into snowflakes! You coulda teleported either of us to goddamn Australia...but you didn't lift a finger,” revealing a scarred awareness of his own moral debt.
The interesting part about the Joker is that he appears to have no plan, yet has a very precise one. People talk about how he’s a symbol of chaos despite the mantra he chants in every HD preview that “It’s all part of the plan.” People talk about the Joker like he’s “a mad dog.” This isn’t entirely accurate. The Joker didn’t randomly plant 50 gallon drums of gas on ferries and then, by chance, herd two perfect candidates for a life-and-death demonstration of the Prisoner’s Dilemma onto those same ferries.
So, the Joker is embracing chaos in much the same way as the Comedian. The difference, though, is that the Joker’s plan-for-chaos is one that is decidedly unapologetic. It not only sacrifices innocents joyfully (which the Comedian’s does), but it never walks back from the edge. There is no regret. The Joker sees the chaos coming, resigns himself to it, then pushes an old woman in front of it as it passes at 60 miles per hour. Hanging an inch from his own death, he leers at Batman and recites, “You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”
Source: Warner Bros.
Source: Warner Bros.
The Killing Joke graphic novel is the alleged origin story of the Heath Ledger’s damaged Joker character. For true understanding, read the graphic novel. But, the Cliff Notes version is that the Joker was a failed comedian that fell in with the mob. Burned in a chemical plant, the Joker turns to vengeance and renounces the concept of justice (and fairness and God, etc, etc). He descends into madness, blaming Batman and society at large for his fall, vowing to bring everybody rolling into madness with him. He is a victim of circumstance, at least, to a greater degree than the Comedian.
The Comedian’s origins are less obvious. There is no great tragedy revealed in the Comedian’s formative years in the pages of “Watchmen.” By all appearances, the Comedian just decided that the world was a joke, so why not fight and screw his way through life? I mean, at least the Joker was horribly (if hilariously) disfigured. The Joker and me both would go off the deep end if they lost their family. The Comedian was just a bully with a temper that figured out he could get away with more if his violence was visited on bad guys. He got lucky with government funding. His bleak outlook on the morality of humans has morphed the Comedian’s nature to that of a nihilist vigilante. Which, somehow makes him an American war hero?
The Joker, so far as we’re told, didn’t sexually assault anybody. The Comedian, so far as we’re told, did. They both murdered the hell out of plenty of innocents. So, why do people ultimately empathize with the Comedian? Why do the Joker’s jokes go over the public’s heads (or through them depending on their speed in thousands of feet per second)? What makes one a dark comedy and one just plain dark?
There is one instance that turns our hearts to the Comedian, imbues him with a deeper humanity than the Joker, and ultimately plants the seeds of forgiveness in us. He appears, crying, on the foot of a former super villain. He’s drunk and it’s the middle of the night. He’s uncovered a conspiracy perpetrated by his superiors to destroy a large part of humanity in order to unite the survivors. Ironically, this isn’t far from his own chaotic, licentious crime fighting. Drunk and devastated, the Comedian breaks down under the weight of the futility of his own existence. “I mean, this joke, I mean, I thought I was the Comedian. Y’know,” continuing “I mean, I done some bad things. I did bad things to women. I shot kids!…but I never did anything like, like…” His emotional reaction - especially knowing the horrors he’s seen and perpetrated - illuminate a softer, more humane side of the Comedian.
One can see further (if superficial) evidence in the way each character wears his disfigurement. The Comedian’s ravaged face (a souvenir from Vietnam) is a reminder he wears like a cross. The Joker wears his not only as a badge of honor, but revels in it. It becomes his entire identity and his reason for living and causing others to stop living. He even accessorizes for it.
The paradox of the Comedian is that he looks at the joke of existence, laughs and then seriously tries to save it. The Joker’s paradox is similar. He looks, laughs (really creepily) and then seriously tries to burn it. They both have the same setup, mocking everybody else who has signed and licked and sealed the social contract. They both get the same punchline, too, which is dead (depending on which Batman plot you follow).
So if we’re all getting the same setup and the same punch-line, why are we only laughing half the time? Are we completely missing the joke that the Comedian and the Joker died laughing about? Probably not. I think it’s just more likely that, like Tucker Max, it’s only funny if you don’t think about it too hard.