Throughout the Batman mythos, the greatest rivalry is between Batman and the Joker. From the time of his origin, the Joker has this perverse brotherly relationship with Batman. From the beginning (Joker’s one bad day), Batman and the Joker have been continuously entangled with one another, sharing a remarkable amount of habits and traits. Their relationship, when properly understood, can be likened to a modernized tale of Cain and Abel.
The Cain and Abel type relationship between Batman and the Joker is an interesting concept, but something that adds to the depth of the theory even more, there are times at which discerning which represents Cain and which represents Abel. The vast majority of the time, the Joker is Cain, having jealous fits of rage, killing, stealing, cheating, etc. A great part of this is because he is jealous of his righteous “brother” in the same way Cain was of Abel (Gen. 4:5). But what’s interesting is when the Joker succeeds at getting Batman to sin, effectively showing him that he is not that far removed from being Cain just like the Joker. There is no clearer example of this than in the end of The Killing Joke, in which the Joker is trying to prove to Batman that all it takes to be just as crazy as him is one bad day. Batman has been hunting down the Joker who has (just in the past day alone) paralyzed one of his closest friends for life, and tortured another to the brink of insanity. In the end of the story, Batman has apprehended the Joker, and the two are simply standing with one another, waiting for the police to come. The Joker decided to kill time by telling Batman a joke about two mental patients attempting to escape an insane asylum, and Batman begins to laugh. A small chuckle, at first, but the chuckle eventually develops into a full blown laugh, even bordering on a maniacal cackle. The Joker has broken the Batman. Another instance of the Joker getting Batman to break his rules comes in A Death In The Family when Batman is hunting down the Joker following the murder of Jason Todd. Though the Joker ultimately comes out alive, Batman clearly breaks his rule against killing, and is obviously trying to kill the Joker in response to Robin’s murder at his hands, and there are other instances of similar events happening between the two of them (The Dark Knight Returns, for example). What we see on the other side is that the Joker (as Cain) doesn’t want to kill Batman so long as Batman plays the role of Abel, but he wants to show Batman that the two of them are morally separated simply by (although I doubt the writers of Batman understand it this way) common grace. Abel is not Abel by some great moral substance of his own, but rather by the grace of God, and we see this clearly in this example from Batman and the Joker.
Another parallel which can be drawn between the brotherly enmity between Batman and the Joker is that of their origins. We know that Cain and Abel were born following the fall and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24-4:2). In the same way, both Batman and the Joker are born out of extreme tragedy. Those moderately familiar with the Batman universe know that Bruce Wayne became Batman following the death of his parents, after vowing to avenge their deaths. What’s not quite as well known is the origin of the Joker. Prior to becoming the Joker, he was a rather normal, reasonably healthy man. He had a steady job, he had a wife and a child on the way, and he dabbled in standup comedy (which he was absolutely awful at).
His descent into being Cain came when he attempted to stage a robbery at a chemical plant in order to support his wife and child during some tough financial times, which can be paralleled to Cain’s offering up an unworthy sacrifice due to his perceived lack of resources. Without going on too long about the story, the Joker eventually falls into a vat of acid which changes the color of his skin, stretches his face, and leads to chemical imbalances in his brain, completely transitioning him into the Joker. He is marked, much in the same way Cain was following his sins against his brother. Both he and Batman come from tragic falls from grace, the difference is in their response. Batman turns to honest labors for the good of Gotham City, and attempts to make the world a better place, while the Joker turns to a life of crime and chaos, attempting to make others feel the same pain that he felt, and ultimately to drive anyone who crosses his path as insane as himself.
Batman and the Joker represent a perverse version of Cain and Abel. Their brotherly relationship, born out of similar life circumstances, and possessing strikingly similar personalities (despite one being far more righteous than the other) provides an excellent and artistic representation of Cain and Abel in modern literature and film. Theirs is far from the only representation of Cain and Abel in recent literature (East of Eden being another, and perhaps the best) but when their relationship is viewed in this light, simple comics and superhero films become significantly more interesting and meaningful than they otherwise would have been.
Miller, Frank, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. New York, New York: DC Comics, 2002.
Moore, Alan. Batman: The Killing Joke. deluxe ed. Batman. New York: DC Comics, ©2008.
Rocksteady Studios. “Batman: Arkham City” (PS3 Game). Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, October 18, 2011.
Starlin, Jim, and Marv Wolfman. Batman: A Death in the Family. New York: DC Comics, ©2011.