Part of the incredible wave of iconic 80’s comic titles that could be said to have overwhelmingly changed the medium of comic books, a wave that also includes The Dark Knight Returns, Batman:Year One as well as Watchmen, itself written by The Killing Joke‘s very own Alan Moore, going into The Killing Joke as a newbie is probably like going to watch The Godfather for the first time, or listen to Yellow Submarine by The Beatles. You are about to partake in something very famous and discussed and of which you know so much about that it probably feels, to some extent, like you’ve experienced it already.
The attack on Barbara Gordon, the psychological assault on Jim Gordon, Brian Bolland’s incredible artwork, itself re-coloured by the artist himself for the Deluxe Edition, and that enigmatic, much discussed about, final panel. Everything about it cries iconic, having been an influence on Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, to Batman:The Animated Series, to The Dark Knight, to the first released photograph of Jared Leto when cast in Suicide Squad. With such an impact on it central characters, on the DC mythology and the controversy that has erupted ever since 1988 when it was first published, the question has to be asked, does The Killing Joke live up to its reputation as one of the all time great works of comic literature. The answer is yes.
“That’s probably the work of mine that I’m least fond of because there’s a lot of nasty things that happen in that. I mean, the profundity in ‘The Killing Joke’ is that actually Batman and the Joker are pretty similar, but like, they’re not real. It does us, an audience, no good to have it pointed out that Batman and the Joker are a bit similar because they’re both preposterous characters, so yeah…Brian Bolland did a fantastic job of the artwork, but as for my writing, no, that’s not one of my finest hours.”
Alan Moore, BBC Radio 4 Interview, 2004
Although Alan Moore himself is frequently on record as to his own feelings on The Killing Joke and why he dislikes it, most of which, seemingly, centre around having taken the story into darker realms of violence and cruelty, there is a power at the centre of the narrative that is hard to ignore, and an escalation of tension and terror that is hard to look away from, even though frequently you may want to. It’s hard to do so when the tension and terror is drawn as beautifully as it is here from artist Brian Bolland. Nearly every panel feels like so much work as went into it and even though the material is do dark, there are many panels and images that are superb works of art in their own right. The Killing Joke is literally hard to look away from. With its attention to detail, gorgeous visual rendering of its characters and narrative that builds and builds, albeit upon blocks of terrible cruelty, these are forty-eight pages that are hard not to turn, even as it churns your stomach to do so.
At forty-eight pages, it is of course substantially shorter than Moore’s twelve issue epic, Watchmen, and yet amazingly, in such a short space of time, Moore says a lot about these characters and the central relationship between Batman and The Joker that it feels as if it has enough material to cover double that. Backed up by, at this point, over forty years of history, The Killing Joke sees a Batman wanting to end his never-ending war with The Joker, visiting him at Arkham, only to find he has escaped, shot and crippled Barbara Gordon, taken photos of her naked, kidnapped her father, Jim Gordon, and subjected him to extreme psychological torture by having him stripped naked, taunted on a ghost train with pictures of his naked, recently crippled daughter and then left in a cage, exposed as the “average man” like a carnival freak show before Batman shows up to have it out with his clown faced nemesis, building up to an incredibly provocative final image that leaves everything to the imagination and for the audience to figure out for themselves.
These forty-eight pages pack in a lot in such a short space of time, I didn’t even mention the numerous flashbacks that detail The Joker’s tragic origin tale, that may or may not be true, although if it is, gives a terrific sense of irony to Batman’s inability to figure out why he and The Joker have continually been at odds. The story and the book itself have taken on an iconic quality that is hard to ignore, the cover page of a smiling Joker with a camera is one of modern comics most famous images, and it’s easy to see how someone like Tim Burton, whose Batman came out only a year after its publication, was influenced. The photography element was referred to in the movie, whilst the use of chemicals to turn The Joker’s skin white, hair green and lips deep red, was also incorporated and yet for all the acclaim and iconic quality of the work, and the recent adaptation as an animated movie, a long in the works pet project for Bruce Timm, Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy, there is a controversy surrounding it that is hard to ignore.
Make no mistakes, whilst there is an undoubted brilliance here, many aspects of this one shot has an ability to leave the reader queasy. It’s attempts to incorporate psychological horror and extreme emotional violence pushes the boundaries of content in ways that even Frank Miller never did with his double whammy of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman:Year One. Whilst no sexual violence is ever depicted, and the word rape is never used, it hangs around the air in The Killing Joke, especially when Batman visits Barbara in the hospital in a way that is very difficult to ignore. The lack of use of the word and the fact that the comic “cuts” to the next panel just as The Joker starts to removes Barbara’s clothes is something that gives the reader genuine discomfort. The story does turn Barbara Gordon into a “woman in refrigerator”, so to speak, in a scenario that cannot help but leave a sour taste whilst reading.
The title is acclaimed and considered iconic, but sometimes, for all its popularity and brilliant artistic merit, sometimes it feels as if it’s a little, dare I say it, overrated, or at least acclaimed in a way that it really shouldn’t be. Crazily the story, which has always carried controversy, has continued to find new ways to incite controversy. A tribute in the form of a Batgirl cover depicting a distressed looking Barbara standing next to The Joker, her mouth smeared with a red grin whilst The Joker points two fingers at her head as if he makes to shoot her, was commissioned by DC Comics, drawn by Rafael Albuquerque, and found itself at the centre of a maelstrom of discussion and debate. Although The Killing Joke is iconic and is understandably viewed as an important work in the history of the medium, it did appear naive of DC to consider that such a “tribute” would not be viewed in a controversial way. The cover was pulled from shelves at the request of Albuquerque in light of the surrounding reaction.
My feelings on The Killing Joke is that is an incredible piece of work, but maybe not for the reasons it should be. Alan Moore has frequently commented on how he considers it a lesser work of his and admits surprise at how DC allowed him to go as far with the brutality as he did with it, and whilst I understand that Bruce Timm and Mark Hamill have wanted to do an adaptation of it for years, it’s hard to see how one can express genuine love for a title that wallows in themes as dark as depicted here.
On a “construction” level it is a brilliant piece of work. At forty-eight pages, it covers so much in so little time and has all the complexities one would expect from a writer who has given the world Watchmen and V For Vendetta. The story is tightly told and doesn’t waste a page or even a panel. The way it links The Joker’s origins to 1951’s The Man Behind The Red Hood is clever and whilst one could feel that explaining the origins of a character like The Joker can take away from his mystique, Moore has the character himself explain that it may just be one of many origins for him, an idea that Christopher Nolan applied to his own version of the character in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
Although it’s been debated as to whether or not it was ever intended to become canon, The Killing Joke became just that. Barbara’s injuries allowed her to become Oracle, one small piece of positivity to come out of it, whilst it also allowed Gail Simone to mine some rich character development during her run on Batgirl for The New 52. Of course, it meant, in some respects, that the ending had only one interpretation left to apply to it, unless one wants to think of it as an out-out-continuity story, or as maybe being set on one of those multiple-earths that DC love so much, so it becomes, like The Dark Knight Returns, a variation on a climax of sorts, in this case to the story of Batman and The Joker’s story. In fact the final few pages carries a charge in a way that is breathtaking and is probably the best part of the entire book and sums up nearly forty years of these characters’ bitter battles and actually continues to do so in this day and age.
Reaching out to The Joker, Batman says they could try rehabilitating him, to which The Joker claims is too late. Batman’s fear that one of them could kill the other could be deciphered as coming true in that enigmatic final panel. Telling a joke about two prisoners escaping using a flashlight, Batman actually laughs with his most famous enemy, before reaching out to him and the laughter suddenly stopping. The very final panel, that of rain hitting a puddle on the ground, mirrors the one that began the story. Has Batman killed The Joker? Is The Joker’s joke the killing joke on the title?
It’s a wonderful piece of story telling and opens up much debate, as does the rest of the title itself, which, like many iconic stories and books from the same time, seemingly have never went away and will continually be visible in our comic book stores and bookshops for as long as books exist. Part of me loves The Killing Joke, but another part of me wants it far away, whilst feeling the need to shower after reading it. Yet, it’s never dull, it has a power that feels unlike any other graphic novel or comic book you will ever read, and for better or worse, is genuinely unforgettable and powerful.