Batman: The Killing Joke
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Brian Bolland
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What then are the limits of Batman and the Joker? How much can you twist them and pull them into crazy new freaky shapes before they actually snap and the story comes apart in your hands?
If you’re looking at the Elseworld books (ha – who else remembers those?) then it seems like the answer is never too much. You can put Batman into Victorian London or some far-flung new science-fiction future and it’s all good. The format will survive. It’s strong. Batman punches the bad guys and everyone is happy.
Not just going off the wikipedia page here but you know just from talking to people and doing Comic Forums and everthing: this story has a rep. One of the best if not the definitive Joker stories all of time. The gold standard of Batman tales. Comparatively this is basically Fabergé egg style levels here that makes all the rest of them just look: poorly scrambled. And of course you just know that when they were making Joker there were copies of this thing lying around everywhere. Joaquin Phoenix was probably reading it on the toilet and Todd Phillips was definitely reading it in bed: cutting along the pages to take all the Batman bits out which well – doesn’t leave you much does it? Apart from: hey – what if the Joker started out as a comedian and then his life got really sad and stuff?
And yeah obviously: check out the pedigree – it’s Alan freaking Moore. The dude responsible for the best comic books of all time. And then some. And then there’s Brian Bolland that is a name that you really should know if you’re into comics – especially the ones from England – seeing how he’s one of the best comic book artists this country has ever produced. Except (damn it) he mostly decides to pour his expectational talents into doing covers which yeah ok makes sense (especially as everything he does looks like it must take twice as long as everyone else) but means that there’s nowhere near enough Brian Bolland books (in fact the only other one that springs to mind is his Judge Death / Dark Judges mini-epic which you know – you should check out if you haven’t had the pleasure already: not least because it has the single best character design work of anything that’s ever been made: but that’s a whole other story…).
So yeah there’s no doubting that The Killing Joke looks beautiful. Every panel is quotable and perfectly aligned. So much so that for me the stuff you end up noticing are the bum notes that don’t quite fit the rest of the book (one of the Joker’s on the Batcomputer doesn’t look right – but lol maybe that’s just me?). And you know yeah because it’s Alan Moore in his Alan Moore prime every panel flows perfectly into the next one with every scene shift accompanied by an appropriate line of dialogue (“Boy something sure smells fishy to me here Batman” CUT TO: A fish).
There’s an Alan Moore line about The Killing Joke that I love to quote even when people aren’t even talking about The Killing Joke so you know I’ve gotta quote it now it’s actually appropriate right?
“The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn’t about anything that you’re ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there’s no important human information being imparted…Yeah, it was something that I thought was clumsy, misjudged and had no real human importance. It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn’t really relate to the real world in any way.”
LOL yeah ok – maybe it’s a little bit harsh and why does Batman and the Joker have to relate to the real world anyway? I mean – we all know what the real world is like and maybe sometimes it’s nice just to get away from things a little and watch the guy dressed as a bat punch the guy dressed as a clown or whatever you know? I mean: no one has the time or the inclination to be reading Shakespeare all the time you know?
But whoops – I think things might actually be worse than that (oh dear). I asked at the outset what are the limits of Batman and the Joker and I think The Killing Joke is the point where those characters actually hit those limits. I mean: Alan Moore just because he can’t help himself and because he wants to get to the heart of things wrote a story that does it’s best to try and expose the dark heart of the Joker: what he means and where he comes from and you know – the point of a man dressed like a clown going around and committing messed up crimes.
But of course as most people should be able to realise at a certain point – there is no real point there. I mean: in the story the Joker tries to drive god old Commissioner Gordon insane to show that erm everyone is only one bad day away from becoming a Batman-bad-guy but – people don’t work like that. It’s like reading a story about the Honey Monster trying to show you the danger of eating too many Sugar Puffs or Wile E. Coyote trying to prove that anyone could become obsessed with roadrunners.
But those characters are not designed to take that kind of weight – and even tho the past 40 years or so of pop culture might say different I don’t think Batman and the Joker can take that kinda weight either. I think there’s a limit. And when you start putting people in wheelchairs and taking photos of their naked bodies it feels like you’re trying to make something adult that only really extends to early pubescence you know? I mean: what’s next? Do people want to see the Joker take a piss? Do we want to watch Robin watch porn? Do we need to see Batman fuck?
There’s a theory that says that the reason it’s called The Killing Joke is because it ends with Batman killing the Joker which you know – is possible – but actually part of me thinks that the deeper meaning is that it’s called The Killing Joke because it’s the end of the line in how far you can take these characters until they actually snap. There’s a good quote from Jonny Greenwood about OK Computer where he says he listens to it and mostly all he can hear are deadends: that for every song Radiohead took an idea as far as it could go and after that there wasn’t much choice apart from repeating what they’d already done or – well – heading off in a new direction entirely. Obviously they took the second path – but in terms of DC and superhero comics in general it’s hard to escape the feeling that they just decided to keep doing a lot of the same things that The Killing Joke already shows you is a pretty bad idea – making superheroes more grim and more dark, sexualising stuff to the point where it’s almost pornographic and something something Batman and the Joker you know? No one’s quite sure what the something’s are – but well: they’re something serious at least. Something very serious. And important.
Why aren’t you laughing?
So is it surprising that no one wants to talk about The Killing Joke?
It was always inevitable this would happen. While it’s one of those books that beggars all manner of interpretation, especially it’s infamously ambiguous ending, what else is there to say about this book?
It’s spent 20 years as one of the key exhibits for that imaginary courtroom where comics fans go to “Culture Court” and prove once and for all that superhero comics are serious literature and another 10 as a prime example of superhero comics running on the fuel of the women in refrigerators trope.
The simplest reason to describe why the book has become a pain to discuss is by the covers of the Deluxe Editions of it DC have been releasing:
It’s the same picture, but they’ve zoomed it in a bit. All that’s left to do is to deconstruct the way we’ve been deconstructing a 64 page book and Alan Moore for the past 30 years.
(Oh and the font is slightly more boring – and obvious, as if Gob Bluth suggested “It says killing Bob, better make it red so they know we mean business”. It even has the same Tim Burton quote!)
Moore is at this point arguably better known for hating superhero comics than he is for writing them. We don’t think of him as the man who wrote The Killing Joke, we think of him as the man who hates that he wrote The Killing Joke. A man who has to have a deeply awkward time in a comic shop, as he’s followed around by the cruel leer of an evil clown he wished into existence for a gig some 30 years ago. To disdain a popular work you’ve created is one thing to deal with, to watch it become one of the most iconic covers and endlessly reprinted books is another. I like the idea of Moore going to a more boutique book shop, to the graphic novels and getting irate that The Killing Joke is still on display there.
Maybe there’s nothing more to unpack about Moore and the writing itself. If we do want something to talk about, perhaps it’s time to look to Bolland.
Bolland, there’s no way we would take this book as seriously as we do without him. There’s a wonderfully dingy realism to his work. He draws rain we’ve walked through, rain that plops into darkly familiar puddles. There are wrinkles and flaws in places we’ve seen in our reality. That soggy realism becomes dramatic gravity. These are wrinkles we recognise, so it becomes a world we can relate to and accept with a weight not far off what we give our own. A comic book world that’s almost real – one we can empathise with. Would we take this book as seriously if it had been drawn by McKean or Sienciwicz – surrealist composition and dizzying hyper colours? We’d love it, perhaps in a different way – but it wouldn’t have that gravity. Our brains would simply be able to write it off as some far off surrealist nightmare.
“part of me thinks that the deeper meaning is that it’s called The Killing Joke because it’s the end of the line in how far you can take these characters until they actually snap” – Joel’s point kind of ties towards my theory that between this, Watchmen and Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow – Moore spent the 80s trying to disprove Superhero comics on a grand public scale, by forcing it’s heroes to confront the logical limits of their absolute morals – and forcibly end themselves when they can no longer deal with the paradox it’s put them in (hello Rorschach). And sure, perhaps there’s another conversation to be said about how Moore explored and deconstructed standard superhero morality, but the bigger question is this – can we be bothered? Isn’t it time to start finding new stories and new ideas to obsess over?
But then I think that The Killing Joke is perhaps the “Penguins Classics” of Superhero Comics and when you think about that you have to ask – can we really be arsed spending another day talking about Penguin Classics? Put down Tolstoy, Dickens and Austen – and find something wonderfully new to shine a light on.
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum
I certainly lump The Killing Joke into the Massively Overrated category, I think it’s a pedestrian story with mostly beautiful artwork, Bolland’s only failing is that his non-smiling Joker pictures all look rather dumb (I tend to be of the camp that says that the Joker should be smiling no matter what, although ‘The War of Jokes and Riddles’ where he is frowning until the very end works for me). But the story where the Joker sexually assaults Batgirl, then physically and mentally assaults Jim Gordon and the best Moore can come up with is ‘bring him in by the book. We have to show him our way works!’ A minor point first, Batman cannot bring anyone in by the book. But I think that once you go past Joker shooting nameless Gothamites into something like this, you’re basically saying Batman is an idiot for not killing the Joker. And I’m not interested in the ‘Batman mustn’t kill’ argument. That is surely better than ‘Batman shares a laugh with an unrepentant monster which I’m sure Jim and Barbara were pleased with when they found out.
Barbican Comic Forum
A true Bat-historian can verify or dispel this, but I feel like the quick succession of the Killing Joke (1988), A Death in the Family (1988), and Arkham Asylum (1989) must have been largely responsible for igniting the Joker’s propulsion to the head of Batman’s rogues gallery. Modern Batman stories feel largely set up to eventually lead to the Joker.
(Not just in comics, either. The Arkham Asylum video game unsurprisingly culminated in a boss fight with the Joker. When playing through Arkham City, the second game in the series, I hoped the story wasn’t leading me to the Joker again – but it was. During the third game, Arkham Origins, I suspected I’d run into the Joker at the end again, but still pointlessly wished against it. By Arkham Knight, the final game, I was resigned to the Joker being the ultimate end baddie – and it was the game I enjoyed the least (to be fair, part of that was because I couldn’t control the stupid Batmobile to save my life). In hindsight, I know wishing for something other than the Joker in a series of games with Arkham in the title was probably naïve.)
Always expecting the Joker – and then usually getting him – takes the fun out of the stories. It makes them (even more) predictable. Batman has a wonderful rogues gallery but they don’t get a chance to shine under the overwhelming glare of the Joker. I don’t dislike the Joker, I’d just like him to take a bit of a time out.
About the Killing Joke specifically: it’s been a long time since I read it, and the main thing I remember about it is what happens to Barbara Gordon. Even if someone disagrees about the Killing Joke’s role in the Joker’s Bat-lore ascendancy, the book had an undeniable impact on the character of Barbara Gordon. The Killing Joke, in my mind, isn’t just a Joker origin story: it is, perhaps more importantly, an Oracle (pre-)origin story. With Oracle comes two decades of a disabled and – under the right writer – well-rounded character being depicted in a major superhero franchise.
(At the risk of someone somehow reading that as me saying ‘it’s okay that Barbara suffered excruciating trauma at the hands of the Joker if it meant we got Oracle’… what happened to Barbara is obviously gross, and the sexist gusto with which the editor allegedly approved her paralysis is abominable. But, if DC was going to treat it as canon, at least they allowed Oracle to become a quality and important character. Or rather, at least Oracle ended up in the kind hands of Kim Yale and Gail Simone.)
I remember being disappointed by this when it came out. I was bowled over by what Alan Moore had done technically with Watchmen, the way he combined the words and pictures, and hoped for more of the same. In killing joke, there’s a repeated visual echo trick being employed, as I recall, with similarities in composition in one panel leading into flashbacks, but that’s about it. And blimey, it really goes downhill with the song and dance routine, which just doesn’t work well in comics IMO, and certainly not here, with Bolland’s beautifully detailed but rather motionless artwork.
And I think it had less of an impact than Watchmen for being a Batman story, to be honest. Maybe it would be possible to write a genuinely literary meaningful Batman story, but I’ve never seen one yet that surpasses what the same creators can do with original characters. (The other big batman book of this era, Frank miller’s dark knight, wasn’t a patch on his Ronin, I think.)
So yeah, this would get a “meh” from me. Add to that the grimdark fridging of Barbara Gordon, which left a sour taste even in those less enlightened times, and I wouldn’t want to pick this book up to re-read it now.
No discussion about the Killing Joke would be complete without the inclusion of the great Jesse Hamm’s amelioration/remix…