THE COMIC COMPENDIUM: Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)

Edward revisits Alan Moore’s legendary take on the Batman and his maniacal arch-nemesis. 

Who made it?: Alan Moore (Writer), Brian Bolland (Artist), DC Comics.

Who’s in it?: Batman, The Joker, Jim Gordon, Barbara Gordon.

Original run: One-shot graphic novel.

Released: March 1988.

Batman: The Killing Joke is one of those comics that you’ll have heard of regardless of whether or not you’ve read it, as it changed the direction of several characters in the DC Universe and affected it profoundly up to twenty-three years later when the book was partially reversed by the New 52. It was written during a period at DC when Batman was being re-imagined as this gritty, darker Caped Crusader due to the catalysts of Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. The Killing Joke continued these themes, though noted writer Alan Moore never intended to portray the grittiest Batman, and instead he spread this darker grounding to other characters, with The Joker unarguably affected the most.

In fact, The Killing Joke is something of an origin story for The Joker as we journey to the past to see his life before he became a homicidal maniac. He was a sweet and loving, if rather inept, husband trying to build a life for his wife and unborn child with the ambition of becoming a stand-up comedian. That we discover this at the same time we see another of his modern-day plots to cause chaos and misery in Gotham is certainly an interesting ploy, as while you feel sympathy for this character, it is tempered by his physical and mental torturing of Barbara and Commissioner Jim Gordon. It’s rather hard to pity a man who’s just shot someone through the spine before forcing another unlucky bastard through a fairground freakshow with ghastly images in an attempt to drive him insane. It’s intriguing to see this early portrayal of Joker as the Red Hood, as while the Clown Prince had used this guise in the past, it was as a master criminal. To see this almost forgotten piece of trivia retconned to the identity of an ordinary man, struggling like any other person with a dream and a family would, is fantastic writing. The Red Hood has popped up more recently as a prominent villain (and even inspired the amazing animated film Under the Red Hood), but with another Batman mainstay donning the signature attire. This re-re-invention, if you will, is almost certainly down to Moore’s masterful update of an otherwise pointless iteration of Batman’s greatest villain.

We have to remember, however, that despite The Joker’s prominence, this is a Batman title. Again we see two iterations of the character, one who is new and inexperienced who sees a threat and impulsively takes it out, and another that is more experienced and wise who takes his time to plot his next move. The Killing Joke is important to the iconic hero as a whole, and has influenced multiple interpretations of the Dark Knight since, even in Tim Burton’s Batman which was released the following year. That shows you how influential this story was at the time. It’s also intriguing to see that both characters are created due to tragic circumstances; Batman with the death of his parents and Joker with the loss of his wife and unborn sprog. Though the paths they take after these incidents are the polar opposite of each other, I’m certain that if Batman had been thrown into a vat of acid, he might have gone a little bit crazy as well. It’s up for discussion as to whether or not he already has.

For those of you unfamiliar with the experience of an Alan Moore story, I must warn you that readers become completely aware that Moore is much more intelligent than them and can see themes that you wouldn’t dream of even contemplating. While his “commercial” work is slightly more manageable, anyone who has ever read his own creations will recognise that, whether he’s writing a fully involved and extremely in-depth piece that can only be described as a graphic novel due to their complexity (From Hell, Watchmen), or an intelligent superhero action comic (Tom Strong, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), he’s operating on a level far beyond almost any other author. With The Killing Joke being a tale from one of the most prominent comic book characters in the world, there are obviously limits as to how much he can change Batman, so instead he aims at a supporting character which still strikes quite deep and has a helluva impact. If Moore had just killed Barbara Gordon it would have been sad, but not as upsetting as crippling her is, giving long-term ramifications to not only the Gordons but the entire Bat family. And the reaction of Jim when he’s freed is poignant and perfectly suited to his character, keeping him honest despite this personal tragedy.

Brian Bolland is a prominent 2000 AD artist best known for his illustrations of Judge Dredd, but Batman is undoubtedly better known, meaning that Killing Joke will always be the title that he is recognised for by the average comic fan. This is no bad thing as there are several scenes which are genuinely disturbing, whilst the backgrounds, character designs and facial expressions look absolutely wonderful. The art was updated for the 2008 Deluxe Edition as an attempt by Bolland to get what he originally intended, with Johns Higgins’ original colouring replaced completely to make it more dour and sombre. Though I never had a problem with Higgins’ original work, this touch-up does help to create a more emotive atmosphere, although I’m quite certain that the majority of readers won’t notice any difference between the old and new versions unless they’re reading them side-by-side.

The Killing Joke is one of the most well-known and critically-acclaimed Batman masterpieces, and while the resurgence of the character must fall at the feet of Frank Miller, it was Moore who truly introduced us to Batman’s fallibility whilst simultaneously increasing The Joker’s notoriety. If old Mr. J wasn’t previously Batman’s arch-nemesis, then this certainly cemented his position. No other villain has managed to displace him despite multiple attempts by countless others. The Joker’s killing of Jason Todd a year later may be seen as the final straw, but his portrayal here is somehow much more sinister and evil. We regularly see minor characters killed off, but you’ve got to be a right bastard to think about crippling someone instead. If this alone doesn’t tell you that Alan Moore is a genius, then nothing will. If you haven’t read the The Killing Joke, I implore you to do so, as this stands up there with the best comics of all time.

Talking about stand-up comedy, did you ever hear the one about the two guys in a lunatic asylum?

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • Moore’s rendition of The Joker’s origin employs elements of the 1951 story “The Man Behind the Red Hood” (Detective Comics #168), which established the concept of The Joker originally having been a thief known only as the Red Hood.
  • Although a one-shot, The Killing Joke had an extraordinary impact on the DC Universe – most significantly, Barbara Gordon’s paralysis. DC officially retired the hero in the one-shot comic Batgirl Special #1 (July 1988). This eventually led to her identity as Oracle in the Birds of Prey series and other DC Universe appearances.
  • The 2009 video game Batman: Arkham Asylum adapted a post-The Killing Joke timeline, in that Barbara Gordon feeds Batman information as Oracle. Several references to the story are also made in the game. The Joker’s makeshift throne made of mannequins at the end of the game is almost identical to the one in the graphic novel. During the game, it is revealed that the Joker had been using e-mail under the alias “Jack White,” which Batman identifies as “one of Joker’s oldest aliases.” The Joker even personally makes a knowing reference to the story: “There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… Oh hell, you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?”

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