When it comes to the Killing Joke an entire girth of articles have been written about it and its place in pop culture. Its recent animated adaption was possibly the biggest train wreck of any of the DC animated movies, made all the more funny by how hard DC tried to promote it. The adaptation tried to “fix” some of the problems with the most controversial element of the story, the crippling of Barbara Gordon, in some of the most wrongheaded ways possible. One could write another complete post pointing out everything wrong with the film but I am more fascinated by the buzz surrounding the film and the debate that sprung up on whether or not it should be adapted given the ugliness and bleakness of the source material. While Moores work is generally respected this one tends to be the outlier, with a vocal group of people expressing dislike for the book, including Moore himself. He has being quoted as saying “I’ve never really liked my story in The Killing Joke. I think it put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it. It was too nasty, it was too physically violent
By the standards of Moore it is an exceptionally bleak work. Moore’s work especially in the 80s had a darkness to it but in most works there was just as much humanity, humor, and levity as there was bleakness, and depravity. Watchmen, Miracleman, and V for Vendetta are all works that cover the broad spectrum of human emotion and none of them ends as bleakly as the Killing Joke does. It has been theorized by some people that this bleakness may have been a result of his relationship with DC at the time falling apart. Various reports abound over the process of creating the Killing Joke, including that it was done almost solely as a favor for the artist Brain Bolland, or that it started out as an anthology story before being moved to prestige format. Overall it’s hard to pin down what exactly was going on behind the scenes at the time with Moore but one does get a sense he was getting fed up with superheroes at this point. For example his work on Miracleman at the time began to take a turn from superhero deconstructionism to sci-fi utopianism seemingly stating that superheroes would do better working to create a utopia than simply fighting villains. The Killing Joke seemed to be everything Moore saw wrong with Superheroes and one can also feel he to create an end point for the Batman/Joker dynamic (a big obsession with Moore at the time regarding superheroes was creating endings for them as can be seen in his pitch for Twilight of the Gods).
If Dark Knight Returns was Batman filtered through Death Wish, and urban vigilante movies, the Killing Joke is Batman filtered through Greek tragedy, the Book of Job, and horror films. It reimagines the Batman/Joker dynamic as not one of larger than life characters fighting each other, but that of two sad broken men, one unable to help the other. It’s a work that brings the Joker to new levels of depravity but also sympathizes us with him.
For me that is really were the work shines best. True horror is always able to touch us on a level beyond just base shock values and implying that we are only “One bad day” away from becoming a monster like the Joker is incredibly scary. This is made all the more real when one realizes how many similarities there are between Jack (the Joker pre-chemical bath) and Alan Moore. Alan Moore when he was first starting out quit his job to pursue his dream of being a comic book artist. At the time he had a newborn child and a wife. This is incredibly similar to Jacks situation of quitting his job at the chemical plant to pursue his career of being a comedian, with his wife having a child on the way. Moore is able to construct with Jack possible one of the best origin stories of any supervillian ever and recontextualizes years of Joker stories into something completely different. It’s a far cry from Millers portrayal of the Joker, and for many people it is the one part of the book everyone agrees on is amazing.
The flashback sequences are weaved brilliantly into the book through some amazing transitions that are a part of any great Moore work. Doors close in the present only for the next panel to switch to another door in the past opening in another direction. Reflections in the present transition to reflections in the past and panels of laughter in the past lead into panels of laughter in the present. While Millers work was full of deliberately jarring transitions, impressionistic figures, and overstuffed panel layouts, in contrast Moore and Bolland’s work is realistic and precise with smooth transitions and well defined characters and locations.
Where Bollands work truly shines through is in his faces. Bolland has a very select talent in the industry of being able to truly express shock, horror, sadness, and pain with vivid detail. In the Killing Joke he is able to create some of his best work through his illustrations of the Joker. While he succeeds in making the horrific visage of the Joker look absolutely terrifying in some panels, I am most impressed by the ones which portray the Joker as a broken clown, putting on a fake smile meant to mask his inner turmoil.
While we are on the subject of art one of the various debates that has sprung up on the internet is about the recolor of the work by Bolland in 2008. The recolor eschewed the bright rainbow of colors of the original for a more “realistic” color set.
Many would argue that this fits the works dark subject matter better which I vehemently disagree with. The original coloring of the book is a sickly reflection of comic books of the time. The spectrum of jarring yellows, greens, reds, and purple serve to create a sense of surreal insanity. It’s the classic color pallet of comic books but oversaturated up to an uncomfortable degree emphasizing how this is a Batman/Joker story that’s amped up to a horrific level.
With the Killing Joke though one aspect of that horror is generally regarded as an Elephant in the Room. The crippling of Barbara Gordon is by far one of the most controversial moments in comic book history and it remains one of the most famous examples of “woman in refrigerators” to this day. It is a moment where Moore’s self-criticism of the book rings true. It is a moment that for many understandably represents a line that was crossed where Moore went too far. As much as I love the work, I do feel that the crippling is a moment that is unnecessary and does play into a lot of negative tropes about women in comic books.
Another aspect of the book that has caused much discussion in recent years is the ending and the question of whether or not batman kills the Joker a theory brought up by Grant Morrison in a an episode of Kevin Smith’s podcast “Fatman on Batman”. If one interprets the ending as the death of the Joker it serves as an effective capstone to the message of the work. Batman finally is broken at the end by the Joker and ends up killing him portraying the Batman/Joker relationship as one of two insane people forever fighting each other. The ending whether you believe he kills the Joker or not is supposed to tell the reader that in reality this eternal struggle is not one of epic fights and daring adventures, but a tragedy about two mentally ill that we should not find funny or entertaining.
The Killing Joke is a work that on a pure storytelling level is fantastic, but it is also a work squarely of its time. The fan base that surrounds it and obsess over it, are the kind of people that I feel truly don’t understand its message. It’s a work that should make us look at the Batman/Joker relationship in a tragic light and not as “The ultimate Joker story”. It is the darkest one someone had taken Batman at that time, and for the 1980s the novelty of darkness was something new. Sadly the effect both DKR and the Killing Joke had on comic books was a negative one and for as groundbreaking as these works are they have caused the world of superheroes to become on not of childhood wonderment but of prurient violence and destruction. With that thought I leave you off with the two panels from issue 26 of Animal Man, the perfect criticism of the violence and grittiness that these works lead to.