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The Killing Joke is an interesting comic for a lot of reasons. The art by Brian Bollard and the formatting of the panels is absolutely superb, although the decision to recolor the comic for later editions is controversial, to say the least. But for me, the most interesting part of The Killing Joke is Alan Moore's writing, and how later comics took all the wrong lessons from this one.
First of all, let's get the subject of women in comic books being Stuffed into the Fridge out of the way. I want to note that The Killing Joke was not the first to be guilty of this — that would probably be The Night Gwen Stacy Died. While I do wish that Moore had spent more time on Barbara Gordon's characterization, as the movie adaptation tried to do, it's not really a major concern of mine. What is most annoying to me is how Moore's writing of the Joker inspired so many authors' interpretation of the character, but for all the wrong reasons.
Moore himself has stated that he feels that since he didn't really understand the characters very well at the time, his characterization of them was inherently wrong. I don't think so — while he was right about the difficulty of character development in a serial medium with no planned end, I think that writers like Moore, who reinvent and reimagine iconic characters like Batman and the Joker, are the lifeblood of the comic book industry, or of any other franchise for that matter. For better or for worse, his interpretation of the Joker (particularly the Multiple-Choice Past and Straw Nihilist elements) has been massively influential. But what most writers choose to ignore about Moore's Joker, and what I consider so fascinating about him, is his humanity.
Now, I think that portrayals of the Joker like that of Heath Ledger — a total cipher with no name, no backstory and no real motivations — is fascinating in its own right. But the truth is that pretty much every Joker story after The Killing Joke portrays the Joker as a Complete Monster who crosses the Moral Event Horizon in increasingly horrible ways every next issue. And frankly, that's pretty damn dull.
As MJTR said in their review, The Killing Joke is a profoundly human Batman story, which is what makes me so aggravated that more Batman authors haven't followed suit. Sure, we've had likeable Jokers in the past — usually because they're so damn funny — but how often do we get a truly pitiable Joker, one who is genuinely depressed but feels compelled to prove his cynical worldview to others just to validate his own existence? Yeah, there's John Doe from Batman: The Telltale Series and Arthur Fleck from Joker, but those are very much the exceptions to the rule. It may be too much to ask for a future Batman story to match the ending of The Killing Joke, with Batman and Joker sharing a poignant laugh at the absurdity of their perpetual conflict. But it would be nice if they tried.
Where to begin with this slim little 46-page comic? It might be the most iconic Joker comic today, and its presence is guaranteed on most "Best Batman stories" lists. The late Heath Ledger's endorsement alone probably sent thousands running to order it online.
First off... this isn't a pretty story. Some fans rightfully chew out Barbara's crippling as one of the most gruesome scenes in comic-book history, and for no other reason than to generate drama - to say nothing of Jim Gordon's torture. The only defense I have on that count is that this book was written in an age where such things had not become a trope in and of themselves, at least where comics were concerned.
And actually, that's something that plagues most of the book. Most every Joker story since 1988 has relentlessly picked this story's bones clean, with ever-escalating degrees of violence and nihilism and Foe Yay dialogue with Batman that becomes less and less subtle every time. It was interesting, even revolutionary, the first time (perhaps second, if you think The Dark Knight Returns is what really got the ball rolling) around, but the thirtieth? Given that most Batman fans will have read at least one post-1988 Joker story beforehand, no wonder so many of them call this comic overrated when they finally read it.
But that's not to say this book isn't worth reading in and of itself. Alan Moore is rightfully called one of the masters of the comic-book medium, and even if you don't care for the book's content, the execution alone is a work of art. It's rich with Watchmen influences: Moore's trademark nine-panel grids, laconic (or even silent) scenes, and symbolism galore. Some of the dialogue might sound a bit hokey, but other bits - especially the Joker's first scene - are goldmines of Gallows Humor that most writers today couldn't dream of matching.
And if nothing else: pretty pretty Brian Bolland art. Bolland is one of the few artists who can blend Uncanny Valley levels of realism with the cartoonish energy of Batman's world near-seamlessly. Every page is lush with detail, and his Joker in particular can go from terrifying to tragic to downright likable in the same page, or even the same panel.
I suppose I should conclude with something about the ending. I think that...
I think, despite a lot of Alan Moore 's Creator Backlash, there is a lot of really great, really clever stuff sprinkled through this book. And after years of both controversy and celebration, I figured I should give my take on why this story works.
It's almost wasteful to try and sum up this story, most modern comic fans know it. Joker reflects on his possible backstory, cripples and sexually exploits Barbara Gordon, tries to drive Jim mad and he and Batman may or may not do this forever. Or just until one kills the other.
The quiet nuance I think this story has is the way all the characters really are people more than they are the characters we've been reading for years. Jim is off duty for the day. Barbara is just a quiet librarian. No one ever calls Batman Batman or Joker Joker. And by some understanding, Joker wasn't always a monster. He was once a man, and part of him still is a man. He doesn't have superpowers, doesn't have the stare of Cthulhu: no matter what he does, he can't force Gordon to go mad. And by the same token, no matter how they both hate the position they're in, Batman can't bring Joker back from madness. That's the real brilliance of The Killing Joke to me, and I think that's a huge part of the appeal.
That same token is why I'm okay with what happened to Barbara. Nothing about what happened to Barbara Gordon takes away from her strength to me. The moment she wakes up she isn't asking about her body or her legs, she asks what happened to her father. She's less concerned with herself and more concerned with a loved one. If that's not strength, I don't know what is. The scene is exploitative, but that's because it's a terrible person trying to hurt someone else. If Disposable Women was a trope at the time, I'd call it a nasty response to it, a statement nothing about it is okay... Moore just has such a huge problem with Misaimed Fandom, unfortunately.
It's sad. It's merciless. It's a hell of a ride. But it really does work for me. Like a lot of Moore's work, it's a great look at the darkest and most hopeful places life and experiences can take us. Killing Joke is about realizing these gods and evils are just very extreme people. And it's brilliant at that.
When I first read the Killing Joke, I must admit I didn't get it. But then upon rereading I came to realize why this is considered a well known story. Every moment of the story is filled with a certain energy that just fits the mood.
When the Joker is out and about there is something just so creepy and disturbing about him every time he appears on screen. I can feel the exhaustion and impatience of Batman when he's out looking for him, the horror in Barbara's eyes and the utter shock of Jim Gordon. And finally, the odd but sad tone of the flashbacks of The Joker's one bad day.
The story simply put is Joker's last chance, and Batman knows he's reaching the end of that line as well and everything that happens really puts it into perspective about how that last chance ain't going to happen, with the final joke summing up the entire story.
Now to cover something more controversial, the crippling of Barbara Gordon, I did not live at the time this happened so my opinion is miffed, but I must say while horrific for the time and still referenced today, it gave Barbara a far bigger role in the universe as Oracle, the one who saw all and knew all, rending what Joker did moot. Horrific? Yes. Ultimately the end. Far from it.
I'd recommend reading this just to get a idea of where the original idea of Joker's "One bad day" philosophy came from.
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