by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I've already professed my love for the caped crusader in a previous review and I know that some of my contemporaries on this site feel the same way about him. Part of Batman's charm is that a whole host of different writers, artists and film directors have tackled the character and lent their own particular style to the Dark Knight whilst remaining (relatively) faithful to his origins.
With the possible exception of Frank Miller's awesome “The Dark Knight Returns”, “The Killing Joke” is the most celebrated and highly acclaimed graphic novel featuring Batman. Penned by legendary scribe Alan Moore (a man who has achieved more in the medium of comic books than any other writer in history) and drawn by 2000AD stalwart Brian Bolland, “The Killing Joke” is a fine example of how superhero comics should be done. The 1980s was a good decade for comic books. It was during this time that they received a much needed shake-up and took a big step closer to being recognised as works of art. It was during this period that Moore seemed on fire. “V for Vendetta”, “The Ballad of Halo Jones”, “Watchmen”... everything he wrote was unquestionably a work of genius. He could have blown his nose on a piece of paper and it would have become a cult classic.
Unlike other graphic novels, “The Killing Joke” was not originally published as a series of individual comics. Rather, it was a 46 page one-shot. A bold statement in itself. Too long to be a single comic but too short to be considered a proper graphic novel – it is a perfect example of a writer and artist joining forces to create a work that is both uncompromising and startlingly accessible.
It is a fairly traditional Batman story – no bleak near-future setting as in Miller's masterwork or the time-bending antics seen in “The Return of Bruce Wayne”. This is just plain ordinary Batman doing what he does best - kicking ass in Gotham City. Of course, being written by Alan Moore, it is far from being quite that simple. Whilst adept at handing out two-fisted justice to wrongdoers, Moore's Batman is also a marvellously introspective and thoughtful character. We first meet him as he pays the Joker a visit in Arkham Asylum. He's aware of the cycle of violence that marks their relationship and seeks to put an end to it before one of them kills the other. In contrast, the Joker is truly and utterly barking mad. The Joker's playful malevolence and obsession with chaos and disorder seems to prefigure Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger's performances on the silver screen. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to learn that the graphic novel was Tim Burton's favourite whilst he worked on the 1989 cinema adaptation. The sequence in the graphic novel where the Joker is “created” by Batman in a shadowy chemicals factory became one of the iconic set-pieces of the blockbuster film and Bolland's artwork appears to have had a significant influence on the film's rain-slicked neo-gothic design.
What elevates “The Killing Joke” above other superhero comics is the sinister tone and the relatively adult content. The plot sees the Joker breaking out of Arkham asylum and kidnapping Commissioner Gordon in an attempt to lure Batman into a trap. He repeatedly asserts that all separating a sane man from a mad man is “one bad day”. The Joker's kidnap of Gordon is not motivated from a desire to harm him but rather as a means to prove this point. You see, when he kidnapped Gordon he also shot the Commissioner's daughter, Barbara. As she lay in a pool of her own blood, the Joker undressed her and took a series of (ahem) compromising photographs. Once secure in the Joker's lair, Gordon is stripped naked, tortured by a pair of psychotic S & M dwarves and subjected to a stroboscopic slideshow presentation of these photographs. Dark? You betcha!
This sinister storyline is interspersed with a series of flashbacks to the aforementioned “birth” of the Joker. This origin tale is frequently highlighted as the misstep in an otherwise flawless graphic novel. Fanboys grumbled that the Joker's origins ought to have remained a mystery but others pointed out that the Joker is so batshit crazy that it is unlikely even he would be able to recall the event correctly.
Batman's final confrontation with the Joker puts his own strict moral code to the test. He has the opportunity to kill his enemy and put a stop to the cycle of violence once and for all. However, he chooses to let the Joker live and the story ends as the two foes share a joke in the rain as they wait for the police to arrive and cart the Joker back to Arkham. This beautifully open-ended conclusion is Moore's own bittersweet punchline to the tale and has baffled, charmed and infuriated readers in equal measure for over twenty years.
The edition I have reviewed is 2008's “Deluxe Edition” which features all-new colouring by Brian Bolland. My memory of the original colouring (by John Higgins) is hazy so I'm in no position to compare the two different versions. Bolland himself claims that the colours in this edition are closer to his original vision and that he considers this to be the definitive version.
Although shorter than many graphic novels, “The Killing Joke” is a truly magnificent work and should be essential reading for all fans of the superhero genre. Interestingly, in recent years Alan Moore has been somewhat critical of the book. In an interview with Blather.net, Moore said “I don't think it's a very good book. It's not saying anything very interesting.” I'm going to disagree with the big bearded one here. As much as I enjoy his recent works, it is great to be able to pick up and enjoy something by Alan Moore without feeling like he's actively trying to confuse or alienate his audience. In fact, it is when a read a graphic novel as straightforward and unashamedly enjoyable as this that I am reminded why I rate him so highly as a storyteller.
Hereward L.M. Proops