There have literally been thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Batman comics making up thousands of Batman story arcs with hundreds of creative teams since the character’s creation nearly 80 years ago. In that time, the character has been the part of many classic storylines that are not only staples of the medium, but literary benchmarks that transcended their original format. The three that tend to be brought up the most, however, are The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore. And today we’re here to talk about the latter of the three. Why The Killing Joke? Well, we have the animated adaptation coming out in just a few days and this is a subject that I’ve wanted to tackle for a while so with the stars seemingly aligned I decided that this would be the best time to do it. What I wish to tackle is why this book is considered so great, how it has influenced Batman and particularly The Joker and if the comic still holds up on its own when you take those influences out of the equation. So strap in folks because this is going to be a long one. This is my analysis of The Killing Joke.
What is a bit strange about the comic is that if you were to experience it for the first time today it appears to be a by the numbers Batman Vs Joker story. The Joker escapes Arkham Asylum, he does some bad things, has a few flashbacks and Batman takes him down at an old amusement park with a little bit of shock value here and there. Heck, when you compare it to stories like Hush or The Long Halloween or Scott Snyder’s run on the New 52 Batman series it seems downright simple and when I first read it back in 2011 that was my impression of it. It was just a comic with a simple story and I promptly disregarded the thing as an older, overrated story that influences had long since overshadowed the story itself.
Time didn’t exactly help my perception of the story. As I got older and progressively more into comics I kept coming across articles and videos that praised the story and how it helped redefine The Joker as a character. These articles would frequently state that it was this comic that turned the character from just a typical killer clown into the truly insane, psychotic version that he is today as well as being one of the comics that turned the entire medium towards a more mature audience. This last claim, in particular, annoyed me as it was more the work of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: Year One that truly tipped the medium towards a more adult audience. In fact, one could make the argument that it was The Dark Knight Returns version of the Joker that was far more influential with the sheer number of bodies the character has to his name in that comic alone. But then I reread the comic and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.
For those of you who don’t know, Batman: The Killing Joke is a Batman story that was published in 1988 and was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. It follows The Joker as he has once again escaped from Arkham Asylum and kidnaps Commissioner Gordon in an attempt to drive him insane as he thinks back to what may be his origin story. As I mentioned before the plot is very basic but is very well written. Alan Moore is infamous among artists for being a very strict, “by the script” writer but he can afford to be because his work always turns out so well. The pacing of the comic is so fluid that it almost feels as if you’re watching a film, especially when you see the characters. The comic fully accounts for each of the character’s movements and how it is they get to each of these locations. There aren’t any strange narration boxes that explain everything that is going on or characters who awkwardly monologue to themselves about the plot. The entire story is told by the artwork, the dialog and the actions of the characters. While this may not seem like a big deal, back in 1988 this was unheard of and even to this day it’s something that even the best writers and artists have a hard time pulling off. In stories like The Dark Knight Returns or the original Secret Wars the characters have inner monologues throughout the length of the story or have narrators telling us what was going on. For some reason writers just didn’t trust the artists to tell the story in a medium that was meant to be visual up until around this time and after reading several comics from that period it’s easy to see why this comic came off as so fresh and new.
This, of course, would not have been possible if not for the incredible artwork by Brian Bolland. Each of the panels feels like a masterpiece in of itself. Each of the characters are so expressive with their emotions fully on display and are always appropriate to the situation on hand and never did it feel out of place. The backgrounds are so detailed but don’t feel overcrowded and the fluidity of the character’s movement is owed to the artwork as much as the writing. The transitions between the past and present are also extremely fluid with visual cues of the present being the catalyst for the events of the past to begin. They never feel clunky or have to resort to a “X Years Ago” text box keeping the pace set by the rest of the artwork. The use of color is also magnificent in this book as well. Colors pop out and highly complement the detailed penciling with appropriate shadowing that makes everything look natural. The majority of the past segments are done with beautiful tones of black, white and grey and the characters remain as expressive and fluid as they are in the present segments with only The Jokers iconic red, purple and green colors remaining as a clever visual cue as to who’s past we are exploring.
The actual plot itself is something of a weak point. It’s satisfying and I could easily see it as a particularly grim episode of Batman: The Animated Series but it doesn’t have what I would call a complicated plot. As I mentioned earlier, the plot doesn’t really amount to much more than Batman hunting The Joker rather quickly while the story flashes back to The Joker’s past. Again, it is satisfying for what it is but it’s obvious that if it hadn’t been for the book’s shock value, controversial subject matter and groundbreaking themes and ideas regarding The Joker it probably wouldn’t have been so well remembered in the long term.
Today The Killing Joke is remembered by mainstream audiences for two things: the crippling and sexual assault of Barbara Gordon and the origin story of The Joker. The thing about this origin story that most people tend to remember is the actual text of it. The way the book tells it is that The Joker was a failed comedian living in nearly impoverished conditions with a pregnant wife. In order to get the money, he needs to move into a better neighborhood he helps a few criminals break into the now infamous Ace Chemicals Plant. The day of the heist, however, he learns that his wife was killed in a freak domestic accident but is forced to do the heist, all the same, resulting in the deaths of the criminals and his falling into a vat of chemicals after being attacked by Batman that turns him into the Joker. The mistake that people tend to make about this story is that they take it to literally.
The 1989 Tim Burton film was the first to take this story too literally. While it doesn’t include the failed comedian backstory, it does include Batman’s involvement with The Joker’s creation and his falling into a vat of chemicals at the plant during a heist gone wrong, giving The Joker a good part of the Moore/Bolland origin story. The animated series did something very similar, where it was eventually revealed that The Joker was a mob hand that fell into the vat sometime before the series began. Terry McGinnis in Batman Beyond even brings this up in the direct to video movie, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker as a means of provoking and distracting the Clown Prince of Crime. More recently, as part of The New 52, they effectively made Ace Chemicals part of The Joker’s cannon origin story by putting Harley Quinn through a similar process in the Suicide Squad comic and highly implying that it was part of The Joker’s origin in the Batman: Zero Year story arc.
What people tend to forget, however, is that this is probably not The Jokers origin story and smarter writers tend to recognize this. Towards the end of the story, it is revealed that what we have been seeing this entire time may or may not be true. He reveals that while he is aware that at some point he had a really bad day that turned him into The Joker, he is no longer sure as to what it was that sent him over the edge. He further states that some days he remembers it one way and on others he remembers it in a completely different way. This revelation effectively turns the character into an unreliable narrator, thus making the entire backstory that we have been seeing unreliable at best. This is something that smarter writers tend to realize and will incorporate in their stories, giving the character an extra layer of mystery to him. In fact, most people will make the argument that the character is far more interesting when we don’t know why he is the way he is and have to guess as to what his motives and reasoning’s actually are.
A great example of this is the difference between The Joker of the animated series and The Joker of the Batman: Arkham City video game. In the animated series The Joker’s backstory is told to us very quickly in the episode, Beware the Creeper and is effectively identical to that of the Tim Burton Joker. For a while, it also seems like the Arkham City version is going down a similar path. Throughout the game, you obtain various tapes where Doctor Strange interviews The Joker and asks him why he is the way he is. In response, The Joker tells him the origin story of The Killing Joke only for Doctor Strange to accuse him of lying, citing the numerous origin stories that he had given in the past. Through this revelation, we discover what a sick, twisted mind that the character has. It shows us that the character is either unable or unwilling to cough up his actual backstory and ultimately makes him far more interesting than the poorly coordinated gangster of the animated series.
This idea was something that carried over into the 2008 film, The Dark Knight. These days the film tends to get a lot of flak over the fact that Nolan and company didn’t stay true to the source material and how it almost seemed ashamed of its comic book origins. While it is true that the movie discards the more outlandish aspects of the source material, when you pay attention to the writing of the film, you will know this to be untrue. The film is effectively an adaptation of both The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke and it’s very clear that Chris Nolan and company really understood the characters and what it was that made them tick. Nowhere is this understanding more on display then when The Joker is on screen. More than anything else, this film got The Joker and what Alan Moore was going for when he wrote the book. Within the film, we know nothing about the character’s backstory and he himself give several back stories as to why and how he is the way he is. Every time he tells one of these stories it’s unclear as to whether or not he’s lying about them or if he himself believes them at the time of telling them as his tone and demeanor changes each time he brings up how he got his scars. It’s one of the main reasons as to why this version of the character is widely considered the best film version and this was clearly due to the influence of The Killing Joke and people who truly understood why it was this version of the character was so iconic and had such a long lasting impression.
This alone would have been more than enough for the book to remain a staple in Batman comics but, for better or worse, it’s not the only reason. As I mentioned earlier, The Joker’s violence is very well known in this comic but an argument could be made that he was far more violent in other stories like The Dark Knight Returns. However, for some reason, this is the book that tends to be brought up when people discuss The Joker’s change from a cartoonish clown into the violent, irredeemable psychopath that he is known as today. But why is this? Well, in order to answer this, we have to go into some uncomfortable and controversial territory so be warned.
Our society is one that, in principle, values life and killings are something that continues to horrify us regardless of who is being killed or why. Killings in fiction, however, is something that is easily shrugged off. Seeing characters die in a show or a film usually isn’t that big of a deal unless it was the unexpected death of a major character or something along those lines. Sexual assault, however, is something that people still view with wide-eyed horror whenever it occurs. People can recover from a beating and you can only be killed once but a sexual assault is a kind of personal violation that one simply cannot shrug off. It is the kind of trauma, and in some cases a stigma, that one will often carry with them for the rest of their lives.
This is the line that The Joker of The Killing Joke crosses and why this book is remembered as the turning point for the character. In doing what he did toBarbara Gordon, The Joker went further than he ever had before and went from a typical killer clown character to something far eviler. Ever since the release of this comic, this has become the standard for the character; an irredeemably evil man who does absolute evil things for his own twisted reasons. Now, I’m not here to debate whether or not this was a good idea or women’s place in comics or question the wisdom of victimizing Barbara for the sake of shock value and to further another character’s story. These are all discussions for another day and best left to smarter people than I. What one cannot deny though is that, while the way the story went about it is questionable, the effect that it had on the character and the Batman mythos is undeniable. While the character has never done anything this extreme since it seems as if writers are constantly upping the ante and pushing how far they can go with The Clown Prince of Crime. Since the release of the book the character has killed one of the Robins, slaughtered entire building’s worth of cops, cut his own face off just for the heck of it and effectively became some kind of angel of death in the Batman comics. Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable but it is clear that, regardless of how you feel about the way they went about it, this book set a new standard for just how dark Batman’s greatest foe could and would go.
So after nearly 30 years does The Killing Joke still hold up? Is the comic still good? Well, it’s clearly one of the most influential comics in history. This was the book that set a whole new standard for The Joker in more ways than one. It delves into the character’s sick, twisted mind and brought it to a point that hadn’t been seen in comic up until that then and set a new bar for just how far the character could and would go in order to get what he wanted. While some writers clearly handle it better than others, one cannot do anything involving The Joker without seeing the influence of this comic. It’s only real shortcoming is the plot. While the pacing and artwork are simply flawless the overarching plot is just too simple and pales in comparison to the Batman stories that came after. In the end, I would recommend that you give it a look if you want to know where it was this dark standard for The Joker came from. Just don’t expect the greatest Batman story ever told.
Trey Griffeth is the Head Writer of The Nerd Hub's Comic Book Spotlight section as well as a contributing writer to Video Game Spotlight. In addition to his work with The Nerd Hub, he is also a Staff Writer for Heroic Hollywood.