A fantastic graphic novel, originally written in 1988, Batman: The Killing Joke is still being discussed by comic book fans. The most obvious reason, initially, is because of Bolland’s stunning, legendary art. That’s what draws you in – all those amazing pictures. Bolland’s Batman is truly the Dark Knight, while his Joker is deliriously, magnificently insane. Know how you can tell? Those perfect, yellow teeth.
Anyway, so you come for the art, but you stay for the story. Alan Moore is the guy who wrote The Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell – all extraordinary works that went on to become terrific films.
The Killing Joke is supposed to be a stand-alone story in the Bat-verse – not part of the accepted canon, but tolerated as an alternate nightmare coming from the minds of two masters. Here we see an origin story for the Joker where he’s just a regular guy with a wife, and a kid on the way, who gets led astray by his criminal pals. This Joker seems almost unbearably naïve – anyone can see those “friends” of his are up to no good. (Of course, it helps that all the early Joker bits are done in a kind of Forties-style black and white. Nothing says “mob” and “criminal” like guys in fedoras and cheesy moustaches.)
The Joker, appropriately enough, is a failed comic. But he used to be a lab assistant at a chemical plant, and that’s how he gets mixed up with the bad guys – they want to rob that plant – although I don’t think the reason why they want to do that is ever made clear. When it goes bad, the crooks run away, leaving their “friend” behind to get caught. Batman chases him; he falls into a vat of mysterious chemicals and eventually emerges as The Joker.
So Batman is there at The Joker’s beginning. You could say he was the cause of The Joker, because he never would have fallen into those chemicals if Batman hadn’t been chasing him. Maybe Batman feels a little responsible for the guy. Maybe The Joker blames him a little. Maybe a lot. In any case, in this story The Joker is trying to “Make a Point” – yes, he’s one of those psychos – by doing as much damage as he can think of to two people Batman holds dear – Commissioner Gordon and his daughter, Barbara. Things get pretty heinous. You could even say they get graphic.
And the point The Joker is trying to make here? That anyone, anyone can be driven insane if given enough incentive. It’s been his theme song all along, it seems. The excuse The Joker needs to believe, the rationale has been telling himself all these years – It’s not my fault I’m crazy.
Does he succeed? Does The Joker manage to ruin three good people just so he can finally feel good about himself?
As if. Read it and find out for yourself.
I’ve been reading comics for years. The best ones are amazing collaborations of art and literature, and Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the best.