Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 one-shot, The Killing Joke, has much to answer for. Along with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, it spawned decades of really, really bad Batman stories, not to mention darkened superheroes (still adolescent power fantasies) into something bleak and miserable. The Killing Joke now has an animated film adaptation after having influenced every single Batman film since Tim Burton’s first in 1989. It has a reputation it’s author Alan Moore has tried to disown and indeed, he thinks this isn’t his best work from a time when he worked in mainstream superheroes.
It is hard in 2016 to be untainted by the past 28 years worth of hype and reputation, but here’s an attempt; but first some disclosure. When I was working for Neptune Comics Distributors in 1988, this comic proved one of our big victories against our competitors, and on the day we got our first copies in the UK, it saw me outside Euston Station desperately taping loads of boxes together (they were shipped in boxes of 25 in their own display case) in order to take them to Glasgow. I’m also part of a sinister cadre of Alan Moore cultists in the darkest, most eldritch parts of the internet that has His Holy Beard’s sacred blessing. We have secret handshakes and everything!
So The Killing Joke means a wee bit more to me because of the memories it inspires and my part in one of comics most sinister cults. I do think though that Moore’s both being harsh and fair upon this work, but this was never meant to be the big deal it ended up being. It started back in the mid-80’s as a Batman Annual before developing into a one-shot outwith of regular DC publications, and then ending up in what is now called Prestige Format, but back then was still called ‘’Dark Knight’’ format. Things were all still very new and in constant flux. It felt then as if DC Comics would publish anything “mature’’ and they often did. Sometimes it was crap, sometimes it was excellent and sometimes it was unique like The Killing Joke.
The plot is simple enough. Devised originally as a Joker one-shot or graphic novel (there was an odd Joker ongoing series back in the 1970’s) it was an origin story of sorts as an ordinary man has one bad day that sends him over the edge and ends up seeing him transformed into the Joker. Moore’s idea is that the Joker isn’t anyone in particular; he’s just someone who had everything in his life collapse around him through events either of his own doing or out of his control. The dip into toxic chemicals that turns his skin white and his hair green was the icing on the cake.
The Joker decides to see if he can break Jim Gordon, so he shoots his daughter Barbara (and some say he sexually assaults her, but I’ve read the script and that isn’t there, though Bolland’s original art for some pages featuring Barbara are more sexual) who is better known as Batgirl. The decision to use Batgirl was down to the fact that this was at the time a character few especially cared for in DC’s editorial hence the infamous line from editor Len Wein of ‘cripple the bitch’. Now Moore’s repeated this story of DC’s choice but it’s presumed this wasn’t controversial in 1988 when in fact it was. From the off The Killing Joke’s portrayal of violence is consistent: both the father and daughter Gordon are stripped naked and humiliated by the Joker, but only one is crippled and only one was (even in the current version) somewhat sexualised.
This decision to ‘cripple the bitch’ is something DC’s tried hard to fix or alter over the last 28 years, but it’s not the main reason why Moore disowns the book. His reason for doing so is because he belives it doesn’t hold up as well as some of his other work at the time – plus there’s a bitterness in the entire book that’s probably reflective of his disintegrating working relationship with DC from around 1986 on. It works better as a study of a man losing his life and his mind than it does a Batman story, who frankly ends up doing little but hit The Joker. Eventually the book gets to the point where Jim Gordon, although traumatised, hasn’t been broken by one bad day. He still stands as the moral voice we’ve grown accustomed to in Batman stories.
However, it’s the end confrontation of the Batman and Joker which is the real point of the book as the pair discuss their relationship. The book ends with the pair laughing as the police arrive, yet that too is ambiguous. Grant Morrison believes the book ends with Batman killing the Joker, and it can most certainly be read like that, but again, that isn’t in the script (then again it could be something Moore and Bolland discussed separately because the ending could be interpreted a number of ways).
What The Killing Joke is good at is dealing with the slow descent into madness while making it clear a supervillain like The Joker doesn’t have to ‘be’ anyone. You or I could be The Joker. He’s essentially an Everyman for those of us who can’t cope with One Bad Day and go over the edge.
What The Killing Joke isn’t good at is telling a Batman story in this context because we know Batman’s a lunatic, albeit a lunatic on our side and defined by a moral sense of right rather than the chaos of his counterpart. The Batman stuff often feels clunky, including the humiliation of Batgirl which feels tagged on because it was and perhaps the book would have been better to just be a straightforward tale of an ordinary man becoming the Joker; but the addition of Batman helps sell the book then and even now.
Moore’s being needlessly hard on himself. For all The Killing Joke’s flaws, he wrote worse for DC in the 1980’s. But I can also see how he feels this to be a millstone round his neck as his name is interwoven with a piece of work he no longer cares for and there’s nothing he can sadly do to rectify that. It is more venerated by fans than it deserves, and for me, I’ve always found Bolland’s work too static, a criticism I’d apply to this book especially. His line work is too smooth and glamorous when it needed an artist to draw ‘ugly’ and ordinary without this glossy sheen Bolland puts on all his work.
As a piece of history The Killing Joke is essential. Unfortunately most people mistake the historical importance of the comic with the quality of the comic itself, and that’s a pity because it isn’t a terrible comic, it’s just a decent one. But now as it finally has an animated adaptation, the myth is perpetrated on and on so that Moore will never escape what he created in 1988. Hopefully this weight of his creation never drives him over the edge…