Batman: The Killing Joke – Reviews of Old Comics
In light of recent developments that take this story out of DC Continuity, I’m going to depart from my normal practice and actually review an old comic that is still in print. You can go down your local comic shop and probably find a copy at cover price.
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Brian Bolland
Batman goes to Arkham Asylum to talk to the Joker about where their rivalry is going. He discovers that the Joker has escaped. Unknown to Batman, Joker has procured a dilapidated carnival, murdering one of the previous owners in the process. His memories are of a failed stand-up comedian living in poverty with a child on the way.
Batman reviews what he knows of the Joker, which is absolutely nothing. Commissioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara are putting away the latest news clipping in one of his scrapbooks when there’s a knock at the door. Convince that it’s a friend of hers, Barbara opens it only to be shot through the abdomen and spine by the Joker. His henchmen subdue the commissioner and take him away as the Joker breaks out a camera and begins undressing Barbara Gordon.
A further flashback reveals that the failed comedian makes a deal with two criminals to assist them in a heist, guiding them through a chemical plant he used to work at. Part of their plan is that the comedian will wear the disguise of the Red Hood, which revolves around multiple people that assist them.
Batman visits Barbara Gordon, who has been crippled by the attack. She tells him that the Joker’s plan is to prove a point and that he’s going further this time than he’s ever gone before. Commissioner Gordon is stripped by the Joker’s bizarre henchmen and taken on a twisted funhouse ride, mirrored with another flashback of the comedian. The police fetch him from his meeting with the criminals. They take him outside and tell him that his wife was electrocuted in an accident, killing bother her and their unborn child. The criminals will not let him out of the heist.
Commissioner Gordon is tortured on the funhouse ride. It culminates in him being forced to view the pictures of his daughter, badly injured and naked. Batman searches for the Joker throughout the criminal element of Gotham, before being sent an invitation by the Joker himself. Commissioner Gordon comes out of his torture in shock, which disappoints the Joker.
In a final flashback, the comedian joins the criminals on their heist, complaining that the helmet of the Red Hood disguise. When he tries to guide them through the factory, they are spotted by security, which takes down the criminals, one of whom points the finger at the comedian as the leader of their gang. He flees, only to be chased off of a catwalk by Batman. He falls into various chemicals and escapes, but when he removes the helmet, complaining of stinging on his face, he finds that it has bleached his skin, crimson-tinted his mouth and colored his hair green. Driven insane by his ordeal, the comedian has become the Joker.
Batman arrives and begins a battle with the Joker. When the Joker flees through his funhouse. Batman frees the commissioner who has not been driven mad by Joker’s torture, and tells Batman to bring Joker in by the book. As he pursues the Joker, Batman is taunted by Joker’s boasts that he’s succeeded in driving the commissioner insane. He also ponders Batman’s own sanity and what broke him. Something broke the Joker, but he often remembers it different ways. Batman catches up to him, telling him that he’s heard this joke before and it isn’t funny, the Joker failed, and Gordon didn’t break.
They fight for a bit, with Batman eventually getting the upper hand and the Joker surrendering and asking Batman to beat the crap out of him. Batman tells him he doesn’t want to. He wants to rehabilitate the Joker, before one of them winds up dead. The Joker refuses and tells him a joke about two inmates escaping from an asylum and one offering to make a bridge with a flashlight beam, but the other refusing because the first inmate will turn it off when he’s halfway across. Joker laughs, and slowly Batman does too, as police cars arrive on the scene and the laughter dramatically ends.
This is considered one of the best Batman stories out there, and for good reason. Alan Moore embraces everything about the rivalry between Batman and the Joker. In the 1980s, the Joker took a turn from a wacky criminal into a psychopathic killer. Alan Moore recognized that the stakes were getting raised constantly. Alan Moore raised the stakes significantly, but left several questions unanswered. Was Barbara Gordon raped or just stripped naked? People, including Grant Morrison, have speculated that at the end, it’s implied that Batman kills the Joker. My take is that Joker didn’t rape her. Simply put, if it’s not explicitly in the story, then it didn’t actually happen, implying that something did says more about you than it does the story. Grant Morrison does have some great theories on Batman, and I would recommend his appearance on Kevin Smith’s Fatman On Batman podcast (part 1 and part 2).
Unimaginative DC Editorial decisions made this story cannon, which meant that the Joker did cripple Barbara Gordon, and the Joker did get more violent over the years, which meant he had to get even more violent. This led to him beating Jason Todd to death, and evolved into a more deranged Joker over the 1990s. I do not blame this story. This is a classic Joker just turned up a little, since he has these moments of serene contemplation. That unoriginal editorial policy also had the Red Hood origin as the fixed origin for the Joker for a long time. Within the story, the Joker honestly admits that he remembers his origin in different ways each time, so the origin presented here is just as invalid as any other speculation to his origin. As he says in this story his origin is multiple choice.
We also need to address the feminist criticisms of this story, specifically the assault on Barbara Gordon. She was paralyzed by the attack, after being stripped and photographed to torture her father. She was treated as a victim in this story, which is an insult to the strong character that Batgirl was. Fortunately, better writers have turned a decision that even Alan Moore called “shallow and ill-conceived” into something better by turning Barbara Gordon into a more powerful and inspirational character in Oracle. The undoing of that character with the New 52 has come full circle as recently the creators of Batgirl undid this story as canon, making it implanted memories in Barbara Gordon.
Brian Bolland does some amazing work here, making this look like a Batman comic, which is what might have made it so easy to accept as cannon. His Batman looks like a man in a suit, and looks as if he can move in the ways Btman needs to move. Nowadays, its popular to draw Batman as physically imposing, more like a professional wrestler than a martial artist and multifaceted athlete. He handles the scenes very naturalistic, and gives us a Joker that can look contemplative and remorseful as well as murderous and psychotic. His contribution makes the Joker in this story absolutely human.
As I mentioned, you can get this book currently in print. It shouldn’t be hard to find at all, and chances are if your local comic shop is currently sold out, then they get more copies from Diamond, so ask. A first printing in Near Mint condition will run a few dozen dollars, definitely more if it’s slabbed.
Final Rating: 9.0 (out of 10)
The treatment of Barbara Gordon is the weakest part of this story and it’s a pretty weak part of it. It’s an uncharacteristically lazy bit of character writing for Alan Moore, who takes a character trained for years by Batman and treats her as a helpless victim used only to motivate the male characters.