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The Killing Joke

Hmm… Understandably quite a controversial comic (Alan Moore himself reportedly has very little time for it), The Killing Joke remains the most definitive comic to examine the dynamic between the Caped Crusader and his polar opposite. It also reveals a bit of twisted logic to the character, providing an almost logical motivation for his countless heinous actions. It also features some of the best artwork that you are liable to see on a Batman comic.

The Joker didn't get he was meant to bleach his HAIR...

The Joker didn't get he was meant to bleach his HAIR...

Let’s begin by talking about the elephant in the room. There’s a name for the way that way this book treats the character of Barbara Gordon (daughter of erstwhile Commissioner Gordon). It’s known as “women in refrigerators”. Named for the somewhat disturbing trend in comic books to treat women as disposable objects that are merely important due to their attachment to a masculine figure – figures which exist to be harmed to give heroes motivations to be heroic or to demonstrate how villainous villains can be. In the instance that named the phenomenon, the Green Lantern found his girlfriend stuffed in a fridge by a minor foe. The said minor foe would later attempt to top himself by stuffing the hero’s mother in an oven (I wish I were joking). There are many examples – the death of Rachel in The Dark Knight arguably counts.

Here the Joker cripples Barbara Gordon and takes pictures of her naked in an attempt to force her father to have a breakdown. To prove a point. Her wound in this storyline serves no other purpose. It’s quite a shock to see such a shameless cliché trotted out by a man who takes such great pleasure in elevating the artform. It is hard to get around that element of the novel, and it’s a shame that it features so prominently – the one-shot has a lot of deeper points to make.

These somewhat unpleasant undertones not withstanding, this oneshot has been fairly influential in defining the portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime (the cover comes with a quote from Tim Burton, no less). While Moore is sometimes erroneously given credit for defining the modern Joker (much as Frank Miller is sometimes erroneously given credit for defining the modern Batman), the character had returned to his roots as a dangerous sociopath about a decade early during the O’Neill run (The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge). Still, Moore at least defines this incarnation of the character. It’s hard to say what the worst thing the character has ever done was (he’s done so many things), but crippling Barbara “to prove a point” is pretty damn chilling. The fact he’s holding a glass of wine and grinning makes it even creepier.

Moore gives the character an origin – a somewhat more controversial decision since The Dark Knight (ironic, given the movie references the novel’s “multiple choice” past). In the afterword, Brian Bolland even questions the decision (and the crippling of Barbara Gordon). Whether you appreciate Moore’s attempt to add pathos to the consummate comedian or you believe that the villain is best as unexplained freak of nature, there’s no denying that the story has had a lot of influence and – at the risk of being glib – that’s because it’s well-written and cleverly constructed. Even those who have never picked up a comic book are loosely familiar with the origin, as it formed the basis of the character’s genesis in Burton’s Batman. The panel shown above is fairly iconic and I reckon most people familiar with the character have seen it before (even if only in Google searches), so pervasive is the imagery from the comic. Trivia hounds will note that Moore is actually updating the character’s origin as it was originally presented in 1951 (The Man Behind The Red Hood).

Of course, Moore is far too smart to give a character as a iconic as The Joker a simple origin without a wink at the audience. Here he suggests (almost fleetingly) that the character himself is fractured – sometimes he has one orgin, other days he has another. It’s a notion that Grant Morrison would arguably pick up and develop further in Arkham Asylum and his run on the title. So he manages to have it every which way – you know about the character’s origin and you ultimately know nothing of the character’s origin. All at the same time.

However, what’s more compelling is that Moore goes some way towards trying to explain the Joker’s unique brand of crime. His explanation isn’t nearly so complicated or new-age-y as the one that Morrison puts forward. Instead, Moore anchors the character to his logical foil – both literally (Batman was there at his creation and suspects that he will be there at the character’s death – a prophecy fulfilled by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) and metaphorically. The Joker is as much a product of criminal tragedy as Batman was and he seeks to make sense of what happened to him, as Batman does. But, whereas Batman holds on to everything he has and struggles to hold the city together as he did himself, the Joker seeks to justify his madness with a twisted logic. One bad day is all that separates anyone from madness, in his theory. In his world everyone is as twisted as he is, they just don’t know it.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it underpins the character’s philosophy in The Dark Knight. There’s a recurring rumour which states that Ledger read the book to help him get into character, and it seems logical. The themes presented here carry over strongly on to the big screen adaptation (which shrewdly borrowed elements from a good half-a-dozen different storylines).

Batman is largely absent from the story, but Moore does give him a sturdy opening monologue that examines the relationship between the two foes. Here Moore explicitly states an assumption that has come more and more to the fore as the clown’s actions have become increasingly violent: sooner or later, one of them will have to kill the other (again, this theme is somewhat played with by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns). Moore doesn’t paint the dynamic between the two as explicitly or implicitly sexual (as Kevin Smith, Grant Morrison and Frank Miller have to various degrees), but instead as two lost souls compelled by other (even though they remain incomprehensible to everyone) and joined by madness and tragedy. The Joker correctly deduces that Batman is the victim of tragedy, but – much like his own past – he can’t decide which one. As such, the ending seems oddly appropriate, despite what has just happened – though it’s understandably divisive.

Much like Watchmen (the inevitable comparison in any Alan Moore review), the comic underlines its insanity by rigidly adherring to a linear panel structure. The scenes are carefully choreographed and laid out in squares and rectangles, with little variation in size. There’s no sense of blending and mingling and certainly no splash pages. Moore would state that adopting such a rigid and standard structure was a design choice in Watchmen designed to firmly remind the reader that they are reading a comic and to contrast with the more experimental contents of the book, and I find it hard to believe that it’s a coincidence we see this same layout here.

Brian Bolland’s artwork is stunning. It really is. It may be the best work that I’ve seen on a Batman book. The detail is incredible – it’s not hard to understand why Bolland wasn’t able to colour the work the first time around. That’s not to say that the original last-minute colouring was sub-par. It was actually fairly okay, but Bolland was reportedly unsatisfied with it. So the new Deluxe Edition has been recoloured by Bolland and it is amazing. Most of the changes are subtle (the recolouring of the flashback sequences as bronzed out, with just a hint of colour here or there, or the relighting of the climax, or the removal of Batman’s yellow oval). If you can pickup the Deluxe Edition, do. The artwork is stunning and really is among the best of the work ever done on the Caped Crusader.

The Deluxe Edition also comes packaged with a supporting feature – Brian Bolland’s original submission to Batman: Black & White. Like the Neil Gaiman piece that accompanied Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, the piece is cleverly constructed in its own way but isn’t really a Batman story. It looks great though – Bolland has recoloured this story as he has the rest of the volume. It’s a nice little supplementary feature, and a damn sight better than most back-up strips in deluxe editions.

It’s a very, very good story, well told with excellent artwork. I wish I could say that Moore writes Batman as well as he writes Superman (as demonstrated by the recent Deluxe Edition of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?), but he doesn’t. The plot a fairly straightforward paint-by-numbers villain origin, but delivered through Moore’s unique filter. It’s those little touches and flourishes, as well as a fairly insightful glimpse at the Joker’s psychology, that make this book worth picking up, for better or worse. Moore himself isn’t too happy about how this book turned out and – though he’s right it doesn’t match the stronger stories in the great pantheon of his work – he has nothing to worry about. It’s a nice oneshot which asks a lot of questions about the most interesting hero-villain relationship in comic books.

It isn’t quite a bona fides classic, but it’s no laughing matter either. If you’re looking for a thoughful examination of a compelling character, look no further.

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