Batman: The Killing Joke

Batman: The Killing Joke
Alternative editions:
Batman Killing Joke review
Alternative editions:
  • UK publisher / ISBN: Titan Books - 1-8528-6082-0
  • North American Publisher / ISBN: DC - 1-4012-1667-2
  • Release date: 1988
  • UPC: 9781401294052
  • Contains adult content?: no
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: no
  • Positive minority portrayal?: no
  • CATEGORIES: Superhero
 Spoilers in review

The story of a confrontation between Batman and his arch-nemesis the Joker, alongside a flashback to the Joker’s origins, this exists in three forms: the original 1988 publication; a 2008 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, recoloured by artist Brian Bolland, with the addition of a further Bolland Batman story, sketches, and an introduction by Tim Sale; and a 2016 Batman Noir version that prints the whole thing in black-and-white. Similarly, there are, broadly, two critical views. One considers the comic worthy of an Eisner Award, one of the greatest Joker stories ever told, if not the greatest. The other sees it as slight, and unable to bear the weight of attention and expectation brought upon it. This is writer Alan Moore’s view, and that taken here.

The art is lovely. Bolland by now was concentrating on cover artwork, and the opportunity to see him doing comics, structured for the most part around a nine-panel grid, is to be savoured. John Higgins’ original colouring is perfectly fine, and benefits from the high-quality printing. Bolland didn’t like it, but his own colours are merely different, rather than better – Bolland chooses a more naturalistic palette, where Higgins employs swathes of colour used to overtly create mood. One might prefer Bolland’s black-and-white for the flashback sequences, rather than Higgins’ sepia, but it seems unlikely that the former would have been allowed by DC in 1988.

The problem is the story. It’s well-constructed, and Moore’s spin on the Joker’s origin is interesting. But overall the plot is thin. The central idea, that Batman and the Joker are different sides of the same coin, doomed eventually to destroy one, the other or both of them, was hardly novel, even in 1988, and arguably achieved better by Frank Miller in Dark Knight Returns. The so-called ‘definitive’ Joker seen here is really only Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ 1978 version from Strange Apparitions turned up to 11, with much of the humour, arguably a defining characteristic of the Joker, removed.

There are also some very problematic elements. If you read with a feminist perspective, you’re unlikely to enjoy The Killing Joke. The much-discussed fate of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl still seems particularly nasty, save to those inured to violence against women. The only other female character with dialogue is also solely in the story for her pain and suffering to motivate a male protagonist. Then at the end Batman and the Joker share a laugh over a joke that, frankly, isn’t funny in the first place. Presumably inserted in order to relieve tension after a grim story, what it actually does is screw up any emotional depth the story may have retained and flush it down the toilet.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that The Killing Joke’s reputation has as much to do with who wrote it as with any intrinsic merit. In the wake of V For Vendetta, Swamp Thing and Watchmen, everything Moore wrote was treated as a work of genius (and those expecting to read ‘even Maxwell the Magic Cat’ will be disappointed, because that is a work of genius). Twenty-five years later, it’s perhaps time for a clearer perspective.

The Killing Joke has also been collected in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, and it actually fits well there, alongside Moore’s other DC knock-offs for annuals and back-ups. Moore being the writer that he is, even his knock-offs are interesting, but few would claim much in DC Universe, excepting the Superman stories and some sf shorts, is amongst his best work. Similarly, The Killing Joke is okay, but can’t hold up to the titles that made Moore’s reputation.