Graphic Reviews: The Killing Joke

The Killing Joke

An astute (i.e. has read more than one of my reviews and isn’t brain dead) may have noticed that my favorite superhero is Batman. I have mentioned this a few times in previous reviews. I grew up watching Batman: The Animated Series and first fell in love with both the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime directly because of that show. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill will therefore always be Batman and Joker respectively to me. Not to mention the show writers did such an amazing job portraying the strange relationship between the superhero and his arch nemesis that it was clear to any viewer, even children, that there was something strange and special between the two characters. And I don’t mean that they were about to fall passionately into each other’s arms and make the world’s worst couple. I mean that the Joker wasn’t just another criminal to Batman. He has long been Batman’s foil and while the animated series did a wonderful job showing that over the course of its run, the best illustration of this relationship was revealed in the 1988 Batman comic, The Killing Joke. The story was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. The story has not been without some controversy, but it received the Eisner award for Best Graphic Novel in 1989 and has since been valued as one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) Batman stories ever told.  It has long been a favorite of mine and since DC is releasing an animated version (with both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their voice acting roles) next week, it seemed the perfect time to talk about the story.

The Killing Joke is best described as Joker’s attempt to prove a rather twisted hypothesis:


In an attempt to prove this, Joker maims Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, Barbara, and kidnaps Gordon. Joker is determined to drive Gordon made and prove that neither Gordon nor Batman are any different than Joker, except that they haven’t had a bad enough day yet. Joker creates a gauntlet where he humiliates and tortures Gordon as Batman tries to come to the rescue of his friend. In the process of trying to break Gordon, Joker reveals some potential backstory about himself. The story plays with the psychology of Joker and sets him up as more of a tragic villain rather than a straight psychopath. If in fact the story is true at all. With Joker, one never knows. The story is ultimately the battle between Joker’s philosophy of madness being the only true escape from the tragedy of life and both Gordon and Batman’s determination to remain sane and in control of themselves.


I’ve long loved The Killing Joke because it so perfectly illustrates both the dichotomy between Batman and Joker and simultaneously, just how thin the line between them is. Repeatedly throughout the story, comparisons are drawn between hero and villain such that the reader is left wondering whether Joker is all that wrong. There is a moment near the end of the story in which Batman and Joker share a moment that truly emphasizes how little difference there is between someone who has completely given up any control and embraced the madness and someone who has dressed up as a bat in order to impose some kind of order and control on a world which has taken much from him. It’s truly a brilliant look at two iconic characters in the DC universe and an art style that is both appealing and horrifying and a perfect counterpoint to the story.


However, The Killing Joke isn’t universally loved, not even by its creator, and the issues are worth addressing in any look at the story. I’ll briefly mention the controversies as well as my take on them as a fan of the story. First, Alan Moore has stated several times in the last two decades that despite the general and critical acclaim for the story, he doesn’t consider it one of his best. In 2003, Moore explained that

The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn’t about anything that you’re ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there’s no important human information being imparted … Yeah, it was something that I thought was clumsy, misjudged and had no real human importance. It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn’t really relate to the real world in any way.

While I think this is a valid concern, I don’t think that it makes Killing Joke a bad story. Not every comic needs to address real world issues and those of us interested in the DCU feel compelled to understand Joker’s particular brand of madness. I think The Killing Joke does an excellent job of revealing at least some of the nature of Joker’s psychoses without laying his personality bare. And it’s valuable just in that sense.

I think the bigger issue here is what happens to Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke. Moore makes it clear that there was a total lack of concern about how the Joker casually and permanently maims Jim Gordon’s daughter in an attempt to drive Jim Gordon to insanity. In this case, Barbara has no role except to provoke the agony of her father. In addition to that, this injury causes Barbara to stop her crimefighting career as Batgirl and become the information broker Oracle instead. While I understand the concern with the ways in which Barbara is used to get to her father, I still would argue that The Killing Joke is a must-read story. Is it sadistic? Yes, certainly. Is it par for the course for Joker? I would argue so. I don’t think it’s unusual for someone with his particular brand of madness to bulldoze his way through bystanders in order to cause pain and insanity. While I’m not a huge fan of the maiming/death of women being used as motivators for men in the story, I’d say that The Killing Joke is still an amazing story, if a little difficult to read.


Given that the crew involved in creating the animated movie of The Killing Joke has made a concerted effort to stay true to the original story, I think that the graphic novel is a must-read for anyone interested in the movie. It’s dark, twisted and can be a bit of a difficult read in terms of subject matter, it also provides a lot of insight into the relationship between the Joker and Batman. And it also provides a blessedly short look into the former’s madness, a look that many readers had been wanting for a long time. It isn’t perfect and it certainly isn’t for everyone but if you can handle the subject matter and want to know more about the characters, it’s a story I love to recommend!


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