Graphic Review: The Killing Joke

Publisher: DC Comics
Release Date: March 2008 (Originally March 1988)
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist(s): Brian Bolland
Colorist(s): Brian Bolland (Originally John Higgins)

By: Colin Ginter

Batman: The Killing Joke; by all means the very definition of a classic comic. Despite being one I’ve long enjoyed I’ve only just purchased a copy for myself. A brief perusal of the copyright page indicates it’s the lucky thirteenth printing. Dang. I don’t of course call the comic a classic because it’s been printed so many times, I call it a classic because of what it represented, and what it still represents. It was a story that perfectly defined Batman vs The Joker. Fair warning this review WILL include full spoilers, I mean the comic is nearly 3 decades old, but without further ado.

Our story begins with Batman going to Arkham Asylum to confront The Joker, he explains that he’s been thinking and he has come to the conclusion that one of them is going to kill the other, however Joker ignores him. It is quickly revealed this is not the joker. Simply an average inmate in makeup and a wig.

Meanwhile Joker is at an abandoned carnival and discussing the purchase of it with the current owner, once he realizes the park is derelict and is fully dangerous he decides to ‘purchase’ it. Of course, by purchase I mean kill the current owner. This scene is intercut with a black and white flashback of a struggling comedian and his wife, they desperately need money but he isn’t funny enough to make ends meet.

In the Batcave Batman is going through his old files on The Joker and questioning how 2 people can both hate each other so much yet hardly know each other. At the Gordon’s apartment Barbara and Commissioner Gordon discuss how Joker has escaped and how he’s been around for so long. Barbara answers a knock at the door, the uninvited guests turn out to be Joker and his goons. The Joker shoots Barbara through the spine, paralyzing her. As the Joker begins undressing Barbara, his cronies drag Gordon away.

This leads into another flashback, this time the comedian is meeting with some criminals, they offer him a one night job to get some money. All he has to do is wear the mask of the Red Hood and guide these men through the chemical plant and into the card factory, they’ll rob the place and he’ll get the money.

Meanwhile at the hospital Batman learns Barbara has been paralyzed and may never walk again. She reveals that Gordon was kidnapped by the Joker. Gordon is at Joker’s Carnival and is stripped down by the freaks under Joker’s employ. Gordon is thrown into a roller coaster and sent into the depths of the carnival.

Back to the flashback the comedian learns his wife died in an accident. With no wife and child, he decides to try and get out of the job, the criminals threaten him and insist he do the job with them anyway, under severe threat he agrees. Back in the carnival Joker ‘serenades’ the Commissioner encouraging him to go mad in order to cope with his problems.

In the meantime, Batman dredges through Gotham’s criminal underworld in an attempt to uncover the location of Joker. But it’s to no avail as the Bat-Signal shines in the sky; on the rooftop of the GCPD batman is handed an envelope containing a ticket to Joker’s Carnival. Back at the carnival Gordon exits the ride in silence much to Jokers dismay.

Returning to the flashback the comedian is outside the old chemical plant and is garbed in the Red Hood, upon leading the criminals inside he learns security has been dialed up since he left. The two criminals are shot and killed but not before implicating ‘The Red Hood’ as their ringleader. Batman arrives on the scene and chases The Hood causing him to stumble and fall into a vat of chemicals. He gets out of the chemicals and stares at his reflection in a puddle. The stress and anguish of this one bad day drives the man insane as well as the chemical bath that bleached his skin and dyed his lips and hair. The Joker is born.

Joker tosses Gordon into a cage as Batman arrives and Joker is sent scrambling into the carnival. Batman frees Gordon and finds out that he is not insane but in fact retains his resolve that Batman bring Joker in ‘by the book’. Batman charges into the carnival as Joker taunts him over the loudspeaker. Gloating that he apparently drove Gordon insane and all it ever takes is one bad day. Joker perpetuates that the only way for either of the to survive in this crazy messed up world is to go insane and questions why Batman isn’t laughing yet. Batman finds the Joker and replies that he’s heard the joke before, and it wasn’t funny the first time. A brawl ensues between the two and it spills into the rain outside. Joker pulls a gun on Batman but its empty, Batman however refuses to kill Joker. The Joker claims that this reminds him of a joke

“See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum, and one night, they decide the don’t like living in an asylum anymore. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like they get up onto the roof and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away into the moonlight. Stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren’t make the leap. Y’see… y’see he’s afraid of falling. So, then the first guy has an idea, he says hey! I have a flashlight with me! ill shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk across the beam and join me! B-But the second guy just shakes his head. He suh – says… He says wh –  hat do you think I am? CRAZY? You’d turn it off when I was halfway across!”

After the joke is told the Joker predictably begins to laugh uncontrollably. However, in a more surprising twist, Batman begins to laugh as well. The two old foes laugh and laugh in the rain and then as the whine of sirens cuts through the night, the laughter of Joker stops.

This of course begs the question as to whether or not Batman killed the Joker. Did Batman finally snap? Did Joker finally achieve his goal and drive Batman so crazy that he killed him? We may never truly know, but I do believe Batman killed him.

The story itself is a masterwork as Joker and Batman only come into confrontation in the final few pages yet it never feels dull as the two rivals dance around each other in the lead up to the great confrontation. The art style truly captures the imagination as Bolland manages to make Joker look both more human but also more horrifying than I believe he had been up to that point. And of course, the now iconic reveal of the failed comedian cackling wildly as his transformation is completed, a chilling site even after almost 30 years. The lettering is subtle and serves its purpose well, it tells the story but never once makes itself intrude, it isn’t fancy or overdone and this nicely compliments the work done by Moore and Bolland. Of course, I must once more discuss the art, the deluxe edition, which is the one I possess, is colored by Bolland for the first time ever. Now I’ve taken the liberty of comparing the panels and while I believe in the story proper the more vibrant colors of the original work are more interesting. I like Bolland’s recoloring of the flashback scenes into a black and white with lighter shades of red in the early scenes, with the hue increasing in intensity up to the reveal of the Joker which causes the eyes and lips to contrast harshly and brilliantly with the greyscale surrounding it.

As for lasting implications, of course in the canon Batman hasn’t killed Joker or at least Joker has not yet stayed dead. But Barbara’s paralysis lead to her taking up the mantle of Oracle and really altered her as a character. And Joker’s origin has now been more or less accepted as canon, but as the man himself says, he prefers his past to be multiple choice.

In conclusion, I truly love this comic, as everything ties together to make it a true masterpiece that ages incredibly well. The dynamic and oftentimes terrifying art, the amazing story, and the adding of sympathy and perhaps even humanity to a character as horrible and vile as the Clown Prince of Crime is no mean feat. For all of this I commend the efforts of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. Hopefully the comic holds up as well in another few decades,

Rating: 9.5/10

Positives: Excellent Story, brilliant art, clear characters and motivation

Negatives: A bit of a darker story not for the young, Barbara used as object not a person, no yellow on the bat symbol (personal choice)


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