New to Comics is a segment where I look at various comic books, explaining their background, reviewing them, and breaking them down for readers unfamiliar to the medium. The title is a reference to a former university project that I carried on as its own site for several years before laying it to rest.
Today’s comic is one I’ve dug up from the archives of my old New to Comics site. Figured now’s a pretty good time for its return. I’m also using this post as a trial for the layout of these New to Comics reviews going forward. Enjoy!
Published by: DC Comics
Written by: Alan Moore
Art by: Brian Bolland
WHAT’s the STORY?
The Killing Joke is an interesting comic.
Penned by Alan Moore hot off the completion of his game-changing series Watchmen, the story came at a time when Moore was starting to sour on both superheroes and DC comics, penning the tale simply as a favour to artist Brian Bollard, who was the one who came up for the story after seeing The Man Who Laughs.
The Killing Joke is essentially its own contained narrative. A possible explanation for the origins of the famous Batman rogue, the Joker, which was later accepted as the origin, and essentially folded into DC continuity. This, of course, meant that the controversial attack on Barbara Gordon also had to be folded in, and thus Barbara’s career as Batgirl came to an end.
Luckily, Kim Yale and John Ostrander would bring Barbara back in the pages of Suicide Squad, where they transformed her into the wheelchair-bound hacker-informant Oracle, thus saving the character from potential obscurity after her poor treatment in the Killing Joke.
In 2011, when DC rebooted their line, they retconned Barbara’s injuries to be temporary, allowing her, after spending a few years with paralysis, to undergo surgery that would allow her to return to her identity as the one and only Batgirl, removing other Batgirl’s like Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown from continuity (for the time being).
Hearing all this, you might think then that Barbara Gordon is the key to this whole story. Unfortunately, the reason that many have soured on The Killing Joke in the past thirty years is that she is far from; she’s more of a plot device than anything. Thus, it would be in very poor taste to feature her as our New to Comics spotlight character today. So we’ll keep thing’s simple. Barbara will get her due here one day though, don’t worry.
Real Name: Bruce Thomas Wayne
Affiliation: The Justice League
First Appearance: Detective Comics #27 (March 1939)
As a child, Bruce Wayne wanted for nothing – the son of some of the wealthiest and most respected people in Gotham City, Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce was, in essence, heir to the throne of Gotham. But all that changed when Bruce’s parents were gunned down in front of him, instilling in him a deep hatred for criminals that would hang over his entire life. Committing himself to become skilled in multiple disciplines such as combat and detective work, Bruce used the wealth and resources of the company he inherited from his father to become the vigilante known as the Batman. A figure of fear, Bruce now wages a war against crime with his trusty Batmobile and high-tech armoury of weapons, assisted by his loyal butler and father-figure Alfred, police commissioner Jim Gordon and his extended ‘Bat-family’ of sidekicks like Robin.
WHAT’s THE PLOT?
Spread across 46 pages, there are two intertwining stories going on in Batman: The Killing Joke. The main one is set in the present day and see’s the Joker has once again escaped from Arkham Asylum and has set out to prove a point to Batman and Commissioner Jim Gordon. That point being that one really bad day is all that stands between him and them; that one really bad day would drive anyone crazy. What follows is the Joker at his most vile; instead of going on mass killing sprees as he is sometimes known to do, the Joker instead just focuses on torturing Jim in a rather elaborate fashion. He buys a run-down old circus to set the stage, hires a load of freaky-looking carnival folk, shoots Jim’s daughter, paralysing her, then parades pictures of her naked, wounded body in front of him. Meanwhile, Batman, obviously, has set out to stop him.
The other story is set years before and follows a young, unnamed comedian and his encounters with the Red Hood gang. You can probably guess how that turns out, but I’ll tell you anyway: it goes badly, and that comedian is transformed into everyone’s favourite clown prince of crime. In short, it’s the Joker’s really bad day.
WHAT’s THE VERDICT?
It’s a Batman classic; it features his greatest enemy, has a strong focus on one of Batman’s supporting cast, and is both dark and gritty but also colourful and… I’m not sure if ‘fun’ is the right word, but you get the point.
In comics, the Joker doesn’t have one definitive origin, and in recent storylines, that’s suggested to be because there isn’t just one Joker, there’s three. But that’s rooted in DC’s newer continuity. Back when this story was published, there was one Joker, and one Joker only. And so, a look into everyone’s favourite bad-guy was (and still is) a welcome surprise. Sure, the Joker works well in part because Batman doesn’t know anything about him, but the fact that this story provides a potential reason for the clown’s madness is an interesting avenue for exploration.
You don’t have to take it’s word as law, as when it was written, it wasn’t even considered to be entirely in-continuity. It was a take-it or leave it, but enjoy the ride anyway sort of thing.
The ending, in particular, has sparked numerous debates among comic-book fans over the years, in regards to what exactly happens, and if it fits into continuity. Of course, some factors carried through into the main-line, such as Barbara Gordon remaining paralysed and thus being forced to abandon her Batgirl alias in favour of hacker/informant Oracle.
But enough about continuity; what with DC basically rebooting everything in 2011, the continuity of this story is largely irrelevant anyway (but if you are interested, Rich Johnson explains the whole ordeal in an article over at Bleeding Cool).
There are other highlights, of course. For one, there’s the rather beautiful (and specially recoloured, if you buy the deluxe edition like I did) artwork by Brian Bolland. I wouldn’t complain whatsoever if he came back and did some more modern comic interior work because it fits Moore’s writing tone perfectly and is frankly just stunning stuff. The thought process of the Joker also really amps up the quality of the book, especially seeing as how at one point he posits that the Batman himself isn’t all that mentally balanced. Which, in fairness to him, is a very good point.
It’s a great book if you want to understand the character of the Joker in one quick read, and the reason he’s such a devastating presence in both of the lives of Batman and Gotham City.
Unfortunately, the treatment of Barbara Gordon really does upset the balance in quality of this book. It runs the risk of ruining the character just for the sake of shock value, as it was clear that Moore had no ideas for what would become of her afterwards. In fact, some of the stuff seen and suggested in the book is so severe that Moore himself isn’t even a fan of it – even going so far as to say he doesn’t think it’s very well written.
It’s just fortunate that other writers were able to make a good thing out of the bad, but for all the great Joker work, The Killing Joke is also a cautionary tale about how giving creators too much freedom can go awry. Obviously, creative freedom is great, but the consequences and necessity of what’s being depicted should be considered (Moore also claims that he thought the DC editors of the time would reign in some of his ideas, but instead encouraged them, so there we go).
Anyway, I give The Killing Joke:
For having a solid story, fantastic artwork, great character work, being self-contained and ending with a joke, which I didn’t mention before but does happen. It may not be laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s certainly amusing.
But taking off that one (.5) star(s), because as many point out, without what follows, it’s a pretty brutal attack on Barbara Gordon, and for all her training as Batgirl, she comes across as a pretty useless pawn in the Joker’s menacing game.
What your thoughts are on The Killing Joke; is it the definitive Joker story, or should we just forget about it like continuity seems to have?