Just read: 'Batman: The Killing Joke' by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

"Just read" is a blog where I blog about something I just read. It has a name because of #branding. Here are all the entires so far.

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The Killing Joke is one of the biggest names on the Batman reading list that I'm working my way through. It's a story that I read when I was younger, one whose details I've been familiar with for years. The one-off book has grown into a role of maximal importance and controversy within the Batman universe (especially this year, with the release of a DC animated film based on the story), all of which I plan to touch on in this blog.

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Author Alan Moore and illustrator Brian Bolland teamed up on the short story (it's only 48 pages long -- truly a one-shot that you can read in a single sitting) with the goal of providing an origin story for the Joker. The creative team implies, even in the actual dialogue of this book, that this is only one possible origin story for this character: The Joker says to Batman near the end of the book, "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another ... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"). Moore and Bolland succeed in the origin story aspect -- presented via flashbacks -- in the sense that their work gives the Joker's character more depth and makes him more sympathetic. While the Joker is often considered Batman's greatest nemesis, he's often painted as a lunatic with no goal in mind other than destruction or devastation; giving him a backbone serves a real purpose in the Batman continuity.

The flashbacks in the version of the book that I read (a deluxe 2008 hardcover reissue) are black and white, which differs from the original publication of The Killing Joke. I chose to purchase the hardcover rather than a used copy of an out-of-print paperback after reading Bolland's thoughts on it: The deluxe hardcover is colored by Bolland himself, who regrets not being able to color the original release due to time constraints. He's said that he wasn't pleased with the original release, so I figured it made sense to purchase the version more heralded by the illustrator.

ORIGINAL COLORING ON THE LEFT; RE-COLORED ON THE RIGHT. THE RE-COLORING SUITS THE BOOK MUCH BETTER.

ORIGINAL COLORING ON THE LEFT; RE-COLORED ON THE RIGHT. THE RE-COLORING SUITS THE BOOK MUCH BETTER.

Using a black-and-white treatment in the flashbacks works to great affect. It enables Bolland to separate these sequences from the present day in more distinct fashion, and allows him to place emphasis on certain items in each frame. Moore's story in the flashbacks is all about "one bad day" that turned a normal man into the Joker. In the flashbacks, the man quits his day job at a chemical processing plant to become a stand-up comedian, but he can't get a job and considers himself a failure. He's saddled with the pressures of needing to provide for his wife and forthcoming child, so he agrees to do a one-time job with two criminals to make some cash. The job is to lead the criminals through the chemical plant he used to work in so they can rob the adjacent playing card factory (which...like...how lucrative could that really be?).

On the day this man is supposed to lead these criminals through the factory, he's informed by police that his wife has died in an accident at home. Distraught, he has no interest in continuing his plan -- he explains that he no longer has a wife or incoming child to provide for -- but the two criminals blackmail him into keeping his commitment. They force him to wear the Red Hood helmet while leading them through the plant, as they plan on deflecting the blame on the "Red Hood" as the mastermind of the operation if they get caught. When they arrive at the plant, they're caught by a few security officers and a shootout ensues, killing the two criminals.

Batman faces off with the Red Hood directly, within the chemical plant. The rest is straightforward enough: Wearing the Red Hood helmet, the man accidentally falls into a vat of chemicals that dumps him outside the plant via a series of tubes. He removes the helmet to see his reflection -- stark white skin, green hair, red lips now etched permanently into a smile. The events of this "one bad day" cause him to crack on the spot, developing the identity of the Joker and creating the villain we know today.

Bolland's re-coloring of the flashbacks shows only red objects in color. He chooses objects to highlight that are varying shades of red, becoming more intense as he gets closer and closer to unveiling the Red Hood helmet. This detail is an impressive one, providing a sense of building suspense throughout the flashback story. By the end of it, the Joker's present-day plans seem to make a lot more sense, though they aren't any less nefarious.

Where this team succeeds in its presentation of a quality flashback story, it fails at points in its present-day story. It's not that the book is poorly written or drawn at all; it's that the content is simply insane at points, and these points are too awful for me to consider this a story that I really love. We start off with Batman visiting Arkham Asylum to chat with the Joker about a worry he's been having -- that their relationship will end with one of them killing the other in a fight to the death. He finds a replacement prisoner in the Joker's cell, and proceeds to begin hunting down the Joker throughout Gotham.

Meanwhile, the Joker "purchases" an old and dilapidated carnival by killing the property owner. He proceeds to execute a plan with the goal of proving that "one bad day" can be enough to drive any person to insanity, no matter how morally upright that person might be. To illustrate his point, he targets Commissioner Gordon, a man who is as morally upright as anyone in Gotham City. He visits the Gordon's home and shoots Barbara Gordon in the stomach, paralyzing her permanently. His bodyguards beat up Jim Gordon and take him off to the carnival while the Joker undresses Barbara and takes photos of her.

Batman is later left a clue about the Joker's whereabouts by the Joker himself, so he finally traces everything back to the carnival. Commissioner Gordon has been stripped naked and forced onto a carnival ride where the Joker tries to convince him that going insane is his best bet for living a happy life -- showing him photos of Barbara in the process. He then puts Gordon in a cage as a freak show exhibit, calling him "The Average Man." This has all already happened by the time Batman shows up, but Gordon hasn't cracked, and in fact is as morally strong as ever. He implores Batman to bring the Joker in "by the book" so they can prove that their way works.

Chasing the Joker through a funhouse, Batman eludes a series of booby traps and finally comes face-to-face with his nemesis in a muddy, rainy field. He attempts to reason with the villain, saying that he could help rehab the Joker, help repair him, and the survival of Gordon's moral code serves as proof that people can stay good despite tragic events being forced upon them. The Joker claims that he's far beyond any saving and reveals that he sometimes remembers his own past in different ways. The story ends on an ambiguous note: As police lights grow larger in the background, with officers arriving to take the Joker away to Arkham once again, the Joker tells Batman a joke and the two of them laugh as the frame goes dark.

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There are a few parts of this to break down. First, I'll dig a bit into the story itself, then I'll air out my complaints with the plot and some of the content. After reading the ending again, I'm amongst the group who believes neither Batman nor the Joker die at the conclusion of this story. I don't think anything really changes from the beginning to the end of the book in terms of Batman's relationship with the Joker, other than the knowledge that the Joker is even more dangerous, deadly and insane than Batman might have thought before. I think the Joker goes back to Arkham, to later escape and attempt more insane plans in the future. There are readers who believe the ending features Batman killing the Joker, but I don't see that.

The writing and illustrations throughout are solid, but unspectacular. On its face, it's at least somewhat surprising that this is considered by so many to be one of the greatest Batman stories ever told -- aside from its aesthetic greatness (these characters are presented in iconic ways here, and this story helped embrace Batman as a darker and moodier character in modern times), there isn't much ground being broken. This story is very straightforwardly about Batman and the Joker, with only minimal impact on real-world people or situations. The thesis statement about "one bad day" turning a man insane is even disproven in the context of the Batman universe, as we are left to assume that the Joker cracked after a bad day because he was of weaker moral fiber than a man like Commissioner Gordon. The Killing Joke ultimately doesn't hit home on a broader message, so we're only left with its straightforward story to judge; to me, it's several steps behind books like The Long HalloweenDark Victory and several others I've already read in that regard.

Content-wise, the plot that Moore writes is unnecessarily brutal. I believe there was a way for Moore to illustrate his points without crippling Barbara Gordon beyond belief, in an extremely harsh way. The further action of him undressing her and taking photos of her in agony is even worse; I understand that times were different when this book was written, but this is a straight-up unnecessary amount of pain to inflict on a character who was, at the time, a pretty large player in the Batman universe. The treatment of Commissioner Gordon is also cringe-worthy, though it ultimately gets overshadowed by the many worse things inflicted upon his daughter.

Overall, it just feels mean and resentful. I can't think of a good reason to do any of that stuff to Barbara Gordon; in retrospect it was irresponsible of DC to okay these plot points, and their more recent actions make that decision even more harmful. Batgirl only recently "recovered" from her paralyzation in the new Rebirth run on the character, so the events of this one story basically put Barbara Gordon in a wheelchair for 25+ years. While she becomes awesome again in her role as the Oracle following the events of The Killing Joke, it's still infuriating that those events happened in the first place. 

Furthermore, even as Moore and Bolland have denounced these plot points, DC seems determined to keep The Killing Joke as relevant as it's ever been. The 2008 deluxe reissue of the story is one thing, but the release of a movie based on this story in 2016 was completely over-the-top. The movie featured the addition of a 40-minute introductory series before the events of the graphic novel ever begin. This introduction serves to further humiliate Barbara Gordon's character: They wrote a plot where Batgirl is unable to stop a robbery, gets into an argument with Batman, then has sex with Batman, then retires from crime fighting. It's a terrible, pointless series of events that serves literally no purpose other than to treat Barbara Gordon even worse than the original book did, and make Batman look like a douche. The dialogue in this part of the movie is absolutely horrible.

DUMB, IMO.

DUMB, IMO.

The rest of the animated film is lifted almost verbatim from the original story, with very minimal changes. At its conclusion, it feels completely unnecessary and pretty much totally pointless. It was a bad effort at keeping an increasingly controversial comic book relevant, when they could have used an event like this as an opportunity to fix some of the mistakes the original text made.

So, winding down to a bottom line here -- it's clear enough that I'm not a big fan of this book. As good as parts of it might be, there just isn't a standout reason to return to this story rather than any other classic Batman trade paperback. There are better-written, better-drawn and better-presented stories in this character's lore; why does this one continue to receive so much praise? For me, it will be remembered as something of a middling book that I doubt I'll return to with any regularity.

The Killing Joke is available in hardcover format via Amazon and digitally via Comixology at that link. Purchasing something via an Amazon link on this blog provides a small percentage kickback to the author.