Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore
Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1988) completely reinvented the caped crusader as a dark and conflicted figure. This time, it was Alan Moore’s turn to reinvent Batman’s greatest rival, that homicidal madman The Joker. Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) tells its compelling story in just 51 pages, but the writing and artwork are so phenomenal that it has retained a legendary status. Even now, you can find a deluxe hardcover edition being sold in bookstores, and how many single issues get that treatment?
Even those casually familiar with the Batman story know his flamboyant rival The Joker, with his powder-white face, shock of green hair, and snazzy purple suit. He was fairly clownish in the 1960’s Adam West TV show, but in this comic he is far more sinister, brutal, and yet frighteningly funny than ever before. In fact, all the best monologues belong to him, as he steals the show with his crazed philosophy about the random injustice of life. Essentially, The Joker sets out to prove that anyone, no matter how strong of mind, can be tipped into madness with just ONE BAD DAY. He should know, because we are shown his early days as a failing stand-up comedian struggling to support his pregnant wife. These flashbacks are shown in black and white, with just strange flashes of color. The artwork by Brian Bolland is so precise and detailed, particularly the characters’ expressions. You can see the anguish of the young comedian as he is torn between supporting his family and getting involved in a heist that will generate some badly-needed cash.
The story begins on a dark, rain-drenched night. Batman and police commissioner Jim Gordon go to visit the Joker at Arkham Asylum. Batman wants to talk to the Joker about their relationship. Already, we are in unfamiliar territory. How often to arch-rivals have a heart-to-heart discussion like a married couple in therapy? As he says this, the Joker quietly flips cards, his face in the shadows. Every frame of this exchange perfectly complements the dialogue and emotions of the principals. It’s an absolutely brilliant combination of storytelling and artwork.
Then the Joker is on the loose yet again, and he does an unthinkably evil act that sets in motion the inevitable collision between Batman and his arch-rival. This time Jim Gordon is at the center of the Joker’s plot, and poor Barbara is an unfortunate victim. This part of the comic is quite shocking and upset many fans, but it is very deliberate on Moore’s part: he wants to make it crystal clear that the Joker is cruel and ruthless, and knows no boundaries.
We then flash back again to the Joker’s past. He has been suckered into a heist by two hoodlums who want to be escorted through the chemical plant he used to work at to rob a playing card company next door. He’s hesitant but they pressure him, playing on his concerns about taking care of his family. The image of him after he has first been transformed, laughing uncontrollably, is both horrifying and unforgettable.
Meanwhile, back in the present, we discover that the Joker has taken Jim Gordon hostage at a dilapidated old carnival, populated by freaks that are truly creepy, all in thrall to the Joker. Gordon is given the most awful carnival ride of his life. During this, the Joker gleefully expounds on his life philosophy:
“So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness. Madness is the emergency exit. You can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away…forever.”
Finally, Batman arrives on the scene for his climactic showdown with the Joker. The Joker taunts him with surprising insight:
“You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a flying rat? You had a bad day, and it drove you as crazy as everybody else…only you won’t admit it! You keep pretending that life makes sense, that there’s some point to all the struggling! When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went as crazy as a coot! I admit it. Why cant’ you?”
Batman and the Joker battle each other, and the artwork and panel arrangement are flawless. I rarely see this level of precision on the inner pages of comics, but it’s no surprise that Brian Bolland does a lot of cover art.
And then this brilliant story ends with the strangest conversation two arch-enemies are ever likely to have. Their expressions and body language are perfectly rendered.
Batman: “Do you understand? I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want either of us to end up killing the other. But we’re running out of alternatives, and we both know it. It doesn’t have to end like that. I don’t know what it was that bent your life out of shape, but who knows? Maybe I’ve been there too. Maybe I can help. We could work together. I could rehabilitate you. You needn’t be out there on the edge any more. You needn’t be alone. We don’t have to kill each other. What do you say?”
The ending is very poignant and unexpected, which I liked quite a bit. Not your typical superhero story by any measure. The entire comic is unusually well-crafted, and gives up deep insight into both of these well-known characters. Overall, it’s a bravura achievement, one you can enjoy many times over.