'The Killing Joke' Review: A Joker for All Seasons
The Killing Joke is the definitive Batman/Joker piece. Unlike many of the mainstream graphic novels about Bats such as The Dark Knight Returns or The Long Halloween, the focus is solely on the Joker and his direct relationship with the Dark Knight. It paints a picture of the Joker as a more sympathetic, misunderstood villain whose tragic backstory is explored for the first time in the series.
The narrative of The Killing Joke is played out as told through flashbacks as well as events taking place in the present. It all starts with Batman seemingly trying to reach out to the Joker to have one sane conversation before the end. Bats wanted to know he tried, at least once, to do things this way before one of them kills the other.
The present story arc is that Joker is attempting to break either Commissioner Gordon or Batman by attempting to have them brought down to his level of insanity. In the middle of this, we get flashbacks which depict, a possible backstory to the Clown Prince of Crime. We get a picture painted of man, down on his luck, auditioning for work as a comedian. He’s got a pregnant wife, behind on rent, but despite the hardships, has a wife who truly cares for him. This almost humanizes a man who is a more of a monster.
After escaping Arkham Asylum, he shows up at Commissioner Gordon’s doorstep, and as soon as he appears, he’s committed arguably the most heinous act in Joker’s history.
A single shot to Gordon’s daughter, Barbara, in the spine. As she is sprawled out in the living room, Gordon is beaten and kidnapped. To add insult to injury, Joker strips Barbara as she is bleeding out, immobile, and takes pictures of her to use this to break the Commissioner's psyche.
The ability to seamlessly mesh the present and flashbacks into one coherent narrative is successful due Alan Moore’s deft writing ability. Moore is a icon in the comic book world, with many genre defining titles attributed to him such as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell. Moore crafts dialogue that is perfect in its execution, allowing for the true insanity of the Joker to be realized along with the staunch moral code of Batman to be tested.
Moore’s characterization of the Joker is one moment sympathetic but then quickly disgust as he is able to transition between to the two with ease. Notably examples in humanizing a villain, only to immediately have him commit a monstrous act. His ability to create a multi-faceted foe for Batman that sticks with the reader long after closing the novel, a testament to Moore’s ability to create realistic characters in the narrative, with a sprinkle of psychological undertones.
One of the most notable series of panels in Batman canon however takes place in the initial kidnapping of Gordon. Barbara, his daughter, would be paralyzed in canon permanently after The Killing Joke even though it can be viewed as a one shot similar to other graphic novels. Unlike other graphic novels, it has repercussions that directly affect the DC Universe moving forward and it shapes a character’s future significantly. This leads directly into a scene of Joker de-humanizing Gordon, stripping him naked and dragging him through a carnival ride with pictures of his naked, paralyzed daughter. A truly sick action.
We immediately get another flashback, with Joker finding out his wife has just died in an accident. Alan Moore, again, does a great job at paralleling two sides of a human. Each scene alternates between a monster and a person down on his luck.
This all leads into the biggest reason this graphic novel stands up over 20 years later as a highly regarded piece: the ambiguous ending.
What really happens here? Does Batman kill Joker? Or is this simply a moment of shared insanity between the arch enemies? This is the called The Killing Joke after all, and this last panel seems to depict Joker’s last hurrah. One last joke to allow Bats to see into his soul and experience his level of insanity. Its a satisfyingly ambiguous ending to a perfect graphic novel.