Batman: The Killing Joke is perhaps the most famous of Alan Moore’s shorter adventure comics efforts. It was first published in 1988, when Moore’s post-Watchmen stardom was at its height, and it certainly rode the crest of that wave to commercial success. It enjoyed an even bigger sales boost the following year, with the release of Tim Burton’s first Batman film. The Batman and Joker characters became phenomenally popular with the general public, creating an enormous demand for anything and everything featuring them. The hype surrounding The Killing Joke as the definitive Batman-Joker story was still fresh, which made it the go-to Batman comic for fans of the film. And the book didn’t make those readers feel like they were slumming. One reason was that the level of violence in the story made it completely inappropriate for children. Another was that the book’s artwork is nothing short of outstanding. The book's artist, Brian Bolland, successfully combined bravura draftsmanship with nuanced dramatizations. It deservedly established him as one of the finest illustrators in the history of adventure comics. A special hardcover edition, featuring new coloring by Bolland, was released last year, and the more restrained palette makes it look better than ever.
But despite The Killing Joke's success, both Bolland and Moore have publicly taken an ambivalent and even disdainful view of it. In the new edition’s afterword, Bolland expresses discomfort with several aspects of Moore’s script, including the decision to include a back-story for the Joker, as well as the extremes of the violence. As for Moore, he looks back on the book with embarrassment. In an interview published in the October 1990 issue of The Comics Journal, he said:
I didn’t think The Killing Joke was a very good piece of work; I think it was a very bad piece of work in some respects. Not Brian [Bolland]’s artwork; Brian’s artwork was as flawless as ever, but my storytelling wasn’t very good. It wasn’t a very good story. The meaning was too slight to merit the nastiness or brutality of the approach. There were lots of things wrong with it.
Moore is right, although one is tempted to say his assessment of his contribution to the book is too kind. The Killing Joke is a poorly crafted and remarkably ugly effort on his part. It’s perhaps the worst story he’s ever put his name on.
The book begins with Batman arriving at the insane asylum where the Joker is imprisoned. He’s haunted by the possibility that their perpetual conflict will someday end with one or the other dead. He wants to talk things over in an effort to avert that outcome. The Joker, though, has escaped. His scheme this time out is an effort at self-justification. As he sees it, the only difference between him and sane people is one bad day. So, to prove his point, he kidnaps police commissioner Gordon> His goal is to drive the commissioner mad. Gordon is subjected to all sorts of torture, with the worst of it coming from what the Joker does to his daughter. The Joker had shot her through the spine, leaving her paralyzed, and then stripped naked for photographs to assault the commissioner with. The story, though, ends with Gordon safe and still sane. Batman captures the Joker, and he has the conversation with his nemesis that he sought at the beginning. But the Joker rejects Batman's offer to help rehabilitate him. He and Batman then share a laugh over a dumb joke about trust, their laughter signifying their acceptance of where their antagonism may lead.
The most immediate problem with the story is the absurdity of the ending. Batman is shown to be friends with both Gordon and Gordon’s daughter (she even knows he’s Bruce Wayne), but he responds to their being maimed, tortured, and sexually assaulted by treating the perpetrator with sympathy? One would think Batman, after witnessing the depths of the Joker’s depravity, would regard him as an irredeemable monster. Batman might even regard killing him as the only sensible option. It’s implicit in the story that the main question about incarcerating the Joker is when--not if--he’s going to escape again. What’s worse, having his death on one’s conscience, or the brutality and deaths that will inevitably result from letting him live? The question would be especially stark for Batman given how people he cares for were the victims this time around. But Moore never raises the issue. The Batman of the story is a completely undeveloped character. There are no tensions in his attitude despite a situation that demands them. Unbelievably, he’s the same at the end of the story that he was at the beginning.
The Joker isn’t effectively developed, either. Moore works hard to make the character sympathetic through flashback scenes that show his life in the days leading up to his disfigurement and breakdown. Moore even takes the step of incorporating autobiographical details in the portrayal. The man who becomes the Joker starts as someone very much like Moore himself: an aspiring entertainer who quits his day job to pursue his dreams when his wife becomes pregnant. But unlike Moore, financial stresses drive the character towards crime: he agrees to help some mobsters burglarize a company adjacent to the chemical plant where he used to work. The day of the burglary turns into the worst day of his life. His wife and unborn child are killed in a freak accident. The burglary is foiled, and during his escape, the future Joker ends up immersed in chemicals that permanently bleach his skin pigment and turn his hair green. This disfigurement, coming when it does, proves one more defeat than he can take. He suffers a psychotic breakdown and becomes the cackling maniac known as the Joker. However, for all the pathos of this, Moore neglects one crucial thing: he doesn’t create a significant link between the present-day character and this flashback figure. There’s nothing about this fellow that suggests he’s capable of the sadistic violence the Joker inflicts on others. They might as well be two different people.
Moore also doesn’t develop the flaw in the flashback figure’s personality that leads to his breakdown. During their fight, Batman taunts the Joker with the fact that Gordon, despite the torture, is still sane. He says, “So maybe ordinary people don’t always crack […] Maybe it was just you, all the time.” That’s a perfectly reasonable point to make with the story, but Moore doesn’t give it any weight. He doesn’t dramatize that going insane was a path peculiar to the Joker. The story doesn’t take the time to develop any significant contrast between the flashback figure and Gordon, either. We never see what it is about Gordon’s personality that enables his sanity to survive the “one bad day” that pushed the Joker over the edge.
The overwhelming problem with The Killing Joke is that Moore didn’t find a fresh angle on the material. He started with a basic good-guy-catches-the-bad-guy story, and that’s all he ends up with. There are no significant ironies, reversals, or counterpoints; the epiphany the characters share at the end--the preposterousness of the scene aside--is banal. Yes, Batman and the Joker will be antagonists to the very end. That’s not much of an insight. In fact, it’s an assumption one makes going in. The only substantial irony to be found with this disjointed piece of nastiness is its commercial success. Moore’s muse failed him, but he ended up with what may be his most widely read work. The best thing to be said about The Killing Joke is that, in the context of his career, it proved a tangent instead of a sign of things to come.