Batman: The Killing Joke (Graphic Novel)

DC Comics
DC Comics

Warning: This post discusses some graphic material and there are spoilers, so proceed at your own risk!

When it comes to comic books/graphic novels starring Gotham’s caped crusader, two of the most iconic are Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). Miller’s treatment has already made it to the big screen (in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy), and Moore’s work will be joining his shortly, albeit in an animated format. 

Of the two novels, Moore’s is easily the most controversial, mainly for its plot line concerning Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Having never read any of the Batman comics or graphic novels growing up, I wasn’t really aware of the Killing Joke’s content until the controversy over Rafael Albuquerque’s cover variant exploded all over my Twitter feed last year. I read the various articles about the cover and its homage to Moore’s story with interest, but never picked up the book itself – though this was mainly due to the fact that it was always shrink-wrapped at Barnes&Noble and, I thought, too expensive.

Yet with Bruce Timm’s animated feature set to hit theaters next week, I decided that it was high time I checked it out and borrowed a copy of the 2008 deluxe addition, which includes an introduction from artist Tim Sale and an afterword from the comic’s original illustrator, Brian Bolland. Bolland also recolored the pages in that addition, relying on a more subdued color palette than the one used by John Higgins in 1986.

If you, like me, are unfamiliar with Moore’s slim 64-page volume, The Killing Joke is most known for two things: creating what is considered to be the definitive origin story for the Joker – Batman’s arch nemesis – and using the paralyzation and suggested rape of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, to drive the story forward.

When it comes to the former – the transformation of the Joker from a struggling stand-up comedian to the Clown Prince of Crime – the comic is interesting, if a little thin. Through flashbacks, the Joker is shown as a fairly typical husband who is struggling to provide for his pregnant wife. Worried about finances, he makes a deal with the mob and experiences “one bad day” that pushes him over the edge.

While I completely agree with the people who think that this story line humanizes the Joker, I was surprised by the fact that there wasn’t a “You Did This to Me!” sort of confrontation between him and Batman, especially considering the latter’s role in his shift from mild-mannered family man to insane megalomaniac. I found it even stranger considering all of Batman’s talk about the two of them being locked in a battle to the death. I’m sure Moore figured that people would have prior knowledge of their animus, but still, I expected more from such an iconic tale.

Now, when it comes to the Joker’s shooting, paralyzing, and violating of Barbara, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about that. I totally understand the frustration over her maiming being used just to torment her father, Commissioner Gordon, and to give Batman something to rage against, but having not read Batgirl comics either, I didn’t get the same sort of “she’s lost her agency” feeling that other readers have.

I was also surprised, especially given the controversy, how little Barbara is even in the book (which, admittedly, is another long-running complaint). Indeed, the violence she’s subjected to takes up just 10 panels. And honestly, I thought it was fairly tastefully done.

Believe me, that sentence felt just as weird to write as it likely did to read.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Joker’s actions against Barbara are horrific and I hate the fact that sexual violence against women is used so often as a plot point to – as feminist scholar Samantha Langsdale writes – “launch heroes into heroism and villains into villainy.” I guess it’s just that I expected the whole thing to be more graphic than it was.

And maybe that in and of itself is part of the problem with reading The Killing Joke for the first time 28 years after its publication. Our standards for what is “shocking” have been so lowered that what was once disturbing now elicits more of a “meh” reaction.

It’s also hard to gauge what it truly was like to read The Killing Joke when it first came out since every Batman story I grew up with was likely influenced by it in some way. Interestingly, Moore seems to regret that legacy, saying once that his graphic novels were “meant to be something that would liberate comics. Instead . . . [t]hey’ve lost a lot of their original innocence, and they can’t get that back. And, they’re stuck, it seems, in this kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis. I’m not too proud of being the author of that regrettable trend.” Unfortunately, based on some of the initial feedback of Timm’s feature film, it seems like that trend continues.

6 thoughts on “Batman: The Killing Joke (Graphic Novel)

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I think the fact that Barbara is in many ways a support character, shows how little regard the Joker has for human life. This was our introduction to a new kind of crazy that has followed him around ever since. Batman has been all the better for these dark, gritty stories.

    It doesn’t build up to it (in the comic). It just happens (albeit, planned). I think it’s a fantastic comic and I think it would have been every bit as good if the injured party had been a male (think Dick Grayson and how freaky that could have been!) or another female character.

    I’m really looking forward to seeing the animated version this week. I have high hopes (and I might even re-read it tonight in anticipation).

    1. I absolutely agree Peter. I know many of the complaints stem from the fact that she is just a support character, but let’s be honest, not everyone can be the lead! And this story is about Batman and the Joker, so to have a huge focus on Barbara wouldn’t really make a lot of sense. Now, I still stand by my general frustration with the use of sexual violence towards women as a plot point, but at the same time, it does serve the purpose of showing a new escalation in the Joker’s behavior. And since it’s all “to prove a point,” it further illustrates how crazy he’s become. I guess, for me, it’s more that I could sort of understand where the outrage was coming from, I just couldn’t muster the same level of anger towards either the graphic novel or the movie (but more on those thoughts is coming next week!).

  2. Well I’ve started to re-read the GN and it still feels pretty fresh, even now. I forgot how creepy some of the scenes are (and I’m a fan). I’ve just downloaded the animated version and hope I might get to watch it tonight although it may be tomorrow. On ‘the scene’ and the point of sexual violence (and the GN never confirmed what actually happened to her other than the photos – it was just suggested) do you think that if it had just been a violent act, it would have had the same impact?

    1. You know, that’s a really interesting question Peter and it did jump out at me, that the rape is more implied than confirmed. Based on all of the comments I had been reading about the GN, I had assumed that the scene would be more explicit and when it wasn’t, it caught me off guard. But maybe that was the point – leaving our minds to fill in the blanks with whatever horror we could think up. Had the Joker simply shot Barbara or had he definitively raped her, I think the impact likely would have been the same. Shock, but then a general moving on to the next part of the story. By leaving it open-ended, Moore lets the Joker reflect our own beliefs about what it takes to break someone.

      1. Well, I finally got round to watching it. I think overall it’s pretty good but it didn’t need the non-comic build up early on. It also painted Barbara in a light that I felt was unfair. But, re the scene, it was done in the film as it was in the comic – left for the viewer/reader to decide! This was never going to get away without criticism due to the suggested nature. I still think the comic stacks up even now! And the animation does it justice.

      2. Yeah, I thought they did a good job with it too and honestly, I didn’t mind the stuff with Barbara at the beginning. I was a little nervous when I started to see the comments coming out of Comic Con and was expecting the two parts to feel disjointed, but I actually thought things moved pretty seamlessly from one part to the other. Though I still wasn’t a huge fan of the ending, I did like how closely the animation followed the original art work and even thought to myself, “Oh, so this is how everyone else feels when they recognize things from the comics!”

        Considering the fact that the graphic novel is a bit polarizing, it doesn’t surprise me that there were equally strong feelings about the animated version. But overall, I really liked it and it was great to hear Mark Hamill as the Joker again! 🙂

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