Author: Alan Moore
Illustrator: Brian Bolland
Publisher: DC Comics
Format: Hardcover Deluxe Edition
The Killing Joke was first published in 1988 and has become the definitive Batman comic of the Joker. It served as inspiration for both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and provides an origin story for Batman’s archrival.
Two tales are told throughout the narrative. The first story, told in full color, tells of the Joker making a surprise appearance at the Gordons’ house, only to shoot Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon in the abdomen/spine and kidnap Commissioner Jim Gordon. He brings the commissioner to a sadistic playground where he attempts to psychologically break him, thus proving that any man can be made crazy given the right circumstances.
The second story, told in black and white, is of the Joker’s origin. The origin story is based on the 1951 Detective Comics, “The Man Behind the Red Hood.” In Moore’s version, the man who will become Joker is an ordinary guy who has quit his job as a fledgling scientist to become a stand-up comedian. His wife is pregnant and is reluctantly supportive of his career pursuits. The Joker struggles to land any comic gigs and turns to a couple of crooks hoping to make some money to support his family. They are soliciting his assistance in navigating through a chemical plant where he once worked so they can rob the nearby card store.
The aspiring comedian learns that his wife has died in a tragic accident, but is convinced to stick with the illicit plan. He is given a red hood (which could be used to implicate him as the mastermind of a series of crimes) and leads his two cohorts into the plant. A security guard spots the criminals and a shootout ensues, leaving two of the criminals dead and the soon-to-be Joker left to deal with Batman.
The Joker, terrified of being caught by the Caped Crusader, leaps into a vat of chemical waste, only to discover that his skin, lips, and hair are permanently transfigured, giving him the permanent appearance of the bleach-faced, green-haired Joker. The death of his wife and his disfigurement drives the pitiful comic insane and a villain is born.
What makes The Killing Joke such a great comic is the portrayal of the Joker. His origin story is hyperbolized, showing him as a helpless everyman who just wants to make ends meet to support his family. In the second plot narrative, the Joker is so sadistic that he senselessly shoots Barbara and kidnaps the commissioner just to prove that his madness is not unique — it could happen to anyone. The extreme caricatures of the Joker are effective in showing how far from the ordinary man this villain has become.
I really liked what the artist, Brian Bolland, had to say in the novel’s afterward. He writes, “I for instance, would never have chosen to reveal a Joker origin. I think of this as just one of a number of possible origin stories manifesting itself in the Joker’s fevered brain. Also, I wouldn’t have done such terrible harm to poor Barbara.” Tim Burton used this story in part to detail Joker’s origin in Batman. In my opinion, Christopher Nolan succeeded to a much greater level in The Dark Knight, by abandoning this origin story all together and actually telling that the Joker was abused as a child. The Joker has two separate causes for his disfigurement, giving him an ambiguous origin that makes him more mysterious and interesting.
The Killing Joke on face level fails as an origin story and I like to take Bolland’s viewpoint that this is only a possible origin story. As I mentioned, it makes a perfect hyperbole to exaggerate the lunacy that the Joker is driven to, but he was much too ordinary to suddenly go so insane. The aspiring comic was very reluctant to involve himself with crime (in stark contrast to the Joker of “The Man Behind the Red Hood”) and he appears as a coward, weeping in his wife’s lap. The Joker is fearless and demented, character traits that serve better if manifested in his childhood.
The artwork is gorgeous and the range of expressions that the Joker has are truly impressive. In one moment he is angry, another despondent, and then just purely mad. The pictures of the Joker in the carnival really add to the madness that both Moore and Bolland are trying to portray.
Batman plays a secondary role in this novel, but he still provides a level of interest. Batman has a tendency toward being hot-headed, but does his best to keep his emotions in check. I love the interchange between Gordon and Batman when the commissioner is found naked and bruised:
Gordon: No, I’m okay. You have to go after him. I want him brought in . . . and I want him brought in by the book!
Batman: I’ll do my best.
Gordon: By the book, you hear? We have to show him! We have to show him that our way works!
The Killing Joke is a definitive Batman and Joker story and is required reading for any comic fan. It is short, but effective in portraying the Joker and the ending is ambiguous and a very fitting conclusion to the complex characters of both Batman and the Joker.