Alan Moore and Brian Bolland gifted the world with a stark and troubling look at one of comic’s most iconic, and dark villains in Batman: The Killing Joke way back in 1988. While this is a Batman title, the issue is clearly about the Joker, at least to this reader. This New York Times bestseller was awarded the Eisner award for Best Graphic Album in ’89, and it has impacted the Batman franchise across multiple books, movies, games, and soon to be an animated film with Mark Hamill himself reprising his voice role as Joker. It is undeniable that this work is a milestone in comic book history and almost always appears at, or near the top of every top 10, top 50 and top 100 must read stories right along with The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Phoenix Saga, and Marvel’s Civil War. As you may know about me, I’m not much of a DC guy, so I hadn’t read the book until last night, and I intend to read it again. I had heard that it was dark, sometimes cringe worthy, and definitely troubling, and I wasn’t disappointed. That’s not to say any of those things make the story bad, or worthy of the absolute vitriol I’ve seen thrown at it.
Despite being one of the most popular stories in comic book history, the book has received it’s fair share of criticism. While criticism is what we need to determine if a piece of work, story, or art is worth our time, some criticism delves into the realm of pure spite and malice. It’s been called toxic, problematic, and accused of using pretty much every bad trope in the book, but at the end of the day every story is full of tropes. Have you seen how many tropes there are? You cannot write a story so original that it doesn’t pull in dozens of them. The worst I find is the speculation about events that are not shown in the book. Did Batman kill Joker? I doubt it, everything in the book says he doesn’t want to do that. Did Joker rape Barbara? I doubt it, you have to be looking for that sort of outrage to think it was there when it wasn’t even intimated. Matter of fact, seeing rape in every scene in which a woman is in distress might say more about the mind of the reader rather than the writer. Some critics are crediting the Joker with a crime that, as far as I’ve been able to find (and I looked for awhile to find a reference), he has never committed. While it has happened to other characters, by other villains (see Nightwing) it’s never been part of a Joker story that I could find, so it seems like a pretty big leap to me just to cast a shadow on this one book. Matter of fact, Gordon was stripped naked through most of the book as well, why is no one speculating that Gordon was raped?
Reading through the book itself, Bolland’s art definitely set the tone for this dark tale. Moore presents us with a tale that does something that is always a challenge for writers, make the reader sympathize with the villain. At no point did I like the Joker in this story, he’s clearly, and utterly evil, but the flash backs to his past, the death of his wife, and first steps on the path of crime put a little perspective on the character. I felt bad for him. Not so bad I didn’t want to beat the crap out of him myself, but at least he was more than the two dimensional, boring villains that tend to grace many stories. This is, without a doubt, a story about Joker, with Jim Gordon being the primary victim to lure Batman out. We also get a glimpse into the, usually, dark and humorless Batman. He begins and ends the book expressing the desire to end their conflict without anyone dying, and he promises Gordon to do his best to do things ‘by the book’ so the speculation he kills Joker at the end just seems a tad unbelievable.
I think this book hits so hard because events in it are so very real. Set aside the makeup, costumes, and fantasy and at the heart you have a dark tale of someone so broken they want some validity to show they aren’t really that different. Joker’s entire point was to show that Gordon could be broken just like he was. Hurt someone Gordon loves, put him through humiliation, pain and degradation and see if someone so just and good could be turned into something as dark and twisted as Joker. Because Barbara was the one person in Gordon’s life he loved, that does not make her a convenient plot device, who else could Joker hurt to get to Gordon? Gordon is the one person, as far as I know, who the Joker knows is connected to Batman and at the end of the day he made Gordon the damsel in his two-fold plot. I’d say that’s pretty forward-thinking of Moore for a book release in ’88. The idea that Barbara was also hurt to give Batman something to do in the story just seems ignorant to me. She was already saved, in the hospital by the time Batman even found out about it, he didn’t save her. He also did not run off to get revenge, he went to save Jim, and by his own word did not want to kill Joker but put him back where he belongs.
The aftermath of this story spawned a hero who, for many, was a representation rarely seen in comics, even today. Kim Yale gave the world Oracle, a woman dealing with being crippled by that fateful gunshot, but still wanting to do her part to keep Gotham safe. Many readers connected with her story, her situation, as a survivor and someone dealing with a disability. Quite a few fans I’ve talked to still think giving her back the ability to walk was a mistake. Whether it is or not, the audience for Batgirl now does not seem to be entirely the same fans that loved Oracle, and it makes me wonder why we couldn’t have both. Hell, we’ve had five Robins now right?
So at the end of the day, is this a good book? In my opinion, yes. It stacks up against the best I’ve read. Will it make you uncomfortable? Yes, and it should, that’s the point. Art must explore the darker parts of what make us what we are. Humanity is full of very awful events and we can’t erase them, or hide from them. Writers and artists strive to present the human experience in a realistic way, shining lights into those dark corners, so the bright days actually mean something.