Classic Comic Review: The Killing Joke


I’m taking a break from my SDCC updates to take us back to 1988 and to the question: “can one bad day make a man a monster?”   A question wrestled with in Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke”, the subject of my first classic comic review.

Why review this comic now when it’s been out for 28 years? Because there is a new animated version of the story hitting the theatres on Monday the 25th and a Blu-Ray version is due to follow shortly afterwards. If an animated version of “The Killing Joke” wasn’t enough to get Batman fans salivating in anticipation then the returning “ Batman: The Animated Series talents Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman and Mark Hamill as the voice of the Joker should. By all accounts from the advanced screening at Comic Con the adaptation is a good one so I figured we’d turn back the clock and look at the source material.

“The Killing Joke” comic penned by Alan Moore (The Watchmen) and drawn by Brian Bollard is widely held to be one of the seminal Batman stories and it’s influence can definitely be felt in the comics and movies that have followed it. On a larger scale “The Killing Joke” along with Moore’s“Watchmen” and Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” were really the leading edge of the modern age of comics, and influenced later works to take on darker stories than the ages that preceded it. The story, on its face, is a pretty simple two- pronged tale. The first prong has the newly escaped Joker trying to prove his point that one bad day can drive someone mad by tormenting virtuous police commissioner Jim Gordon. The second is done in a flashback, an unspecified amount of time earlier, detailing the Joker’s own ‘bad day’ and how it turned him from the reluctant crook he was to the maniacal madman he is today. Batman, of course, plays a role in both stories and the whole thing is tied up nicely by a confrontation between the two enemies but the events of the Jim Gordon plot line end up having consequences beyond what was supposed to be a one shot Batman story.

What are those consequences? I can’t really get into those without spoiling the story, but the events of “The Killing Joke” have been in  and out of the DC canon for years and have left at least one character majorly changed. As for how things stand currently DC has stated (in a release timed for the movie no doubt) that the events of “The Killing Joke” which were retconned out in 2011’s “New 52” have been brought back in Rebirth.

Okay, enough with the cryptic stuff. Is the comic any good? Yes it is, however with the caveat that if you’re picking it up for the first time in 2016 the impact of the book has not aged well. This is not a critique of the writing but rather a case of the book being a victim of its own success. So many of the elements first brought out in “The Killing Joke”  have been adapted into Batman lore so frequently they seem almost cliché and as a modern reader and the book doesn’t really blow you away in the way it clearly did for those lucky readers back in the 80’s who got to see it unspoiled by two decades of its influence.  That said, it is a worthwhile read and like “Dark Night: A True Batman Story” it deals with trauma and the choices we have to make in dealing with it.  Batman (arguably) highlights  the positive example, while the Joker is the poster boy for the negative and that’s a worthwhile message even if the writer doesn’t agree.

Beyond the broader message the book is worth a look on the merits of Moore’s writing and Bollard’s art, but it is must read for those looking to get into Batman comics because as I stated earlier, it has definitely left it’s mark in the comics that followed it. Is the book without sin? No. I am not a fan of the Joker’s backstory as it makes the otherwise terrifying character a little bit less so, much in the same way the Star Wars prequels made Darth Vader a less menacing villain by showing us his childhood. Some characters are best left as a force of nature and I think the Joker is one of those characters. That said the backstory serves a purpose in the story that Moore was trying to tell so at least within the context of “The Killing Joke” it works.

“The Killing Joke” is available in trade paperback online and at your friendly local comic book store and the animated version will be on a limited one or two day release in theatres July 25th with the DVDs and Blu-Rays available August 2nd.

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