The Killing Joke—penned by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brain Bolland—is perhaps the most iconic and memorable Joker story ever to be conceived in the comic book medium. Regarded as The Joker’s breakthrough story, this one-shot became a part of the Batman mythos due to its reception by critics and fans. The imagination excellently displayed by both Moore and Bolland created, unbeknownst to them, quite possibly the most important one-shot in comics history, changing the goofy jester into the Clown Prince of Crime we all know today.
The story follows two significant themes. One being Batman and The Joker’s toxic relationship. Batman, due to the nature of their chaos and drama, sees their relationship ending in no other way than with the death of both parties. As such, Batman visits The Joker in Arkham Asylum to try and come to terms with his foe and avoid that outcome. The second theme is that the world with its endless crime, war, and evil is only one bad day away from becoming as mad and cynical as the Joker himself, who had his own bad day which transformed him into the monster we’re all aware of. The Joker tries to prove this point throughout the book and it’s up to Batman to stop him, and prove his point false.
Alan Moore is a strange fellow to me. His writing is superb in this book; he reflects tone and great substantial dialogue, all while crafting certain character’s dialect so fluidly—and yet with all these great things of his own doing, he dislikes this book. There are several moments where characters are caught in the heat of emotion while speaking sentences. For example, when Barbara Gordon explains how The Joker shot her and assaulted her father, or where The Joker tells Batman a joke, they stumble over a word or two and Moore spells out exactly how it would sound to fumble the word “what” or “says” in the height of anguish or jittery rush. It’s simply beautiful writing.
Other example of Moore’s exemplary writing are the callbacks he makes to the beginning of the story. At the start of the book, Batman enters The Joker’s cell escorted by Commissioner Gordon, Barbara Gordon’s father, while the narrative box says: “There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum.”
As Batman takes a seat to discuss what’s bothering him, he says “Hello. I came to talk. I’ve been thinking about you and me. About what’s going to happen to us in the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?”
Besides this conversation being the most genuine conversation Batman has ever had with the Joker (although the person he’s talking to ends up being an impostor), this olive branch is important as it’s mentioned and spoken through captions towards the end of the book as Batman and Joker battle. There will never be peace between the two. They both represent opposing forces; Batman being order and The Joker being chaos. Both cannot coexist but the both can’t exist without the other, no matter how much one or the other would want differently. So this callback is great in its irony as the dialog is that of trying to make a peace offering but in the panel they’re both attacking each other. The lunatic dialogue is also the first line of the Joker’s joke told at the end of the fight.
Moore also delves into The Joker’s origin in flashback sequences throughout the story. The Killing Joke depicts the Joker as a struggling comedian trying to support his pregnant wife named Jeanine. With no other ways of earning money, he reluctantly turns to doing a crime with two other men who are using him for his knowledge of the place they plan to case. The day of the crime he gains news of his wife’s death from the police who states it was a million to one accident. The distraught Joker tries to get out of the job, but is bullied into seeing the scheme through. They enter the plant they planned to rob and get caught by the police and subsequently, Batman himself. The Joker runs up a flight of stairs to a catwalk up above some raw sewage. A rookie Batman shows up across from him and the Joker jumps into the sewage below to escape. When he emerges from the water his skin is chalk white and it burns. His hair is green and his lips are burning red. He sees his reflection in the water, proceeds to clench his head and laughs manically while blood drips from his eyes and mouth, thus birthing the Joker through one terrible day.
The Killing Joke was the first comic book I’d ever read…I knew it was the gateway to a new type of storytelling, a new way of thinking….
To prove his point that the average person only needs one bad day to go mad, he focuses his attention on breaking a man who has the most conceived notion of law and order in the city: Commissioner Jim Gordon. If The Joker can break a man who is so virtuous and ethical, the rest of the world could sink into to madness, too.
Brain Bolland, in addition to doing the art for this book, also did the coloring. In the original novel however, the colorists name was John Higgins. Brain digitally re-colored the art when the book was re-released in 2008 as a deluxe edition (which is the version I read). Brain also does something very creative during the flashback panels: He makes everything black and white except he decides to spotlight specific items in a panel red. For example, in the first flashback sequence, Jeanine has octopus in a red bowl that your eyes automatically lock onto when you take first glance at the panel. Another example is the Red Hood helmet The Joker wears during the job all the way to the end of the final flashback sequence where it reveals a splash panel of The Joker in full color after his transformation. The coloring absolutely brings the comic to life, and the black and white flashbacks gives such a ’50s vibe that it almost made me want to buy a coon-skinned hat.
The Killing Joke was the first comic book I’d ever read. I was so new to comics that I didn’t even know which direction to read the dialog bubbles. About half-way through the book, that didn’t matter. I knew what I held in my hands would change my life forever. I knew it was the gateway to a new type of storytelling, a new way of thinking, and a new experience that I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. This book depicted The Joker in a much more sinister fashion than what Jack Nicholson and Tim Burton had to offer. It also fleshed out a personality outside of his cynical norm and gave perspective to his insanity. Nose-open, mouth agape, I finished and closed my book knowing I’d read one of the best stories ever told, and went out to face the world anew.
You can buy Batman: The Killing Joke at Amazon.com for $11.42.