“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level. Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.
The Killing Joke
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Brian Bolland
Colorist: John Higgins
Letterer: Richard Starkings
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 1988
No. of Issues: 1 graphic novel
Alan Moore and Brain Bolland’s graphic novel, The Killing Joke, is a terrifying and fascinating glimpse into the mind of the Joker. This work paved the way for future incarnations of the Joker and provided a shocking rupture in its story that created a new path for the Batman franchise. The Killing Joke also significantly detailed the Joker’s life philosophy about madness. While the Joker is ultimately unsuccessful in proving his theories, the graphic novel does offer a moment at the end when the madman and the superhero share a laugh. Perhaps there is something to the Joker’s philosophy after all.
The Plot of The Killing Joke
The Killing Joke is filled with reveals that begin early on, when Batman visits the Joker at Arkham Asylum. He finds an imposter posing as the Joker while the actual Joker has escaped and taken possession of a dilapidated, run-down carnival. The Joker embarks on his plan to prove that one bad day can drive an average person to madness.
The most terrifying and shocking moment of the graphic novel is when the Joker—wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt, shorts, a big hat, and a tourist camera around his neck—shoots Barbara Gordon. The Joker then kidnaps her father James Gordon and takes him to his carnival, where he strips him down and puts him on a ride that projects photos of Barbara naked and writhing in pain. He hopes to drive Gordon to a mental breaking point. The Joker preaches to Gordon that when the world is bad, going mad is his solution. But Gordon stays strong, and when Batman arrives to the carnival, Gordon tells him to bring the Joker in by the books. The Joker had wanted to prove that there is no difference between him and the average man, but he fails.
An origin story for the Joker is juxtaposed within the main storyline. These flashbacks show an unsuccessful stand-up comedian who turns to the mafia to help him earn money for his family. When his pregnant wife dies suddenly, he is still forced to go through with the planned robbery of a playing card company. The mobsters make the comedian wear a red hood (which is a nod to Detective Comics #168 from 1951) as he guides them through a chemical plant. A security guard stops them, and then Batman arrives. The comedian jumps into a stream of chemicals and emerges with white skin and green hair, his eyes and mouth bleeding. The man’s desperation led him to crime, his tragedy left him alone, and his fall physically transformed him, all contributing to him becoming a crazed supervillain.
Back at the carnival, the Joker tells Batman that one bad day can make a sane man mad. He says that something bad happened to him, but he doesn’t remember any of the details. He remembers his past differently each time—which refutes the flashback as truth about his origin. The Joker says that everything in life is a bad joke, and this realization caused him to go crazy. Batman and the Joker fight, and Batman wins when the Joker’s gun fails him. (It turns out to be a trick gun.) Batman does not beat the Joker on his own; his success is due to the Joker’s failure. Then, Batman says that he wants to see the Joker rehabilitated and offers him help. The Joker says no and tells him a joke, and they both crack up laughing, sharing a moment together where two adversaries both appreciate a moment of levity.
Brian Bolland brilliantly captures the emotions of the characters in a way that can stir up uneasy feelings for the readers. Barbara’s shocked face when she opens the door and her tormented, pained face after being shot greatly contrast to the Joker’s toothy grin. Boland effectively illustrates madness. He also includes a lot of eyes and teeth, drawing us in to see the intricacies of the Joker’s facial features. One of my favorite panels is in the funhouse when Batman bursts through a mirror, sending shards of mirror glass in all directions—even out of the panel. The panel is explosive, and the mirror glass looks like it is coming out of the page and toward us reading the book.
In the deluxe edition from 2008, Bolland did all of his own colors. He says in the Afterward that John Higgins’ colors from 1988 were not in line with his vision. Higgins’ original coloring included loud pops of color, whereas Bolland chose a more muted, natural look. Bolland’s colors are darker and don’t make the same bold impact as Higgins’ colors. Bolland also washed out the color in the flashback sequences but added pops of red. These changes result in a grittier, more serious feel to the graphic novel.
The Killing Joke was critically acclaimed and won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album in 1989. The Deluxe Edition made the New York Times Graphic Books Best Seller List in May 2009. More recently, Eric Diaz of Nerdist called it one of the “greatest stories of the Caped Crusader ever told,” and Hilary Goldstein of IGN called the novel “the greatest Joker story ever told.” CBR’s Jim Johnson says that The Killing Joke “has been called both the definitive Batman vs. Joker story and the greatest Joker story ever published.” Fans have also given the novel high ratings. In 2016, an R-rated animated film version was released.
But Alan Moore has admitted on numerous occasions that he is not a fan of the work. He has even called it “a regrettable misstep” (as discussed on Goodreads). Moore also asked for his name not to be included in the animated film. Brian Azzarello is credited as the film’s screenwriter, and his additions to Barbara’s plot have raised some criticism (ScreenGeek, dated 2016).
Some believed that The Killing Joke was not meant to be part of Batman continuity; however, in Barbara Kesel’s Batgirl Special from May of 1988, Barbara retires as Batgirl, which set up the course of events in The Killing Joke. Afterwards, Barbara becomes the heroine Oracle, a computer hacker who helps other vigilantes. But Gail Simone was not pleased with the treatment of Barbara in The Killing Joke. She says, “The story itself treats Barbara as a prop…there’s just no effort in it to treat her as a human being” (Newsrama, dated 2012). In 1999, Simone started a website called “Women in Refrigerators,” which catalogued examples of violence toward and mutilation of females in comics. The Joker shooting Barbara has served as a classic example of “fridging” in comics.
Simone got a chance in 2011 to turn Barbara’s trauma around when she took the reins writing the New-52 reboot of Batgirl. She kept Barbara’s trauma and paralysis as part of her past but allowed her to physically recover. In the series, Barbara suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the shooting, but she is able to return to her role as Batgirl.
Simone and others feel that The Killing Joke focuses on how Barbara’s father feels rather than how she feels. These critics argue that her personal trauma wasn’t focused on enough. While The Killing Joke does not pay much attention to Barbara’s trauma or feelings, the purpose seems to be more about unraveling the Joker’s life philosophy. There is no commentary on the treatment of women, because the Joker treats both men and women the same. He murders the owner of the carnival and puts him on display, and he tortures James Gordon. Certainly, shooting Barbara is the most shocking moment, but that kind of behavior is not exclusively reserved for women. Instead, the Joker doesn’t discriminate or have a preference; he will harm anyone in order to prove a point. In this case, his point is about life and madness.
The most fascinating substance of The Killing Joke is the Joker’s philosophy on life, memory, and madness and the relationship that they have with one another. The Joker argues that the only thing that makes sense in the world is going mad. The Joker also discusses memory, claiming that remembering is a dangerous practice. To avoid bad memories, though, one can turn to madness. His logic is that the world is terrible, but madness can serve as a therapeutic coping mechanism. Ironically, the Joker’s crimes contribute to the bad things in the world, so he is not only a preacher but also someone feeding horrors to the world.
The novel provides an origin story, but then refutes it when the Joker says, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” So, the provided story may be a complete fabrication—merely this day’s fancy. The origin story is not told to Batman or any other character in the story; it’s for the readers. So, the Joker has tricked readers to buy into his latest version of his past. We can never truly know the Joker, but we are so tempted to be able to rationalize his behavior.
The Killing Joke also provides a moment where Batman and the Joker pause in their endless battle and share a laugh. While Batman has always represented good, and the Joker has always represented evil, they do have some similarities. The Joker even points out that Batman must have had one bad day in his past that turned him into a vigilante. And we must admit that the Joker is right, as the murder of Bruce’s parents has been a staple of Batman continuity and the driving force for Bruce. While the Joker suggests that this day made the man under the mask crazy, we may find that one bad day served as motivation and inspiration. It guided Bruce toward a larger purpose. Meanwhile, the Joker’s purpose in life seems to be to serve as a foil to Batman (which, as readers, we know is crucial to the franchise). Perhaps they are both mad—or both sane. The Joker wants to be mad and claims he is mad, but his deliberate actions and thought-out plans illustrate someone who is cognizant and calculated.
The Killing Joke remains an iconic Batman/Joker story. Thirty years later, the story is still being told in the animated film. Even though there was some criticism about the animated version, this was mainly focused on Barbara Gordon and Batman’s relationship, which was added for the film. The graphic novel, though, still stands as a must-read of the Batman franchise.
As a work that has been so revered, it is surprising that both the writer and the artist have expressed dissatisfaction with The Killing Joke. Moore has removed himself far from the work, and Bolland’s solution was to redo what didn’t meet his standards. The Killing Joke is a masterpiece, though—original colors included. Higgins made the action pop. His colors draw the reader’s attention in, allowing us to lose ourselves in the madness. He beautifully captured the essence of a carnival gone crazy. The plot, while controversial for some, has resulted in the development of a strong heroine. And the message—the Joker’s philosophy—allows us to think about the way the past puts pressure on the present and drives us toward our future. It makes us feel strong, because we have all had bad days but have not succumbed to madness (or taken over a carnival in order to torture people). The Killing Joke teaches us (in a gruesome and unorthodox way) how to stay strong and uphold our personal values and morals no matter what threatens us.