Michelle reviews the ultimate Joker story, The Killing Joke.
The '80s were a tumultuous time for both comic books and superheroes alike. Comics were dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of reality by Alan Moore and there was no turning back. In 1986, Frank Miller transformed Batman into the dark and brooding figure we know now with his iconic Batman: The Dark Knight. While Batman was always established as the grittier antithesis to Superman's otherworldly glowing escapades, his exploits were always more noir than grim. The Dark Knight explored Batman's psyche and exposed the cracks in his superhero façade. If this comic could be considered the rebirth of Batman into his modern subversive iteration, then Moore's The Killing Joke can be considered Joker's "baptism" into his new sinister role in that universe.
Alan Moore initiated the entire "realism" movement in comics with his magnum opus Watchmen (1986). Watchmen completely deconstructed superhero tropes and posed the question: "What if superheroes actually existed in real life?" The answer was, of course, they would be as unhappy and cynical as possible. Whether or not this direction was the best path for comics remains debatable, but Moore's impact on comic narratives is still felt to this day. This brings the conversation to The Killing Joke, which remains one of the darkest stories in Batman's history. This is also where we finally discover Joker's origin story.
The Killing Joke begins where it usually does--in Arkham Asylum. Batman and the Joker are at odds like always. But something is different this time around and there is a palpable feeling of dread in the proceedings. Batman is wondering why he is always at odds with the Joker and why no matter what he does he cannot help him change his ways. You see, Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin only separated by force of will and action. Both of them are tainted by tragedy, but Joker took the route of (feigned?) lunacy and destruction and Batman the path of righteousness. The Killing Joke is an exploration into why people do what they do. Is a man really only one bad choice away from being the villain? Is our sanity only held together tenuously by a single gossamer thread, ready to be torn asunder by chaos?
Moore's gravitas would need a good match artist-wise and as fate would have it, Brian Bolland was the perfect person for the job. His ability to draw realistic figures while still keeping the stylized comic book feel is amazing and his panel work is sublime. Bolland likes to play around with recursive elements and often he will "mirror' character positions or themes from one panel to the next giving everything a sense of continuity not seen in many other comics. Colorist John Higgins' choice to use garish primary colors may not have been to Bolland's taste, but I find them to be intriguing and they lend themselves well to the overall insane carnival feeling of the story. There was a reprint in 2008 that reinstated Bolland's more muted color vision for the comic. If there is a "definitive" Joker aesthetic then Bolland's lanky, pointy-chin, angular version is the one that most people are familiar with.
This storyline is most infamous for the fate of Commissioner Gordon's daughter Barbara Gordon and is considered to be controversial, even now, more than thirty years later. In a world of retcons and reboots, Barbara was the DC sacrificial lamb, an offering to the bloodthirsty comic fans who clamored for more adult themes. It was also the point-of-no-return for the Joker, who's prior antics seemed silly and trite compared to his newest heinous crime. Macabe Joker was here to stay and his jokes have even deadlier punch lines today.
Does this story hold up in this modern age of comics? For the most part I think it does, and much of that can be attributed to Moore's timeless prose and Bolland's clean artwork. This story could take place in any time period and its themes of cyclical redemption and retribution can just as easily be applied to today's superheroes. For better or for worse, The Killing Joke was a game changer and as such should be considered a classic.
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