In the pantheon of Batman stories there’s a handful that come up every time someone ranks the best. The Dark Knight Returns, Batman Year One, and The Long Halloween usually all make the list. And then there’s the Killing Joke. The Killing Joke stands out from the crowd for a couple of reasons. For one thing, unlike the above mentioned stories, The Killing Joke is a graphic novel and not a collection of previously individual issues. For another, The Killing Joke isn’t really a Batman story. Sure Batman is in it, he even plays an important part;but The Killing Joke is above all else, a Joker story.
Alan Moore-possibly the greatest writer in the medium of comic books- delves deeper into the Joker’s origin than any writer previously. A failed stand-up comedian with a pregnant wife, Jack (no last name given) in desperation turns towards crime in order to make some money to support his family. In a cruel twist of fate his wife and unborn child die on the day that he is to take part in a heist with a couple of gangsters. The gangsters won’t let Jack get out of it and like a pitch black parody of Gift of the Magi, he is forced to steal even though now he has no family to steal for. A confrontation with Batman leads to Jack jumping into a vat of chemicals and coming out looking like the Joker we all know. Years later the Joker breaks into Barbara Gordon’s (Batgirl) apartment shooting her in the spine in the process and kidnapping her father Commissioner Gordon.
The Joker’s plan is to prove that anyone can end up murderously insane like him; all the motivation they need is one bad day. To that end, the Joker tortures Commissioner Gordon by showing him pictures of Barbara lying naked on the floor in a pool of her own blood while simultaneously singing a little ditty about how easy it is to go insane. Despite his best efforts though, the Joker is unsuccessful in breaking Gordan’s sanity. When Batman tracks the Joker down to the old carnival where he is conducting his little social experiment he finds Gordon naked and beaten, but still mentally sound.
“I want him brought in…and I want him brought in by the book. BY THE BOOK you hear? We have to show him! We have to show him that OUR way works!” This is Commissioner Gordon’s plea to Batman.
Gordon-despite the hell that the Joker has put him through-wants to prove to the Joker that order-not chaos-is the only way to make sense of the world. That may in fact be the driving theme of The Killing Joke: when horrible things befall us we can either give up and just face the fact that nothing matters, that all of it, life, the universe, and everything is a bad joke with no punchline;or we can try to impose our own meaning on the universe, through laws and order we can make our actions matter.
The Joker and Batman have always been two sides of the same coin: order and chaos, rational and irrational, sanity and insanity. Each character is the others perfect foil. The Killing Joke is arguably (and it has been argued…many times) the natural end point for the two characters, two forces that can’t occupy the same space. But which one wins out? Chaos or Order? That is left up to the reader as the end of The Killing Joke is possibly the most ambiguous ending to a story since The Lady Or The Tiger.
There is really a third thing that sets The Killing Joke apart from all the other Batman stories: It’s open to interpretation. The Dark Knight Returns is an amazing piece of work. It’s THE Batman book . But as great as The Dark Knight Returns is, it’s a fairly straightforward piece of work; once you’ve read it you either get it or you don’t. One can read The Killing Joke over and over and still come away with a different understanding -of the characters motives, of their actions-every time. The whole thing is open to interpretation. Especially that damn ending.
Alan Moore’s praises don’t need to be sung. His reputation is well known and well earned. Brian Bolland on the other hand deserves as much credit as he can get for the beautiful art in this book. Bollands attention to detail, with the way he conveys the characters emotions, is just as responsible for the narrative flow of The Killing Joke as Moore is.
If you love Batman and have never read The Killing Joke, you are cheating yourself out of one of the best Batman stories ever written.
Did I say before that this wasn’t really a Batman story? Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another.
To quote the Joker : “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”