Comic Review: “Batman: The Killing Joke – The Deluxe Edition (HC)”

Any comics book fan reading this blog will undoubtedly have heard of this one, a graphic novel widely considered to be the greatest Joker story ever told, so popular in fact that it was considered canon in regards to what happens to Barbara Gordon even though that wasn’t the original intention. It’s a pretty simple tale: the Joker goes out of his way to prove to Commissioner Gordon that anyone can be driven insane like him if they have a bad enough day, and we see what his bad day seemingly was as Batman tries to stop him from his sick plan. Although I’ve only actually read one other Batman story in which the Joker is the primary antagonist, ye olde comic, A Death in the Family in which he (through the voting of readers, I might add) murders the original Robin, Jason Todd, I do doubt that this is the finest Joker story ever told. It’s better than A Death in the Family, and its sequel which I also own, but I’m not sure it’s better than any of the other Batman graphic novels sitting in my collection, and I’m certain that it’s not worthy of all the praise it gets, both as a Joker story and a Batman one.

Before we get into that, however, I do want to take a moment to explain why this hardcover book is called The Deluxe Edition.  You’ve got a few new things here in addition to the rather short story (the story itself is 46 pages, and these extras don’t add that much – it’s certainly the shortest book of any sort that I own): an introduction from Tim Sale, who’s coincidentally the artist in the next series of books I intend to read; an afterword from the artist of this story, Brian Bolland; a story called “An Innocent Guy” written and illustrated by Bolland, reprinted from Batman: Black and White (another coincidence, since I read another story from that series in my last book review) and now in colour; then two measly pages of sketches. It’s not much, is it? You might even hesitate to buy this at the fairly hefty price that it goes for, but there is one saving grace: the whole thing’s been recoloured, and every page changed in some minor way according to the afterword, by Brian Bolland, reflecting his original vision.

You see, in the comic’s original format, which is how I first read it, it was coloured by John Higgins. It looked amazing with all its vibrant colours, but perhaps not very realistic, and it’s this approach that Bolland takes here. But, to be honest, I’m not sure which I prefer. Yes, Higgins’ colours do look out of place sometimes – just far too colourful for this bleak story – but I always thought they worked really well in the carnival scenes which make up the majority of this book, which comes to life as some kind of funfair from hell. And, besides, though it’s not always suitable, I really love bright colours everywhere, even in darker stories such as this.

But there’s nothing wrong with Bolland’s approach either, which is where my favour splits. Funnily enough, he makes the opposite mistake of Higgins – his colours are too dull at times, too realistic, at least by my standards. The major difference which I should point out is that the flashback sequences of the Joker’s apparent origin are washed out, the only real colour being on one object during an entire sequence, such as his helmet and cape as Red Hood. It’s a neat idea and certainly strengthens the transitions between the present and past to really set them apart from one another, and culminates in this amazing page at least, which definitely looks better than the original, but I do miss Higgin’s colours through the rest of the sequences prior to this one and indeed the rest of the book in other areas.

Other than that, though, you’ve got the same story. And it’s a simple story but, like I said, surely not the best Joker one, or one of the best Batman ones, particularly since this has problems that people tend to avoid when talking about it, probably because it has Alan Moore’s name on it and that guy can do no wrong. Except he has, and admitted so himself in this case. To quote: ” I’ve never really liked my story in The Killing Joke. I think it put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it. It was too nasty, it was too physically violent. There were some good things about it, but in terms of my writing, it’s not one of me favorite pieces.”

What I would like to draw attention to in order to explain my biggest complaint with this story is what he says makes the story “nasty” and “too physically violent”. As I implied at the beginning of this post, something happens to Barbara Gordon resulted in her being forced to drop the mantle of Batgirl, and become Oracle instead. Most comic book fans will know what is, and it probably won’t bother them that much, but it still pisses me off. The Joker shoots her, paralzying her for the next twenty-odd years that it took for DC to reboot the character in their New 52 lineup (although, even revived by Gail Simone back into her Batgirl role, this is still considered to be part of the character’s canon, and I’ll come back to it at the end), and then proceeds to take nude photos of her, which he shows to her father later on, once he’s kidnapped, beaten and humiliated him, just to prove his point.  Which is insane, yes, but as a piece of storytelling, very cheap and very rubbish – unnecessarily nasty and cruel, using the character of Barbara Gordon as no more than a plot device like that of the damsel in distress throughout video game history, and then punishing a good person like Commissioner Gordon by having him put in a dog collar as he’s forced to witness what the Joker’s done.

As Moore has since talked about – and I think even apologized for, presumably because this inspired other writers to take the same approach, which got stale fast – some of his work in superhero comics such as this has been pretty cynical, where the hero loses but not before watching bad things happen to good people. Which isn’t always a bad thing. Look at Moore’s own Watchmen, a comic, forever a masterpiece, in which the good guys have already lost before they even get to the villain. Or look at John Wagner’s Judge Dredd: America, where the character you’re really rooting for loses the one thing he cares about in a tragic twist of events. Then look at the responses of the characters in both stories. In Watchmen, the other superheroes reluctantly accept what the villain has done, yet the unstable Rorschach, never compromising like a real hero, dies trying to stop him, but not before doing something that goes unnoticed by everyone else, possibly outsmarting them and “winning” after all. In America, the character Bennett Beeny, with the most realistic outlook on his life under rule of the Judges of Mega City One, does something kind of mental in a rather shocking plot twist, yet still retains that what America, his love, fought for was the right thing, and “wins” in the sequels to the story when his daughter becomes a Cadet of the Judges, applying changes to their corrupt system like her father wished of her, even though he’s dead by that point.

The same approach doesn’t work here, though, simply because the hero of this piece, unlike those in my examples, does something that just isn’t right, not after what’s happened to his good friend and that man’s daughter: he offers to forgive the Joker, to come to an agreement with this madman, to help “rehabilitate him”, and then shares a laugh with him at a joke meant to say that Batman’s offer isn’t realistic. Sure, you could point out that Gordon urges him to have the Joker handled “by the book”, or you could point towards the ambiguous ending in which it’s been theorized – and as Bolland teases in his afterword – that Batman kills the Joker. But here’s the thing: there’s a difference between having someone taken into custody, by the book of police procedure, and offering them your sympathy as you do so, and having a laugh with them on top of that; and whether the Batman kills the Joker or not afterwards isn’t relevant – it’s too late, which is funnily enough exactly what the Joker’s first response to Batman’s offer is, before the joke. Because what’s most sad about this ending is that it completely goes against what’s happened beforehand in the story that Moore and Bolland have built. How can Batman completely deny the Joker’s idea that he’s as insane as him several pages beforehand, yet then try to come to terms with him as if he were his equal, who understands what drove him to be who he is, and can help cure him?

To drive home my point, let me say this: you could shorten that whole paragraph by simply stating, “It just isn’t like Batman”. As Moore also said in that quote above, Batman as a character isn’t designed for the way he’s presented in this. Is it like Batman to offer the Joker a mutual agreement, like he does at the beginning of this story to the fake Joker? Possibly he might, sure. In fact, it’s even a good set up for when he repeats this conversation in his head as he’s fighting the Joker, after learning what he’s done to Barbara, as if to say, “I can’t believe I offered to help this sick bastard earlier on”. But is it like him to make this offer, quite seriously, twice, and to do so no less after the Joker’s put his friend’s daughter in a wheelchair, and tortured the friend himself? I don’t think so, and I don’t think Moore was pleased with it either in retrospect. It appears Bolland feels the same too, judging by the little he says about the script he received during his afterword.

And to be honest, reading my thoughts at this juncture of the review, it’s tempting to end this here and now, urging you not to buy this book – to look towards other, better Batman stories instead, of which there’s plenty to be found. And that would be a perfectly fine way to end an assessment of this book because it really isn’t as amazing as all the praise would have you believe. However, as Moore himself also admits in the same quote above yet again, there are some positives here that could sway this into a recommendation, even if the writing itself isn’t terribly good, both in terms of what we see on the page and what we might find should we dig deeper, such as the cinematic presentation of the panels and hints towards other ways to interpret the story. For example, the Batman who surprises the Joker as Red Hood at the chemical plant clearly isn’t the same one, further emphasizing the implication that’s made that the Joker’s flashback sequences aren’t actually true, at least not completely. And of course there’s the mysterious ending which has been analysed to death by now, I imagine. But I digress. Talking about all that, which is interesting, don’t get me wrong, would mean another bunch of paragraphs on top of what we already have, or a separate post entirely, especially the ways you could interpret the meaning of the final page.

Instead, I’d like to simply mention a few things that possibly make this worth buying. First of all, though the story is as simple as you can get, and has its flaws, and just isn’t quality Moore, it’s not completely terrible. There are indeed some iconic moments in here for instance, not least of which is the conversation Batman has with the fake Joker at the beginning, or some of the fantastic shots of the Joker. Even the idea of Joker’s origin is handled well – as I’ve suggested, it’s not certain that what we’re witnessing is true, and the Joker makes an allusion towards telling multiple stories of his past, as if it’s an invention that he rebuilds. You also see Moore toy around with structure as well, through the transitions between the past and present that I mentioned, and scenes happening one place being juxtaposed with another, such as Commissioner Gordon crashing through the horror-faced doors on a ghost train ride as Batman finds out where he is, all too late, however, as the final door opens to the waiting Joker, who’s already made him suffer enough by this point. That’s all not bad. Better, certainly, in other Moore graphic novels – From Hell instantly springs to mind, for instance – but still not bad.

The other, and bigger, reason that you should consider picking this up for, however, is Brian Bolland’s wonderful art. If you’ve heard the name Brian Bolland (and you should have, as he’s glorious) then you’ll probably link the name to that artist who drew that amazing cover or another. Indeed, he’s a distinguished cover artist who’s spent most of his career doing them. This is one of few actual stories he’s been the artist of. In fact, the only other two I can think of are Camelot 3000, which I swear my dad must have bought for the art alone, and his work in Judge Dredd in its early days, the highlight of which is easily Judge Death Lives, the story which introduced the other three Dark Judges into Dredd’s world and featured what I believe to be one of the most immortal panels in comic history, let alone Judge Dredd history. And it’s a shame these are all I can think of because he’s just as incredibly talented as an interior artist as he is a cover one.

Between Judge Death Lives and this, it’s really difficult to decide which is the better. The character designs are better in the former I suppose, which isn’t really surprising, but I think this story has many more iconic shots, from the reveal of our unnamed comedian slowly breaking into hysterical laughter at his own reflection after falling in the water at the chemical plant until he becomes the Joker, to even small shots like him sitting on a throne mounted atop baby dolls, which found its way into Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum in a similar fashion (mannequin pieces, which is close enough), such is how memorable it is – that’s how amazing his artwork is here. It may only be a 46 page story, but every panel is just as it should be, and there’s a lot of fantastic images here that will stay with you, which is no small feat to pull off.

So consider picking the book up above all else for the artwork, though take into account, of course, that the colouring is by Bolland too in this edition. Unfortunately, you won’t find the original printings of the book with John Higgins’ colouring on sale anywhere, at least not at a cheap price. As I said, though, it’s difficult to tell if one’s truly better than the other since the two kind of even themselves out with the way one is too bright in some places, and the other unduly dull. This certainly isn’t the better just because it has the inclusion of an extra story and two pages of sketches, I might add. In fact, those are a little disappointing. The story is of someone fantasizing about killing Batman, an interesting idea but not particularly memorable; and the sketches are hardly anything, which is the bigger disappointment since the art is, as I say, so brilliant that you’re left wanting more.

Overall then, this is a difficult one to recommend.  Of course, if you were to actually find this review, it’d only be under the hundreds that praise it, at which point you’d have probably already made your decision. It’s really quite a shame that this book hasn’t received more criticism, at least where it deserves it. The only good that’s actually come out of its childish temper tantrum towards superhero comics is ironically to do with Barbara being put in a wheelchair. When DC had Gail Simone relaunch the character as Batgirl for New 52, a number of fans were actually quite upset that she wouldn’t be the paralyzed Oracle anymore, seeing her as one of few truly powerful disabled characters in comics, which is admittedly a perspective I hadn’t considered before.

It doesn’t change the fact that Moore shouldn’t have crippled her in the first place, but I can certainly see why the decision saddened those fans with and without disabilities of their own who had been used to her as Oracle for quite a long time, and loved her for the endurance and determination she’s shown as that character – indeed, saw her as a role model. It certainly is good when a character that’s been put through the meat grinder like that makes the best of it, and moves on with their life, in this case even continuing her fight against crime; and it’s great that there are those who will stand up in defense to such a major change to a character after so many years. And I like that Gail Simone has taken advantage of her being shot having happened, not by simply turning Batgirl into a woman who gets frightened at the sight of a gun every single time she sees one, but one who has apparently developed through that back into her real self by volume 3 of the series. At some point, I’m probably going to buy and read that (because god knows I can’t seem to stop buying comics), and I’ll be incredibly disappointed if this very human PTSD and her path through it isn’t true at all.

But, anyway, there you have it. My longest review thus far, for the shortest book I own. Coming soon is Haunted Knight, from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, and I might review its three stories in three separate parts, depending on how much I feel I have to say about them. No doubt it’ll be the book after that, The Long Halloween, that I’ll really have a lot to say about though, it being Harvey Dent’s origin story – the one that Christopher Nolan used to a certain extent in The Dark Knight.

Until next time.

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