The Joke’s on Me

Over the years I’ve written several times in this space about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ infamous graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE, and about my ambivalence toward it. Back in 2003, I had this to say:

But DC wasn’t finished darkening up the Batman character. In the graphic novel BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, by writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland, the Joker unwittingly deprives Batman of another of his charges, when he shoots Barbara Gordon at point-blank range, paralyzing her from the waist down, in an attempt to drive Commissioner James Gordon insane, to prove that anyone is just “one bad day” away from madness.


While the book was critically acclaimed at its release, time has not been kind to it. Looking at it now, it seems unrelentingly dark and negative, and very much a product of the times, when “grim and gritty” were the buzzword in comics. The sequences which illustrate the Joker’s origin, showing a frustrated and failing comedian struggling to support his family and then devastated by their loss, hold up rather well, and remain the high point of the book. However, the primary storyline, with the Joker emotionally tormenting Jim Gordon with photos of his daughter’s assault, come across as gratuitous and in poor taste. Even Moore himself admits it’s his least favorite of his DC works, stating that it doesn’t really have anything to say, and in that I’d have to agree. However, the truly gorgeous art by Brian Bolland is reason alone to peruse it at least once.

When the book was re-released in a recolored version in 2008, I had this to say:

Readers with good memories may recall a couple of years back in my le-heh-engthy series of Batman columns, how I was of decidedly mixed opinions on the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE. While there was no denying the absolute craft with which it was created, both in Moore’s brutal yet intricate and almost wistful script, and Bolland’s gorgeous renderings, at times it feels needlessly violent, gratuitously so, as if it’s shocking and disturbing merely for the sake of being shocking and disturbing.

I’m sorry to say, I’m of no more decided mind about the work now than I was three years ago. What has changed is the work itself, thanks to the new BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE: THE DELUXE EDITION.


Completely recolored by artist Brian Bolland, the book, which once had a vivid, sickly color palette that gave the whole affair the look of a terrifying hallucination, now has a far more subdued, stark and realistic approach to color. Where once the sequences of Jim Gordon and the Joker in the dilapidated amusement park were saturated with reds and oranges, now it’s all rendered in much more of a cold, harsh blue and black.


Similarly, the flashback sequences to the Joker’s origin, which once had almost a sepia tint as if to convey the fond memories of happier times, now are painted in a strict, unforgiving black and white, in which only a single element is granted color in each panel.


While I’m uncertain which is the better approach, the exercise as a whole serves a brilliant reminder in just how important the colorist’s role is in the creation of a comic. I hadn’t realized just how much of the book’s mood was conveyed through John Higgins’ decisions on the original KILLING JOKE, and it’s startling to see how much Bolland’s re-do has altered that mood.

Also altered is the art itself, as Bolland has gone through and tinkered with the artwork throughout as he re-colored the book, adding additional feathering and layering in some places, and completely re-drawing faces in others. The most easily noticeable example is Batman himself, who now bears the current-style uniform shirt with the black bat against a gray background, as opposed to the yellow-oval bat-symbol that appeared in the original. What hasn’t altered is the art’s overall impact, especially in Bolland’s rendering of the Joker. What I’ve always preferred about Bolland’s portrayal here is that he isn’t afraid to show the Joker not smiling.


There are scenes here in which the Joker is emoting and monologuing, and seems to hit an emotional chord somewhere in his own damaged psyche, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t suddenly come across as sympathetic, in a sad and twisted way, and nearly all of that conveyed through Bolland’s pencil. And then, in only a matter of panels, Bolland can turn it all around and deliver perhaps the most frightening image of the Joker I’ve ever seen.


I still don’t know if I like THE KILLING JOKE or not. But it remains one of the most powerful books in the Batman library.

At the core of my ambivalence about the book has always been its ending, which always felt to me out of character, with Batman and the Joker sharing a laugh over a joke, as the police arrive to haul Joker back to Arkham after his latest atrocity, which left Barbara Gordon paralyzed and her father brutalized and emotionally scarred. Too bad I’d been misreading the ending all this time, as was revealed last week on Kevin Smith’s FATMAN ON BATMAN podcast, in his interview with Grant Morrison, in which he casually mentions how no one ever understands the ending. Listen for yourself, at about the 1:07:35 mark:

Says Morrison, “That’s why it’s called The Killing Joke. The Joker tells the ‘Killing Joke’ at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge.”

And I look at the page, and I think he’s right.


This solves almost all of my problems with the book. The accelerated level of violence and cruelty make much more sense in the context of it being the final battle between Batman and the Joker, and what before seemed like an uncharacteristic, unsatisfying ending now reads as chilling and poetic, as the Joker has finally pushed Batman to the brink. Someone asked me if this interpretation makes the book less relevant, since it relegates it to the status of an “imaginary story,” and not in continuity. Well, I responded, since thanks to the New 52, every DC story I’ve ever loved is now just an imaginary story, why should adding one more make any difference?

As Alan Moore himself once wrote, “This is an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?”


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