THE KILLING JOKE: TWENTY YEARS LATER
|"Batman: The Killing Joke,"
Third Printing Cover
Once upon a long time ago, around 1984 really, the great British artist known as Brian Bolland had intended to jam with the emerging talents of fan favorite writer Alan Moore on an eagerly anticipated Batman and Judge Dredd team-up project. Immediately, there was some behind-the-scene friction at the IPC offices (Dredd's publisher then) that chiefly helped ground the idea of this crossover. Soon after, Len Wein (Moore's editor on "Watchmen" and "Swamp Thing") had intrigued Moore with an offer to pen a standalone tale with Batman. Still very eager to work with the talented Mr. Bolland, the author discussed this new alternate project on which they could collaborate together. While the mere mention of Batman probably had lured him in already, it was Brian who suggested that The Joker be the principal in this yarn that they were about to spin. Embracing his friend's suggestion, Alan got to work on the perfect synopsis for his story that was tailored for his artist and the instant approval of the DC brass.
When Moore fully completed the story, Bolland began to stage the tale and draw from the massive 128 page manuscript that would serve as his trusted guide – but the book would hit its first major hurdle with the departure of its initial editor, Wein. Recently departed from Marvel Comics, the distinguished Denny O'Neil – the writer who modernized Batman in the seventies and one of the best ever to chronicle the character -- was DC's newest editorial addition and would inherit the Batman line of comics, including "The Killing Joke." But the editor couldn't fully focus on the Moore/Bolland book because there were more pressing matters in the eagerly anticipated works of Frank Miller on "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Batman: Year One," both more than underway. These books would be important in capturing the new atmosphere that he was trying to set with the character. Knowingly, the new editorial resurgence would help ready the audience's awareness of the mature themes and darker direction that were underway for the caped crusader and his infamous rogue's gallery.
|Who's That Boy? Illustration by Brian Bolland for the United Kingdom Comic Art Convention program of 1987 in anticipation of "The Killing Joke."|
Regardless of what was happening (or wasn't), Bolland invested everything he had into the artwork of this story. Everything that he had learned to that point (and more) can be seen in the storytelling of even the tiniest minutia of any single panel, making each a work of art. His meticulous eye for detail would allow only for perfection on this one. In an interview for my book "True Brit," I asked Brian about the challenge of "Killing Joke." "Well, I think one of the challenges was this: it was me saying this is what I want to do, this is my choice of character and my top choice of writer and this is where all the planets have aligned and this is something I wanted to stand out as a kind of milestone in my career," said Bolland. "There was that sort of sense that this is the best I can do and will ever do. And I just wanted it to live up to my expectations of it."
By the fall of 1987, DC finally put "The Killing Joke" on schedule for a 1988 release date as a logical choice for a graphic novel with the same dimensions, high production standards and modest pricing that the mainstream hit "The Dark Knight Returns" made popular. Fresh off "Watchmen," John Higgins was brought in to provide the somber hues of the story while Bolland focused more on providing the finishing touches necessary to get the book out on schedule. Ironically, the release of "The Killing Joke" would stand as the final official work by Alan Moore for DC Comics after he experienced a major falling out with the company and its politics. Needless to say, the brilliance of the book was a smashing success that caught the fancy of all that read it. Brutal, riveting, graphic, intense -- it was all of that as it quickly became one of the most quintessential tales of all Batman stories.
|Years before the classic book, Bolland illustrated Mr. J in a vintage ad for Comics Showcase, a London comic book store.|
During a 2002 interview I had with Alan Moore, he relayed some valid concerns that he had with the story. Alan explained, "What I don't like about it – really, you know I should apologize to Brian, because I've always tried to stress that Brian's artwork is wonderful on that book and it was lovely to see. The only problem I've got with it is my writing. And I think that the problem was that I wrote it while I was writing 'Watchmen,' or just after. But, I was still too close to 'Watchmen,' I was bringing the same storytelling approach to Batman as I had for 'Watchmen.' I was bringing the same kind of quite grim, moral sensibility to Batman. I think that the reason I'd ended up doing the Batman story was because the original idea had been, 'Do something with Brian.' I knew that Brian – I think he said at the time that he fancied doing a Batman story but that really what he fancied was a Joker story. So I did my best to come up with what I thought was the quintessential Batman/Joker story. I think that the fact that it was being taken as a graphic novel also got on my nerves… I mean there's never been such a thing as a 48-page graphic novel."
Seemingly sexually assaulted and fatally shot by The Joker, Barbara Gordon's world would never be the same after this novella. How did DC management allow the fate of poor innocent Batgirl to come down to this? "Remember," O'Neil emphasized, "we were not as concerned with canon back then, or with continuity. I thought of 'The Killing Joke' as a stand-alone story, not necessarily as part of the ongoing month-to-month stuff. The way it has worked out, it has become a very strong and valid part of the continuity, and Barbara Gordon has been transformed from a kind of third-string costumed character to a really interesting first-string whatever it is she is, and that's thanks to John Ostrander, who had the idea of Oracle. And she's a much better character as Oracle than she ever was as Batgirl."
|The original credits prior to John Higgins arrival as the colorist for the original release of the book in 1988 on this detail from page 4.|
O'Neil added, "You know, we're not in the business of giving anybody nightmares. I would not have wanted a small child to be exposed to 'The Killing Joke,' and we just made a tactical error. There are some of my colleagues that get very incensed at the idea of any labels being put on things. They see it, I think, as some First Amendment issue. And I don't, at all. It's just like a warning flag, and it says, 'Hey, Mom and Dad. Take a look at this. You may decide it is fine for your kid. Okay, great. You may decide it's not a good idea for your kid. Equally great! But just take five minutes and have a look at it.' I think that's doing them a service, and I would never under any circumstances say, 'No, it shouldn't be published. This is wrong, this is immoral, this doesn't belong in the public prints.' No, everything belongs in the public prints, but it's fair to let people know what they're in for."
For me, personally, the ending conversation between Batman and Joker makes this book the classic that it is. Seeing Batman extend his hand with a sincere offer to rehabilitate his greatest villain -- only to be refused by The Joker in a rare moment of clear sanity -- was utterly intriguing. Mr. J revokes the sheer audacity of any possible betterment because he's so fargone, to his equally psychotic nemesis. The semblance of everyman normality wasn't something that he ever wanted to endure again. In the closing moments, The Joker delivers a really trite joke that allows him and Batman to share probably the only laugh they'll ever have together. We'll never know exactly what made them laugh so hysterically. In my eyes, that laugh is basically telling the readers that Batman and Joker understand that theirs is a cat-and-mouse game that'll never end, and that they'll be dancing this dance until they are both dust. Like Tom and Jerry, they will always tango again and again with no end in sight. It's all one big joke.
|A classic moment of pure insanity from within the story.|
Interestingly enough, the writer leaves a window open when the Joker utters lines like "Remembering's dangerous" or "Memory's so treacherous." Perhaps he isn't even telling the full truth about his own origin due to his madness. There's a great possibility that we really learned nothing about him. "He's like a writer in that respect, then," O'Neil stated. "The first woman I married said that she never heard a writer tell something exactly as it happened, and I kind of scoffed at that at the time. Thinking about it now, yeah, she's right. We always have a tendency to make it a good story. And I try not to do that anymore, in reaction partially to what's happening politically in this country, where truth doesn't seem to count for anything anymore."
Special Thanks to Denny O'Neil, Steven Tice and Eric Nolen-Weathington. And thanks to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland for creating this classic book.