Batman: The Killing Joke – a reappraisal

The recent controversy over artist Rafael Albuquerque’s proposed variant cover for Batgirl #41 (you can read all about it on Comic Book Resources) has prompted me to take another look at the story that inspired it.

Batman: The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland and colored by John Higgins.  It was originally released by DC Comics in early 1988.  To say that it was a sales success would be an understatement; by the time I purchased a copy of it two years later it was already on its sixth printing.

Batman The Killing Joke cover

For a long time I considered The Killing Joke to be one of the all-time greatest Batman stories ever told.  Along with Year One, I must have read it at least a dozen times when I was in high school.

It’s been a few years, though, since I last looked at The Killing Joke.  Yesterday I pulled my copy off the bookshelf and read it again, hoping to approach it with a fresh eye.  In certain respects I found it to still be amazing; in other respects previously minor flaws suddenly seemed much more apparent to me.

I still think the basic concept is great.  The Joker recalls his (possible) origin, when he was an average guy who was futilely attempting a career as a stand-up comedian, a depressed mope who felt like a failure to his pregnant wife.  Desperate to provide for his family, he agreed to help a pair of crooks rob the playing card company next to the chemical plant where he used to be employed.  Then, in the space of 24 hours, everything in his life catastrophically falls apart.  And at the end of the day he is transformed forevermore into Batman’s insane arch-nemesis.

The Joker becomes obsessed with the idea that “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”  He embarks on a scheme to drive Commissioner James Gordon crazy by completely destroying his life in order to prove his point, and not just to himself, but also to Batman, who he is convinced must have also had “one bad day” that resulted in him becoming an obsessed costumed vigilante.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 7

Moore’s scripting on The Killing Joke is fantastic.  His dialogue for the Joker is brilliantly twisted, humorous in the sickest way possible.  I absolutely love the first scene with the Joker where he is somberly reflecting on how the out-of-business carnival he wishes to purchase is a decrepit, hazardous wreck, only to turn around and, grinning ear-to-ear, announce “I’m crazy for it.”

Moore also writes Batman especially well.  He is a brooding, driven figure, yet also an introspective one.  Beneath his obsession with stopping the Joker is a concern that the two of them are locked in a spiral of self-destruction, and that sooner or later one or the other will inevitably end up dead.  Despairingly he asks “How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?”

The Killing Joke shows that Batman and the Joker are mirror images of one another, both very much alike and complete opposites.  A young Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered in front of him and dedicated the rest of his life to restoring order to his existence, to doing everything in his power to protect other innocents and punish criminals.  Likewise, something happened to the Joker and his life totally collapsed.  Unlike Batman, though, the Joker’s response to this was to descend into insanity, and to actively work to drag the entire world down with him, to tear down society, to perpetuate utter chaos.

Of course, Moore then sweeps aside the Joker’s argument by having Jim Gordon emerge intact from the hell he has been subjected to.  Yes, thanks to the Joker this has probably been the absolute worst day of Gordon’s entire life.  But the Commissioner is still very much in possession of his sanity.  When Batman heads into the carnival funhouse to capture the Joker, Gordon gives him firm instructions…

“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 our way works!”

Much as Frank Miller did in Year One, Moore demonstrates in The Killing Joke that, in his own way, Gordon is just as strong, perhaps even stronger, than Batman.  Gordon is the one who doesn’t take refuge behind a mask to operate outside the law.  Instead, Gordon is the one who chooses to remain part of a corrupt, flawed system and attempts to fix it from within.  And he doesn’t retreat from life, but works to maintain family & friendships in the face of the horrors that Gotham City continually throws in his face.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 38

The artwork by Brian Bolland on The Killing Joke is astonishing.  It is exquisitely detailed.  Bolland’s layouts and storytelling are incredibly dramatic.  He does superb work telling the story, transitioning from one scene to another.

Bolland is an incredible artist, but he is also not an especially fast one.  He is very meticulous, and so usually works as a cover artist, or drawing short stories for anthology books.  The Killing Joke is one of the longest stories Bolland ever drew outside of the Judge Dredd serials he worked on in 2000 AD and the Camelot 3000 miniseries he penciled.  As I understand it, Bolland spent some amount of time completing The Killing Joke.  It really appears that the time & energy he put into it were worth it, because the finished artwork is stunning.

The coloring by John Higgins is also extremely effective.  It definitely plays a key role in establishing the mood & atmosphere of this story.

So, having explained what I think is amazing about The Killing Joke, what is it that does not work for me?  To put it bluntly and simply, I really am not happy with the treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl.

I don’t know what the exact behind-the-scenes circumstances were at DC Comics’ editorial in the mid-1980s.  Apparently post-Crisis either no one wanted to use the character of Batgirl, or there was an active directive to write her out of the Batman books.  So when Moore came along with his dramatic plans for Barbara he was given the green light with no resistance from editorial.

A specific, key component of the Joker’s plan to drive Gordon insane is through torturing his daughter Barbara.  Specifically, the Joker shoots Barbara in the spine, crippling her from the waist down.  Apparently the Joker intended to inflict precisely that damage on her, because he immediately begins making tasteless jokes about it.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 15

After the Joker’s goons drag Gordon away, the Joker undresses the gravely-wounded Barbara and takes photos of her.  Later on, when Gordon is his prisoner at the carnival, the Joker forces him to view numerous blown-up photographs of the naked, humiliated Barbara.

As a teenager reading The Killing Joke, what happened to Barbara annoyed me.  At that time I was just upset that she had been placed in a wheelchair and could no longer be Batgirl.  It seemed like a waste of a character and an unfortunate thing to do to a hero who had been around since the 1960s.

Looking at The Killing Joke now, though, I am much more unsettled by Moore’s treatment of Barbara.  The scene in the funhouse with the photos of her is genuinely disturbing.

This is probably going to be the most inappropriate analogy possible, but this reminds me of Tom & Jerry.  When I was five years old I loved the Tom & Jerry cartoon.  I watched it on TV every single day.  I could not get enough of Tom & Jerry.  Then, inevitably, I got older, and I my interests changed.  Then about two decades later when I was in my mid-20s I started seeing reruns of Tom & Jerry on Cartoon Network, and I was surprised at how incredibly violent they were.  I could not believe that I had watched these as a little kid and not come away warped by them… hmmm, then again, maybe I did.

Well, I’ve had that same sort of experience with The Killing Joke.  Re-reading it in 2015 at the age of 38, aspects of it that flew under my radar as a teenager now leap out at me as appalling.

In the past I have heard some people describe what the Joker did to Barbara as “rape.”  I was one of those people who argued that nothing sexual actually happened.  The thing is, though, looking at it again now it is definitely a form of sexual assault.  The Joker shoots Barbara, takes off her clothes and photographs her while she is completely helpless.  That must have been an incredibly horrifying, humiliating experience.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 26

In hindsight, this falls into the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon that Gail Simone documented early in her career, wherein a villain kills or tortures a female character solely to make a male hero suffer.  That is definitely the case here.  The Joker doesn’t even know that Barbara is Batgirl.  He cripples and sexually humiliates her because he wants to drive Commissioner Gordon insane.  And the Joker is only doing that in order to prove a point to Batman, which makes the torture that Barbara experienced even more indirectly related to the protagonist.

I really cannot help but wonder if The Killing Joke could have worked better if Moore had approached it differently, if he had not done what he did to Barbara.  At the very least, Moore could have just had Barbara wounded by the Joker and left the door open for her recovery and return to the role of Batgirl so that she could once again be a hero instead of a victim.

Credit where credit is due: writers John Ostrander & Kim Yale, who were upset at Barbara Gordon’s treatment in The Killing Joke, successfully revamped her into the computer hacker & information broker Oracle in the pages of Suicide Squad.  Oracle soon became a key member of Batman’s supporting cast.  In the Birds of Prey series first Chuck Dixon and then Gail Simone herself did great work with Barbara / Oracle.

When Barbara finally regained her ability to walk and resumed the identity of Batgirl in the New 52, Simone was again there to chronicle her adventures.  So fortunately, despite what happened to Barbara in The Killing Joke, other writers were able to make her an interesting, viable character again.

Suicide Squad 49 cover Oracle

Another aspect of The Killing Joke that I am not happy with is that it helped begin the escalation of the Joker into an unstoppable mass murderer.  It became a case of “Can you top this?”  The Killing Joke saw the Joker cripple Batgirl and try to drive Gordon insane.  Shortly after, in “A Death in the Family,” the Joker brutally murdered Jason Todd / Robin and attempted to poison the United Nations General Assembly at the behest of the Ayatollah Khomeini… no, really, that actually happened!  Since then there have been stories where the Joker mutilates newborn babies, runs over innocent people, attempts to blow up Gotham with a nuclear bomb and murders Jim Gordon’s wife Sarah, just to name a few atrocities.  It’s all culminated with the Joker cutting off his own face just to show us how evil and insane he is.

This is why I am generally not a fan of the Joker.  Yes, for most of his history the character has been a murderer.  But before the late 1980s the Joker wasn’t an indiscriminate killer.  His crimes, however horrible, were motivated by a certain sick humor and bizarre rationales.  Hell, even in The Killing Joke he isn’t going around murdering people left & right.  He kills one person, the owner of the carnival.  That’s it.  Despite that, Moore’s depiction of the Joker is one of the most frightening ever.

But again, this is yet another example of subsequent writers looking at the success & innovations of Moore’s work in the 1980s and totally taking the wrong lessons away.  Just as they did with Watchmen, later Batman writers looked at The Killing Joke and said “Let’s make the Joker and all of Batman’s other enemies completely insane and violent and have them murder lots of people! Grim & gritty is cool!”

Batman The Animated Series Joker

That’s probably why my favorite version of the Joker is actually from Batman: The Animated Series.  Because the audience for that series was all ages, the Joker could not be seen killing anyone.  That required the writers to actually be creative and come up with other ways in which to make the character scary.  Unlike in the comic books, The Animated Series couldn’t simply rely on mindless carnage to show us the Joker was insane and evil.

Besides, Mark Hamill was brilliant at voicing the Joker.  His portray of the character was perfect.  Even though The Killing Joke was published four years before The Animated Series made its debut, re-reading Alan Moore’s dialogue for the Joker, I can totally “hear” Hamill’s voice in my head.

Summing it all up, Batman: The Killing Joke is a good story with superb artwork.  However, there are nevertheless aspects of the writing that are undeniably problematic.  While I still like The Killing Joke, it definitely has some real flaws, especially its treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon.

Happy birthday to Luke McDonnell

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to comic book artist Luke McDonnell, who was born on July 19, 1959.  McDonnell did a fair amount of work for both Marvel and DC in the 1980s and 90s.  He has this rather gritty, atmospheric style that I have always enjoyed.  I guess if I had to make a comparison, it is a bit like Gene Colan.  I have always appreciated McDonnell’s work for possessing a distinctive appearance that set it apart from many of his contemporaries.

Some of McDonnell’s most well-known work was as the penciler on Iron Man in the early 1980s, during a lengthy story arc written by Denny O’Neil.  It had previously been established by David Michelinie & Bob Layton in their excellent “Demon in a Bottle” storyline that Tony Stark was an alcoholic.  At the conclusion of it, with the help of Bethany Cabe & Edwin Jarvis, Stark had put down the drink.

Of course, the thing about addiction is that there is no cure.  Recovery is an ongoing process, and you need to actively work one day at a time to maintain your sobriety.  When O’Neil came on as the writer of the series, he had one of Stark’s business rivals, Obadiah Stane, manipulate events from behind the scenes so that Stark suffered a number of personal & professional setbacks.  The result was that Stark fell off the wagon in a major way, going into a serious downward spiral that eventually resulted in him losing his entire fortune to Stane.  For a while there, Stark hit rock bottom, roaming the streets of Manhattan, homeless & drunk, before beginning the long, difficult climb back to recovery.  In the meantime, Stark’s best friend James Rhodes had to take on the identity of Iron Man, joining the Avengers and opposing Stane’s schemes.

Iron Man 182 cover

Luke McDonnell penciled the majority of this three year long arc.  His unflinchingly moody artwork was the perfect fit for this dark tale of Tony Stark’s fall & redemption.  One of those issues, #182, was recently voted the number seven position in The 25 Greatest Iron Man Stories Ever Told at Comic Book Resources.  Looking at the cover to that issue, you can see the stunningly dramatic power of McDonnell’s artwork.

I actually bought most of these Iron Man comics from out of the back issue bin.  The very first Iron Man issue that I ever read as a kid was #194 (May 1985), which featured dual tales of Stark and Rhodes.  By this point in time, Stark had regained his sobriety and constructed a makeshift set of armor.  Following a battle with a Godzilla-like creature, he plunges into the ocean, and we see him desperately trying to avoid drowning.  Meanwhile, Jim Rhodes, still in the regular Iron Man armor, while helping out Hank Pym with some experiments, is trapped in a bizarre alien dimension.  McDonnell did an excellent job at illustrating the parallel predicaments of the two Armored Avengers.

Iron Man 194 cover

After departing from Iron Man, McDonnell became the regular artist on Justice League of America.  I think that his work on JLA was definitely underrated, probably because he was chronicling the adventures of the rather unfairly maligned “Justice League Detroit” team.  In any case, JLA was soon cancelled to make way for the new Giffen & DeMatteis “bwah-ha-ha” version.  Luckily, McDonnell quickly moved over to a brand new title that was seemingly made to order for him.

Debuting in 1987, Suicide Squad was penned by the super-talented John Ostrander.  Once again, McDonnell’s artwork was an absolutely perfect fit.  With its premise of convicted supervillains drafted by the government to perform covert black ops missions, featuring amoral characters and political intrigue, McDonnell’s moody style was just right in establishing a dark, noir, suspenseful atmosphere.  McDonnell also penciled & inked the 1988 Deadshot miniseries written by Ostrander & his wife Kim Yale which spotlighted the Squad’s resident sharpshooter with a death wish.

(The first eight issues of Suicide Squad, along with Secret Origins #14, were collected in the 2011 trade paperback Trial By Fire.  Definitely pick up a copy.)

Suicide Squad TPB

In the 1990s, McDonnell continued to do work for DC, penciling issues of Armageddon: Inferno, Eclipso and Green Lantern: Mosaic.  He also drew a trio of stories for Marvel’s alternate reality series What If…?   Unfortunately, as with a number of other good, solid artists, by this time I think McDonnell’s  particular style was sort of falling out of favor, with editors preferring either “flashy” work along the lines of Liefeld and McFarlane, or Manga-inspired work.  He seemed to be getting fewer and fewer gigs.  The last couple of stories I recall seeing him do were Atom Special #2 in 1995 and Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #115 in 1999.  As always, McDonnell did his usual excellent work on both assignments.

I have been fortunate enough to meet McDonnell on a couple of occasions in the past.  I think the last time was about 14 years ago.  Back then, my primary original art focus was in obtaining sketches of Captain America.  I asked McDonnell for a sketch of Cap and, wow, did he do an absolutely amazing one.  I would love to get another sketch from him.  I’d probably ask him to do a drawing of Deadshot in my supervillains-themed sketchbook.

Captain America Luke McDonnell

Nowadays, I believe that Luke McDonnell is doing coloring work for IDW’s Popeye comic books.  I’m glad to see he is still employed, but I definitely hope that one of these days he has an opportunity to return to the drawing board.

In any case, happy birthday, Luke!  Hope there’s many more to come.