With the animated adaptation coming out, it seemed like a good time to revisit Batman: The Killing Joke. After rereading it, I find myself thinking, yes, it is possible for a book to be both brilliant and terrible.
Of course, this series of reviews focuses exclusively on good comic books, those that would rate a B+ or better. And yes, The Killing Joke is a great graphic novel. I’ll address the justifiably controversial part and move on.
What happens to Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) is terrible. Without getting into specifics, an excellent heroine is sacrificed to test a man’s strength of character (her father, Commissioner Gordon). The biggest problem with this is that it contributes to an unfortunate trend—hurting female characters to motivate male characters. If it just happened once in a while, and if the reverse also happened about as frequently, then it wouldn’t be as big a deal (though still a waste of Batgirl in this case). As part of a trend, though, it makes for an uncomfortable read. Plus, this is a pivotal, traumatic event in Batgirl’s life, and she’s barely a supporting character in the story. It reeks of sexism.
But as a Batman/Joker/Commissioner Gordon story, The Killing Joke is amazing, with a perfect premise—the Joker wants to prove that even a man as rational and normal as Jim Gordon is only one bad day away from going as insane as he is. Flashbacks to Joker’s own “one bad day” are carefully placed throughout, though the book is delightfully ambiguous about whether the Joker’s origin story is true or if it’s an invention of his crazy brain.
Alan Moore’s script is full of memorable, insightful dialogue and strong, well-earned moments, and Brian Bolland’s art is nothing short of fantastic, the drawings themselves as well as the structure of the page layouts. Even a simple nine-panel grid feels fluid and dynamic because of how Bolland stages the scene. These characters act, and it all feels so cinematic.
I can’t think of any other comic that makes me want to simultaneously throw it across the room and praise it as a work of art. But The Killing Joke achieves that distinction, which is twisted, really, like the Joker himself.
One more thing—KEEP YOUR KIDS AWAY FROM THIS BOOK. Not every Batman book is appropriate for kids, and this is one of the least appropriate Bat-books ever. There’s a reason the cartoon adaptation is rated R.
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Brian Bolland
Publisher: DC Comics
How to Read It: back issues; Comixology
Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY! NO EXCEPTIONS!