THE KILLING JOKE: TWENTY YEARS LATER
It feels like there have been millions of Batman stories published since the character's inception in 1939. And by now The Joker, his archenemy, must be pretty close to approaching that milestone, too. Yet, have you ever wondered how many of these stories have really stood the test of time? Sure, there are hundreds of finely tuned stories by a who's who of fantastic creators. With your permission to speak frankly, how many would you dare call a true classic? If G-Men were to come to your home to take you away with your one precious Batman book, which would you take with you? Without a sweat or a tear, I'd bring my copy of "Batman: The Killing Joke" and face the music.
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.
For almost two years, Bolland worked on the illustration end at basically his own pace with little interaction from his editor. All of this would leave Bolland pondering about the book's status; sometimes he would even think that if he heard some news that he would have worked a little more diligently. "Well, yeah, that's probably true," Denny O'Neil said. "That was a problem I had as an editor and I'd probably have the same problem if I went back to editing today. I did not want to be in anybody's face. So I tried to hire people who were professional enough to more or less do what they said they were going to do. And I hated that business of calling and pressuring the guy, 'When are you going to do it? When are you going to get it done?' With other artists, against a monthly deadline, that was something I and virtually every editor I know, that was part of our workday, and it was an awful part… One of the great mysteries of editing is there is no right way to do it and the guys who spend a lot of time interacting on a personal level with their freelancers, if that gets the work done, if that gets good work and everybody's happy, then that's the right way for them to do it."
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.
At the core, the book is the only solid attempt to properly tell the Joker's unglamorous origins and, perhaps, the seeming motivation to his evil persona. Many readers were surprised to read about a Joker that was once a mere impoverished man that had a loving wife, pregnant with son, which he tragically lost. Some readers couldn't help having some sympathy for the humbling plight of this failed comedian; other readers had a hard time with what they perceived as an attempt to humanize the cold blooded murderer they've come to know over the years. "Well, given my belief system," O'Neil explained, "I think that dig deep enough and we're all brothers under the skin. There's going to be a reason. I mean, I guess if I have a religion, I'm not sure I do, it's Buddhism, which ascribes evil to ignorance. And one of the great Buddhist leaders is a guy named Thich Nhat Hanh, who is a Vietnamese monk, and he says given different circumstances of his child rearing, he'd have ended up as a pirate who murders and rapes. I kind of believe that. I mean, I've come to think of the Joker as one of the mythological trickster figures. Whatever's wrong with him is so completely wrong and bizarre that nobody will ever figure him out. He acts totally capriciously. In my casting of him, he can be occasionally capable of irrational kindness, as well as irrational viciousness. But I think he's the greatest trickster villain in all of literature, with maybe Hannibal Lecter as a close second."
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."
There was a vocal minority that expressed their grievances with the book's overall tone by directly letting its editor hear it. O'Neil remembered, "We made one marketing mistake, and that was that everybody assumed that the price point... This was, after all, a five dollar comic book. There weren't such critters back then, and we thought that would keep it out of the hands of kids. I mean, it's a strong story. I wouldn't want a five-year-old to read it. What we did not count on was that grandmothers and people like that buy the things. It's Batman. They see that on Saturday morning TV. 'Nothing wrong with Batman… that's good, wholesome entertainment.' So they give their grandchildren this thing where somebody's shot in the spine, and possibly sexually assaulted, and there's madness and vengeance. And they call the editor. And I was sympathetic to them."
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.
After "The Killing Joke," there's almost really no point to ever read another Batman comic. It's all in this book: a cool and calculated Batman that's determined to bring The Joker in by the book, regardless of the villain's cold-blooded cruelty to his friends, Commissioner Gordon and Batgirl. With an ending that perfectly resonates all the limitations of superheroes and their repetitive genre. All of this masterfully told by two of the best creators to have ever worked in the art of comics. Who could ask for anything more? Who could ever read another Batman and Joker comic after that? Who would screw with utter perfection? No one will ever come close to this story that works on so many levels. Ironically, it hasn't aged an iota in twenty years.
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.