Since its original publication back in 1988, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s “Batman: The Killing Joke” has been called both the definitive Batman vs. Joker story and the greatest Joker story ever published. In fact, it’s even considered by some to be one of the greatest comics of all time. When it was first published, though, most of the discussion was centered on the scene where the Joker shot Barbara Gordon and the subsequent acts he committed against her, including the implication that he raped her, and that conversation rages on today. While the graphic novel was widely praised, the controversy overshadowed some of the comic’s other shortcomings and continues to do so today, and those elements of the story don’t stand up as well against today’s interpretation of Batman. Conversely, though, modern social sensibilities actually serve to heighten the story’s impact.
For decades, Batman has been established as a superhero who never kills, but this longstanding credo seems all-but-forgotten as early as the fifth page of “The Killing Joke,” where he acknowledges that he may kill his arch foe one day. This immediate implausibility, coupled with no directly established reason for even needing or wanting to visit his enemy in the first place, sets an initial tone of unlikeliness for the story. In the years since this story’s release, Batman’s doctrine has remained unchanged, even in today’s far more crowded pool of heroes. Many of these newer characters hold no such code, but Batman has remained steadfast, which makes his presumed willingness to take the Joker’s life all the more out-of-character when read today.
This lapse is passed over, though never really forgotten, by Moore’s superbly creepy, psychopathic characterization of the Clown Prince of Crime. Moore’s Joker is genuinely sinister and frightening — even more so than Frank Miller’s murderous interpretation in “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” — and could arguably be called the most deeply characterized version of the time. This is largely aided by the sympathetic spin Moore puts on the character, who gets a new retelling of his tragic origin.
Moore plays up the yin-yang dynamic between Batman and the Joker early on, then again near the issue’s end. However, while the Joker’s ultimate showdown is with Batman, his true target here is Commissioner Gordon. The Joker’s maiming and assault of Barbara are merely the first volley in an elaborate scheme to drive Gordon mad, and his subsequent psychological torment of Gordon is downright disturbing and uncomfortable. The Joker’s assertion that he and Gordon — or he and Batman, for that matter — are two sides of the same coin and that it only takes one bad experience to “flip” any good person is perversely compelling.
In an era when characters who were killed or permanently injured generally stayed that way, many believed that Barbara’s crippling injuries indicated that “The Killing Joke” was an out-of-continuity story, which was perpetuated by the book’s prestige format, ala the “imaginary” “Dark Knight.” So, when one of Bolland’s final panels hints that Batman may very well have finished off the Joker, many believed that he indeed had, since it wasn’t necessarily considered to be a “real” story. This notion is the only thing that gives Moore’s ambiguous ending any weight, as Batman’s aforementioned no-killing code and the importance of the Joker’s role in the Bat-verse really didn’t support any kind of believable possibility that Batman had actually taken the Joker’s life.
Moore’s story calls for a shocking plot development in order to further the Joker’s agenda, and the brutalization of Barbara serves that purpose. At a time when comics were just beginning to emerge from their perceived status as kiddie books and when their audience was predominantly male, such a scene certainly catered to that demographic. It also shouted to the world in a sensationalistic way that a comic like this is most definitely not for children, even if it featured a character whose likeness appears on lunchboxes and underoos. The graphic depiction of the Joker’s actions made a very clear statement about what kinds of violence could be shown in a comic book, but — decades later — a more diverse audience can rightfully question whether they should be.
Barbara’s victimization was plenty disturbing to witness then, but — in this age of heightened social awareness and active anti-violence campaigns — the horrible acts done to her in this story now come across as more than just a twisted plot device; they’re downright evil in their own right and nothing short of atrocious. The lens of hindsight bolsters at least one aspect of Moore and Bolland’s story, as the heinousness of the Joker’s actions now seem even more grievous, making him into an even larger, more sinister villain by today’s standards, and in turn making Gordon even more heroic for wanting to take him down the way good guys are supposed to.
Undermining the elevation of these characters, though, remains Moore’s casting of Barbara solely as a victim to carry his story, a lapse that only further objectifies her within the context of this standalone comic, in relation to the prominent heroism and villainy of the other players. The recent animated adaptation of this story, with its expansion of Barbara’s characterization, speaks almost as a modern-day admission of Moore’s mistake with the character in the graphic novel. A modern audience could even infer misogynistic overtones on Moore’s part by way of his willingness to victimize the character without pausing to humanize her.
While flawed, “Batman: The Killing Joke” still stands up as the closest thing to an ultimate Batman vs. Joker story seen thus far, carried by Moore’s excellent characterization of Batman, Commissioner Gordon and the Joker as well as Bolland’s beautifully detailed and disturbing artwork. There have been very few stories in the decades since that have come close to contending.