February 23, 2010

Getting Graphic: "Batman: The Killing Joke" by Alan Moore

Title: Batman: The Killing Joke
Author: Alan Moore; illustrated by Brian Bolland
Published: Deluxe Edition by DC Comics (2008); originally by DC Comic (1988)
Pages: 64
Genre: Superhero
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1667-2

Despite warding off the hype from some that The Killing Joke is one of the very best Batman comics ever made, I still ended up with the opinion that it's reputation is overinflated. Mind you, when it comes to comic books, I'm still a neophyte.

For being a scant sixty-some pages, I'm assuming this was originally published as a two or three part run from DC. In an episodic format, the story may have impacted me more heavily. As a compiled graphic novel, it's a fun read, but towards the end I felt like there should have been more. For all the buildup and suspense through the tale, it ends on such a anticlimactic note. If that's Alan Moore's intention with this story, then so be it.

For those unfamiliar, this is more a story about the Joker than it is the Caped Crusader. It's a kind of origin tale, but considering the mystique surrounding the Joker's history--I really only know of the origin from the Tim Burton film--the idea that the preeminent villain of the Batman pantheon rose from such a hapless loser is surprising and a bit disappointing.

The Joker is loose, escaped from Arkham Asylum, and wants to get into the carnival business. Well, not really. The derelict carnival grounds are actually the testing grounds for his latest endeavor, which is to break a decent man's sanity. While the Joker executes his plan, we are given a glimpse into the man's past, the path that ultimately led him to turn from a failed comedian to the most dangerous villain Batman's ever faced.

I think that's the kicker for me with this story--the origin tale. I just didn't buy it. For a story that has supposedly sent ripples through the entire Batman universe, affecting nearly all Joker oriented stories in its wake, The Killing Joke provides a version of the Joker that is certainly more human, but is hardly a criminal to be considered so patently grievous. He does shoot and paralyze Barbara Gordon, which is pretty vile, especially when you consider what he does to her afterwards, but there's a disconnect between the Joker we see fully-formed and the defeatist schmuck appearing in the flashbacks. Those flashbacks show a stressed yet caring husband, and expectant father, desperate to provide for his family. Turning to a nighttime heist at the chemical plant where he once worked, he struggles with the idea of breaking the law to help the ones he loves.

I am a neophyte, remember, so I may be missing the grand appeal of this story. I just don't see what makes this THE Batman story. Alan Moore is an icon, yes, and Brian Bolland's artistry is near perfect at capturing each moment, whether it be for its brevity or its starkness. Perhaps the problem lies with my lack of familiarity with the comic books. Devotees to the comics can more easily draw the line between the flashbacks and the present storyline. They would know better how the evolution of the character validates such a drastic metamorphosis in the Joker. The Red Hood reference sailed right over my head, so that may tell you something. Personally, I'd bet there are origin tales for the Joker I would find far more approachable and appreciable than this one. Heck, Heath Ledger's performance--which I hear was partially inspired by The Killing Joke--appeals to me far more thanks to the vagueness of the character's history.

What ultimately redeems the Deluxe Edition of this graphic novel is Brian Bolland's short story that follows what happens after the curtain falls on Batman and the Joker in the original tale. Now that was some creepy and disturbing stuff I was not expecting to read or see. If you're a die-hard fan of all things "Batman," you know better than me about The Killing Joke and don't need my two cents on it. For those new to the realm of comics, especially Batman, you may want to read some other comics first before you dive into this one. There's a lot of unspoken history, winks and nods, and other tidbits that'll go right over the heads of the uninitiated.

I wish I were the kid who grew up with a pile of Batman comics in his bedroom, and knew the stories preceding this one. I loved the cartoons and the movies, but for a book like this, that only gives you a casual awareness--if not tenuous--of Batman and the Joker.

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