Alan Moore & Brian Bolland: Batman - The Killing Joke

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Moore, Alan & Brian Bolland. Batman: The Killing Joke (The Deluxe Edition) (New York: DC Comics, 2008)

In honor of the new Dark Knight film--featuring Heath Ledger's final (complete) film role--I revisited a classic from the Batman comics canon: the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland tale The Killing Joke. The newly recolored hardcover "Deluxe Edition" may seem unnecessarily extravagant at $18 for a 46-page story, but its brilliance outweighs its brevity. Van Jensen's ComixMix review says:

The Killing Joke is without question one of the greatest encounters between Batman and his nemesis, and the real reason is that the story serves both as a zenith for the Joker's depravity and for his pathos. [..] It makes a Joker that's more real, and more terrifying.

The Killing Joke isn't nearly substantial enough to be classified as a graphic novel, but it's a very successful short story and a great example of what talented creators can produce within the comics medium. (This edition also includes an 8-page Batman tale, "An Innocent Guy," from Batman: Black & White. Bolland wrote, drew, and colored this story; it fits well with The Killing Joke, and helps add a little more bang for the buck in this slim volume.)

I read the new Killing Joke side-by-side with the original version, and noted a few minor artistic revisions: the yellow oval around the symbol on Batman's chest is gone, and Bolland admits that "every page has something slightly different on it from The Killing Joke of 20 years ago" (such as the inclusion of a new background figure in one of the panels--can you find it?). Heidi MacDonald discusses the coloring at Publishers Weekly, and Jon Haehnle has several well-chosen recoloring comparisons here. My favorite compare-and-contrast example is this one from the Joker's origin sequence:

20070727-joker1.jpg

While John Higgins did a dramatic job with the original colors, Bolland goes for more contrast (and for bleeding eyes, as many observers have noted):

20070727-joker2.jpg

I'm largely a fan of the newer, more subdued color scheme, although Higgins' more expressive work on the original wasn't bothersome either then or now. Bolland's scene-to-scene transitions remain some of the best I've ever seen, being almost uniformly excellent. Here are the two transitions (pp. 6-8) which bookend the Joker's flashback from his purchase of a dilapidated circus to an incident with his wife about a failed nightclub gig:

20080730-transition1.jpg

After she consoles him, the Joker snaps back to the present:

20080730-transition2.jpg

The first and last panels of the story are identical, which ties the story together nicely. (I wish the Deluxe Edition had preserved the original use of the rain-puddle image on the endpapers, rather than using sickly green.)

Is The Killing Joke the perfect Batman/Joker story? No, although it's one of the best I've ever read. Batman's reaction on the last page nearly ruined the ending of the story for me, seeming quite out of character. <SPOILER> A silently dismissive response from Batman would have been more appropriate and would have echoed the tale's opening in a very intriguing manner. However, doing so may have required changing the story's title.</END SPOILER> The overall excellence of the rest of the book is still thrilling and explains why I--and, apparently, many others--still hold The Killing Joke in high esteem since its initial release two decades ago.

I would have more trouble believing that it's really been twenty years since The Killing Joke came out, but that same time period also saw the Grant Morrison/Dave McKean Arkham Asylum, and the Frank Miller/David Mazzuccelli Batman: Year One story. (Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns is slightly older at 22 years; without the reinvigoration of the Batman franchise provided by it--and, of course, by The Killing Joke--we may not have seen the 1989 Tim Burton film or any of its successors.)

The legacy of Bob Kane lives on!

[chronology errors fixed]

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5 Comments

The BatMan's reaction to the Joker's Joke was iconic and part of the landmarks for the comic. BatMan can have a sense of humor and laugh, he has always had that. The scene was supposed to show that BatMan and The Joker are both alike and unalike. BatMan has a good sense of humor, so he can laugh.
You're like a guy that JUST got interested in BatMan.

The original version of The Killing Joke was alot better than the deluxe version. Black-and-white colored flashbacks are better for those scenes, but for the rest of the book, the original is alot better. The colors were more colorful and while the other version was shiny, they did make a bit dry and boring. And the Yellow Ellipse Emblem on BatMan's chest should have STAYED.
The Deluxe Version is just hardcovered, and that's it. The Original is the best.

As a follow-up -- just so I don't sound like an ass only commenting to point out mistakes -- I think the old coloring was very well done, but inappropriate for the story. I've heard some people argue that the outrageous colors fit the demented story, which I kind of understand, but I don't think a twisted story needs twisted art. Look at The Dark Knight. It was filmed realistically, and the twistedness of the Joker came across just fine. If anything, I think it's better to show things realistically when telling a story about a total lunatic imposing his chaos on a world of order. It creates a better contrast between the two, a feeling of dissonance.

And it's worth pointing out that the original version of The Killing Joke is still in print. I've heard some people comparing the recolored version to the Special Editions of the Star Wars movies (which is ridiculous, in my opinion), but DC isn't trying to sweep the original version under the rug and forget it ever happened, like George Lucas is doing with the original versions of the Star Wars movies.

As for Batman laughing at the joke, I think it's just as open to interpretation as the rest of the ending, so it's kind of impossible to dislike it. It can really mean anything you want it to. Then again, some things are interesting because they're so mysterious. Like, say, the Joker. I think The Killing Joke works best when you interpret the so-called origin story as the Joker BSing you about his past instead of interpreting it as a factual origin that explains how Joe Somebody became the Joker. (Just like Ledger's Joker did in The Dark Knight. Keep in mind the Joker's line in The Killing Joke about remembering his past differently when it suits him.) Anyway, you can find plenty of analysis online from critics to find an interpretation that satisfies you.

A note on the price: Amazon sells it for just over $10. But still, DC could have done of lot more to justify $18. I appreciate the extra story and rough sketches, but the book is still thinner than a DVD case. Why not include Moore's script? Why not include both the original version and recolored version? But, again, shop around and you won't be disappointed. $18 is easy to wag your finger at, but it's hard to argue with $10.

Thus concludes my thoughts for the day. Cheers.

You got some of the dates wrong at the end. Arkham Asylum is 19 years old, not 15 (it came out in 1989), Year One is 21 years old, not 10 (it came out in 1987), and Tim Burton's Batman came out in 1989, not 1990.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on July 30, 2008 11:01 PM.

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