Saturday, April 4, 2015

Book Review: Batman: The Killing Joke

Back in the day aka 20 years ago (ugh...), I used to be a comic book fan. I enjoyed elements of both DC Comics and Marvel. I loved Batman. I loved X-Men and Spider-Man. But, Batman was a favorite. The Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, he was my go-to superhero. 

As I grew up, I got out of comic books and video games. Now, don't get me wrong: I didn't get more mature or anything lame like that. I just stopped keeping up with the genre as much, and as a result, I wasn't as up-to-date with what was happening. Funny books, as my grandpa called them, are basically a long-running soap opera with multiple arcs and storylines. Taking a few years off really put me out of the game.

Without the widespread advent of the Internet and whatnot, it was hard to find everything out about comics and the heroes. If I want to find out the history of Batman now, all I need to do is a simple Google search. At the time, I went with what was current and I tried to fill in the history based off of that. I remember Batman getting his back broken by Bane and the exploits of that. I loved the "Zero Hour" series and what it did to the DC Universe. Then my grandpa bought a bunch of Batman (and Archie) comics from the 1970s at a flea market and I had a bigger back story.

Fast forward to present-day 2015, in Small-Town, America. The local mall has recently acquired a Books-A-Million store and I pop in for the first time. I'm walking around and find the comic section. I had wanted to get back into comics for the last couple years and while perusing the aisles, I figured that this could be my chance.

I had never read a graphic novel before, but it's basically a series of comic books put together into one book. I noticed one called "Batman: The Killing Joke" and it popped out at me. One, it was written by Alan Moore, and I knew his name from other popular works. I read the description of the comic, how it gave a back story to The Joker and so many different sources were calling it one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. This was reportedly what Heath Ledger read in order to get in character for his performance in "The Dark Knight. " In short, I had to have it.

What separates "Batman: The Killing Joke" from a lot of other graphic novels is that is was actually written as one novel-like piece. It is not a larger collection put into one book. It was a collaboration between Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, a popular artist who has since gone on to become one of the most sought-after cover designers in the industry. It was first published in 1988 and what I read was the 20th anniversary re-release.

There are three great elements to "Batman: The Killing Joke" and we're going to look at those:

1) The story

2) The back story

3) Batman and The Joker

By themselves, they are all amazing. But, combining all three together really makes "The Killing Joke" something special.

The Story:

The general premise of a Batman vs Joker scenario is "Joker escapes from the insane asylum and chaos ensues." That is again the case here. But what The Joker does and what he sets out to prove is what makes this tale brilliant.

From knowing a general history of the Batman universe, I knew that The Joker shot and paralyzed Batgirl. That happens here. It is not mentioned in this story, but Barbara Gordon - daughter of police chief Jim Gordon - is Batgirl. Only Batman knows that.

The Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in front of her father. He then captures Commissioner Gordon and, through a series of twisted events, tries to make Gordon go mad. The Joker wants to prove that somebody can have one horrible day and be insane for the rest of their life, just like what happened to him.

Which leads us to...

The back story:

Interspersed through the tale mentioned above are several flashback sequences showing who The Joker was before he became The Joker. He is not given a proper name here, but it has since come out that it was Jack. In this back story, he is a struggling stand up comedian trying to make a happy life for he and his pregnant wife.

It has always been hard to make The Joker a sympathetic figure. "The Killing Joke" does that, to an extent. One of most famous episodes of the early 90s Batman animated series was the episode that introduced Mr. Freeze and showed that he was a flawed man trying to save his wife. Everything he did that was considered "bad" really seemed good from his point of view.

We understand why The Joker hates the world. We can sympathize with him from that angle. But we can't sympathize with him in regard to why he wants to kill people. After everything that he has been through, The Joker is allowed to be mad. But he takes it too far and uses his rage for evil instead of good.

Which leads us to...

Batman and The Joker

One of the more poignant moments of "The Killing Joke" is when we examine the relationship between Batman and The Joker. As Batman says at one point, "I've been thinking lately about you and me. About what's going to happen to us in the end. We're going to kill each other, aren't we?" Later, in a moment of personal reflection, Batman ponders "How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?"

The Joker, without really knowing much about Batman, is correct in guessing a key element of his life. "You had a bad day once, am I right? You had a bad day and it drove you as crazy as everybody else. Only you won't admit it! You have to keep pretending that life makes sense, that there's some point to all this struggling."

As we should know by now, Batman dedicated his life to fighting crime after seeing his parents murdered in front of him as a child. Batman had a bad day and decided to dedicate his life to fighting evil. The Joker had a bad day and decided to make everybody as miserable as him.

They parallel each other in the sense that Batman is the extreme good, but who is deeply troubled and The Joker is the extreme bad, who is also deeply troubled. I think that's why "The Killing Joke" doesn't end on a violent note; it's not a fight that closes this out, but rather a conversation between two men who know how much they have in common.

* * *

"Batman: The Killing Joke" is a great piece of work that really stirs the emotions. You feel sympathy for The Joker as a person for the first time. You see what motivated him into a life of madness and evil. We also get a look into the deep and complex relationship between The Joker and Batman, two men who are more alike than they would care to admit.

The 20th anniversary special is somewhat different from the original version. Brian Bolland, who illustrated the story, did not color it. He drew it and it was colored by another artist. He writes about it in a special afterword for the book; he was not happy with how bright the colors were and felt it did not convey the proper mood. For this version, Bolland colored it himself; creating a darker element. For the flashback sequences, he took out all of the color except for a few elements he kept red. It makes sense once you read it.

"The Killing Joke" was indirectly in the news in March of this year. A special edition of the Batgirl comic was released with several different covers illustrating a key point in her career. A cover was made that referenced her shooting at the hands of The Joker. A large backlash occurred online when people thought it was too graphic and scary-looking, especially considering the lighter tone that the Batgirl comic takes. It is below:

Overall, "The Killing Joke" is a great read for anybody who wants to get a deeper look into the mind of a character. Fights and explosions aren't a key point of this book. This is a story about exploring the human condition. I like it.

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