The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Retcon Retrospective #3: Batman: The Killing Joke

Written by: Ron Bricker

ImageCC2K's Comics section presents to you our most in-depth weekly column, in which our daring writers tackle the most respected books, graphic novels, story arcs, singe issues, and series and discuss their effect on the comics industry, their influence on the medium and society, and much more. This week:  Batman: The Killing Joke.

2008 marks the 20th anniversary of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's landmark Batman: The Killing Joke. Hailed as the quintessential portrayal of the deeply layered dynamic between Batman and the Joker, The Killing Joke has recently seen the release of a Deluxe Edition hardcover, recolored by Brian Bolland himself. It is for this reason that I have decided to sit back, relax, and re-read this mesmerizing story, all the while smiling maniacally.

"All It takes is one bad day."

The quote that reverberates throughout the entirety of The Killing Joke. An eerie statement questioning ones' true grip on their own sanity. It's such a simple statement, yet when put into the context of Batman and the Joker, blends them into each other. One bad day that set the path for a scared young boy to turn into a masked crusader, fighting crime and corruption. One bad day for a failing comedian to turn into a sadistic madman. One bad day to knock over that single domino changing the entire course of your life. One bad day.

What is great about The Killing Joke is the way that it sets about telling a Joker origin. I say "an origin" because he has never had a definitive beginning. It's truthfully what makes the character so engaging, an enigma to readers, as much as he is to Batman. Yes, he falls into a vat of chemicals, dying his skin white, changing his hair green, but Alan Moore takes this simple story, adding a much needed psychological layer, all the while straddling a line and not revealing every little nuance to the Joker's back-story. Therefore leaving much to the reader's interpretation. The story makes you wonder exactly what was the straw that broke the camel's back plunging the Joker into his deep, dark decent. Could it have been the death of his pregnant wife, the acid bath, or the confrontation with Batman moments prior? All of these scenarios pose reasonable cause to disrupt the mentality of the Joker. Moore's narrative just does a fantastic job of challenging his readers, leaving more questions than answers far after the book is finished.

However, the glue that holds the narrative together is how scenes are juggled. I found it to be the most striking part of the entire story. Every scene, no matter if set in the past or present, flow together seamlessly. We have a comic book that actually does match-on-action, and match-on-dialogue, as it transitions from past to present. As a film buff, I found this technique incredibly effective in the comic medium, wondering why it isn't used as much as it should be. It perfectly connects both segments of the narrative, giving a lot of the sequences a real sense of emotional weight. Probably the best example coming from Joker's first flashback sequence as he looks to buy the broken down amusement park. The scene uses perfect match-on-action flowing into the flashback, and out, that by the time it's over, you actually feel bad for the Joker. You actually feel bad for the god damn Joker! That's just strong storytelling right there.

As I mentioned above, 2008 is the 20th anniversary of this seminal story and DC is celebrating with a newly remastered hardcover version. Brian Bolland, the original story's artist, has gone back and reworked every color on every panel to produce an extremely high quality final product. Apparently Bolland was supposed to color the original story but due to him taking forever on pencils, DC wanted the product finished, therefore hiring a colorist to finish the job. The final look of the 1988 original is very much with the times. Colors scream off the page in bright tones of green and violet. The two narratives are handled with two separate color palettes, a warmer finish for the past, with a dark, cooler scheme for the present. Truthfully, before seeing the reworked 2008 edition, I was completey content with the original color job John Higgins did. The two color palettes separated the narratives perfectly while still flowing because of Bolland's match-on-action. However, the 2008 edition is a sight to behold. Changing the color palettes too achieve a more "noir" feel, Bolland decided to go black and white with the flashbacks with simple objects highlighted in color for their significance. Grays overtake every page making iconic images such as the "Red Hood" pop off the page. Even the present day pages benefit from lack of bright colors, fitting the extremely dark tone the book attempts to achieve. Take a look below for some side by side comparison pages between the two versions. The original 1988 on the left, and the 2008 remastered on the right.







To wrap up this article I will finally touch on the story itself. If you have never read The Killing Joke, don't come here for a definitive answer to the psyche of the Joker, or Batman for that matter. What Alan Moore leaves you with is something far more sinister: a vague metaphorical joke. And maybe that's the only difference between Batman and Joker, Batman would be the one "to hold the flashlight." However, if that's the point Moore makes about the nature of Batman, then readers should be nervous. This character that people look up too, aspire to be, is just as crazy as the loons he puts in the madhouse. I think that is why I love The Killing Joke so much. It is the perfect character piece for both Batman and the Joker, told so brilliantly simple by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. So do yourself a favor and go pick up this story any way you can. You have a number of options before you. You can pick up the newly released hardcover with the fantastic recoloring, track down the original, or buy DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore for The Killing Joke, along with the rest of Moore's DC portfolio. Whatever your poison, make sure you do it with a smile.