Dear god, what have I gotten myself into?
Well, anyway, this is it; the most famous Batman illustrated story of all time. Reviewing this book is kind of like trying to review Dark Souls or The Godfather, not because it’s similar to either of those in quality or content, but because it is such a highly revered classic. The Killing Joke isn’t well-known enough outside of the comic book fanbase to receive considerable backlash just for being popular as something like Watchmen might be, but it’s been around for long enough and accrued enough of a following that criticizing it is risky business. You’re going against the stream of enthusiasm for something that is genuinely good, but has such enthusiastic supporters that pointing out its flaws makes you feel callous, even if those criticisms are warranted. As I’ve said, I’m not a professional reviewer, and I’ve been on the other side of this fence, seeing something I love wholeheartedly being bashed for petty reasons by people I felt just didn’t get the point of it. That said, I’m going through with this anyway because my platform is honesty, and if I’m going to adhere to it, I need to explain why I enjoyed this book on some levels, but don’t feel it lives up to its brilliant reputation.
Main Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: Some familiarity with major Batman characters
The Killing Joke
Part One: The Bat-Legacy
The Killing Joke is a standalone story, tonally consistent with the story arcs present in the 1980s Batman comics and graphic novels, but at the same time independent of these, both in its story and its style. I’m not a Batman aficionado and if read any of the canon comics from any major story lines in my childhood, my memory of them has faded. I’m familiar with Batman lore and subject matter through various films, cartoons, and games, and whatever has diffused to me through popular culture at large, but this is the first Batman comic I’ve ever really read and analysed. Perhaps an odd place to start, and I admit I’m not exactly the target audience, but I think the standalone nature of the book lends itself to examination.
Batman is at the top of the short list of recognizable superheroes. Even people who have never seen any of the films or ever read a comic book know Batman by name. He’s featured in more films that almost any other superhero, and has survived in the public consciousness through more varied iterations than almost any other character, including some stories that paint him as a complex character (The Killing Joke among them) and emphasize his internal conflict over what he does. He works for the benefit of the police, but as a vigilante; he has a code against killing people, but is more than willing to beat the crap out of henchmen without any due process; he acts to reduce violence, but his actions inspire criminals to become more dangerous in response. Batman’s basic character arc across most major storylines is about him recognizing the harm he does and edging closer and closer to the madness and destruction that defines his villains. The arcs end with him either briefly stepping over the line and relinquishing his role, or coming right to the edge of it and then stepping back. Crucially, Batman is never the villain, at least not of his own accord.
Despite the character’s success, I confess I don’t really like Batman that much. The tension within his character and how it reflects on the story makes his world, and especially his villains, compelling, and just for its baste entertainment value, I don’t really have a problem with Batman punching people and blowing things up. Explosions can be fun when there aren’t stakes attached to them. My issues with Batman lie more in the stories’ adoption of an “ends justify the means,” “only the individual can save the stupid masses from themselves” mentality, and in that vein, I dislike the idea that Batman is not only a benevolent force, but a necessary one. He clearly isn’t — two minutes of any Batman film will tell you that. I think I tend to dislike Batman more when the ideals upheld by Batman and other superhero stories (or, heck, any story with a simple good versus bad framework) work their way into real life. It’s cute when a kid pretends to be a superhero, but when adults start elevating individuals who are bombastic and flashy above well-informed groups of professionals who actually know what they’re doing, you end up electing a piece of moldy fruit to the highest rank of military office and then hoping some other piece of moldy fruit will come along and dethrone it. Most real human societies don’t work that way.
But even relegating Batman stories to the realm of fiction where they provide engagement but don’t influence living society, in the end, Bruce Wayne is really the one who has an interesting and deeply flawed character. Batman is just a costume, and a costume that, without Bruce Wayne, is pretty empty. What does Batman provide to a Batman story, other than a cool design and a way for Bruce Wayne to pretend he’s someone else? I maintain that The Dark Knight would be a much more interesting film if Batman weren’t in it — if, for instance, Bruce Wayne played an undercover cop or was only peripherally involved in the plot while the real protagonist was Commissioner Gordon. However, you don’t make money with Commissioner Gordon lunchboxes, so we end up instead with a grown man dressed in a Halloween costume gargling his way through a movie that feels like it’s left the era of spandex and utility belts behind.
So why all the talk about Batman if The Killing Joke is a Joker vehicle? To put it bluntly, this book is actually about Batman even though it spends most of its time with the Joker. Batman in the Joker foil each other in the literary sense, and have since they first came head-to-head. The Killing Joke features two stories running in tandem; one is about how the Joker went from being an ordinary person to a mad psychopath, and the other is about the Joker trying to convince Batman that the two of them are more alike than Batman will admit. The backstory obviously mirrors Bruce Wayne’s tragic childhood, adoption of an eccentric costume, and debasement of himself as he falls into the criminal underground, the key difference being Joker’s self-driven intentions countered with Batman’s altruistic philosophy. However, the Joker stealing two of the more important people in Batman’s adult life, Commissioner Gordon and his daughter, drives Batman close to admitting that his pursuit of the Joker is mainly for the benefit of those close to him – thereby eliminating the last major difference between the two, and sending both into a fit of laughter, possibly resulting in Batman ending his foe once and for all.
To its merit, the book focuses mainly on the Batman-Joker character dynamic, but because it has no lead-in or context for this particular iteration of Batman’s relationship with the Commissioner and Barbara Gordon, the end impact relies on that idea of the Batman symbol. Batman is less of a character in this story and more of a conglomeration of Batman’s ideals and a blanket summary of the character’s internal struggle. It’s an odd mix, and one I feel might have been more successful if it incorporated the Joker unmasking Batman at some point, or something similar, instead of him just tormenting some guy in a superhero costume. The Joker responds to Batman as a symbol, but the core of his struggle in this book is a parallel to Bruce Wayne, not just the Batman figure. The Batman-Joker dynamic only ever worked because the Joker could see the person behind that symbol using it as a shield to defend his own insecurities. Without a person portrayed behind the mask, Batman just feels hollow, like an advertisement or a cereal mascot. While the recent animated film of The Killing Joke tried (and spectacularly failed) to solve this problem, I can see what the creators were going for. The length of the piece hinders its ability to build up a dynamic specific to this iteration of these characters, even if other iterations fill in some of the gaps. The events have no specific context to give them depth – is this the first time the Joker has kidnapped Gordon, or the fiftieth? – and because of that, the Batman aspect ends up feeling hollow.
Part Two: Juggling Backstories
To say the Joker has had a varied backstory is putting it mildly at this point. Christopher Nolan famously used this ambiguity to portray the character in his Dark Knight Trilogy, and other iterations over the years have often maintained some mystery about the character’s origins. While many versions have opted for his appearance and madness to be a consequence of falling into a vat of miscellaneous chemicals, as is the case in the 1989 Batman film, a common consensus about the Joker is that he could very easily be lying about his own past, or so far removed from reality that he has in his mind a number of backstories, and whether they’re true or not is inconsequential.
The backstory is really second chair to the character himself, as backstory always is. However, it’s easy to make the Joker a lively personality completely unlike any real person the audience has ever met, so curiosity about his origin is natural, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with exploring it. However, especially with a character as prominent as the Joker, we should ask ourselves whether a backstory is necessary, and if so, what it should do.
A backstory is not necessary to create an effective villain. Villains are obstacles for the hero in a story to overcome, but more than that, they’re a part of the physical environment itself. They spring to life from the darkest corners of the world in which the hero lives, incorporating its injustices and leaching nutrients through its faults. Antagonists and antagonistic forces are necessary hindrances to a character in any story, but not all stories require villains. Villains tend to serve a story best as people with distinct personalities, but who exist as something of separate entities from the other human protagonists and antagonists. Villains act irrationally, driven to do things that are often horrible for reasons no real person would deem sufficient to warrant such a response. Villains are caricatures of real people, even in serious stories, and that’s what makes them fun.
Backstories are usually added to humanize the characters they depict, either showing a more complex side to them or providing an explanation for who they are in the main story. Villains can have backstories, but a backstory comes at the cost of humanizing the villain. Sometimes this is necessary, as in stories that feature a character who would seem clichéd if not for the little ticks that indicate a more complex history and motivation for what they do. The degradation of a hero or antihero into a villain can even be a compelling story on its own. However, prominent villains who have a presence to them that doesn’t belie their history beyond subtle allusions and hints (Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector, Maleficent, Dracula, Agent Smith, Captain Hook) often don’t benefit from the telling of their complex backstory, and can in fact be diminished if their backstory doesn’t fit them well. The Joker easily fits near the top of the short list of prominent media villains, but poses an especially difficult task for anyone trying to give him a backstory, because unlike Darth Vader, for instance, whose character design reeks of a dark history, the Joker’s design suggests almost nothing of who he once was. He looks odd, acts mad, and has a violent nature, none of which really needs an explanation. We don’t even need to know whether he was ever a real clown or not, and in most stories, we never get an answer anyway.
As much as I tried to give this book the benefit of the doubt, and as interested as I usually am in the humanization of otherwise simplistic characters, I definitely prefer the idea of the Joker not really having a backstory. Most superhero stories concentrate heavily on hero and villain origins, including the Batman franchise, but the Joker not having a history leading up to his appearance makes him less grounded as a human being and more of a threat. His character is defined by unpredictability and chaos, so it makes sense for him to not have a past. The book does bring up the idea that this backstory may not be fully true, and that maybe the Joker misremembers or made it up entirely. But The Killing Joke’s main conceit is that it tells the Joker’s origin story, so that’s what a large part of it does. In most other circumstances the backstory given would be decent for any villain, but because this is the Joker it’s describing, I can’t help but put it to a higher standard.
So how does this book tell his backstory, then? In a word, tamely. A man expecting his first child by a loving wife is struggling to make ends meet and gets roped into a minor criminal job. Just before it starts, he gets a phone call that his wife accidentally electrocuted herself in the tub and has died, leaving him completely alone. He still has to do the job, however, and in the process, falls into a vat of industrial chemicals that alter his skin and hair, and he turns into the Joker.
I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but I kind of wanted to be more surprised than I was. As soon as you see the wife, you know something bad’s going to happen because obviously the Joker isn’t happily married with a kid. However, when I think of the tough things other characters have had to go through, even ones whose loved ones don’t technically die, I can’t help but feel this tale is pretty standard, up there with Bruce Wayne’s parents getting shot. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen this sort of story so many times, but even when The Killing Joke came out, I can’t imagine a main character losing his wife was novel or edgy – it came out in 1988, well into the late 20th century era of dark films. The mundanity of what drives pre-Joker to the edge isn’t really what bothers me, though; I can tolerate a tame backstory if the impact it has on the character is fully realized. I don’t feel the pre-Joker and actual Joker characters are the same person, though. The transition from regular person to supervillain is so stark it becomes difficult to quantify these two people within a single character arc.
I understand why this is – the Joker maintains that his own madness is something experienced by everyone, a part of the chaotic nature of humanity and not exceptional or even unusual. His attempts to bring Batman over to his side, and his success in this very book, are important to his character. But if that’s the case, why show him as an ordinary human being at all? Why try to make him empathetic? Why detail his awkward first criminal endeavor, and why introduce the industrial chemicals? Why have his wife die before the job? Why not after? Why not explore the tragedy of his situation further, or give his wife some character so we empathize with him more when she’s gone? If the backstory isn’t as important as the fact that he has one, then why tell it in such detail?
I realize some of these questions lean into the “Why tell a story about the Joker at all?” territory. I did enjoy the story, and as with many things I critique, my disappointment is driven by my own expectations. Compared to other comic books, especially those featuring superheroes, The Killing Joke is actually pretty good. I just don’t think it holds up as well compared to other stories less connected to major franchises. The book is essentially the length of a long short story, but its story feels predictable and not all that unique for the genre, superhero elements aside. A large part of the problem there lies in its length – The Killing Joke feels like it wants to tell a much larger story with a tight conclusion, but ends up restricting itself. Much as I appreciate stories that quit while they’re ahead, I feel the short length of The Killing Joke isn’t quite enough for it to tell the definitive story of the Joker.
Part Three: Sexy Penstrokes
Critical as I am, I can see the appeal of this story to fans of Batman and comics more generally. The weight of its historical impact on later Batman story arcs in films, comics, shows, and games resonates even into unrelated franchises. Its conceit of tackling such an intimidating subject – the backstory and arguably the character climax of the most influential villain in comic book history – is admirable.
The visual style is where this book becomes breathtaking for me, especially with its vivid colors. The linework is a step up from what I would consider a classic modern American graphic novel style, with more detail in the backgrounds and patterning, and when colored, the images have a dynamic tension that makes even nonessential frames visually interesting. The layout of the panels and pages is carefully orchestrated, and while I tend to prefer a little more variation in panel size and shape than is present in most of the less dramatic pages, the way each panel leads into the next is clever.
The writing is decent, especially at the end and beginning, and is most effective in the pacing and framing of the scenes. The dialogue isn’t bad, but there are a few times it seems to slip into repetition or melodrama. The thing I probably enjoyed most was the way the Joker talks to Batman about how similar they are as characters – you really get a sense of his obsession to prove Batman is as mad as himself, which is arguably the most important thing to emphasize in this story. The last few pages, including the titular joke, are again well-crafted, and I think they hint at a lot of subtlety regarding these two characters and their interactions, taking into account their deep history.
I feel part of the reason this book is so famous is because of its place in Batman lore. I could see an advocate of The Killing Joke pointing out to me how influential the book was to the Batman franchise and comic books in general, and how it’s not trying to build an epic Breaking Bad-style fall from grace narrative, but rather a simple story with a short but rich point. I do wish I had more of a background and personal familiarity with Batman lore to contextualize this story within its lineage, but at the same time, I don’t think an object’s historical influence should be the sole contributor to an assessment of its quality. The Killing Joke is good. It’s well-told and well-crafted, but ends up feeling not quite as polished in some areas as it could have been, and much less substantial than its premise would have you believe. I found it to be good overall – a bit underwhelming in some areas, but captivating enough to recommend to those who are curious. Just go in knowing that the book and its reputation are somewhat separate things.