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Batman: The Killing Joke - A Study in Bright Darkness

by Kayla W | Jan 17, 2018

When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it! Why can't you? – The Joker, The Killing Joke


Even as a novice Batman connoisseur, I get the impression that storylines involving Bruce Wayne or the Joker’s sanity have been done to death and back.

I can certainly see the appeal of this storyline, but with perhaps a new point of view and a coat of paint.  However, there’s a reason it’s been used so often that it's gotten pat at this point.  This is a storyline, capable in the right hands, of standing the test of time. 

It's an elemental tale, a parable with the two rivals on such opposites that they actually come close to touching one another because of how they've wrapped themselves fully around to come almost full circle.    And I don’t think the thin veneer between what separates a hero from their supposed opposite, in the form of their nemesis, has ever been made as clear as it can be made between Batman and the Joker.  To the point where the two can be seen as different sides of the very coin that Harvey Two-face flips. 

One, the seemingly pristine Dark Knight, the other, the irreparably damaged and deranged parody of what was once a humble, but a nevertheless honorable man.   At the end of the day, what exactly DOES differentiate one from the other?

Alright, I may be wrong on that point.  I have been semi-keeping up with what is considered to be the high lights of Batman’s stories, so I am by no means a professional Batman “person”, but I have seen this story done worse.  Way worse.  Batman R.I.P is a comic I will never fully understand the appeal of, for example.  It’s also the movie adaptation of The Killing Joke that has, ironically, proven to be a poor representation of its original (keeping the worse aspects of the comic and magnifying them, such as the objectification of Barbara Gordon which has become a bad joke related to the movie).

In spite of the comic's defects, it is full of personality and color, and it feeds off of its own moral ambiguity, as opposed to drowning you in it.  That is one problem which the hardcore “dark” comics of its era were more inclined to do - point out the unfairness of the world and leave it at that.  The world's terrible and there's no real heroes - doesn't that feel bad?

This comic's narrative is, at its core, a parable told from Alan Moore at the height of his ability.  What that translates into, however, is a story that feels like much more than what is basically being told, wealth beyond the sum of its parts. 

The Killing Joke is story of discomforting ambiguity, and the ease for madness to consume a “good” person whole.   Of course, there is a shocking amount of depth that one can easily be lost in below the surface. That is a key reason why the comic is easily re-readable.

To praise a comic book’s story is sometimes translated as being a backhanded compliment – after all, a good two thirds of the medium that Will Eisner once named the “sequential art” tells its story through illustration (generally).  It would also be unfair to the illustrator, Brian Bolland, who was half of the reason why this comic is as legendary as it is.

And I am happy to say that this comic has an aesthetic that is sometimes dark, moody, and depressive, and other times it is borderline manic, brightly colored, and downright vicious and viscous.  Bolland is to thank for the comic's unique, disquieting beauty.

The thing I have always loved about Alan Moore is how thoughtfully he he plans, with his legendarily overly descriptive instructions for what he wants his panels to look like standing as a testament to perfection and precision with character and world building.   To look at these instructions that he leaves for his artists is intense!   The tradeoff with his obsession for detail is that what seems like clutter and quick reactions builds in an intelligent manner that expresses his characters and the world they inhabit in a way I cannot say that any other writer's work has managed to.  A character in their home or place of work is depicted surrounded by the things that most value to them and say something immediate and mindful about their character. 

By the time something terrible – and abrupt – happens, it can feel like it’s happened to someone that we feel like we know, even in a short period of time.

So – if it is the “Dark Knight” version of Batman that you’re interested in, may I suggest that you give one of the more groundbreaking comics a chance?  It doesn’t hurt that the ACPL has multiple physical and a digital copies available.

Kayla loves all things weird, wonderful, and macabre. Her soul’s in writing, and her hobbies include gaming, watching movies and television shows, and reading anything and everything. Her black cat’s TOTALLY, 100%, not evil.
  • Kayla loves all things weird, wonderful, and macabre. Her soul’s in writing, and her hobbies include gaming, watching movies and television shows, and reading anything and everything. Her black cat’s TOTALLY, 100%, not evil.
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