The Killing Joke is arguably the greatest Joker story ever told. It traces the history of Joker – how a simple-minded, innocent looking, God-fearing, struggling family man with a beautiful and loving wife turns into Batman’s greatest and most iconic foe. The theme propounded here is brilliant. The Joker believes that one really bad day can turn even the sanest person into the very reincarnation of devil and horror, since that’s all it took for him. And he is convinced that the same happened for Batman as well.
Graphic novels are perhaps one of the least recognized of art forms. This might be because of various reasons, ranging from something as acceptable as their being a comparatively recent phenomenon vis-à-vis, say, music, oil-on-canvas or literature, to something as grossly disturbing and parochial as prejudice and/or lack of knowledge. The readers, however, might rest assured as this is not intended to be a rebuttal of an oh-so-ignorant society (as I myself am yet to be “enlightened” if you know what I mean). Rather, this piece is on a graphic novel that I read recently and has, to some level, helped me realize the staggering levels that a graphic novel can reach.
Batman is one comic book superhero that I really like. The reasons are manifold – he is believable, his is essentially a vigilante justice system rather than relying on gravity-defying or radioactive-triggered superpowers, and most importantly, batman comics are dark, disturbing and unabashed in its depiction of the underbelly of a decadent society and the shrouded corners of human psychology. And these traits reached poetic levels (a demented one at that) in the one-shot graphic novella The Killing Joke. It wasn’t for no reason that this turned out to be chief source of inspiration for Chirstopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. In fact late Heath Ledger apparently modelled his sensational performance after the Joker in this story. It was also a major influence on TimBurton’s Batman, and perhaps even Jack Nicholson’s unforgettable portrayal of Batman’s arch-nemesis lay in these very pages.
Alan Moore, along with his famous contemporary Frank Miller, is perhaps one of the most influential graphic novelists ever, and he surely reached his pinnacle of prowess in this book, published by DC Comics in 1988. The book was illustrated by Brian Bolland, an exceptional British artist.
The Killing Joke is arguably the greatest Joker story ever told. It traces the history of Joker – how a simple-minded, innocent looking, God-fearing, struggling family man with a beautiful and loving wife turns into Batman’s greatest and most iconic foe; how financial and emotional crises turns an everyday Joe into a psychotic, heartless, nameless maniac – a madman with no rules, ethics, laws, associations, agenda or beliefs. The theme propounded here is brilliant. The Joker believes that one really bad day can turn even the sanest person into the very reincarnation of devil and horror, since that’s all it took for him. Yes, “One bad day” (as the back-cover has so marvelously put it), according to the grinning engine of madness and mayhem known as The Joker, that’s all that separates the sane from the psychotic.
He is convinced that it was the same for Batman as well. Dressed in a comical batsuit, travelling in a farcical batmobile, and his idea of a nice day being attempting dangerous stunts and beating up thugs – c’mon he too isn’t really what one might call “sane”. And as the readers already know (and I couldn’t help but smirk at the callous choice of analogy), Bruce Wayne indeed had one hell of a bad day that snapped his present and shaped his future, and turned him into a police unto himself. As the Joker so aptly states, they represent the two antithetical sides of the same coin. While Batman tries to accept the irreversible damage done to him courtesy that one bad day and has decided to dedicate his life to prevent such occurrences in the lives of his fellow Gotham City residents, The Joker, on the other hand, has turned into a perfect example of a deranged madman who feels it is incumbent upon him to appraise everyone the “absurdity of life, and all its random injustice.”
The story is two-fold. On one side (the present) Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum – a house for the criminally insane. He chooses Commissioner Jim Gordon, the archetype for the “good man” to prove his point. And he is ready to go the distance if need be. In the process a battle of wits ensues between Batman and Joker – a battle that is more psychological than physical; the battle that is bound to decide the very existence of these two incredible characters, or worse, might lead to the Batman being shown the road to his inherent lunacy and craziness that isn’t very different from the Joker’s – just manifested in a different fashion. Indeed, the book is unflinching insofar as redrawing the thin line between the Batman’s “noble man in shining armour” and Joker’s bloodlust, lunacy and “evil clown” persona.
On the other side (told in flashbacks), the Joker narrates his tale of “one bad day” – the day that imposed horrible scars on his mind and in the process changed his life irreversibly. But, let the readers be warned, the past that is revealed might not necessarily be what actually happened. No one knows what essentially transpired, perhaps not even the Joker himself. As he states with his mesmerizing smile, "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"
The artistic value of this one-shot novella is beyond any reasonable doubt. Alan Moore’s narration is terrific – deliciously cynic, unapologetically violent and imperious in its combination of the mundane with the macabre. He has made the Joker’s behavioural pattern so inconsistent and unpredictable that it might easily frighten the hell out of any chicken-heart. The Joker commits acts of immense cruelty even when unprovoked, like when he shoots Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara Gordon in the spine, and in the process not only paralyses her for life but also ends her career as a Batgirl. Again, at other moments, when he has reasons to be violent, like when he is holding a gun at Batman and firing which will provide him his escape route, it turns out to be a toy gun with a “Click Click Click” poster popping out of it. Moore really revels with joyous delight at every twist and turn of events that he casually places in front of the reader. And his free-flowing twisted sense of humour is at times as good as Frank Miller’s in the Sin City or his own Dark Knight comics.
And as for Bolland’s artwork, it is magnetic and made me elicit a “Wow!” at nearly every page. The depiction of violence, with all those little facial twitching, eerie rustling of leaves, sly silhouetted shadows, lousy windless nights and crime-soaked Gotham City, is fascinating in its graphic detail, so much so, that I almost felt the events unfolding right in front of my eyes. Each character has been etched in utmost detail with all their psycho-somatic nuances. The use of colours is also awesome. While the present is a splash of loud, jarring watercolours for the Joker and his gang of obnoxious mannequins as opposed to the sombre, darker shades for the Batman, the flashbacks have been depicted in washed out grey that is almost nostalgic and sad, save for the gory red lobsters or the ominous red hood or the evil green hair which adds a layer of terror and a dark, noirish feel.
And as for the climax, it is legendary, and not just in comic-book circle or among Batman aficionados. The Joker is lost, his cycle of crime is defeated, and Batman is ready to deal with him “according to the book”. Crime, we feel, never pays, and good, as usual, is on the verge of defeating the evil. But Moore decided to have one more kick at our guts. The Joker decides to tell one last joke, effectively “The Killing Joke”, to the Batman, at this hour of his surrender while the police are on its way. The joke, as it turns out, isn’t anything extraordinary or for that matter funny. However, we suddenly see the Joker’s ghoulish smile being given companionship by the Batman’s thunderous laughter. And the two, like long lost buddies reunited after a separation of many decades or perhaps after managing to escape from their respective cells from asylums for the mentally ill, in their misplaced, anachronistic attires, laugh their way to glory with complete abandon. And thus with this amazingly concocted moment which is, in equal proportions, surreal and bizarre, the book ends up delivering the perfect non-sequitur ending as far the as the logical turn of events go.