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Batman: The Killing Joke

A dark Batman graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland.

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If you haven't read it yet, the joke's on you

  • Jul 13, 2008
"Batman: The Killing Joke" is one of the seminal Batman comics as well as one of the finest comics ever published. That's hardly a surprise considering that it was written by Alan Moore, the Shakespeare of comic books, who the year before had written "Watchmen," the greatest comic of all time. For "The Killing Joke," he teamed with artist Brian Bolland to craft a psychological look at what made the Joker, what makes him who he is now, and how the threads of Batman's fate are inextricably woven between those of the Joker.

In "The Killing Joke," the Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum. He then proceeds to cripple Barbara Gordon and kidnap her father, Commissioner James Gordon, and hold him hostage. Meanwhile, Batman frantically searches for the Clown Prince of Crime. As one of the many comics published in the 1980s which upgraded the medium from children's entertainment to serious literature, "The Killing Joke" is very mature and very disturbing. Unlike the Joker of Tim Burton's "Batman" or of the legendary animated series, this Joker's jokes are not amusing to us. They are disturbing. As if the crippling of Barbara Gordon was not heartbreaking enough, the Joker takes disturbing photographs of her nude -- in a pool of her own blood -- then kidnaps and abuses the naked and chained Jim Gordon, laughing all the way. This is not Caesar Romero's mischievous clown from the 60's TV series.

Through a series of flashbacks, we see how the Joker came to be. Moore cleverly draws from the original origin tale created for the Joker in the 1950's. Initially intended as a throwaway story, now that tale becomes something meaningful and intriguing, an important piece of a tragic puzzle. The Joker is such an interesting character in "The Killing Joke" because at once one is appalled by him, by his ghastly actions, by his complete disregard for humanity, and yet, at the same time, one feels horrible for him. He became the horror he is after one bad night -- and, as the Joker points out, so did Batman.

Introducing that notion was just one of the ways that "The Killing Joke" influenced the future of Batman comics. The notion that Batman was a similar creature to the Joker, perhaps even the same, had never been explored before. But that's just what Moore did. "The Killing Joke" suggests that Batman needs the Joker and vice versa, as though they are yin and yang, two pieces of a puzzle, neither of which can exist without the other. Batman needs to put the Joker in his place, just as the Joker needs to be put in his place by Batman. At first it seems like an insane idea -- but out of that apparent insanity comes the frightening realization that that may be the most sane idea yet.

Moore himself has distanced himself from the books since its publication, saying that he felt that the book was devoid of "real human importance," and that the characters felt like just that: characters. He may be right in some regards. "The Killing Joke" hasn't the "human importance" of "Watchmen," but its examination of what makes these two unusual humans tick, what created them, and its suggestion that one should step back and see the big picture, makes it important enough in my book. It's true that some of the characters with less scenes, such as Barbara Gordon or even Batman himself, do come off as characters more than people, but those characters that Moore focuses on, namely the Joker and Jim Gordon, come across as real human beings.

Bringing additional depth to the story is Brian Bolland, whose eerie, muted artwork perfectly compliments Moore's chilling story. When the book was first published in 1988, it was colored by John Higgins, who used a sort of rainbow-tinged brightness in his coloring, which didn't quite fit the story. This edition is re-colored by Bolland, so all the artwork looks the way it was intended to look: splendid. Most noticeably, he's sucked most of the color out of the flashback scenes, which adds an additional bitterness to them. Bolland's muted colors are utterly perfect for Moore's writing. The Joker may never have looked so good as he does when Bolland draws him.

"The Killing Joke" was highly influential. For one thing, it brought about the creation of the crippled Barbara Gordon's alter-ego, Oracle, who would be one of the leads of the "Birds of Prey" comics (and TV series). For another, it inspired both Tim Burton's depiction of the Joker in his film and Christopher Nolan's depiction of the character in "The Dark Knight." And while Moore and Bolland have often questioned the relevancy and overall quality of the book, it remains a fan favorite.

So for those looking to acquaint themselves with Batman comics, or those who want to know just what the comic fuss is about, "The Killing Joke" is a must. It remains the greatest Joker story ever told, as well as one of the best Batman stories told, period. It's dark, disturbing, thoughtful, and revelatory. If you're interested in comics and you haven't read it, well -- the joke's on you.

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More Batman: The Killing Joke reviews
review by . January 30, 2011
    When this book opens, the Joker is in an insane asylum and Batman is visiting him in an attempt to make peace before one of them gets killed. It could be described as “Batman and the Joker sitting in a cell, each of them living in their own private hell.” Of all the super villains that Batman has faced over his career, the Joker is the one most psychologically like the morose and disturbed Bruce Wayne. The Joker is also a character that we can all identify with as …
review by . January 30, 2011
It is no coincidence that the two best Batman movies had the Joker as Batman's main antagonist. There have been many colorful villains on the other side of the bat-punch over the years, but none is more of an alter ego than the green haired one. This fact is used to develop the opening scene in the book.   The Joker is in an insane asylum along with some of Batman's other foes. Batman goes to the Joker's cell and tries to reason with him to call off their "feud" before one of them is killed. …
Quick Tip by . August 30, 2010
Alan Moore's Batman story about The Joker's origin is a bit dated after the 89 Batman movie which more people are familiar with and a little slim. It's a nice easy read nonetheless.
review by . November 19, 2009
The Joker had a pretty bad day, the gamestore being sold out of Wii's not withstanding.
The Killing Joke was my first introduction to the works of Alan Moore, and one of the first major pieces of Batman I read.  To say that I was underwhelmed wouldn't be correct but overrated wouldn't be too far from the truth either.      Batman has paid a visit to The Joker in Arkham Asylum and discusses events with him about how society can change and The Joker can be helped.  The Joker isn't quite so taken with his words and what follows is a vicous attack …
Quick Tip by . November 19, 2009
Batman follows the Joker on a quest to drive Gordan insane. Short, to the point and nice but nothing mindblowing.
review by . November 11, 2008
The Killing Joke was a comic spawned shortly after the work of Frank Miller, and is probably the comic that established The Joker as one of the most important fictional villains of the 20th century. Batman had become a well thought out, complex character in recent years, primarily due to the work of skilled writer Frank Miller. Batman had been brought into a gritty, modern world of comic books, but I always felt that Miller's The Dark Knight Returns failed to bring the antagonistic Joker into a …
review by . April 03, 2008
Blurbs on a cover always tell you that whatever book you're holding in your hands is better than the best, that you'd probably die if you'd put it back to where it came from, and more of that kind of nonsense.   In this case (in 1988) they had Tim Burton saying it's his favorite and that it's the first comic he ever loved. The poor fellow. Don't get me wrong: I adore Tim Burton. I love everything he did (after Batman), but there definitely are other great comic books out there.  But …
review by . April 10, 2002
Comic books are often dismissed by many people as having no real value. They are usually looked upon as a hobby for boys and nostalgiac entertainment for men who have never really grown up. However, comic books can be and are often much more. At their best, comics can become a moving work of art and a powerful piece of literature all in one piece. Such is the case with BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE.THE KILLING JOKE has become a comic classic for a variety of reasons. The book's illustrations have influenced …
review by . September 20, 2001
The team of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon, who combined to hit a grand slam with the now seminal graphic novel, Watchman, regrouped shortly after that and produced this examination of Batman. It's shorter, but that's the only real negative here. Moore's take on the Joker emphasizes the cruel nature of the character, and he includes a plot development here, which some of the other reviewers give away but I can't let myself do, that is shocking in how it affects characters.When I glance at a page of …
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Tom Benton ()
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Aspiring high school English teacher with dreams of filmmaking and a strong taste for music.
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The plot revolves around a largely psychological battle between Batman and his longtime foe the Joker, who has escaped from Arkham Asylum. The Joker intends to drive Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon insane to prove that the most upstanding citizen is capable of going mad after having "one bad day". Along the way, the Joker has flashbacks to his early life, gradually explaining his possible origin.


The man who will become the Joker is an unnamed engineer who quits his job at a chemical company to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, Jeannie, he agrees to guide two criminals into the plant for a robbery. During the planning, the police inform him that his wife has died in a household accident involving an electric baby bottle heater. Grief-stricken, the engineer tries to withdraw from the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his commitment to them.

At the plant, the criminals make him don a special mask to become the infamous Red Hood. Unknown to the engineer, this disguise is simply the criminals' scheme to implicate any accomplice as the mastermind to divert attention from themselves. Once inside, they almost immediately blunder into security personnel, and a violent shootout and chase ensues. The criminals are gunned down and the engineer finds himself confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance.

Panicked, the engineer deliberately jumps into the ...

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ISBN-10: 1401216676
ISBN-13: 978-1401216672
Editor: Karen Berger
Author: Alan Moore, Brian Bolland
Genre: Comics & Graphic Novels, Superheroes
Publisher: DC Comics
Date Published: 1988
Format: Graphic Novel
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