Alan Moore is arguably one of the comic book industry’s most recognisable names. His work on Watchmen is considered a seminal piece that altered the entire industry and still tops best seller lists today. The Killing Joke, originally published in 1988 as an out of continuity one-shot graphic novel, exists in Moore’s second tier: a work well known within the confines of the industry but not reaching the widespread literary acclaim of the aforementioned Watchmen or the disastrously dystopian V for Vendetta.
The Killing Joke pairs Moore with the masterfully realistic artwork of Brian Bolland to take on one of the comic book medium’s most enduringly antagonistic relationships: the never ending struggle between The Batman and the Joker.
Here the Joker has, yet again, escaped from Arkham Asylum and this time he’s got something to prove. The central concept – subsequently borrowed heavily by Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight – is that nobody is ever more than one bad day away from madness. In a brutal sequence involving Commissioner Jim Gordon’s daughter Barbara, the then current Batgirl, Joker sets out to break the Commissioner’s spirit and subsequently prove that not only is his own madness justified, but logical. Interspersed throughout the story is a mostly black and white retelling of one of the Joker’s many possible origins. In classic Alan Moore style the flashback sequences juxtapose wonderfully with the central story as they illustrate the Joker’s descent from a going-nowhere everyman to the comic book world’s most popular villain.
Brain Bolland’s art is viscerally brutal in its realism, whether it is the violence of the Joker towards Barbara Gordon or the psychedelically insane use of the same incident to break her father. There is page after page of beautifully rendered panels here, any of which could be considered works of art in their own right. Indeed the image of the joker dressed in a Hawaiian shirt with a camera around his neck is universally recognisable to any Batman fan.
The Batman brand is a behemoth and it is easy to conflate its mass appeal with the idea that Batman is a children’s superhero with a colourful band of largely harmless villains. The Killing Joke is not for children, not by any means. It is thick with physical and psychological violence. Alan Moore’s Joker is a true threat to Gotham City and a genuinely scary villain. If picture books don’t scare you and you’re not squeamish, then you’ll enjoy this one quite a bit.