Thursday, April 3, 2008

Batman: The Killing Joke

Batman: The Killing Joke
by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
DC Comics, 1988; remastered and rereleased in 2008

Garrett Martin: I first read Killing Joke when I was 12, and thought it sucked. That was still during my knee-jerk anti-DC Marvel Zombie phase, though, and should be discounted. I next read it in my late twenties, though, and still thought it sucked, although I wouldn't use such an ignorant-looking term outside the company of friends. Let's call it overwrought and melodramatic, with just enough sexually-charged violence to make me pretty uncomfortable. Ah, screw that, let's just say it sucks.

Hillary Brown: So I reread it last night. I first read it not that long ago. I don't think it sucks, but I think its impact has diminished, and it doesn't retain the same kind of gleefully weird vulgarity as The Dark Knight Returns, to set up a parallel between the two that my edition, with a foreword by Brian Bolland, explicitly sets up. It's as though Moore really wants to go to new places and new heights of "extreme"-ness, but, you know, he doesn't even show nipple and it degenerates into a chat-fest. I think it has strengths and I think it has weaknesses, but why don't you go deeper into the suckiness and we'll see where we end up.

GM: Well, that vulgarity is a problem, especially since it isn't "gleefully weird". It's just dirty and unimaginative. Oh yeah, and gratuitous. Sure. When people complain about how casually sordid comics have become, Killing Joke should be exhibit A. It's a perfect example of ratcheting up the sex, violence, and "mature content" while still being about as thick-headed as whatever Tom DeFalco* comic came out that week.

But the main reason why Killing Joke fails: it tries to give a sympathetic backstory to the Joker. The Joker really doesn't need much of an origin, and especially not one that makes us feel sorry for him, or tries to justify, in any way, what he's become. That undermines what makes the character so powerful and memorable. Granted, Moore sets it up so readers or other writers can decide for themselves how valid this origin is (y'know, within the Joker's fictionalized whatsis etc), but this is still basically held up by DC as the character's true backstory. The only thing Moore does with the Joker's origin that doesn't bother me is still kinda underwhelming, since Moore used the exact same motivation (and shit, even almost the exact same line) for the Comedian in Watchmen. Now, on top of that fundamental flaw, you've got a slim plot weighted down with rudimentary psycho-babble and all that unnecessary sexually-charged violence crap we mentioned above.

No amount of pretty pictures (and that Bolland, he is a good one, even if his pre-Joker looks exactly like Lyle Lovett) can make up for this misguided story.

HB: You really think it's that vulgar? I mean, so he shoots Barbara Gordon in the spine and takes nekkid pictures of her. In the grand scheme of things, especially again considering what Frank Miller would do shortly, it doesn't seem all that bad to me, but I also don't have any associations with her character, so it doesn't exactly hit me emotionally. I understand abstractly how the plan is supposed to work to drive the commish insane, but it's not surprising that it doesn't work, as it doesn't really affect the reader either (at least not this jaded one). I mean, if you're going to do sexually charged violence (and if there's any comic in which it belongs, I kind of think it's Batman), you should have bigger cojones about it.

I'm not opposed to the idea of exploring a villain's background sympathetically. I think what Tim Burton did in his first Batman movie (inspired by this comic, I believe) works pretty well. It just doesn't quite have enough material for a full-length story. It should be a background element. I know Moore isn't a huge fan of this book in retrospect, probably because he recognizes it's not well-balanced enough between Joker and Batman. He tries to set up parallels, but, despite the amount of talking that happens, there's no real examination of the psychology of
either character. Trauma as an explanation for psychosis works better with the hero in this case than it does with the villain, as it results from a childhood experience of the former and an adult tragedy for the latter.

It's also difficult to figure out where Moore is coming down on any of the issues he raises, which isn't necessarily a problem, when you're trying to set up a complicated adult world, but mostly comes off as muddled in this case. Is there really a thin line between sanity and insanity, as the Joker suggests, or is sanity not that hard to hold onto, as the example of Commissioner Gordon demonstrates? Is insanity a valid option? Is Batman a more admirable figure partially because he comes from money, as opposed to the Joker, driven to crime by harsh economic conditions? How much tragedy is there in comedy? Is it better to enforce the law according to its letter or to behave like a vigilante, and can you pick and choose
depending on the situation? All of these (well, most of them) are interesting things to consider, but Moore dances about on top of them, spending far too much energy on the first one without ever answering it satisfactorily and not digging into the economic and governmental issues, which he's usually more invested in discussing.

Okay, the art and the new coloring. I was rereading from our edition of D.C. Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, which has the old coloring, not done by Bolland, but I've seen some examples of the new stuff (here ), and I'm not sure which I prefer. I do sort of hate the look of the old flashbacks, but the new ones look a little slick, and they call attention to Bolland's occasional awkward character positioning. You flipped through the new edition more extensively. What do you think?

GM: Before I get to the art, or any of the stuff you brought up, please let me rant a bit more. I've got some viewpoints; maybe they're reactionary? I do think a lot of this story's content is inappropriate for an in-continuity Batman comic, unless it's within a genuinely great story (which this ain't), and serves a worthwhile point (which this don't). There's no need to be so explicit; at the very least they didn't have to show the photographs, which do contain nudity, including what appears to be at least one nipple. It's made worse that, for a couple decades, and until just earlier that same year, Barbara Gordon was a superhero herself. The Women in Refrigerators stuff gets overplayed, but I think this is a legitimate situation to get upset over. Moore takes an utterly capable female character with a long history, has the villain paralyze her, take nude photos, and alludes to rape, just to get a reaction out of a male character (or two). Total textbook example, tearing down a female in order to develop a male. Granted Gordon went on to be a more important and fully-developed character, but it took other creators to clean up the mess Moore left. Now, I don't think I'm a prude (Casanova is like 33% sex, and that doesn't bug me one bit), but I do think what is supposed to be a milestone book for one of the most mainstream superhero characters ever should be more suitable for an all-ages audience, especially considering this book was released at a time when kids were still actually reading comics.

And maybe the attack wouldn't seem so unnecessary if the Joker's scheme made more sense. The Joker blatantly states that anybody could become as insane as him (or as Batman, another character I will also argue is ill-served by depictions of insanity) if they have a seriously bad day. So Moore has the Joker do all that crazy mixed-up Batgirl brutality in order to affect a change in another character that will supposedly reflect a character trait that I believe the Joker doesn't even possess, or is better off not possessing. But, y'know, his plan fails anyway. Now, I don't really see the Joker as being insane; if he is, then he's so insane that he's circled back around to sanity (yes I hate this construction too but please bear with me thanks). A Joker that's just fuckin' nuts is a less interesting Joker. An insane mass murderer is nowhere near as horrifying as a coldly calculating one, especially one who just happens to act like a damn clown in order to creep people even more the fuck out. And although, again, Moore leaves some room here at the end, bringing up the Comedian justification, Killing Joke is still all about showing why the Joker is so damn crazy and insane. Toss in some insufficiently creepy visual cues lifted from Freaks (that are just as goofy as the '90's Reznorish / Marilyn Mansonian interest in such imagery, despite clearly predating it), the strained "we is the two sides of this one here coin" biz concerning the Batman / Joker relationship, and an incongruous climax where Bats and the Jokester laugh it out despite one of them terrorizing and paralyzing some of the other one's dearest friends, and you've got one seriously bad comic.

Any way, you're right, Moore doesn't devote enough attention to any of the issues you mention to let us know what he personally thinks. Maybe if the story was more detailed and/or thought-out some of the issues I raise wouldn't stick out so much. I would think Gordon's resilience is Moore's way of saying that it does take a lot to drive a man insane, but he focuses so little on Gordon after his rescue that the point seems muffled and trivial. And as interesting as an examination of their disparate economic situations at the time of their respective foundational personal crises would be, Moore doesn't even attempt to bring that up. A lot of opportunities were missed with this one.

Let me get back to what I was saying above about the Batman / Joker relationship. There's nothing wrong with trying to define a hero and his archrival as mirror opposites; that works great for Superman and Luthor, and strengthens both characters. But the Batman / Joker dichotomy put forward in Killing Joke, and mostly continued on to this day, is limiting. Saying they're both insane, but one is insanely obsessed with fighting crime while the other is insanely obsessed with being one hell of a hopeless asshole, is a little too pat and psychologically simplistic. Why can't the mirror image be as simple as the Joker's willingness to kill anybody for no good reason, compared to Batman's unwillingness to ever kill anybody for any reason? How does labelling them as, basically, complements to each other's distinct strand of insanity do anything other than further narrow the available options for future Batman / Joker stories? Furthermore, after killing Robin and paralyzing Batgirl twenty damn years ago, what the hell else could this dickhead do that's even more damaging to Batman? Beat him in a game of Clue? More than with any other comic book adversaries, Batman and the Joker have been painted into a corner. Moore and Killing Joke aren't neccesarily to blame for that, but they did help kick up a dirt cloud that still lingers in the air today.

Okay, sorry for the ramblin'. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to flip through the remastered edition (the shop done sold out somehow), but from scans at The Beat and at other sites the new coloring doesn't seem to add or detract much from the book. I've never liked the garish colors from the original, but Bolland's touch-ups look muted and dull. I don't have any problems when it comes to the process of updating or rejiggering older works (we can still watch the original Star Wars whenever we want, you damn babies), but Bolland's changes don't seem major enough to warrant any complaints from even the staunchest of fanboy whiners. But then, I've only seen a few pages, so what the hell do I know.

*: I'm being too harsh to DeFalco here. Dude wrote some fine comics back in the day.


hillary said...

That's a good point about kids reading the comic. I tend not to think about that aspect too much, and I know I was fairly traumatized by a Superman issue from the late 1980s about animal testing because it was pretty violent to me at the time.

Paul L. Pedersen said...

I can't help but take issue with this review. First of all, Garrett, saying there's too much violence and vulgarity was sort of the point. It's sick, and it's wrong, and it's the way the Joker should be viewed. Using that as a reason to dislike the book is like saying you hate X-Men because Wolverine's past is too mysterious.

The Joker was used as a silly character for years and Moore corrected it. As soon as he shoots and tortures Barbara you're not in comic book world anymore, you're in the real world, and its creepy. To me the idea put forward in this blog, that he's not insane, goes against the very core of the character; yes, he's cold and calculating, but exactly the sort of things he's calculating make him bat-shit crazy.

As far as not wanting a back story, I'm not sure what to tell you. I personally do not want one-dimensional characters in my storytelling, but that might just be a silly preference of mine.

And to Hillary: bigger cojones? Really? Shooting a man's daughter, stripping her naked, taking photos, and making him watch; that's not doing it for you? Perhaps you're right, you are too jaded.

Brian Bolland's art, in my opinion, is pretty flawless, and his version of the Joker became industry standard after this.

I do agree, though, that it's a little graphic for the kids. Especially since its become canon. But anyway, it was a one-shot book, not in-series, and I'd blame D.C. over the creators for the character's direction. Alan Moore writes for mature audiences, they knew it, and they wanted this book.

err... I like this blog, incidentally.

garrett said...

Hey, thanks for taking the time to read this rambling diatribe, and to respond with some good points.

I can't help but take issue with this review. First of all, Garrett, saying there's too much violence and vulgarity was sort of the point. It's sick, and it's wrong, and it's the way the Joker should be viewed. Using that as a reason to dislike the book is like saying you hate X-Men because Wolverine's past is too mysterious.

You can get across the point that the Joker is sick and wrong without flashing it in the reader's face. And even though the violence is too graphic for a comic, I agree with Hillary that, considering what you can see on movies or tv, the violence in Killing Joke isn't especially shocking in the wider context of general pop culture.

The Joker was used as a silly character for years and Moore corrected it.
Moore didn't really change the way DC had been depicting the Joker. Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams brought him back to his murderous roots in the '70's. If anything, Moore just amplified it. (This is from Wikipedia, of course; I wasn't even born when O'Neil and Adams were on Batman)

As soon as he shoots and tortures Barbara you're not in comic book world anymore, you're in the real world, and its creepy. To me the idea put forward in this blog, that he's not insane, goes against the very core of the character; yes, he's cold and calculating, but exactly the sort of things he's calculating make him bat-shit crazy.

No, we're still in a comic book, one where a mass murderer that looks like a clown can hire a group of sideshow freaks to be his criminal henchmen and help him fight some guy that runs around town dressed like a bat. There's nothing remotely realistic about Killing Joke, other than the violence, which is why it's out of place.

As far as not wanting a back story, I'm not sure what to tell you. I personally do not want one-dimensional characters in my storytelling, but that might just be a silly preference of mine.

Of all the major comic book villains, the Joker is the only one that doesn't need a backstory. He works best as a random chaotic element, a criminal whose actions you can't predict precisely because they serve no overarching purpose, other than fucking with Batman and society in general. Dr. Doom, Lex Luthor, the Red Skull, and pretty much all other major comic book villains would be nothing without their histories; the Joker, though, doesn't need one.

hillary said...

Dude, I did just read The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Back, which are considerably stronger in terms of violence depicted. Admittedly, I have a pretty strong tolerance for violence onscreen and in comics, but I didn't think this reaction was just me. Grant Morrison's even done stuff that disturbed me more in Animal Man. If anything, it's that I'm probably more used to reading stuff written for adults and, therefore, not thinking about it too much.

Thanks for commenting!

Karate Media said...

You guys have inspired me to pull this one out of the longbox and give it a read again (it's been years and years since I've read it). I was around 14 when I bought this, when it was first published in 1988. A 20-years-later perspective would be interesting...

That said, there are two immediate things I would take issue with, both directed at Garrett:

Regarding the comment, "especially considering this book was released at a time when kids were still actually reading comics." -- TKJ was released two years after both Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and Moore's "Watchmen." Four years after Moore started his Swamp Thing run. And the same year that Hellblazer started. All titles were pre-Vertigo and released under the DC imprint, IIRC.

The "won't someone think of the kids" argument had already been long debated before TKJ, and in my opinion it had clearly been established by that point that DC could and should market to a more mature audience.

Remember that TKJ was released in the "Prestige" format, or whatever they called it. It was a good bit more expensive than your average comic book, printed on glossy paper, and, IIRC, sold only at comic shops. All things that help support the argument that, "This one ain't for the kids." Again, they'd already used Batman in a "mature" story by this point (DKR), so The Killing Joke really shouldn't come as a surprise. Now, had it been Plastic Man, on the other hand...

Second, I think you have to admit that "Women in Refrigerators," particularly in regards to Barbara Gordon, is ultimately the fault of the publisher and not the author. This is a business where the publisher rules all. Superboy can punch Robin back into existence, and all that. DC has had ample time and opportunity to undo the damage to Babs. Admittedly, they took it somewhere else, making her Oracle and giving her tragedy some meaning and value. But WiR is a whole other discussion fraught with its own dangers, so I'll leave this one where it lays...

Anyway, keep up the good work. I'm off to dump out my boxes to find this one. And don't forget to cover the economics of comic books in a future post!

hillary said...

Didn't Moore start writing before Miller's stuff came out? Not that that makes a huge difference, but it might make a small one.

Smoggo said...

i don't remember the violence fucking with me when i was a kid...just remember the old school batmobile bolland style...but you know maybe that's why i have always been excited by this pic

if you stick with the superhero LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and the Jeff Smith SHAZAM thing

garrett said...

KM: true, Killing Joke wasn't the first "mature audiences" book published by DC. It was, though, the least of those early adult-skewing books. As I said, I wouldn't have as much of a problem with TKJ if the story was better and if the acts perpetrated upon Barbara Gordon had more of an impact on the central Batman characters(other than Batgirl, she was pretty damn impacted) or more of a focal role in the story itself. What it comes down to is I think The Killing Joke is a poorly thought-out and cumbersomely constructed story that exploits the gratuitous destruction of a long-standing character to lend itself an importance it otherwise wouldn't have. That isn't true for Watchmen, TDKR, Hellblazer, etc.

Also, don't think I hate Moore; his best comics are among the very best ever made. I think he has more misses than Grant Morrison, but I think the two of them are the best superhero writers probably ever, and I can't really decide which one is better. I like Morrison more, but even his best work doesn't quite compare to the depth and vision of Watchmen.