Tuesday, July 23, 2013

More Moore part 21: The Killing Joke

The Killing Joke (1988)

I don't like The Killing Joke.

I figured I'd get that out of the way first thing. Barring a dark horse that I expect to be bad coming out of nowhere as a masterpiece, like if "Violator vs. Badrock" is the true successor to Watchmen, I suspect this will be my most controversial opinion for the duration of this series. Everyone loves The Killing Joke, from Batman fans, to Joker fans, to industry insiders, to people who have never read a single issue of Batman outside of this one. It's dark, it's edgy, and even I have to admit it's stunningly well-drawn. But to this critic, that's all it is, and stripped of Brian Bolland's painstakingly detailed artwork, there's just nothing underneath.

Granted, there is one other person who agrees with this sentiment: Mr. Moore himself. He's been quoted with his dissatisfaction on the work as well, calling it, "[not] a very good book. It's not saying anything very interesting." So where's the problem? Why is The Killing Joke hailed as such a game-changer if it doesn't have anything interesting to say?

The Killing Joke was designed, from its very start, as the quintessential Joker story. Like Watchmen it cuts back and forth between the past and the present through flashbacks, to flesh out the Joker origin story first dreamed up in 1951s "The Man Behind the Red Hood" in which Batman discovers that Red Hood, a criminal from his past that he could never catch, was The Joker, pre-chemical bath. Moore takes the story's thin premise and expands on it, giving Joker his origin as a failing comedian, so desperate to make ends meet that he agrees to put on the red hood and ends up taking a bath after a botched robbery attempt. Now in the present, Joker attempts to make Commissioner Gordon's mind snap like his did, by taking away everything that Gordon holds dear, most notoriously by blasting Barbara 'Batgirl' Gordon through the spine, paralyzing her for the next 23 years until the New 52 reboot. Gordon shows his mettle by not buckling under the pressure of Joker's sick game, and when Joker is cornered by Batman, the police closing in, the worst he can do to the Dark Knight is tell a joke (admittedly, a pretty funny joke) before he's presumably taken away, off-panel, at the end.

And the problem woth the novel is that there's just not much more plot to tell. It's thin before it even gets off the ground, and no amount of violent realism is going to change that, because The Joker's already been done violently before this, most notably in Frank Miller's 1986 The Dark Knight Returns Denny O'Neil's 1973 "The Joker's Five Way Revenge". Brian Bolland's art is better than either of those works, sure, but it's not backing up anything of substance, just cheap violence to shock and titillate readers who could have read gritty, 'realistic' works with more meat on them long before. The Killing Joke actually reads like an Alan Moore wannabe, like some fledgeling author caught up in the majesty of Watchmen who wanted to tell a similar story without knowing how. It feels cheap, gaudy, a swipe for the lowest common denominator that Alan proved on his very first major work he was already above. It's that cynicism that makes The Killing Joke less than The Ballad of Halo Jones, because though Halo was boring, it had a heart that Joke lacks. Halo Jones is just a dull book, whereas The Killing Joke is an offensive one, a too-little-too-late bit of hackwork that gives us almost nothing worth remembering. Almost

And that almost is the one positive from this whole debacle: in shooting out Barbara Gordon's spine, Moore laid the groundwork for the character to become a very positive, sympathetic character that DC most certainly needed: as wheelchair-bound information broker Oracle, Barbara was strong-willed, brilliant, and able to overcome any limitations put on her, a positive role model for girls and the disabled in a medium that often has trouble with both, let alone at the same time. I won't deny it: 20 years after The Killing Joke, when Babs lifted herself out of her chair and beat down Spy Smasher even with two useless limbs in the pages of Birds of Prey, I cheered. And then of course 3 years later the reboot happened and now she walks again. Oh well.

We started off with a Moore quote and we'll end with one too: "...there've been worse Batman books than The Killing Joke." The sentiment is absolutely true of course; for as much as I give the book a hard time, there were worse Batman stories before, and worse after, by droves. Mostly the feeling I get from the Killing Joke is disappointment: Brian Bolland is a brilliant artist and Alan Moore is a brilliant writer, so they should have made something equal to the home runs that Moore had already hit: 1988's Watchmen or Swamp Thing or Marvelman. but instead we got a slight, nasty piece of work that would be repeated over and over for the next 23 years by authors who wanted to be 'dark' and 'edgy' like Alan Moore without recognizing the humanity underneath that made his works so brilliant. Maybe someone can give a really strong, persuasive argument to the merits of The Killing Joke, but as of now it's just something unpleasant.


Best quote: "All these years and I don't know who he is any more than he knows who I am./How can two people hate each other so much without knowing each other?"


Up next: The little things. DC short works.

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