Monday, April 23, 2012

The Darkness Gets Deeper In Batman: The Killing Joke

The Good: Great artwork, Good story, Disturbingly graphic
The Bad: Ultimately adds up to very little.
The Basics: Batman: The Killing Joke might well be one of the few Batman graphic novels I enjoyed, offering a backstory to the Joker and desperately wounding one of the heroines of the DC Universe.

Recently, I began reading graphic novels in the Birds Of Prey series (Perfect Pitch is reviewed here!) and while I have been a little more neutral to them than some of the other comic book series’ that I have picked up, I suppose I found myself intrigued. I was intrigued enough by Barbara Gordon – the Oracle – to want to check out what was essentially the Oracle’s origin story. I knew that the Joker was responsible for getting Barbara confined to a wheelchair and that it happened in Batman: The Killing Joke, so I figured I would pick that book up. Now available in a deluxe hardcover version, Batman: The Killing Joke is an appropriately dark book with surprisingly little in the way of mystery. In fact, Batman: The Killing Joke might well be the most straightforward Batman book I have read.

Batman: The Killing Joke is essentially a double-long one-shot story that once again pits the Joker against Batman. What makes Batman: The Killing Joke different is that it actually provides an origin story for the Joker and it has lasting consequences, at least for Barbara Gordon.

Batman arrives at Arkham Asylum to interview the Joker. He wants to reach out and try to appeal to the Joker’s humanity before either of them ends up killing the other. He is, therefore, surprised and disturbed to discover that the man he is sitting across from is not the Joker and that once more the Joker is free. The Joker, for his part, spends the same time buying an amusement park. After killing the park’s owner, the Joker prepares his most elaborate plot yet.

Arriving at the home of Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down, naked and helpless. Capturing Jim Gordon, the Joker takes him to his amusement park where he torments the old man with images of his wounded daughter. Batman swoops in to rescue Gordon and thwart the Joker once again.

Batman: The Killing Joke is intentionally dark, disturbing and creepy. But I found it to be something quite a bit less extraordinary than Alan Moore’s other important graphic novel from around the same time, Watchmen (reviewed here!). While still arguably quite a bit better than his Lost Girls, Batman: The Killing Joke is in many ways a troublingly simple graphic novel. Indeed, the seminal event that I picked the book up for happens very early in the tome and is not truly reflected upon within its pages. In fact, the Joker makes no mention of shooting Barbara as anything other than a random occurrence. If the Joker knew she was Batgirl, it is not made clear in this story.

Instead, much of Batman: The Killing Joke focuses on the Joker trying to drive Jim Gordon insane while flashing back to the origin story of the Joker. The origin story is interesting and creates an almost sympathetic character before the accident which created the Joker. Moore is good at making readers care about unlikely characters and in that way, Batman: The Killing Joke is another success of his. The reader feels bad for the proto-Joker even as his current incarnation has Jim Gordon stripped naked and tortured. It’s brutal, but Moore effectively contrasts the current Joker with his surprisingly mundane origins.

What is also worthwhile in the book is how Batman is characterized, however briefly. In Batman: The Killing Joke, Bruce Wayne tries to come to a truce with the Joker. He wants to stop the bloodshed and he offers the Joker a chance at rehabilitation and redemption. This is a far cry from the Batman I have read in so many other books where he is characterized as cold, emotionally reserved and so efficient as to be almost inhuman. In Batman: The Killing Joke, he is highly-principled and deeply human. In fact, here he is heroic.

The artwork in Batman: The Killing Joke is largely excellent as well. While there are a few sequences – most notably what appears to be a protracted sequence of Jim Gordon’s carnival ride leaving the house of horrors it was stuck in – that are less clear, the artwork is distinctive, well-rendered and intriguing. None of the panels are glossed over with simplified artwork and the colors are vibrant, clear and rich with depth and shading on par with contemporary comic books.

In the end, I got exactly what I hoped to in reading Batman: The Killing Joke; I witnessed for myself just how Barbara Gordon was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for over twenty years. But I did not get much more out of it than that. The origin story of the Joker was intriguing, but Batman: The Killing Joke does not, ultimately, humanize him; it merely reminds us of what a monster a normal person may become.

For other Batman books, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Batman: R.I.P.
Knightfall: Volume 1 – Broken Bat
Knightfall: Volume 2 – Who Rules The Night
Knightfall: Volume 3 – Knightsend
Batman/Daredevil: King Of New York


For other book reviews, please visit my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the book reviews I have written.

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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