The Killing Joke is an iconic tale that you probably know something about, even if you’ve never read it. You’ve probably heard that:
- It was written by Alan Moore.
- It is a story of Batman and The Joker
- It offers an origin for The Joker
- Barbara Gordon is shot, creating the origin for Oracle.
For better or worse, The Killing Joke will always be considered one of the premiere tales of Batman and The Joker. Let’s talk about why.
The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore with art by Brian Bollard and published in 1988. It has never gone out of print and has even appeared on the New York Times Best Selling list. It won an Eisner Award for ‘Best Graphic Album’ in 1989 and is often considered to be one of the definitive Joker stories. But what made it so?
It was written by Alan Moore.
Love him or hate him, Alan Moore has written some ground-breaking comic stories: Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, and Promethea. Alan Moore is a prominent British writer who has influenced people like Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon, by their own admissions. As with many artists, Moore’s own life and ideals have heavily affected his own work (He’s an anarchist – V for Vendetta; He’s an oocultist – From Hell; He’s a ceremonial magician – Promethea). And he’s written some amazing stories that make you ponder larger questions.
It’s a story of Batman and The Joker
It’s often been said that Batman would not be Batman without The Joker. And in The Killing Joke we have a brilliant moment where Batman admits that he and The Joker are locked in a course to each others’ deaths, one or the other or even both. He wants to change that course, but knows he can’t unless The Joker agrees, which of course he doesn’t and won’t. Yet the story gives us an exchange between these two iconic characters that ends with them both laughing at a joke and then an ambiguous ending.
It offers an origin for The Joker
The Killing Joke is unique in that it was the first time we were offered a glimpse at why The Joker became the deranged villain that we all know. The argument provided with this origin is that we are all just one bad day away from being broken and becoming something different, something terrible. But the story, in its brilliance, actually leaves this origin slightly ambiguous. Is it real? Is it real to The Joker in that moment? Or is it just another story?
Barbara Gordon is shot
This is perhaps the reason so many people have heard of The Killing Joke. It also may be one of the most controversial elements of the book. Barbara Gordon is shot through the spine by The Joker answering the door at her own home. And to make matters worse, he then undresses her and takes pictures. It’s horrible, especially when you put this event in context with the many other instances of ‘women in refrigerators.’ Barbara is exploited in The Joker’s attempts to psychologically break Jim Gordon. The Joker’s argument in the book is that anyone can turn into someone like him given the right circumstances. But Jim Gordon doesn’t break. So the trauma Barbara experiences at the hands of a man in order to torture another man seems to mean little. This event and its place in canon (and the resultant character of Oracle) are continuously debated, often rightfully so. The recent controversy over one of the Joker variant designs, which referenced this story, exemplifies the power this story still has. For better or worse, it starts conversations.
For all these reasons and more, The Killing Joke is a comic you should read.