This Month in Comics History: The Killing Joke

Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)

Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Brian Bolland
Colorists: John Higgins, Brian Bolland
Letterer: Richard Starkings
Publisher: DC

Review by Max Mallet

*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*



The Killing Joke is one of the seminal Batman graphic novels of all time.  It is also one of the most controversial.  Penned by the illustrious Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen), The Killing Joke first and foremost serves as a psychological profile of the Joker, arguably the most recognizable and infamous villain in all of fiction.  Moore provides a plausible backstory for the origin-elusive jester: a struggling comedian who turns into a diabolical madman after enduring a family tragedy and subsequent disfiguring. In an attempt to show Batman that everyone is just one bad day away from villainy, the Joker physically and psychologically brutalizes the Gordon family in an attempt to mentally break Gotham police commissioner Jim Gordon.

Barbara Gordon Controversy

In order to drive commissioner Gordon insane, the Joker deduced that he has to hurt his daughter, Barbara Gordon.  Barbara (who is also Batgirl) opened the door to her apartment to find a Hawaiian-shirt-clad Joker, his smile’s menace dwarfed only by the revolver in his grasp.  The Joker fires once into her lower abdomen, paralyzing her.  While the Joker’s goons violently subdued commissioner Gordon, the Joker disrobed Barbara and takes pictures of the wounded, frightened girl.  

There are those that speculate that the Joker raped Barbara.  This opinion isn’t limited to fans, as publications as well known as The Guardian espouse this viewpoint.  It’s hardly a cut-and-dry discussion. On its face, the scene comes across as incredibly problematic, even though what the Joker does or does not do to Barbara Gordon after photographing her is ultimately left for the reader to decide.  If The Killing Joke featured the Mad Hatter rather than the Joker, this would probably not be debatable, as that’s a villain who has been portrayed with taboo sexual inclinations.  However, the Joker has committed no shortage of heinous acts in his long history, but he’s not portrayed as a sex-driven villain.  The divide about the Barbara Gordon controversy in The Killing Joke is likely one of the most divisive among fans and creators in all of comics.

Does Batman Kill the Joker?

Fans are as divided about the question, “Does Batman kill the Joker in The Killing Joke?” as they are about the Barbara Gordon controversy.  At the very end of the graphic novel, Batman has subdued the Joker and is waiting for the police to arrive.  The Joker tells Batman a joke about inmates escaping from an asylum, and shares a slow chuckle that builds into bellowing laughter.  Simultaneously, Batman places his hands on the Joker’s shoulders, with the final two panels show the laughter abruptly stopping with a close-up shot of pouring rain forming a puddle as the police arrive.  Those who don’t think Batman killed the Joker argue that killing is the thick red line that Batman never crosses.  You decide:

Memorable Panel

The Joker’s monologue with an imprisoned commissioner Gordon is iconic for a couple of reasons.  Moore’s Joker dialogue is haunting and diabolic, not dissimilar to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.  Shades of Moore’s V for Vendetta and Watchmen prose that made him a writing icon in the 1980s shine bright here.  Where some comics writers wax poetic through the guise of a character and create verbose dialogue, Moore is able to make the Joker Shakespearean without betraying the essence of the villain.  Here’s a particularly chilling excerpt, where the Clown Prince makes a pitch for madness as an opiate:

“So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness.

Madness is the emergency exit…

You can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened.  You can lock them away



When the Joker provided multiple stories about how he earned his facial scars in 2008’s The Dark Knight, the late Heath Ledger was channeling The Killing Joke.

“Do you wanna know how I got these scars?” The cinematic Joker provides multiple reasons throughout The Dark Knight.
The Joker admits that he likes to create a ‘multiple choice’ past for himself in The Killing Joke.

This parallel allowed Ledger to fully realize the Joker’s madness on the silver screen, and pull a seemingly throwaway line from The Killing Joke and turn it into a reoccurring theme in a billion-dollar grossing summer blockbuster film.  Additionally, The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan borrows the ‘turn a hero to the dark side’ them from The Killing Joke when the Joker brutalizes Harvey Dent and attempts to expose him as morally fallible.

The Killing Joke’s divisiveness surrounding Barbara Gordon bled into another controversy decades later, when Gail Simone wrote Barbara back into Batgirl by way of a surgically repaired spine.  This broke with years of continuity where Barbara stayed paralyzed and used her technological wizardry to serve the Bat family as Oracle.  Critics of this decision argued that it robbed handicapped people of representation in comics.  Despite the backlash on this front, Simone’s Batgirl series was critically acclaimed and lauded by many fans.  

The Killing Joke bubbled to the surface again with all of its swirling accolades and controversy by way of 2016’s animated film adaptation.  The film marked the return of Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Tara Strong reprising their voice roles as Batman, the Joker and Batgirl, respectively.  However, Batgirl’s relationship with Batman in an added scene was one of the many reasons that critics and fans alike cried foul for the film adaptation of this oft divisive story.

Max has always had a passion for storytelling, and has studied it twice: first with a B.A. in history and later with an M.A. in multimedia journalism. He works in communications and lives in Queens, the finest of New York City's five boroughs. Max…

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