Thursday, June 14, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: The Killing Joke

'I've been thinking lately, about you and me. About what's going to happen to us, in the end. We're going to kill each other, aren't we? Perhaps you'll kill me, perhaps I'll kill you. Perhaps sooner, perhaps later. I just wanted to know that I'd made a genuine attempt to talk things over and avert that outcome. Just once. Are you listening to me? It's life and death that I'm discussing here. Maybe my death...maybe yours. I don't fully understand why ours should be such a fatal relationship, but I dont want your murder on my hands.' - Batman

The above quote appears at both the beginning and during the climax of the The Killing Joke. The one-time graphic novel was created in 1988, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. Although some of the events carried over to the continuity of the Batman universe, this comic was intended to be a stand-alone issue. If you're expecting this to be anything like the 60's Adam West Batman, or like the more cartoony incarnations, you're way off. This is one of the most eerie, disturbing, and thought-provoking versions of Batman I've ever experienced.

While Killing Joke may be labelled as a Batman comic, it centers around the origins and philosophies of the maniacal Joker. The main plot features The Joker's cruel attempt to drive Comissioner Gordon insane, by attacking his daughter, exploiting her injured body, and kidnapping Gordon to physically and mentally torture him. The point he's trying to prove, as you'll see in the quote below, that any man is one bad day away from becoming a psychopath.

On the surface, the concept of the comic may seem ridiculous, a couple of grown men running around in costumes trying to one-up eachother. What interests me so much about the Batman series, and especially The Killing Joke, is that it's really just a classic detective vs. serial killer story. Also, it isn't just about the wild schemes and action sequences. This graphic novel provides plenty of social commentary, poignant writing, and philosophical questions about how far a good man will go to destroy an evil man. Though written in 1988, a lot of what is said in this graphic novel is still relevant to our culture today, which shows the timelessness of the novel's themes.

The Batman character is often teased and criticized when compared to other heroes, because he doesn't have any super human abilities. But for me, this is what makes him much more interesting than the aliens and the mutants. He is just a man who's trying to live up to a promise to his murdered parents, trying to save a city that he loves, and trying to come to terms with the lifestyle that he's chosen. This is much more easy for me to relate to than a man in a tight outfit who can shoot lasers out of his eyes. In this particular story, Batman has grown weary of his constant battle with The Joker, and is looking for a way for them to peacefully reconcile. He even entertains the notion that he can help cure The Joker's insanity, which his nemesis sorrowfully rejects, stating that it is much too late for that.

There are many versions, depending on which book or film you choose, of The Joker's origin story. The background offered in The Killing Joke is my favourite. It presents the man who became The Joker as a sympathetic character, rather than a villain right from birth. He was a chemist turned comedian, struggling to provide for his pregnant wife. When the mob presented an opportunity for him to make all the cash he'd ever need to give his wife the life she wanted, he took it. However, the scheme goes wrong, and while running from Batman, the man fell into unspecified chemicals, which turned his hair green, his lips red, and his skin white. Unlike other versions, where The Joker wears make-up and embraces the role of a clown, this darker version shows that he didn't have a choice. He just had a bad day. It should be noted that in preparation for The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan presented Heath Ledger with a copy of The Killing Joke, to use as a character reference. The influence of the graphic novel is quite clear in Knight, with Ledger's version of The Joker also going off on his long-winded rants about humanity and the frailty of society's sanity.
'I've demonstrated there's no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am, I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a flying rat? You had a bad day, and it drove you as crazy as everybody else...only you won't admit it! You have to keep pretending that life makes sense. That there's some point to all this struggling! God, you make me want to puke. I mean, what is it with you? What made you what you are? Girlfriend killed by the mob, maybe? Brother carved up by some mugger? Something like that happened to me, you know. I...I'm not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another...if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha! But my point is...my point is, I went crazy. When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it! Why can't you? I mean, you're not unintelligent! You must see the reality of the situation. Do you know how many times we've come close to a world war three over a flock of geese on a computer screen? Do you know what triggered the last world war? An argument over how many telegraph poles Germany owed it's war debt creditors! Telegraph poles! Ha ha ha ha ha! It's all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for...it's all a monstrous demented gag! So why can't you see the funny side? Why aren't you laughing?' -The Joker
The storyline of The Killing Joke is interesting enough to dedicate a whole post to, I wouldn't be doing the graphic novel justice if I didn't speak about the amazing illustrations. Throughout the 50-page story, we get to see The Joker in many different styles. We see him as a regular man, becoming The Joker, and a very wide arrary of various facial expressions and emotions. The talent of the artist, Brian Bolland, allows us to connect with this character in a way that other versions of The Joker don't allow. Beyond that, his portrayal of The Joker's carnival lair, the violent attacks on Jim Gordon and his daughter, and of course, Batman himself, all make the animation some of the most effective I've ever seen. I'm a 20something male who grew up on horror movies, and some of the close-up images of The Joker are absolutely terrifying, the stuff of nightmares.

Before reading The Killing Joke, I never expected to refer to a graphic novel as a masterpiece. Well, here I am, and this graphic novel is a masterpiece. The story, the dialogue, the themes, the action, and the animation style all make this a must-read for fans of hero vs. villain, detective vs. killer, man vs. man, and man vs. himself fiction. It may be just a couple men playing dress-up with eachother, or it may be one of the best depictions of humanity that art has ever seen. Either way, you'll be turning the pages both excited and nervous about what the next frame will bring. I'll leave you with the joke that The Joker tells Batman in their final confrontation. Spoiler alert: Batman actually chuckles at this!

'See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum...and one night, one night they decide they don't like living in an asylum any more. They decide they're going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow hap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight...stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem But his friend, his friend daredn't make the leap, y'see...y'see, he's afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea...he says 'Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings, you can walk along the beam and join me!' B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He, suh-says...he says 'wh-what do you think I am? CRAZY? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!' Ha ha ha ha ha!'

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