Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)

Writer: Alan Moore

Artist: Brian Bolland

The idea of a one-shot overshadowing the ongoing canonical comics for a character, let alone a character like Batman, is all but preposterous. And yet, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland did just that in 1988 with The Killing Joke, which set the gold standard for the Joker, Batman’s arch enemy. It has since been widely regarded as one of the greatest comic books of the 20th century.

The story opens with the Joker and Batman headfirst into an interrogation room sequence during which they reflect on the twisted nature of their relationship. The genesis of two iconic scenes in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is clearly visible; a similar interrogation scene where the Joker (Heath Ledger) taunts Batman about being “a freak like me” as well a brief, manic exchange towards the end when the Joker is captured. (Both Ledger and Nolan admitted The Killing Joke‘s influence on the film) Moore himself said, in a 2001 interview with Brad Stone, “Psychologically, Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other.” Although Moore does fashion a back story for the Joker, (that of a deadbeat comedian who falls in a toxic vat) it is made abundantly clear that this is nothing if not an unreliable narrator. (“Something like that happened to me, you know. I… I am not exactly sure what you know. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another. If I’m going to be have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”)

The Joker is also more brutal and casually sadistic here than perhaps anywhere else in the Batman universe. He kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and shoots his daughter Barbara in the spine, rendering her a cripple for the rest of her life. He then psychologically batters Gordon in a run-down amusement park, taunting him with pictures of a wounded Barbara in various stages of undress. All throughout, Bolland’s art lends itself as easily to the Joker’s phantasmagorical visions as it does to the graphic violence he orchestrates. Some of the panels from the Joker’s amusement park are as good as anything you’ll ever come across in contemporary comics.

And then of course, there’s the titular ‘killing joke’ itself, which causes even the stone-faced Batman to burst into peals of laughter with his greatest enemy.

“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 gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn’t dare 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!”

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