Before watching Christopher Nolan’s unparalleled masterpiece, The Dark Knight, I had made very few ventures into the world of comic books. In truth, the only comics I’d ever read were the free Bionicle ones written and illustrated for Lego, and while those were fine in their own way, their primary purpose was more to promote a line of products than to tell a compelling, thought-provoking story. The aforementioned movie inspired my dad to open his sarcophagus of childhood comic books; from it he drew a graphic novel entitled The Killing Joke that he bestowed on me for my reading pleasure. Thus my “love” of comic books began.
The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, is a superb work in art, storytelling, and character analysis. Although it’s technically a Batman graphic novel, the book is really an in-depth origin story about the Joker and the motivation for his crimes. Moore uses an unconventional narrative structure that jumps between the mayhem and destruction wrought by the Joker in the present day and the acts that lead up to his tragic moral demise and unnerving disfiguration. As we learn, the Joker was once a married man who tried without success to get a foothold in comedy. Facing looming debt and the disruption of his family’s home, he turns to some crooks in a Gotham bar for temporary relief. With the hope of securing a better future for his wife and children, he agrees to execute a petty crime at a chemical factory; no more shall I spoil. Some years in the future, the Clown Prince of Crime engineers a diabolical plot to expose the true nature of mankind. The Joker perceives an inherent weakness in man, a tendency to devolve into the most barbaric and irrational state given overwhelming pressure. “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” In order to prove his thesis, the Joker captures Commissioner Jim Gordon, Gotham’s paragon of nobility and justice, and subjects him to grueling emotional torture that’s meant to shatter his resolve, nullify his mind, and throw his world into chaos. Whether the Joker succeeds and whether Batman defeats him I leave for the reader to discover.
This is a brief but fantastic story which develops a sophisticated, believable, and genuinely frightening villain who has a grander agenda than the acquisition of mere money or power. Moore accomplishes an unusual feat in writing a comic book that demands the reader to ponder a philosophical topic, viz. the “basic goodness” or inherent corruption of man, a theme that reverberates prominently in Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece The Dark Knight. The author, being a secular liberal, seems to disagree with the Joker’s view of mankind, whereas the writers of the movie present a somewhat more cynical stance: even the greatest man can readily succumb to corruption and his baser impulses. Nonetheless, The Killing Joke could conceivably function as a launch platform for debate among peers who enjoy philosophy.
Those who read comic books for entertainment alone will admire The Killing Joke for its exceptional art, brisk pacing, and catching writing. True to his name, The Joker carries quite a few funnies up his sleeve, which sometimes act as comic relief but most often exist purely to reinforce his depiction as a psychotic, cruel sadist with a twisted sense of humor. Batman is not the real focus of the novel, but fans can rest assured that he gets his fair share of punchy one-liners.
“Why aren’t you laughing?”
“Because I’ve heard it before… and it wasn’t funny the first time.”