Batman: The Killing Joke

Imagine that you have inherited a vast fortune from your parents. You live in the most fashionable and exciting city on earth, where you are one of the most eligible bachelors in town. You never have to work again. Your life is a whirl of parties with the great and good. You live a blessed existence. So how do you spend your evenings?

I’m willing to bet that you wouldn’t prowl the backstreets of your city dressed up as a bat, looking for criminals to beat up. Yet that is exactly what Bruce Wayne does in the guise of Batman.

As I get older, I get slightly troubled by Batman’s free-wheeling vigilantism. If it became widespread, it’s one of those things that could easily lead to the breakdown of society.  When it comes to vigilantes, I follow Mohandas Gandhi, who said, “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”.

Bruce Wayne is only slightly saner than the criminals he hunts. That is the nub of The Killing Joke, a great graphic novel from 1988 by British author Alan Moore, and my fellow yellowbelly, artist Brian Bolland.

Beating up villains with his bare fists, Batman’s behaviour leaves much to be desired. His actions are only justified by the cruelty of the villains he faces, which remain the finest rogues’ gallery in fiction. Most members of the public would struggle to name any supervillains outside of Batman’s legendary opponents such as the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and of course, the Joker.

In The Killing Joke, Batman and the Joker face off in a personal vendetta spreading over lunatic asylums and disused amusement parks, where their friends and relations are mere collateral damage in their endless feud. This is a bleak, savage tale which is not for the kiddies:

Memory’s so treacherous. One moment you’re lost on a carnival of delights, with poignant childhood aromas, the flashing neon of puberty, all that sentimental candy floss … the next it leads you somewhere you don’t want to go.

Today, Moore is rather dismissive of The Killing Joke. He has said

I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting.

We can’t always take the creator’s assessment as the final word on their work.  The Killing Joke is worth reading. The Joker’s motivation is a simple one. He wants to show that he is as much a victim as anyone else in society, and that his madness means he is not responsible for his actions. Tragedy suffuses the whole book, as the Joker argues:

all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.

Our hero has other ideas and sets out to show that not everyone opts to go down the path of the Joker, who is living out his warped psychopathic fantasies for real.

Artwork from the Killing Joke by Brian Bolland

It’s the most intelligent look anyone has ever given to superheroes and has some great lines, as well as graphic violence that displays real threat. If anything, it shows us that we can still learn things even from the primary-colour world of superheroes. That has to be a good thing, if they are going to be clogging up our cinema screens for the next few years to come.