One of my first experiences of Batman was watching re-runs of the Adam West version on telly before school (there was a camera operators’ strike at the old TV-AM breakfast show and they resorted to showing stuff from the vaults to fill up time). This 1960s take on Batman was funny, brightly-coloured and more than a little stupid - it knowingly poked fun at its ridiculous escapes and low-tech special effects (seeing Batman and Robin roping up the side of a building is still hilarious) as if to say look, we all know this is rubbish, but just play along, okay?
Then, sometime in the late 80s, things changed. Tim Burton released his blockbusting movie Batman and jokey fun was out. The new watchword was dark. Really dark. Actually, in some scenes of that film you can hardly see what’s going on. (Burton had the print digitally lightened for the video release because of this.) Gone were the gaudy sets, daft jokes and general feeling that Batman was just a good laugh. In the popular consciousness, Batman shifted from being a comedy relic of the 60s to a tortured soul who prowled the streets of grimy, shadow-filled Gotham - a vigilante who’s only one step away from becoming just like the criminals he fights.
And with the popularity of that film came an influx of comic books and graphic novels to my local bookshop: among them Frank Miller’s brilliant Year One and The Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison/Dave McKean’s arty Arkham Asylum. This was a Batman I’d never experienced before - the Batman that comic book readers had been enjoying for decades. Complex, strange, gripping. It started a love of graphic novels that has stayed with me ever since. However, the one that really blew me away at that time was The Killing Joke.
In Killing Joke, the Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum and kidnaps Commissioner Gordon after shooting his daughter. Batman has to hunt the Joker down before he succeeds in driving Gordon completely crazy.
Plot-wise, that’s about it. Like lots of Alan Moore’s writing (especially his Swamp Thing episodes and Watchmen) a lot of the action takes place in the characters’ heads. Via flashbacks, we learn how the Joker became the Joker and get a look at a Batman torn between breaking and upholding the law - obsessed with the one enemy he can never completely defeat. I guess it’s a story about madness: it starts with a visit to an asylum, a lot of the book is devoted to how the Joker went insane and his evil plot revolves around driving Commissioner Gordon mad.
More than that, Killing Joke is about people who do terrible things, what drives them to that point and the difficulty of sympathising with them.
Woooh! Heavy stuff! But that’s Batman (and Alan Moore) for you.
One of the things I love about Killing Joke is Brian Bolland’s artwork. It’s really clean and vibrant. When you turn the pages of this comic book, you feel like you’re watching a movie. In fact, they could probably film it shot-for-shot and have a terrific action film to rival anything around today (not bad, considering Killing Joke is over twenty years old). The final sequence - Batman in the Joker’s funfair lair and the showdown in a hall of mirrors - is fantastic. John Higgins’ colours are central to the telling as well: purples and greens and yellows suggest a kind of sickly madness running through the story – a perfect representation of the central themes.
Ultimately, Killing Joke’s success lies in how well it plays out the classic battle between Batman and the Joker – two characters at once completely at odds and yet strangely similar. They both live on the fringes of society, they both have extreme personalities forged by traumatic events and they both might very well be mad. (Let’s face it, dressing up as a bat and beating up people in the middle of the night isn’t exactly normal behavior.) It’s a story that keeps getting told to new generations of fans with equal power to capture their imaginations – just look at the success of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight a couple of years ago. However, I can’t think of a time when the duel between Batman and the Joker been better told than in Moore, Bolland and Higgins’ classic. If you’ve never read a comic book or a graphic novel before, there isn’t a better starting point.
The Killing Joke – Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, John Higgins – DC Comics – March, 1988
The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley
Year One – Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli
Hush – Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee
The Long Halloween – Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale
Arkham Asylum – Grant Morrison, Dave McKean
Massive thanks have to go out to Andrew Taylor for this awesome guest post. What a fantastic way to start my graphic novel themed month. You would have to have been living in a remote mountain hut in the middle of the Himalayas to have not heard about A.G. Taylor and his fantastic debut novel Meteorite Strike. However, if you have in fact been living in a remote mountain hut in the middle of the Himalayas then you can find out more about Meteorite Strike here and A.G. Taylor himself here.