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Saturday, April 05, 2008

MOORE IS LESS: THE KILLING JOKE, TWENTY YEARS LATER

BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE. This classic Batman entry has enjoyed a reputation as the definitive Joker story for two decades and I remember loving it when it came out. Seeing that it was created by Alan Moore, the writer of the epochal WATCHMEN, and Brian Bolland, an artist justly renowned for his efforts on 2000 A.D.'s Judge Dredd, how could I not love it? But now it's twenty years after the fact and in rereading it as a whole work for the first time since it came out I've discovered a few things regarding this fan favorite, chief among which is that upon reexamination Moore's script isn't as good as I remembered. That finding leads me to believe I was too stunned by Bolland's incredible visuals to notice the script's deficiencies the first time around, and during the times I've thumbed through it since.

There's a stagy coldness to the story that reads like a bunch of people in familiar Batman character drag acting out the dialogue and events that are trying as hard as they can to be "deep" and shocking while examining the Batman's relationship with the Joker, as well as what can be interpreted as a possible origin for the Clown Prince of Crime; the Joker's completely off-the-rails insane, so his memories of his own past are in no way to be trusted, so keep that in mind when reading THE KILLING JOKE. As for some of the things that went through my head after rereading it, here are four things that were in the forefront of my thoughts:

1. For years I had it in my head that the Joker and/or his accomplices raped Gordon, hence his nudity during his captivity, but the nudity was there to bolster the Joker's commentary on the state of the common man — pretentious horseshit — and in some way contribute to his campaign to drive Gordon mad. I don't know about you, but I've been nude in situations that were not in any way fun and I did not go insane (I think). My pal Chris Weston, the unfairly talented penciler of Marvel's THE TWELVE, on the other hand, is adamant in his belief that the Commissioner got pooched.

2. The shooting and subsequent "candid" photography of Barbara Gordon also smacked of rape to me when first seen, but I think that impression had more to do with my memories of a particularly nasty and thankfully off-camera gang rape in the movie CLASS OF 1984, which featured the sole female member of the baddie's gang merrily snapping Polaroids of the hero's
pregnant wife being violated by droogesque thugs. After that bit of awfulness the pics are presented to the victim's band teacher husband, just as he's about to lead the high school band in a performance for students and parents. So the violence/porn aspect of what happened to Barbara computed in my mind as being worse than what is was thanks to the movie, as well as my mind thinking of just how fucked up the Joker is and I think he'd find it funny to photograph the juxtaposition of sex, violence, death, and domination over someone — gender would not necessarily be an issue — naked and grievously injured, with blood lending just the right pigment to his horrifying composition. I always thought of the Joker as something of a frustrated artist, so it makes sense to me. But, once more on the other hand, a female comics biz pro (who would probably prefer to remain anonymous) whose opinion I greatly respect seems convinced that Barbara got raped, so what the hell do I know?

3. I only just noticed this, but if you take into account how human female anatomy works, the angle from which Barbara was shot not only blew through part of her spineit would also probably punched through the top of her uterus, placing her alongside the Black Canary as a DCU heroine who was reproductively impaired thanks to her connection to the realm of superheroes and their attendant foes. Not that the Joker knew her secret identity, but you get my point. And while Babs remains confined to a wheelchair some twenty years after this story first appeared — a plot move that made her a much more interesting character — no mention has been made of any issue of reproductive incapability; I don't think Moore or Bolland considered it at the time, but having my friend Tracey take me along with her on her road to motherhood, I've gotten an even more clear understanding of where girl stuff is and how it works, so the thought definitely entered my mind.

4. I still find it highly unlikely that Batman would stand there backslapping with the Joker as the two of them laugh their asses off at the final gag. For one thing it's totally out of character and for another the joke is barely funny at all and is certainly not enough to crack anyone up to the degree seen in the story; sorry, but while I could easily buy into the adventures of a somewhat loony gazillionaire running around fighting crime in a bat-suit, I could not muster the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept him sharing a belly-laugh with his homicidal arch-enemy, a serial recidivist who had just committed unspeakable, life-altering acts upon two people he holds dear as colleagues and loved ones. Perhaps Batman's reaction had to do with him accepting the madness of both the Joker and the situation — the realization that despite his best efforts there was no recourse but for the two of them to be fated to a course of mutual destruction — rather than genuinely being moved to laughter? I dunno. Chris Weston's take on this aspect of the story and on Batman's handling of the Joker in general is as follows: “I hate The Batman for not killing The Joker. The Joker is clinically insane, he's not responsible for his actions. He will kill again. And if Arkham Asylum doesn’t have the balls to lobotomize him, Batman should break his neck and claim self-defense, for Gotham's sake. I would do it. And not lose a night's sleep. I promise you. It'd be like killing Stalin. Sure, he'd be going back on his principals... but,hey, the man who didn't change his mind didn't change anything. That's what makes us human, the possibility to change.”

Addressing issues the artist had with original colorist John (WATCHMEN) Higgins' work, Bolland has been allowed to recolor it to great effect (which is not to say that Higgins' work was bad by any means, just more colorful and not in synch with the film noir look Bolland was shooting for), plus the story Bolland did for BATMAN BLACK & WHITE is also included — the art's terrific, as expected, but I'm not too keen on Bolland's writing chops — so it's worth picking up (although I'd bet good money that we'll eventually see this again soon, repackaged as an oversized “absolute” edition). There are two pages of sketchbook stuff — all of the originals, even the thumbnails, have long since ended up in the hands of collectors — and what there is of that is frustratingly sparse; I found it hard to believe that no one has full-size copies of any of the pencils or sketchbook designs, from Bolland to John Higgins to the original editor, and when I mentioned this to Chris Weston he called bullshit on that and showed me a link that provided examples of exactly what was allegedly unavailable. Sloppy work on the part of DC, but at least it's THE KILLING JOKE in a hardcover edition, so at least there's that.

3 comments:

Kevie said...

Moore himself never bought into the idea that this book was some kind of literary masterpiece. He's supposed to have commented at one point, "it's a fucking Batman annual!"

Anonymous said...

I always hated that ending, too. The rest was cool, but even if you bought the whole "they're both equally crazy" angle, Bats laughing still didn't wash.

(I love the scene in Mad Love when Harley makes Batman laugh and immediately regrets it: "Stop - you're creepin' me out" This from THE JOKER'S girlfriend. Brrrr... That may have been the most graceful revelation of Batman's craziness ever.)

Lubbert Das said...

Could you pass on that link-?