A little over ten years ago, I conducted my first interview with Alan Moore. It was a particularly big deal for me, not only because he was – and remains – far and away my favourite Comics writer, but, back then, his granting of interviews was particularly rare, so I was exceedingly aware just how lucky I was.
Over the course of our two hour-plus phone conversation – that’s the great thing about interviews with The (very talkative) Great Mage of Northampton: he gives you loads of material, all of it fascinating, erudite, witty and insightful – the one particularly startling piece of commentary that came out of that first chat was Moore’s admission that he didn’t have much regard for The Killing Joke, his 1988 Batman tale which boasted ultra-meticulous art from fellow British creator Brian Bolland and is now routinely regarded by fans as one of the single best Batman stories ever produced.
Yes, really. “Too brutal” he said, adding that, with his story, he felt he attempted to heap too much psychological weight on characters who, in his opinion, were simply not capable of bearing it. He quickly added that he meant no disrespect to Bolland’s artwork, which was masterful and beautiful, but, ultimately, he felt he didn’t craft a story that matched it. As a Batman fan who absolutely adored The Killing Joke, I found this admission as surprising as it was highly intriguing.
In the years since, I’ve read other interviews with Moore where he has reiterated this view on his landmark Batman tale and, while far be it for me to disagree with an artist’s view on their own work, I do feel that his comparatively low opinion of The Killing Joke is perhaps a little unjust. Indeed, I’ve often thought that his opinion is partly informed by his retrospective discomfort at having co-initiated, with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the so-called “grim n’ gritty” era of superhero comics with Watchmen – of which The Killing Joke undoubtedly made a incredibly pointed contribution to – as well as his infamously rancorous relationship with DC Comics.
Granted, The Killing Joke does not possess any of the virtuoso, crystalline storytelling that informed the aforementioned Watchmen or his stunning metaphysical take on the Jack The Ripper myth, From Hell, but, as well as being an engaging tale, I firmly believe that The Killing Jokemade a exceedingly valuable contribution to the Batman mythos. Firstly, it firmly reiterated that “The Clown Prince of Crime” was a psychopath… and a terrifyingly brutal one at that. His abrupt shooting of Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara, paralysing her permanently and therefore ending her secret career as Batgirl, remains one of the truly shocking moments in Batman comics. Later that year, The Joker would make a further devastating blow on Batman, killing the second Robin, Jason Todd, by beating him to death with a crowbar in the controversial A Death In The Family. Reading both these stories, aged 14, it perfectly underlined why The Joker really was the Batman’s worst enemy.
Yet beyond underlining The Joker’s essential grimness, what I particularly liked about The Killing Joke is that we see The Batman, a ruthless and implacable persona that allows Bruce Wayne to simultaneously be more andless than human, ultimately defer to the innate humanity of the man beneath the cowl, as he strives to answer the confounding question at the core of his perverse relationship with his nemesis: “How can two people hate so much without even knowing each other?“
Hence the gripping subdued drama of the tale’s climax, where Batman, having beaten his quarry into submission, attempts to make some – any – kind of connection with his nemesis, in a last-ditch attempt to try and understand the nature of their twisted and dynamic and, perhaps, avert the seemingly grim inevitability of one killing the other. While Moore’s striking version of The Joker is just plain vicious and whose insanity is both declamatory and cold, there’s something truly unnerving about the moment immediately following Batman’s offer of help and rehabilitation: pausing in the rain and glancing at his arch-enemy, The Joker pinches the ridge of his nose and, in a normal voice, says: “No. I’m sorry, but… No. It’s too late for that. Far too late.”The monster shows a small shred of Humanity – and rejects it. Frighteningly, the failed, struggling comedian who was forever altered by One Bad Day realises that, whatever he became, it’s better than going back to that life. It’s a fantastic moment.
Consequently, there’s a cathartic nature to the almost-surreal ending, as the pair of mortal enemies giggle effusively over The Joker’s (not that funny) gag, their laughter ultimately drowned out by the wail of Police car sirens and, finally, the heavy patter of rainfall. Their curious dance to the death continues – but at least there was one brief moment of connection, failed though it was.
As enjoyable as I’ve always found them, the relationships between superheroes and their corresponding villains are inherently rote. Back in 1988, as I do now, I appreciated the fact that, with The Killing Joke, Moore anchored his story on the attempt to break a destructive cycle, which a coldly logical personality like The Batman would undoubtedly try to do – if for nothing else because it presents a constant danger. I agree with Moore’s assertion that superheroes are not really designed to take on weighty psychological themes, but Batman and The Joker are hardly crumbling under the weight Moore places on them here. Indeed, it accentuates them both vividly, bringing an engaging and highly dramatic humanisation of these larger-than-life characters. So, while The Killing Joke may not appear on Alan Moore’s list of favourite works, it still unquestionably deserves its vaunted reputation as a great Batman story which enriches the character.
Now, about Brian Bolland’s revised colouring job in The Deluxe Edition…