Monday, March 31, 2008

It Doesn't Matter: Why I Hate The Killing Joke

So DC has decided to rerelease The Killing joke graphic novel by Moore and Bolland with Bolland recoloring the entire job. You know what? It doesn't matter to me. I've had no problem defending Moore as the greatest writer to ever work in the field, but this isn't the book to make that case. It is, in fact, one of his weakest efforts outside of DR and Quinch.

Its not the Led Zeppelin of its day, its the Blind Faith. The supergroup that never coagulated. Its not that good.

Lets take a look at it, because even back in the day it was a much heralded project, two creators who had, no question, done amazing work on other books. Swamp Thing and Camelot 3000 just to mention two of them. Part of the problem I have with the work is the approach, and part in the very conception of the book.

Moore made his name on the revisionist history aspect of his writing initially, reworking Swamp Thing into something totally different from the Len Wein incarnation, before jumping off into new territory with the Demon (who he also revamped somewhat) and Arcane. Bolland made his fortune with detailed, hyperrealistic artwork, which also took a hyperlong time for him to realize. How he made his deadlines with the Judge Dredd work is beyond me. The last issue of Camelot 3000 took, what, a year to come out? So how much revision on the Joker did they do? Almost nothing is the answer.

Moore, instead, took the opposite path, playing within established continuity to continue the infamous "Red Hood" story, and simply trying to make more sense of a golden age story that should never have been written to begin with. Bolland took a character whose very strength has been, with many artists, his iconic visual status, and gives us a man in tights with a mask that gets loose at the drop of a hat. Itts not a great fit at all. We've taken characters who are, by virtue of their very existence, better as icons rather than realistic figures, and Moore has to piss blood to develop the back story of the Red Hood to try to make the motivation work.

And sadly it doesn't. My problem with the very conception is the Red Hood story, which has been propped up with The Killing Joke book, as opposed to retconning it out of existence. The Joker, at his best, is a primordial force of nature, the evil that exists in all men and can come from anywhere at anytime. It defies logic and sense and therefore is far more that a simple "person with a gun" scary. I don't want to know where he comes from. Ever. Just as the Kent Allard story was put into doubt later in the Shadow's existence, just as not knowing why the Doctor isn't exactly like other Time Lords, I want to always have that mystery about the character. There area hundred ways that the Red Hood story could be gotten rid of, starting with ignoring it, and no one bothered to do it. Except that they should have.

Moore's strength here would have been, should have been, to recloud the Joker's past, to give us a past that the Painted Doll ended up with for much of the Promethia run: it doesn't make sense, and that's all the better. I've always thought that the Painted Doll was what DC wouldn't have let Moore do with the Joker back in '88.

Bolland's color work here is excellent, although these two contrasting pages that I have here show two pages that both work. I'm quite happy to see what Bolland originally intended, but unlike many cases of poor comics coloring, the original job is quite good, and still works on its own terms.

The Killing Joke has ended up being a neutered approach to The Joker, something that Miller didn't do whatsoever in The Dark Knight, and we're better for it. Killing Joke has ended up being significant for what seems like a throwaway idea of Moore's: the rape and paralysis of Barbara Gordon. The casual rape, the fetish Polaroids, and the Batman's lack of emotion to someone who was an ally getting brutalized has made the book a flash point for feminists of all stripes. It bothered the hell out of me at the time, and still is the only truly disturbing point in the book.

Some people might point to this being the true origin story behind a character that had already gone through a number of different incarnations, but did we really need Barbara Gordon to go through this to become the strong character Oracle? Especially since its a throwaway plot point to the main story.

For all the money that has gone into my Ultimate Sandman editions, and yes, I intend to buy all four volumes because they're that good (and yes, if DC did that with Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 - 31 inclluding the annual I would be the first in line to buy it), I don't have the need to pick this up. Its not the "night that changed Batman's life forever", as the tagline says.

It is the night that changed Barbara Gordon's however.

I was just turned on to this quote:

The Killing Joke is, "clumsy, misjudged and [devoid of] real human importance."

A quote from the book, "The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore." I rest my case.

13 comments:

Elayne said...

Hey, I liked DR & Quinch! :)

Barbara didn't "go through this to become" Oracle -- John Ostrander and Kim Yale were also so disappointed in TKJ that they made her into Oracle, as he expounds on here.

Dane said...

But this isn't the Joker's definitive story. It's an important one, but Joker even admits that the flashbacks he has could be lying to him, and he's okay with that. Joker's past is multiple choice, and DC was wise enough to keep it that way.

And I have to disagree with you on Joker being a force of nature, at least partially. Batman and Joker are both very symbolic creatures, but they are both non-powered humans as well. What I liked about The Killing Joke was you saw both sides to those characters in the story. The story illustrated Joker's beliefs beyond "evil comedian" and more into how all it takes is one bad day to change the paradigm and logic of your life. And yet there was still a side to him in the story that was sympathetic, though it often got overshadowed by his mad actions.

And I'm glad you found what happened to Barbara Gordon disturbing. That was the point. The "plot point" was supposed show how little Joker cared about human life and how far he would go to prove a point. Joker takes on many forms, but he's no common thug. Everything he does has some sort of point to it. As much as a character Barbara was, none of that mattered to the Joker.

I've never seen proof of Joker raping Barbara Gordon. Was this talked about in another comic? Please tell where you got this information.

And why are the photos "fetish polaroids"? He took pictures of Barbara bleeding and naked to psychologically destroy Gordon. Doesn't a fetish mean that someone would get off to it sexually?

And what more could Batman do emotionally for Barbara? He visited right away when she was in the hospital, but he had to hold back when attacking the Joker because he had to prove the Joker wrong.

Do I believe The Killing Joke is the true origin story of the Joker? No, but it's just as valid as the others. Do I think it expertly shows his psychological ethos? Absolutely.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

elayne - the DR and Quinch comment was bound to rub someone the wrong way. Actually, I like DR and enjoy the old Time Cops stories as well.

Dane - you make some valid points, and I know that part of the appeal of the Joker, to me, is not humanizing him. He's the EGO run loose, and I don't need, or want, to see the other side of him. I've made plain my admiration for the Englehart version of the character, the one who is mad as a frikkin' hatter, yet makes sense within his own world. Going back to the Finger/Kane version from Batman #1, we see the planner as well as the madman. I just didn't like Moore's take on the character. In fact, his Etrigan is closer to the Joker in my mind: he does what he does with impeccable logic within his own messed up world. And he's scary because you know that he thinks he's right.

I felt that the polaroids, with Barbara naked (a rather scandlous breast exposed for DC in the '80's) implied a sexual element to me, if not implicitly stated. Perhaps rape is the incorrect word, and I might have to dig out my old copy to support my comment further. You could be correct, but I felt that the profusion of polaroids was not overkill by Moore and Bolland, but supported a reading of the Joker as wallowing in the act of not only shooting but stripping Barbara. My case, at least, for the sexual component. If not rape then violation.

If DC has made amends by making the Joker's history more fuzzy then Bravo! and I didn't know that. The Batman product has been pretty up and down over the last 10 or 15 years (including my own Outlaws) and I can't begin to keep up with it.

I have a problem with the Joker's pathology being rooted in such simple terms as: he was poor, so the Joker steals jewels later in his career, he was a comedian and so the idea of becoming the insane clown is a natural progression from his bad day. Sorry, its just too neat and tied up for me. It lacks common and even dramatic sense to do it that way. I want, at least as a reader, for there to be more.

Dane said...

He's the EGO run loose, and I don't need, or want, to see the other side of him. I've made plain my admiration for the Englehart version of the character, the one who is mad as a frikkin' hatter, yet makes sense within his own world.

I guess this part is just a matter of personal preference. I like what the Joker stands for in Batman's world, but I don't need him to be a walking archetype. Batman is more than the boogeyman (though that is an important aspect to him) -- he's a man doing what he can to rid a city of crime. Joker is madness incarnate, but people forget that if he was TRULY insane by definition, then he wouldn't be functional at all. Therefore I like that he's rooted in some type of reality -- we're just not sure what reality that is. But other than defining how "human" the Joker is, I really don't see how Moore's take is different from how you described:

Going back to the Finger/Kane version from Batman #1, we see the planner as well as the madman. I just didn't like Moore's take on the character. In fact, his Etrigan is closer to the Joker in my mind: he does what he does with impeccable logic within his own messed up world. And he's scary because you know that he thinks he's right.

But doesn't Joker do that very same thing in the Killing Joke? He buys an abandoned carnival, gets some henchmen, and executes a plan backed up by a mad ideology that the world is a cruel, nonsensical place, and no one is immune from it. I haven't read Entrigan or Englehart's work, so I'm having trouble finding the difference here.

I felt that the polaroids, with Barbara naked (a rather scandlous breast exposed for DC in the '80's) implied a sexual element to me, if not implicitly stated. Perhaps rape is the incorrect word, and I might have to dig out my old copy to support my comment further. You could be correct, but I felt that the profusion of polaroids was not overkill by Moore and Bolland, but supported a reading of the Joker as wallowing in the act of not only shooting but stripping Barbara. My case, at least, for the sexual component. If not rape then violation.

It certainly is violation, but through my research from the last time I visited your blog, I've found no evidence of Joker raping Barbara. I've even heard people saying Moore commented in an interview that the Joker didn't rape her, but I couldn't find the source.

People will probably protest to this, but I think it takes more than a nude body to be a sexual image. I think society conditions us to think nudity = sex, but there's more to it than that. The execution and presentation of the image is important as well. Having pictures of Barbara wounded and naked was done to show Gordon his niece's vulnerability and suffering to destroy his world and make him go over the edge. I'm still having trouble seeing the rape, sexuality, and fetishism involved in this story.

If DC has made amends by making the Joker's history more fuzzy then Bravo!

I'm not sure what you mean by "made amends" here. Joker said himself while fighting Batman in the fun house that he himself wasn't sure if his memories were real, and that was back in the 80s. If you have a copy of The Killing Joke, you can see it yourself. During the 52 series they did origin stories for DC characters, and they stuck to the idea that even the Joker doesn't quite know what happened to him.

http://www.dccomics.com/heroes_and_villains/?hv=origin_stories/joker
You can click "next" to see the second page of the comic.

I have a problem with the Joker's pathology being rooted in such simple terms as: he was poor, so the Joker steals jewels later in his career, he was a comedian and so the idea of becoming the insane clown is a natural progression from his bad day. Sorry, its just too neat and tied up for me. What source is this from? What does this have to do with Moore's version? Parts of this don't link up, like stealing jewels. That never happened in The Killing Joke. He wasn't a criminal until he helped those thugs sneak into the chemical factory. There are other stories of Joker being a gangster hitman, so maybe you're talking about that version?

And Joker's story from The Killing Joke doesn't look that cut and dry to me. Sure he was a failed comedian, but having his world collapse on him (wife and unborn child dying in a fire accident) played a large role in how he views the world. Since life has no visible mercy or order, it must therefore be a joke, so the Joker executes the punchline in all of his crimes.

The most important dramatic element for me though was the element of personal choice Alan Moore brought up in The Killing Joke. As intricate as the Joker's ideology is, parts of it fall apart when Gordon doesn't go mad in the face of Joker's torture. Even Batman had one bad day as a child, but he turned it around to something positive. In the end, even though Joker had no control over what happened to his wife and child, he did have the choice to not rob the chemical factory, but he did it anyway. There's a level of personal responsibility in there, and it examines how much of the Joker's madness is his own doing, and how it may be a defense to hide his faults. And I think that's pretty cool, overall.

I like the points you bring up, and I'm glad I stumbled upon this blog. I'm going to bookmark it. Talk to you later.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

Joker is madness incarnate, but people forget that if he was TRULY insane by definition, then he wouldn't be functional at all. Therefore I like that he's rooted in some type of reality -- we're just not sure what reality that is. But other than defining how "human" the Joker is, I really don't see how Moore's take is different from how you described:

I totally agree with your assessment here, and I’m not entirely sure how to describe the difference that I feel reading the Steve Englehart version as opposed to the Alan Moore version, but there is a difference. Subtle and it eludes my description. This may, in my mind, come back to the beauty of comics, which is that the best comics are a synthesis of words and pictures, and as I prefer the Marshall Rogers artwork on the Batman and the Joker, it may be a little something that makes the scenes work for me over the Moore/Bolland version. For that matter, both of them are better than the O'Neil/Adams Joker from 1972.

But doesn't Joker do that very same thing in the Killing Joke? He buys an abandoned carnival, gets some henchmen, and executes a plan backed up by a mad ideology that the world is a cruel, nonsensical place, and no one is immune from it. I haven't read Entrigan or Englehart's work, so I'm having trouble finding the difference here.

I’ll go with you on this one. Good point.

It certainly is violation, but through my research from the last time I visited your blog, I've found no evidence of Joker raping Barbara. I've even heard people saying Moore commented in an interview that the Joker didn't rape her, but I couldn't find the source.

I have to say that somehow, in my reading over the years, I had the word rape associated with the scene, but I don’t have the attribution, so I’ll probably go back and change the text at least to “violation” unless I can find the quote from Moore.

People will probably protest to this, but I think it takes more than a nude body to be a sexual image. I think society conditions us to think nudity = sex, but there's more to it than that. The execution and presentation of the image is important as well. Having pictures of Barbara wounded and naked was done to show Gordon his niece's vulnerability and suffering to destroy his world and make him go over the edge. I'm still having trouble seeing the rape, sexuality, and fetishism involved in this story.

I wouldn’t protest it at all. I completely agree that there is no reason to go straight from nudity to sex in one smooth leap. And I’m happy to agree to disagree with regards to the polaroids here. Of course he’s taking the pictures with the idea that it will throw Gordon over the edge, but the action that takes place betweent he gutters of the story, that the Joker is disrobing a woman who is potentially bleeding to death from an abdominal wound, with a shattered spine and gleefully (or not) taking pictures of it, seems both violent and sexual. I certainly doubt that the Joker could have sex in a “regular” way. It feels, again, to me, that the idea of what happens could easily have a sexual component. Clearly there is room for interpretation. Interesting points.

Sure he was a failed comedian, but having his world collapse on him (wife and unborn child dying in a fire accident) played a large role in how he views the world. Since life has no visible mercy or order, it must therefore be a joke, so the Joker executes the punchline in all of his crimes.

I don’t think that I ever thought of the character in quite those terms. Interesting take and very literal. I always saw him as the Joker in the deck of cards: the unpredictable wildcard, hence my earlier description of him as the ego run wild. Many times he is here to simply fuck things up. Green haired anarchy. And my description of him as a jewel thief went back to him in Batman #1, but I may have been channeling the Catwoman story from the same issue. He certainly was looking for something when he was killing off those tycoons in that issue!

There's a level of personal responsibility in there, and it examines how much of the Joker's madness is his own doing, and how it may be a defense to hide his faults. And I think that's pretty cool, overall.

Completely agree with that.

I like the points you bring up, and I'm glad I stumbled upon this blog. I'm going to bookmark it. Talk to you later.

Thanks. Great discussion. thanks for taking the time!

Hoosier X said...

Love Alan Moore.

Love the Joker.

Very disappointed with The Killing Joke. Always have been. Unnecessarily excessive in just about every way.

I'm not even sure I have a copy.

plok said...

Two things, if I may:

One, the re-imagined Red Hood origin is clever, dramatic, and memorable...but very probably unnecessary, and I guess that's where part of Moore's dissatisfaction with it lies. He could do it and he did do it, and it was very VERY Alan Moore-ish...but that's the problem with it too, that it was a kind of reprise of something he'd already done elsewhere to better purpose, only this time he had the great symbols of Batman and the Joker to play with in recreating it. Quality stuff, no doubt! But landing a bit familiar on the ear, and so inviting a vague sense of dissatisfaction, that it might be the mad wizard supplying his own pastiche to himself.

Two: Charles, I think you're having trouble making the subtle Englehart/Moore distinction clearly because you're thinking of it as subtle when it isn't! Anyway I don't think it's all that subtle. Englehart's Joker is zany, likeable, and deadly, and that's how his menace is created: suddenly the character who enjoys murdering people surfaces and you're taken aback, but then in the next instant there's the madcap clown again. That's how that engine works. But Moore's Joker was never anything but part of a dialectic, and thus he's anything but zany or likeable. That frisson is missing. Moore's Joker is to us just as he is to Batman, a ruined human being, a monster made more terrifying by being piteous. Englehart's Joker doesn't look anything like that.

I take it to be a core difference, felt in every scene. But, that's just my two cents.

Anonymous said...

I fail to see how you think the way Barbara was treated in this comic implies rape. Because of the way the story was told: the Joker knocked the door, and just when Barbara opened it, he shot her. That would happen to ANYONE without exception.
Now, if he had easily beat her in a fight and then proceeded to strip her and take the nude photos, then I would agree with you. But that wasn't the way it happened.

Anonymous said...

Plus Gordon was treated the same way. No, wait. He was treated even WORSE. Because he wasn't just shot and stripped: the Joker kidnapped him, stripped him, put him into a dog strap, tortured him, and then proceeded to put him in a cage.

So, can you explain to me how come that you were bothered by what Moore did to Barbara, but you were ok with the way he treated Gordon (which was even worse)?

Kid Sis said...

Can't read this. Popped a blood vessel in my eye by your second paragraph.

Thanks a lot. Geez, what do you REALLY think ;)

Anonymous said...

Kid Sis: Who are you talking to?

Anonymous said...

So yesterday I saw this in BN, because I've always liked the Joker a lot. (though I'm a more casual fan.) And I read it... and I seriously feel like it complete killed my Joker love. It was just so... crass. The book had a "warts'n all" feel to it that I really hated. I don't know if I'll ever be able to enjoy the Joker again after reading this awful portrayal. I wanted to sell my copy to the local comic shop, but they don't buy comics, so now I'm stuck with it. I guess I'll just bury it in my closet and try to forget I ever read it.

As an aside, what WAS up with Batman? The ending would have been nice were it not for the fact that hours before the Joker shot and paralyzed Barbara, and he forced her dad to look at naked pictures of her maimed body. WTF?!

BBagley said...

In terms of the rape/violation questions, when I first read the book years ago I thought Joker raped Barbara, but when I re-read it, I just thought he took pictures of her. I also remember a story, oddly I think it was in Flash, talking about Joker sort of being a-sexual, that he really wouldn't do that. It's very similar to the way many people think Black Canary was raped. Even some official sources described it that way, but she was tortured, not raped if you read the story and listen to the creative team.
Then again, the magic of comics is how it plays in the reader's head, not necessarily how it was written or illustrated.