Batman: The Killing Joke
Publisher DC Comics
Format One-shot
Genre Superhero
Publication date March 1988
Number of issues 1
Main character(s) BatmanThe JokerJames GordonBarbara Gordon
Writer(s) Alan Moore
Artist(s) Brian Bolland
Letterer(s) Richard Starkings
Colorist(s) John Higgins (original) Brian Bolland (Deluxe Edition)
Creator(s) Alan Moore Brian Bolland John Higgins
Editor(s) Dennis O'Neil
Batman: The Killing Joke ISBN 0930289455
DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore ISBN 1401209270
Batman: The Killing Joke - 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition ISBN 9781401216672


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Batman: The Killing Joke

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Cover to Batman: The Killing Joke. Art by Brian Bolland.

Batman: The Killing Joke is an influential one-shot superhero graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland. First published by DC Comics in 1988, it has remained in print since then, and has also been reprinted as part of the trade paperback DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.The story would affect the mainstream Batman continuity in that it features the shooting and paralysis of Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl) by the Joker, an event which laid the groundwork for her to develop the identity of Oracle, an expert computer hacker and a vital source of information for Batman and other superheroes.In 2008 DC Comics reprinted the story in a deluxe hardcover edition. This Deluxe Edition features new coloring by Bolland, meant to illustrate his original intentions for the book, with more somber, realistic, and subdued colors than the original.

Plot summary

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The Joker, after emerging from the canal of chemical-waste.

The plot revolves around a largely psychological battle between Batman and his archnemesis the Joker, who has escaped from Arkham Asylum. The Joker intends to drive Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon insane to prove that the most upstanding citizen can go mad after having "one bad day." Along the way, the Joker has flashbacks to his early life, gradually explaining his possible origin.

The man who will become the Joker, an unnamed engineer, quits his job at a chemical company to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife Jeannie, he agrees to guide two criminals through the plant so that they can rob the card company next door. During the planning, the police inform him that his wife has died in a household accident. Grief-stricken, the engineer tries to withdraw from the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his commitment to them.

At the plant, the criminals make him don a special mask to become the infamous Red Hood. Unknown to the engineer, the criminals plan to use this disguise to implicate any accomplice as the mastermind and to divert attention from themselves. Once inside, they almost immediately blunder into security personnel, and a shootout ensues. The criminals are gunned down and the engineer finds himself confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance.

Terrified, the engineer jumps into the chemical plant's waste pound lock to escape Batman, and is swept through a pipe leading to the outside. Once outside, he discovers, to his horror, that the chemicals have permanently bleached his skin chalk white, stained his lips ruby red and dyed his hair bright green. This revelation, compounding the man's misfortunes of that one day, drives him completely insane and marks the birth of the Joker.

In the present day, the Joker kidnaps Gordon and imprisons him in a run-down amusement park, and shoots and paralyzes his daughter Barbara (a.k.a. Batgirl). His henchmen then strip Gordon naked and cage him in the park's freak show. He chains Gordon to one of the park's rides and forces him to view giant pictures of his wounded daughter in various states of undress. Once Gordon has run the maddening gauntlet, the Joker puts him on display in the freak show, ridiculing him as "the average man", a naïve weakling doomed to insanity.

Batman arrives to save Gordon, and the Joker retreats into the funhouse. Though traumatized by the ordeal, Gordon retains his sanity and moral code, and he insists that Batman capture the Joker "by the book" in order to "show him that our way works." Batman enters the funhouse and faces the Joker's traps while the Joker tries to persuade his old foe that the world is "a black, awful joke", and thus not worth fighting for. Batman tracks down and subdues the Joker, and tells him that Gordon survived everything he suffered at the Joker's hands; he then suggests that the Joker is alone in his madness. Batman then attempts to reach out to his old foe to give up crime and put a stop to their years-long war; otherwise, the two will be eternally locked on a course that will one day result in a fight to the death.

The Joker declines, however, ruefully saying "It's too late for that...far too late." He then tells Batman a joke that was started earlier in the comic. When the joke is finished, Batman's stoic exterior breaks down, and he laughs along with the Joker. As the comic ends, their shadows converge and the police sirens approach.

The Joke
The Joker's joke:


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The Killing Joke explores the Joker's origin and the hopelessness that belies his "evil clown" persona. Note however that the story recounted in the graphic novel may not be the authentic telling of the Joker's origin, as the villain himself admits to harboring conflicting memories about his past.

Another theme explores the possibility that Batman is just as insane as the criminals he faces, but manifests insanity in a different way. In an interview, Moore summarized the theme: "Psychologically Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other."

Says critic Geoff Klock: "Both Batman and the Joker are creations of a random and tragic 'one bad day.' Batman spends his life forging meaning from the random tragedy, whereas the Joker reflects the absurdity of 'life, and all its random injustice.'"

The Joker has the underlying motive of illustrating the inherent insanity of Batman's mission: dressing up as a bat to fight criminals ("You had a bad day once, am I right?... Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?"). Only when Batman renders the Joker helpless and his extended assistance is rejected does the Dark Knight come to appreciate his foe's aim, reacting just as the Joker would: laughing hysterically.

The Joker also serves as an unreliable narrator. He admits to his own uncertainty, as he has disparate memories of the single event ("Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"), accentuating the comic's depiction of "a world unraveling toward relentless urban violence and moral nihilism..."

Critical reception and legacy

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Although a one-shot, The Killing Joke had an extraordinary impact on the DC Universe. Most significantly, Barbara Gordon's paralysis ended her career as Batgirl and eventually led to her role as Oracle in the Birds of Prey series and other DC Universe appearances. (Birds of Prey was also adapted into a TV series of the same title which incorporated Killing Joke elements into its continuity.) This event, along with a Batman storyline that takes place shortly after The Killing Joke involving the Joker murdering Robin (Jason Todd), Batman: A Death in the Family, leads Batman's obsession to the Clown Prince of Crime to a personal level.

Hilary Goldstein of IGN Comics praised The Killing Joke, calling it "easily the greatest Joker story ever told", and adding that "Moore's rhythmic dialogue and Bolland's organic art create a unique story often mimicked but never matched." IGN declared The Killing Joke the third-greatest Batman graphic novel, after The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One.

James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate called The Killing Joke "one of the greatest comics of the 20th century, period." Aaron Albert of characterized "Moore's writing [as] spot on" and praised Bolland's artwork, calling it "realistic and downright creepy in a few sections." Van Jensen of ComicMix said, "Each time [I read The Killing Joke] I'm amazed all over again at how Alan Moore and Brian Bolland teamed to pack such intensity, ferocity and humanity into those pages. B.L. Wooldridge of Batman in Comics called the graphic novel "an incredible story, with Moore at his best and awe-inspiring art by painter Brian Bolland."

Andy Shaw of Grovel had a more lukewarm response to The Killing Joke, saying that though "wonderfully executed", it "suffer[s] from its reliance on the rules of the superhero story." Seb Patrick of Den of Geek also had a mixed response, calling The Killing Joke "one of the most revered and influential Batman stories ever written and arguably the definitive Joker story", but added that it's "not at the level of [Alan Moore's] true masterpieces [such as] Watchmen, V for Vendetta, [and] The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

Despite the popularity of the story, Moore himself would later find much fault with it, calling it "clumsy, misjudged, and [devoid of] real human importance". Moore, trying to present far more relatable, human characters, found that Batman and the Joker were just presented as comic book characters and said, "I don't think [The Killing Joke]'s a very good book. It's not saying anything very interesting."

In his introduction to the story in the DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore trade paperback, Brian Bolland disputes the widely held belief that the story started as a Batman annual story and ended up as a prestige-format book. Bolland recalls that the idea for a one-off Batman story focusing on the Joker—with Batman more of an incidental character—was his. Bolland says that in 1984, DC editor Dick Giordano told him he could do any project for DC he wanted, and Bolland requested to do a Batman/Joker prestige book with Moore as writer. Bolland has also expressed dissatisfaction with the final book, and regrets that its impending schedule for release meant he could not color the book himself (John Higgins was the colorist). Bolland says that "the end result wasn't quite what I'd hoped. I don't think it rates with some of the highlights of Alan's career." March 2008 saw the release of the artwork as Bolland intended it: the twentieth anniversary hardcover edition of The Killing Joke is completely recolored by Bolland himself.

The book made The New York Times Best Seller list in May 2009.

Influence in other media
Tim Burton claimed that The Killing Joke influenced his film adaptation of Batman: "I was never a giant comic book fan, but I've always loved the image of Batman and The Joker. The reason I've never been a comic book fan - and I think it started when I was a child - is because I could never tell which box I was supposed to read. I don't know if it was dyslexia or whatever, but that's why I loved The Killing Joke, because for the first time I could tell which one to read. It's my favorite. It's the first comic I've ever loved. And the success of those graphic novels made our ideas more acceptable."

Director Christopher Nolan has mentioned that The Killing Joke served as an influence for the version of the Joker appearing in The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger, who played the Joker, stated in an interview that he was given a copy of The Killing Joke as reference for the role.

The design of the novel's version of the Joker is used in the videogame Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe for the same character.

The 2009 video game Batman: Arkham Asylum for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows adapted a post-The Killing Joke timeline, in that Barbara Gordon feeds Batman information via his cowl along the way under her 'Oracle' alias. Several notable references to the story are also made in the game. The Joker's makeshift throne made of mannequins at the end of the game is almost identical to the one in the novel. During the game, it is revealed that the Joker had been using e-mail under the alias "Jack White", which Batman identifies as "one of Joker's oldest aliases". The Joker even personally makes a knowing reference to the story: "So, there are these two guys in a lunatic asylum...say, have I told you that one before?"

"201", the 201st episode of South Park, involves an extended homage and parody of the section of the book in the carnival, with Scott Tenorman filling the Joker's role and Eric Cartman standing in for Commissioner Gordon. The scene recreates several panels and instances very strongly, as well as the color palette of the book.

Influence on the Joker's origin
Moore's rendition of the Joker's origin employs elements of the 1951 story "The Mystery of the Red Hood" (Detective Comics #168), which established the concept of the Joker originally having been a thief known only as the Red Hood. The tragic and human elements of the character's story, coupled with his barbaric crimes as the Joker, portray the character as more of a three-dimensional (if seemingly irredeemable) human being. Critic Mark Vogler wrote that The Killing Joke "provid[ed] the Joker with a sympathetic back story as it presented some of the villain's most vile offenses."

Much of the Joker's backstory from The Killing Joke is also confirmed in 2004's "Pushback" (Batman: Gotham Knights #50-55; reprinted with #66 as Batman: Hush Returns), where the events are observed and reported by an impartial third party: Edward Nigma, better known as the Riddler. Nigma recounts that the Joker's pregnant wife was kidnapped and murdered by the criminals in order to force his compliance. In this version, the pre-accident Joker is called "Jack". The story was poorly received by fans and critics, and no stories since have verified these new details.

"No Joke"
In 2007, Geoff Johns wrote a companion story to The Killing Joke entitled "No Joke" for Booster Gold.

In the story, Booster Gold is charged by Rip Hunter to go back in time and save Barbara from being shot by the Joker. Booster arrives at the carnival shortly after the Joker has rounded up the freaks, only to be attacked by them. He manages to escape (after the Joker torments him), but arrives too late to save Barbara. Catching the Joker in the middle of taking photos of the wounded Barbara (after having struck down Commissioner Gordon), Booster attacks the Joker in a rage; the Joker nevertheless gains the upper hand, snapping several photos of Booster as well. Rip removes Booster moments before he is killed, but Booster demands to be sent back again. Booster fails several times until Rip reveals that the Joker is destined to paralyze her, as it would ensure that she would become Oracle.

The story also reveals that Batman kept the photos of Barbara and Booster, and had been waiting until Booster came of age before confronting him. Batman thanks Booster for trying to stop the Joker and offers him his friendship. Eventually, Dick Grayson, who becomes his mentor's successor as Batman, would also learn about this and offer his thanks as well.

"Ladies' Night"
In 2010, writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Cliff Chiang collaborated on a one-shot story called "Ladies' Night", which was published in the anthology series The Brave and the Bold. The story is set shortly before The Killing Joke, and deals with Zatanna and Wonder Woman struggling to come to terms with the impending attack on Barbara after Zatanna has a precognitive dream about it. Like "No Joke", the story heavily implies that the heroines cannot alter Barbara's fate, despite their desire to do so. The story also implies that Wonder Woman served as the inspiration for Barbara Gordon's eventual codename of Oracle.


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  • The Killing Joke is collected in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.

Deluxe edition
In March 2008, a deluxe hardcover version of the book was released, featuring recoloring of the book by Brian Bolland. The new colors featured black-and-white flashbacks, as opposed to Higgins' colors, along with one or two items per panel colored in pink or red, up until the helmet of the Red Hood is revealed. In addition to recoloring the pages, Bolland also altered some facial expressions and added minor artwork. Also included is a colored version of Bolland's "An Innocent Guy" (originally published in Batman Black and White), an introduction by Tim Sale, and an epilogue by Bolland.

Critical reaction to the new coloring has been largely positive. Aaron Albert of said that "the washed-out tones of the flashback sections help to make the transitions between the sections more fluid" and that "the first reveal of the Joker after his transformation has more impact." Van Jensen of ComicMix said that "the new colors really do improve the book, giving it a subtlety and grimness not present in the original."

James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate said that the original version "is outdone by Bolland’s recoloring", which he said "gives the comic a more timeless quality." Seb Patrick of Den of Geek had a lukewarm reaction, calling the recoloring of the flashbacks "superb" but commented that "some of the [other] changes seem to have less of a point—increasing definition for the sake of it, but giving the book too much of a present-day feel rather than looking like it was printed in the 1980s."

A comparison of the original coloring and the deluxe hardcover edition coloring can be found here.

The deluxe edition also makes a change to the front cover: where the original edition's speech bubble had the Joker saying "SMILE", with no punctuation, the newer cover italicizes it and adds an exclamation point: "SMILE!"

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