In a storyline that’s been retold almost as often as the Depression-era rough-and-tumble beginnings of the comics trade, the mid-to-late 1980s saw a rebirth for comics, spearheaded by a revitalization of Batman as the Dark Knight. With Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, as well as Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Batman (along with a few guys called The Watchmen) became the vengeful and schizoid resurrector of a genre that had been spinning its wheels creatively since some time in the 1970s. The revitalized character also gave birth, at decade’s end, to Tim Burton’s goony and wrong-headed film, but that’s another discussion entirely…
In 1988, right between Miller’s 1987 Batman: Year One origin story, and Morrison’s 1989 heart-of-darkness nightmare, Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland lent their considerable talents to The Killing Joke. A 46-page episode that seemed – as Heroes artist Tim Sale puts it in his introduction to DC’s lavish 20th anniversary edition – “crafted at such an astonishing level, and printed so much more cleanly and carefully, that it seemed to be a different beast altogether.”
Two decades on, Moore and Bolland’s creation is certainly intriguing, but it does show how far the genre has come since then. The story, in which Joker busts out of Arkham Asylum (again!) to exact a sick revenge on Commissioner Gordon, is uncommonly savage, but nothing that Moore couldn’t do in his sleep. For his part, Bolland’s art is sharp and evocatively colored, particularly in the washed-out flashback scenes detailing the Joker’s tragic origins; certainly top-notch but not the sort of thing that normally deserves the 20th anniversary treatment.
What remains most interesting about The Killing Joke today is how tired it seems to be of the whole catch and release, superhero-villain game, starting as it does with Batman trying to come to some sort of understanding with the Joker:
I’ve been thinking< lately. About you and me. About what’s going to happen to us. In the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we? Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you. Perhaps sooner. Perhaps later. I just wanted to know that I’d made a genuine attempt to talk things over and avert that outcome. Just once. I don’t fully understand why ours should be such a fatal relationship…It’s that sense of exhaustion, that admission of “I don’t fully understand” that takes the modern superhero’s much-vaunted new sensitivity to entirely new levels. One wishes at times that Moore and Bolland would have wanted to give this story some more space, create a novel entirely of their own, because at 46 pages, the unanswerable questions raised here, the revealing backstory about the Joker’s origin, the icy-black joke that ends it all, feels almost rushed. And you should never rush true art.