If you haven’t read The Killing Joke, prepare to have your mind blown. This slender, 64-page graphic novel by Alan Moore/Brian Bolland cemented the Joker as a sociopath on a rampage and almost shattered the lodestone from Batman’s moral compass. It was painful to read when it was released back in 1988. It still hurts to think about it in 2016.
Now, twenty-eight years later, it’s about to become a DC Animated Universe movie, the first one to earn a necessary R rating—an event so compelling that it brought Joker voice-over actor Mark Hamill out of retirement.
So what is it about The Killing Joke that makes it so enduring?
I spoke to John Cunningham, VP of Content Strategy for DC Comics, who along with former VP of Sales Bob Wayne saw the appeal of The Killing Joke and packaged it as a hardcover. (The hardcover’s sales have been spectacular, if he says so himself: “Our sales are three times to the point it was last year,and last year in its entirely was double the year before.”)
The Killing Joke will be released digitally on July 26, 2016. It will also have a limited theatrical release.
IT MADE YOU THINK ABOUT BATMAN AMD THE JOKER DIFFERENTLY THAN YOU DID BEFORE
In The Killing Joke, Batman visits the Joker in Arkham Asylum. With little preamble, he says, “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?”
That had my flesh crawling from the get-go. Batman. does. not. kill. And yet he starts off a conversation with the promise of murder. It’s not a question if someone will die, it’s who.
“You’re seeing right away this not the Batman you may not have known before,” said Cunningham.
The Killing Joke also tells a potential origin story of the Joker, in flashback: a sad-sack comedian-turned-criminal whose pregnant wife dies. His criminal caper costs him his appearance and his sanity. These flashback scenes make the Joker pathetic to the point where we can almost sympathize with him.
Cunningham says, “It demonstrates to me on the most broad basis that the Joker is the most popular villain in DC, in some ways as popular as DC’s most iconic heroes.”
IT HELPED CHANGE THE WAY BATMAN STORIES WERE TOLD
No, The Killing Joke itself didn’t change Batman comics. But it was one of the several comic books in the late 1980s that did. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, as well as Moore’s Watchmen, “opened up a door for—to use a more graceful phrase—adult comics,” said John Cunningham.
Batman of the 1960s was campy as hell (for better or worse), and the Batman of the 1970s took a darker turn. The Killing Joke, said Cunningham, “reflected a post-modern sentiment” in storytelling.
THE ENDING IS STILL ENIGMATIC
At the end of The Killing Joke, Batman has captured the Joker, but before the Caped Crusader takes him away, the Joker tells him one final joke, about two lunatics escaping the asylum. They laugh together.
And acclaimed writer Grant Morrison believes that this is when Batman snaps the Joker’s neck.
He makes a someone compelling case for it, here, showing us the ending is more gray than black and white. As Cunningham said, “All great works of literature give you that ambiguity that allows you as the reader to participate in the story.”
But that’s not the only mystery that Cunningham has yet yet to solve:
“I probably changed my opinion about the ending of this book innumerable times: What is the nature of their laughing? What solidarity, if any, have has these two constantly warring entities reached? After multiple reads of it, I still find it widely enigmatic and open to multiple interpretations, which is what I think makes it a work of literature, frankly. And I think where this book reaches its apex.”
IT WAS ONLY A ONE-SHOT, BUT THE EVENTS WITHIN BECAME CANON
Cunningham said, “When The Killing Joke was published, it was published as a non-continuity book.” In other words, the events told in the comic books never happened in the rest of the Bat-universe. However, in the book’s most startling moment, the Joker shoots and paralyzes Commission James Gordon’s daughter Barbara, a.k.a. Batgirl.
According to Comic Book Resources, writer Kim Yale didn’t like the way Barbara was treated, so along with her husband John Ostrander, they came up with the perfect comeback: Ostrander said, “[W]e weren’t just going to make her better magically — we wanted to explore what happened when someone like her was crippled and how she would respond.” Barbara became a different type of superhero: Oracle, an information broker. Although she has since recovered, her injury is still on her mind.
That’s twenty-eight years of history based on the events from a one-shot book. As Cunningham said, “If the story is powerful enough, continuity will bend to you.”
PEOPLE ARE STILL TALKING ABOUT IT YEARS LATER
Cunningham says, “A lot of people read lots of books and they never say anything about them to anyone, and The Killing Joke is a book that’s almost impossible not to talk about with someone after you read it. That’s the sort of experience that creates word of mouth, and there’s no greater driver of sales over the short and long term than word of mouth.”
But not every reaction is a positive one. Cunningham says he’s heard people say it was the best book they’ve ever read, while others say it was the worst.
“I’m not surprised by that spectrum reaction at all. I would expect it from something as long-lasting and provocative as The Killing Joke.
The Killing Joke hadn’t just touched readers. It also influenced the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker.
Are you looking forward to seeing The Killing Joke? Let us know in the comments.
Featured Image Credits: Collider.