It takes a lot for a graphic novel to still have staying power after nearly thirty years. There are so many different comic books and comics-related media out there that it can be quite challenging to tell a story that stands out from the rest, but British writer Alan Moore’s seminal and controversial graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke has done just that since its original publication in 1988.
In the years since, many different portrayals of the Joker, both live-action and animated, have come and gone but almost all of them have elements rooted in The Killing Joke. With the book itself having finally gotten its own animated adaptation this year, was it able to live up to the literary uniqueness of its original much-buzzed-about source material?
Released soon after Frank Miller’s groundbreaking The Dark Knight Returns and Moore’s own Watchmen, Batman: The Killing Joke continued this trend of using the sophisticated 'graphic novel' format to deconstruct the actions and motivations of superheroes and their villains at a point in time where a character like Batman was still thought of by many as television’s bright and campy caped crusader played by Adam West in the ‘60s.
Writer and artist Frank Miller changed the game however with The Dark Knight Returns by bringing a much older version of Batman into a grim, violent, politically-driven 1980s and completely redefining his place in modern society. Moore very much did the same, but with an original group of costumed heroes, in Watchmen.
The Joker’s dirty deed in Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke remains to be one of the most disturbing and talked-about villainous plots in comic book history. After breaking out of Arkham Asylum, the Joker arrives at the doorstep of Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Police Commissioner James Gordon, who has been secretly fighting alongside Batman for years as Batgirl. Barbara opens her door to see the Joker ghoulishly smiling back at her while brandishing a camera and a revolver.
In the blink of an eye, the Joker shoots Barbara right in her midsection. While the bullet doesn't kill her, it does shatter her spine, paralyzing her from the waist down. The Joker’s henchmen then kidnap her father as the Joker proceeds to strip Barbara of all her clothes while taking numerous photos of her nude, pain-stricken body.
Gordon is taken to a rundown amusement park and forced onto a perverse indoor rollercoaster ride filled with giant projected photos of his suffering daughter. The Joker’s devious end game is to torment a straight-and-narrow guy like Gordon until he’s driven insane in order to prove to Batman that, no matter who you are, anyone is capable of losing it and becoming morally corrupt after having just one really bad day.
Sprinkled throughout the story are glimpses of the “one bad day” many years ago that originally sent the Joker over the edge, back when he was nothing but a failed stand-up comedian trying desperately to provide for his pregnant wife. Willing to do anything to earn some extra cash, the comedian agrees to partake in a late-night burglary of a playing card factory that stands next door to the Ace Chemical Plant, but on that fateful day, his wife and unborn child accidently die in a freak accident and the card factory robbery turns to chaos when it’s thwarted by the Batman. In an attempt to escape, the comedian leaps into a river of toxic chemicals that bleaches his skin white, dyes his hair a florescent green, and stretches his lips back into a frightful red grin.
Back in the present day the Joker is confronted by Batman at the amusement park where Gordon is being held and the two engage in a brutal physical and philosophical sparring match in a twisted hall of mirrors. A defeated Joker then tells Batman a wicked joke about two insane asylum inmates that gets the two of them laughing hysterically at each other and in a hauntingly ambiguous ending that is still debated over to this day, a cackling Batman may or may not have snapped the Joker’s neck after going insane himself.
Since the release of Batman: The Killing Joke, Alan Moore has in hindsight called some of his creative decisions in the book shallow, ill-conceived and done for simple shock value, concluding that the book was "not his best work". Regardless, the story continues to resonate with Batman fans to this day and is still heralded as one of the greatest Joker stories ever told. It's also one of the most definitive explorations of the yin/yang relationship and strange ethical bond that has kept the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime at each other’s throats for all these years without one simply killing the other.
The Killing Joke is a major watershed moment within the long, rich history of the Joker that continues to influence how he’s depicted in various forms of media. The characterization of the Joker, his tragic origin story, and the psychology that this book touches upon has informed many aspects of both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s iconic live-action portrayals, along with Jared Leto's fascinating but barely-there screen time in the new Suicide Squad film and Mark Hamill’s always brilliant voice acting in Batman: The Animated Series.
In fact, The Killing Joke has become so influential over the years that I wouldn’t be surprised if its impact would actually be lost on some of today’s readers who pick it up for the first time, wondering what all the fuss was about. We’ve seen the Joker do so many equally if not more psychotic things in the years since, but so much of that can easily be traced back to The Killing Joke.
The brilliance of The Killing Joke’s flashback scenes are how they run through the story as the Joker’s vile mission unfolds in the present day and when interpreted one way, you could easily just fall back on the fact that this series of events we see are exactly what turned this guy into the Joker, but further evidence would suggest the contrary, that perhaps none of it happened at all. Maybe the Joker has just been hit in the head so many times, he can’t even remember what exactly happened to him anymore or he is deliberately fabricating these tragic memories in his brain in order to somehow justify his own monstrous and sociopathic behavior.
In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance included many elements from The Killing Joke including the idea of his origin story being “multiple choice” and maybe a bit hazy, hence why whenever he explains to his victims how a smile was carved into his face, the story changes every time.
On the other hand, Jack Nicholson’s classic version of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman was more matter-of-fact, that he was indeed a criminal who was immersed in a vat of chemicals during a botched robbery. So, while you’re certainly free to pick your favorite Joker origin, I think the point here is that there truly isn’t one. He just is.
The Killing Joke just wouldn’t be the same without Brian Bolland’s highly detailed art style, or John Higgins’ original color treatment for that matter. Sure, Moore’s story alone is pretty shocking and chock full of quotable lines but what truly pulls you in to this grimy world is Bolland’s gritty, realistic and masterfully detailed line work, which is further accentuated by intricate cross-hatching techniques that add a genuine weight and texture to every panel.
To this day, I still consider Bolland’s Joker to be my absolute favorite comic book rendition of the character ever. Everything from the lanky body frame to the tussled strands of curly green hair to the ferocious yellow teeth to the exaggerated yet still somewhat realistic facial features are all what add up to make this my go-to Joker, visually.
The original 1988 printing of The Killing Joke was colored by John Higgins, who gave the book a very distinctive psychedelic palette. Later in 2008, DC Comics released a 20th Anniversary hardcover reprint where Brian Bolland himself got the chance to go back through the entire book and digitally re-color all of his own original line work. Claiming it was now done the way he had always intended, his new color job completely trades in the original’s atmospheric hues with a much more muted, realistic and frankly boring color scheme.
While it isn’t necessarily poorly done, Bolland’s reprinted colors are just very conventional and kind of bland when compared to Higgins’ more florescent take in the original book. The more abstract and garish use of color juxtaposed with Bolland’s highly detailed and semi-photorealistic illustrations were just more visually striking and even though some might call the use of brighter colors a dated style, I think the story actually works a lot better when seen as a product of its time anyway. The original’s palette creates a specific mood for each sequence and better reflects the neon-drenched excessiveness of the ‘80s, but because the newer, more desaturated colors strip this book of its once nightmarish and genuinely imposing tone, it comes nowhere close to capturing the horrific funhouse abrasiveness of the Joker’s own crazed mindset the original printing did so perfectly.
While The Killing Joke indeed has a very loyal fanbase, it has also garnered a fair share of detractors over the years, which is not all that surprising given the shocking nature of its subject matter. The bulk of the controversy naturally revolves around what happens to Barbara Gordon, but I think what bothers a lot of people isn’t necessarily the specific way in which the Joker brutally maims her.
Rather, it’s more the supposed sexist implications of taking the iconic alter ego of Batgirl (and the one major female in the entire story) and reducing her role down to a mere plot device. This idea is a prominent example of a storytelling trope referred to as “fridging” where a major female character is harmed or stripped of all her power solely to move the plot forward for the main (usually male) hero and it’s certainly understandable why this aspect makes The Killing Joke off-putting for a lot of people, especially these days.
What’s interesting though is that writer Alan Moore never intended this story to take place within the ongoing mainstream continuity of the monthly Batman comics or even the larger DC universe. Originally planned as a simple one-off character study of the Joker, this book became so popular, the events ended up carrying over into the main Batman canon where Barbara remained wheelchair-bound for years to come.
You can’t argue the fact that the only reason for Barbara Gordon’s existence in this particular story is to service the Joker’s vendetta against Batman and Commissioner Gordon but I seriously doubt Moore did this in order to give the book this sexist subtext. Moore has even confirmed that the Joker does not sexually assault her, which is something many readers have also believed over the years.
Barbara had been featured in the comics for a couple decades, along with famously being portrayed by Yvonne Craig in the final season of the classic '60s TV show, so there was no point for The Killing Joke to go out of its way to give her any extra character development since she isn’t the focus of this story anyway, and you could easily say the same for whoever the Joker’s victim would’ve been in this scenario. To me, The Killing Joke is to be taken in as a grim psychological profile of the Joker first and foremost, not an empowering or inspirational superhero adventure. Shit’s dark, dude.
Sure, some feel that Barbara’s crippling was merely a cheap gimmick so the creators could say, “Hey look, comics aren’t just for kids”, but it was also a pretty interesting moment for the medium where you saw the grizzly real-world fragility of a character that is usually depicted as a virtually indestructible superhero, whether it be in comics, cartoons, or the old '60s TV show, without simply resorting to killing her and the fact that it was Barbara specifically makes this heinous crime even more personal for both Batman and Jim Gordon. Ultimately, if The Killing Joke had never gone on to have such a lasting effect on the bigger Batman mythos, I don’t really think Barbara’s “fridged” role in the book would be so heavily criticized.
Unhappy with the treatment Barbara received in The Killing Joke, Suicide Squad writers Kim Yale and John Ostrander introduced Oracle in 1989, Barbara’s new alter ego who used her extensive computer skills to become one of the most resourceful crime-fighting allies in the entire DC universe despite her disability.
Oracle quickly became a fan favorite thanks to Yale and Ostrander’s insistence of not letting Barbara slip into obscurity after the harsh events in The Killing Joke, but rather allowing her character to evolve into an empowering figure for many handicapped comic book readers. More recently however, all the rebooting that DC Comics has done with their continuity in the past few years has essentially erased the events of The Killing Joke from Barbara Gordon’s past.
For almost a decade now, Warner Bros. Animation and DC Comics have built an entire catalog of direct-to-DVD animated films directly based on or loosely inspired by popular DC stories, to varying levels of success. While I’ve enjoyed quite a few of them, some of the real stand-outs to me include Batman: Under The Red Hood, Wonder Woman, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox.
By now, many of the quintessential ‘80s-era adult-oriented graphic novels under the DC banner had already gotten their own adaptations, be it the animated versions of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One or the Watchmen feature film directed by Zack Snyder, and finally tackling the fan favorite Batman: The Killing Joke had been an idea tossed around at the animation studio for a number of years.
For nearly a quarter century, actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill have provided the voices for Batman and The Joker respectively in countless animated projects and several video games, and it all began with the legendary Batman: The Animated Series in 1992 co-created by animator Bruce Timm, who to this day, continues to be a producer on many of the DC animated projects. On several occasions, Hamill would publicly announce his retirement from playing The Joker but when asked whether or not he’d ever consider returning to the role in an animated version of The Killing Joke, he would always respond with an enthusiastic 'yes' and encourage the fans to make their voices heard about wanting an adaptation.
Obviously, their voices were heard and hype began to build around the classic story getting an actual R-rated animated treatment and bringing Conroy and Hamill back to their iconic roles, along with popular voice actress Tara Strong returning to the role of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, whom she had originally portrayed in later episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, as well as some tie-in films and video games. And with the talented Bruce Timm on board as an executive producer, this was looking like every Bat-fan’s dream project. There was no possible way this could turn out to be anything less than a stellar adaptation of the graphic novel…
Oh, I so wanted to like this. I really, really did – not just because of the story it was adapting, but because of the true talent on display here. And yet things already weren’t looking good for the film when it received quite a backlash after an early screening at San Diego Comic-Con a couple weeks before the movie’s official Blu-ray release.
The internet quickly went nuts, specifically over the first 30 minutes of the film, which was an original Batgirl story that had nothing to do with the Killing Joke comic but was created for this adaptation to pad out the 76-minute runtime and to add some extra character development for Barbara before getting shot by the Joker. I had heard about some of these details through the grapevine and they were sounding a bit strange to me, but I figured I’d still give it a shot and maybe it wouldn’t seem so odd in context. I hate to say it but the internet was right on this one.
Batman and Batgirl are in pursuit of a generic criminal who begins to develop a fixation with Batgirl but after feeling like she isn’t taking this dangerous situation seriously enough, Batman forces her off the case. In a rage, Batgirl fights Batman, knocking him to the ground. Then, all of a sudden, they begin kissing and proceed to do the “horizontal Bat-Tusi”, so to speak.
Once Batgirl beats the criminal to a bloody pulp and he's finally apprehended, the awkward tension between Batman and Batgirl motivates Barbara to hang up her bat suit for good. It’s there that the story abruptly, and quite jarringly, transitions to the actual Killing Joke adaptation.
Sigh. What a mess. The Killing Joke storyline hasn’t even started yet and already it feels like this new beginning was just adding controversy for the sake of controversy – as if the original book wasn’t cruel enough towards Barbara, but that isn’t my only gripe with the opening half hour. This story is completely, 100% disconnected from The Killing Joke, so much so that it easily feels like a cartoon that would just play before the main feature.
Except for some of the more adult themes, it feels like a typical episode of Batman: The Animated Series, which on the surface sounds like a compliment, but when that style is placed right alongside the darker and grittier Killing Joke material, the pieces just don’t fit together at all. The animation itself is as slick as you’d expect from these guys and the action is serviceable, but it’s all kind of pointless when the story feels tacked-on and is honestly quite damaging towards the characters of Batman and Batgirl.
Despite the involvement of executive producer Bruce Timm and a screenplay by comic book writer Brian Azzarello, both of whom have repeatedly proven over the years that they understand these characters, this film ends up completely dropping the ball on the relationship between Batman and Batgirl. Sure, it’s easy to believe that Barbara Gordon would maybe have some kind of schoolgirl crush on her mentor, but for her to act on that in such a way, AND to have Batman, a longtime father-figure of hers, actually allow that to happen makes both characters come off as weak-willed, and Barbara herself an overly-emotional wreck.
The creators have tried to explain that the idea was supposed to humanize these characters and show that they make mistakes. Sadly though, what was originally hyped up as a cool Batgirl story that was supposed to flesh out Barbara’s character before that big Killing Joke moment, only ended up doing way more harm than good. Now that we've seen what direction that idea was taken in, having a Batgirl story tacked on to the front not only feels completely pointless but it also pretty much misses the point of The Killing Joke.
Okay, so because there is such a distractingly clear divide between the first half hour and the actual Killing Joke story, you could easily just skip that first part without missing a single thing. Of course, therein lies the next important question – is the actual Killing Joke adaptation any good…? Well…
Now don’t get me wrong, it is an extremely loyal adaptation, almost too loyal if that’s at all possible. Except for a few very minimal changes, it follows the original book almost line-by-line and panel-for-panel and it is extremely fun to listen to Alan Moore’s original dialogue come out of the mouths of the great Kevin Conroy and the one-and-only Mark Hamill (his rendition of ‘I Go Looney’ was indeed a highlight).
Even with their voices being naturally older and gruffer now, it works to their advantage considering that the story is supposed to be taking place pretty late in the careers of these characters. If anyone was going to play these two in a Killing Joke adaptation, it’s only fair that it be the two actors who have spent the most time with Batman and the Joker than anyone else in history. So, when it comes to why this adaptation doesn’t fully work, the blame surely can’t be placed on the actors’ shoulders.
While the film tries its damnedest to be a loyal retelling, it has a few really big underlying issues that hold it back from being as effective as it should be, the first being the visuals. When the trailers started coming out, a lot of people were already beginning to voice their dislike of the animation style. I initially defended it, as it looked to be pretty much on par with many of the other DC animated films. To be fair, in hand-drawn animation, especially on a direct-to-video budget, it would be a massive undertaking to try and come even somewhat close to Brian Bolland’s extremely detailed illustrations, so I gave it a pass until I actually saw the finished film, but once I did, it just didn’t pop as much as I hoped it would.
Again, I’ll throw out the term ‘serviceable’, but this particular project needed to be quite a few steps above that in order to capture the book’s frightening realism and to satisfy the many fans who regard this story as a classic. I mean, this film was so hyped up, it even got a limited theatrical release, something that none of the other DC animated films have had before. And for my money, the 2012 adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was WAY more deserving of a theatrical release than this. The animation was a million times better, the film’s epic scope felt tailor-made for the big screen and it retained that book’s energy and spirit way more successfully.
And even though The Killing Joke was the first DC animated film to be officially rated R, I felt that there were more moments in The Dark Knight Returns that warranted that kind of rating, at least more so than this execution of The Killing Joke. This could’ve easily been PG-13, especially since the animation style alone softens even the book’s darkest moments. Believe me, I’ve always adored and admired the signature Batman Animated style, but it’s way too kid-friendly for it to work with a story of this caliber.
Aside from the animation, a criticism that I made about the 2008 reprinting of the book could likewise be applied to the film – its color. I suppose it would be foolish of me to expect that they would even attempt to go the same route as the original printing did with the stranger, more off-putting deep purples, hot pinks, harsh yellows and neon greens, but to me, that is such a driving force behind the story’s lunacy, even the newer version of the same exact book couldn’t hold up in comparison.
Again, the Dark Knight Returns adaptation had a much more interesting color palette and cinematic atmosphere than this did – it even felt like a darkly stylized ‘80s film at times. This, on the other hand, just feels so flat, which is something that definitely holds it back from reflecting the visceral terror that’s only truly conveyed by the book’s original printing. Look, when you boil it all down, The Killing Joke is a pretty simple story, so the attention to little artistic details like these can really make all the difference.
Besides the visuals, the film suffers from a massive pacing problem. Now usually, criticisms of pace tend to apply to something that either moves too slowly or is constantly shifting its gears, but here, the pacing is just too damned fast. The book may be a pretty brisk read but the beauty part is that the choice is yours whether to read it as fast as you can or absorb all the information as slowly as you want, I prefer the latter personally.
The genius of the story is in its simplicity but it has the biggest impact when you allow yourself to linger on the BIG moments: Batman’s journey into Arkham, the Joker’s unnerving reveal in close-up, the shooting of Barbara, the flashback scenes, Gordon’s hellish rollercoaster ride, the Batman/Joker confrontation, and ESPECIALLY the book’s big finale – the killing joke.
The book almost reads like a slow-burn horror story but all the same moments play really fast in the film and it seems like the actors are directed to just kind of breeze right through their dialogue to the point where many of these iconic moments are so glossed over, they just kind of land with a giant thud. I suppose that no matter how you approach some of these scenes, they would probably play a little awkwardly in motion if they were slowed way down, but that right there brings me all the way back around to the original question posed by the title of this article – is a successful 'Batman: The Killing Joke' adaptation even possible?
Maybe…but it won’t be the version we got, which is a true testament to Alan Moore’s genius as a storyteller. Moore has always said that to elevate comic books as an art form was to tell stories in ways that can only truly work in that format. This is a big reason why he actively chooses to never have his name put on any adaptations of his works, whether it’s for an actual good film like V for Vendetta or hot garbage like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Now, I’m a fan of Zack Snyder’s 2009 version of Watchmen, but even the film’s biggest supporters have to admit that in bringing Moore’s original graphic novel to the big screen while trying to retain as many of the details and thematic layers from the book as they could, quite a bit still got lost in translation, hence why much of Moore’s stuff is overall deemed “unfilmable”.
Most of his stories just can’t retain their impact in any other medium, and thanks to this recent attempt, I’m starting to believe that The Killing Joke is no exception. To be fair, Moore’s words and Bolland’s pictures work together so specifically that some problems, like the simplistic animation style or how the filmmakers have to interpret some ambiguous story beats, are simply unavoidable, no matter how well-done the adaptation turns out. The ending, for instance, is so much more powerful when it plays out in your head but when animated with voice work and sound effects, it just doesn’t land quite as well.
Let's be honest. You can easily copy and paste Moore's dialogue and Bolland's compositions all you want, but sometimes being that faithful on the surface doesn't necessarily mean the adaptation is going to be a guaranteed homerun. Again, it’s such a simple story, so what could the filmmakers have done to make for a stronger film?
Well, and I hate to sound like that guy but as I watched this movie, I kept thinking about what I would’ve done differently. If you must include a Batgirl prologue to make the film longer, then it’s baffling how they went about doing it. She quits being Batgirl over something so relatively petty that it makes the character practically unlikeable.
I say that instead of doing a prologue where our heroes take down some random goon like the movie had, have a prologue that actually includes the main characters from The Killing Joke where Batman, Batgirl and maybe even Commissioner Gordon are working together to take down, gee, I don’t know – the Joker?! That way, we can have even more Mark Hamill goodness to savor and it would’ve tied in better with the rest of the story. The focus can still be on Batgirl, just don’t have her pining over Batman the entire time and once they apprehend the Joker and lock him up in Arkham, several months can pass, then the Killing Joke story can begin when he escapes, all without Barbara retiring from being Batgirl.
In fact, by the end of the prologue, have her even more enthusiastic than ever to keep fighting crime alongside the Dark Knight so that once the Joker paralyzes her, it’s even more of a tragic loss. That would also be a better setup for the film's mid-credits scene where we briefly see a disabled Barbara return to crime-fighting as Oracle. Look, at this point, anything is better than what ended up in the film.
Or, since one of the main goals of the prologue was to simply turn this relatively short story into a feature length film, then skip it all together. What makes The Killing Joke itself work so well is, as a standalone story, how quiet and reserved it begins. Then as the story progresses, it slowly builds to the down-and-dirty fight between Batman and the Joker- the only real action set piece in the whole book. Finally, it’s all capped off with Joker’s infamous killing joke followed by a relatively quiet ending that perfectly bookends the beginning of the story. With an action-packed prologue tacked on to the beginning, it just lessens the effect of that entire structure.
Also, Moore’s dialogue is so precise and uniquely his own, that writing new material is going to sound out of place, no matter who does it. So, I say forget the prologue all together and maybe find some extra beats within the actual Killing Joke story if you have to make it longer. Just as I said about the book, there’s no need to develop Barbara’s character that much because the story isn’t really about her. If nothing else, build up Gordon a little more since the Joker’s plan is focused on his emotional state specifically.
Since this story is so short, what this movie really needed to do was linger on some of those big moments from the comic so they actually had some punch to them onscreen. Hell, instead of making it more action-heavy, I’d find it interesting if they further accentuated the quieter, creepier, or more introspective scenes that something like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm does so well with its script. And to get down to the rotten core of this story, maybe add an extra layer of sleaze so this film could actually earn its R rating, instead of fabricating some humdrum action-oriented story at the beginning like we see in every other Batman movie and TV show. The Killing Joke is a somber character piece that could play like a horror film if done right, but a fist-pumping action adventure it surely is not.
Look, I’m all for a good adaptation but when said adaptation falls flat on its face in nearly every way possible when compared to its source material and can't add anything of merit to the experience, then I say, why bother? When it comes to the story of Batman: The Killing Joke, nothing beats picking up Alan Moore’s original graphic novel, although I’m sure most of you reading this probably already have anyway, which is why you were excited for this film like I was. If you are still morbidly curious however, then go ahead and check out the new animated movie simply to see how it compares and, more importantly, to support the creation of future, hopefully better DC animated films.
Much like the untouched editions of the original Star Wars movies though, I only wish copies of the initial 1988 print of The Killing Joke were easier to find, mostly because of its coloring, but I’d recommend that you pick up any version of the comic you can if you’re a big Joker fan, especially since it’s not a long read at all. But if it doesn’t end up clicking for you, then please try and take into account how many great Joker stories it predates and has no doubt influenced.
David Rose is the creator of Happy Dragon Pictures and The DVD Shelf. He’s an illustrator, animator, videographer and aspiring billionaire/crimefighter…but still needs more training.