Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke" is remembered by most fans as the ultimate Joker story, due to the graphic violence and mature content, which elevates it above the typical super-hero comic's mindless slugfest and uni-dimensional plotline.

Read on the surface layer alone, this is quite true. With the exception of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, very little mature work suitible for adult consumption has been done on Batman, and as such, any work that raises the bar to something approaching actual literary quality must be approved of by the audience. We cannot be expected to consistantly enjoy a character who, although a "crimefighter", never experiences anything like real world crime...Consider that, since the publication of the these three graphic novels, Batman has become ever more grim and gritty, and now has an edge to him that would have made readers of the sixties and seventies wonder "Where did the happy go lucky Caped Crusader go?"

But like most of Moore's work, this is a work that also has more depth than most (hell, almost ALL) comics would ever even dream of achieving. Moore, who learned how to write not from comics, but by reading actual literature (a lesson almost everybody in the buisness would do well to take to heart), often weaves several layers of commentary to his stories, and it's worth your time to investigate them.

In order to avoid repeating what some of the other noders have pointed out, I'll get right to some of the "deeper" meanings. To begin: Consider that Batman, as a fictional character, exists in a static universe, where nothing ever truly changes. The fact that Batman is an ongoing series of comic books, that must, month after month, sell X number of copies in order for the buisness side of it to make any sense, means that you can never be absolutely free with the kinds of stories you tell. Batman can never rape Catwoman, for example, and not just because that would be "Going Against His Character". No, Bats can never brutalize Catwoman because it would change the comic too much, and fans would drop the book like a bad habit.

Similarly, the much heard axiom that nobody stays dead in super-hero comics is axiomatic for this same reason. If the fans want a character back, and are threatening to drop the title, the suits in charge (and they ARE in charge, remember that DC Comics is owned by Time-Warner) can reverse even the most poignant tale of demise and reinstate the deceased to the healthy bloom of life at the proverbial drop of a hat.

What does this have to do with "The Killing Joke"? Everything. See, that is what is really going on here, amongst the brutality and the torture, and the carnival of freaks. In this story, Joker pushes the limits of everything that is sacred. He pushes Batman and James Gordon to the very limits of sanity, and it's pretty damn clear that any rational person would kill him for his vile deeds. (It might be different if this was a first time offense, but think about it: Everytime the Joker goes out and murders a gaggle of people, the only punishment he receives is a trip back to Arkham, where he will, of course, escape from again to kill even more people)

Batman's opening dialogue with the fake Joker at Arkham says it all...and sets up what should have been the climax of the story. Quoting from the story: "Are you listening to me? It's life and death that I'm discussing here. Maybe my death . . . Maybe yours . . . ." (Thanks for the link, TenMinJoe)

Moore's meta-commentary here is as follows: Batman should kill the Joker, but he can't, because the status quo must be maintained at all costs. It follows that there will never be any real character growth for this character. He will forever be trapped in a cycle of violence, never to escape. Batman's seemingly inapproprate laughter at the Joker's escaped inmates joke at the end of the comic is possibly the dark laughter of existential horror, as he briefly realizes the utter futility of his existence: He exists only to amuse an invisible god who delights in his misery. Because the sales must keep up, he will never, can never, escape. In this regard, this story applies to all super-hero comics...Superman's Neverending Battle is axiomatic hell for all of them.

After reading Garth Ennis' story, Thor:Vikings, I was a little skeptical of the notion of a "mature" comic book writer being able to reinvent a super hero comic. Cussing and cussing do not make a mature comic out of super heroes pounding super villains.

Reading the Batman story "The Killing Joke" showed me that making a mature super hero story is possible, when the writer is Alan Moore. It's as interesting to note what Alan Moore doesn't do in this story: he doesn't slaughter people indiscriminatly. He doesn't use any swearing. He doesn't attempt to portray the superhero as a needlessly brutal figure.

The story uses other things to provide an atmosphere where the violence is a little more vivid than in a general market comic book: he uses pacing, dialogue, atmosphere (the art sacrifices some realism in using color schemes to present the mood of a scene), and showing that the seemingly random violence comes from some believable psychological motivations of the characters, especially the Joker.

One example of something that Alan Moore did skillfully that a lesser talent would have probably ruined, is his portrayal of the captivity of Comissioner Gordon, the staid police chief that is Batman's oldest ally. When the Joker captures him, he places a dog collar on his neck, which hints at S&M practices. A writer wishing to do nothing but shock people would probably make the references overt, with open usage of sexual talk. However, Alan Moore leaves you to draw the connection in your own mind.

This is also the series where Barbara Gordon is wounded, leaving her paralyzed for life. It is fairly easy to pile bodies up in mounds in comic books, and in adult comics and modern comic books, it is acceptable to do so in very graphic ways. But by wounding Barbara Gordon, Alan Moore does something that very few comic book writers have dared to do: he makes the violence meaningful by making it permanent. Sixteen years after this is released, DC Comics still has Barbara Gordon in a wheelchair.

Another difference between this and other deconstructionist takes on the genre is the fact it does not attempt to paint a picture of the hero as a raving psycho no better than his opponent. Batman and Comissioner Gordon both keep their moral and ethical ground, and in fact, the story states that them keeping it is the only way they can defeat the Joker. The final panels of the story even suggest that Batman has some sympathy for the Joker. Since the story shows us how the Joker came to be, we end up having some sympathy for him too.

On the rather long list of people who have attempted to make super hero comics serious, Alan Moore is one of the few I would say succeeds almost totally.

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