My Kryptonite: The Killing Joke

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

The following is a guest post by Nick Baker

Nick is an indie rapper with a journalism degree and a soft spot – in his heart and in his wallet – for comic books. If you’re not averse to reading hateful tweets directed at the Cleveland Browns on Sundays, you can follow him at @BakercommaNick.

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Plenty has been written about the comic book crash of the 1990s. I don’t need to rehash it. But the comic book crash did happen in my childhood. I guess it could be said that I liked to read as a kid, but it was definitely an acquired taste and something I did more and more with age. When it came to comics, I was all in. And by “in,” I mean I was into everything about comics but the paper part.

Sure, I had a few loosies around my room, mostly X-Men, but I never followed any particular series, and the X-Men thing was absolutely a by-product of the animated series. I was a kid, and my TV wheelhouse was an animated one. Though its run started before I was born, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the first comic adaptation I ever loved – even if I didn’t know if was based on a comic until later – and probably my first favorite show. There were several good Marvel cartoons in the mid-‘90s. Late in the decade, I would become a sucker for that brutal Spawn series on HBO.

Video games were also a big deal. I was a Super Nintendo kid, and Marvel had a bunch of games for the system, one that was awesome and made by Capcom, and several that kinda sucked and were made by LJN. I know now that most any game produced by LJN is laughable at best and infuriating at worst, but DUDE YOU CAN BE SPIDER-MAN AND THE X-MEN AND THEY ALL HAVE THEIR OWN STAGES.

I even thought the Batman Forever game was so badass. It had digitized, Mortal Kombat-style character renderings. It was dark (literally). It was also made by Acclaim, the parent company of LJN. Acclaim made the console versions of Mortal Kombat games. So the game was basically a repackaged fighter masquerading as a platforming brawler, controls and all – “up” was jump, for shame – and it was basically just a shitty game. But I played it, and thought I actually liked it, because it was a Batman game.

And really, Batman was it. Batman was king. A kid could get a Bat-fix anywhere. I thought the 1966 live-action show was comedy gold. I even loved the Joel Schumacher films. It didn’t matter that Adam West or Schumacher led me to believe that Batman was at his best when delivering justice AND one-liners or that Gotham City was less dystopia and more giant funhouse with dirt bike races hosted by Coolio.

But that’s also where that part of the story ends. Because then high school happened to me. Because punk rock and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Taxi Driver happened to me. Superheroes just weren’t really my thing anymore.

Fast-forward to the late aughts. That was when I first read Watchmen. I thought it was brilliant. It became my favorite book in any medium ever. It was sort of a superhero story, only not really. But I loved the experience of reading a visual book that had adult concepts, and it was my gateway drug.

I mostly read more realistic titles, like Brian Wood stuff or V for Vendetta, again, by Alan Moore. I learned that Moore had written a one-shot Batman comic. As I read later, he wasn’t particularly fond of the book.

But I was. The Killing Joke is beautiful. It is psychotic. It was darker than any other Batman thing I had ever experienced, and it gave me a sense of genuine dread. I was totally shook while reading it. The Joker’s psychological torture of James Gordon was painful. His cold-blooded shooting of Barbara Gordon, which led to her now-canon paralysis, has been contemplated and criticized, with even Moore saying that he thinks it went too far.

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From Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore, Brian Bolland

But that was the kind of Joker that I wanted. I was into grim realism, and TKJ was that. There exists a dichotomy in the Joker, in which he can sing and dance whimsically while trying to drag others into his same depths of madness. The story offers a vague recollection of the casual psychosis seen in From Hell, Moore’s hallucinatory take on Jack the Ripper. The imagery at the abandoned amusement park, where Joker takes Gordon to torment him, is surreal.

It also put the Batman character in a new light for me. The Killing Joke makes the case that one bad day can force a man into madness as a means of escaping personal tragedy. Joker makes the case for madness while tormenting the police commissioner, and does so in a rhyming ditty that is demented-but-standard Alan Moore fare.

It established a Joker origin story that fell in line with that idea. Bruce Wayne had one bad day, and that day led him to become Batman. I lived with the idea that Bruce Wayne’s bad day led him to be a harbinger of the naive, Golden Era concept of “justice.” Gordon insists on the arrest being “by the book,” but throughout the comic, Batman alludes to killing Joker, Joker killing him, or both. It ends ambiguously, with an actual joke, and the two share maniacal laughter, police sirens nearing. I realized that Batman and Joker are both sides of the same coin. It was incredible.

I’ve consumed countless titles since then. Silver Age titles, ‘80s titles, aughts titles and currently running series have all put a weight on my bank account and my book shelf. But any superhero titles among them, save Watchmen, of course, are there because I read The Killing Joke, and unlike Adam West or Joel Schumacher, the last thing Alan Moore made me want to do was laugh.

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