BOOK REVIEW: “The Killing Joke” by Alan Moore

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
- Harlan Ellison
 

Oh, I’m so tired of Batman. Movies. Comics. Television. Internet parodies. There’s just too much of the guy.

I grew up with Adam West playing Batman. Then you had Michael Keaton play Batman which was a cultural phenomenon in 1989. Then you had and Val Kilmer and George Clooney but nobody saw those. I read The Dark Knight by Frank Miller and really, I was done by that point.

That’s why I am one of the only people on earth who never saw any of the Christopher Nolan Batman films starring Christian Bale. Plus, the whole Christian Bale voice just made me laugh in all the trailers. What was up with that? I think it was supposed to be sinister and intimidating but instead it was completely hilarious. That goofy voice made Batman no more sinister than the 1960′s television show with Adam West. Seriously, I was baffled by how audiences could be saying these movies were so dark and brooding when he was doing that hysterical voice. Christian Bale as Batman talks exactly the same way I did when I was 5 years old making prank phonecalls and trying to sound like a grownup.

Once I found out that Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan were both inspired by The Killing Joke, I knew I had no need to ever see another Batman movie because I had already read The Killing Joke in 1988. Why bother watching multiple movie adaptations 25 years later? I’ve already seen the movie in my head. Nothing they put on film can top what I’ve already envisioned.

The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland, is considered by many to be one of those turning point kind of comics. The kind of story that skewed Batman, and indeed the comic book industry itself, into a whole new way of thinking. As graphic novels go, The Killing Joke isn’t very long. As graphic novels go, The Killing Joke is downright paltry. Truthfully, it’s a comic book. It’s too short to legitimately qualify as a graphic novel. But the story. Wow. When this comic book came out, the story was utterly shocking. This was most definitely not the Batman of Adam West. This was not campy. This was Batman in a very brutal and sadistic world. The Joker was no longer a joke. He was finally portrayed as the terrifying homicidal maniac that any true villain happens to be. And yet, there remains a great beauty and human element to the story. The good guys and bad guys are not clear cut; they are not black and white and one-dimensional representations of good and evil. For all the horrendous violence and psychosis in the story, it also inspires a heartbreaking sympathy for The Joker. His origins, as revealed in The Killing Joke, make you feel genuine pity for this monstrously deranged psychopath. When you find out what awful things the world has done to him, you start to understand why he became The Joker, and although his actions can not be condoned, they become easier to comprehend. The Joker begins the story as a genuinely decent man, but the circumstances by which he descends into his fate of becoming this fiendish criminal are a tragic and cumulative succession of misfortunes which are simply heartwrenching.

Many people often mention the fact that Alan Moore, the author of The Killing Joke, has since derided the book. In a 2000 interview he said, “I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting.” Later, he went on to say, “I know that I’ve slagged The Killing Joke pretty remorselessly since it first came out. I mean, when I go into a sulk about something, you know, it lasts for decades… The Killing Joke is probably not as bad as I’ve painted it. There have certainly been worse things done with Batman or with a lot of other superheroes for that matter. So in context, The Killing Joke wasn’t as bad a book as I’ve said it was, probably.”

But you have to keep in mind, we’re talking about Alan Moore. If you know anything about him, he’s a very artsy artist. Eccentric is the word. He looks like the bastard lovechild of Dan Haggerty and Charles Manson. I’ve never met the man. Never talked to him. But from what I’ve seen in interviews and whatnot, you can tell, he’s the kind of creative individual who is very caught up in his own headspace. And that’s okay. That’s not an insult to the man. That’s the way many of us are. Most writers take a strong dislike to most of their past work. Goodness knows there are aspects of things I’ve written 20 years ago that makes me cringe. Hell, there are things I’ve written 20 weeks ago that make me cringe. We are supposed to dislike older works. That proves we are learning and evolving and perfecting the craft of writing. When you’re a 97 year old writer, you should look back at the books you wrote when you were 80 years old and be disappointed that you didn’t really know what you were doing. You made mistakes. You messed a few things up. The rest of the world may hail you as a genius, and sometimes, you have those golden paragraphs of such divine clarity that even your own massive ego can scarcely believe you wrote them, but no matter how perfect your narcissism tells you that you are, you know you always fall a little short of what you thought it could have been.

That’s a long winded way of saying, “The book is pretty awesome, so take Alan Moore’s self-doubt with a grain of salt.”

If you’re the sort of person who never reads comic books, The Killing Joke is a great place to start. The themes are very mature and adult and the story is certainly not intended for young children. The Killing Joke is an R-rated movie that has been drawn in comic book form. Pick it up. Check it out. Read it for yourself. By the standards of today, in 2013, it may not hold the same shock value it once had, but just remember, when this story was published in 1988 it was a groundbreaking creation.

Go read The Killing Joke. This book has certainly earned well-deserved recognition, not only in the world of comic books, but in the world of literary influences as well.