Books

Batman: The Killing Joke – Book Review

Python Palmeres felt good, but he was pissed at the same time.  He’d had a fabulous roll in the sack with Suzi, who’d done a magnificent job of sexing down his body and mind, so there was nothing to complain about in that department.”

It was deeply tempting simply to put this quote, followed by a star rating, then to end the article.  There is no better summation of the quality of the writing in this book.  That would be unfair, however, as the book still contains the meat of one of the better (or, at least most influential) Batman stories: The Killing Joke. 

Originally a 1988 Alan Moore story, illustrated by Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke was a 48-page, Joker-centric tale that went on to be, arguably, every bit as influential as The Dark Knight Returns.  The concept of the Joker as an unreliable narrator, and his tendency to the belief that his madness could be replicated in anyone, however good natured and stable, if only they were to suffer a defining pain or loss, can be seen in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

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The overwhelming problem with Batman: The Killing Joke, a novelisation by Christa Faust and Gary Phillips, is not the terrible descriptive choices, or in their adaptation of the key themes – though there are sizable problems in how they interpret some of the original work, but more on that later – but in that original length: 48 pages.

The basic idea of creating Batman novels, away from visual media, is a sound one.  Comic books aren’t for everyone, and it is not unusual for people to struggle with speech bubbles, thought bubbles and panel placement.  It would seem that Batman could thrive in multiple formats.  There is room for a well written novelised format for stories such as The Long Halloween, the terrific Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale story from the 1990s.  That work had an episodic, almost chapter-based structure, however, making it, literally, a graphic novel.  The Killing Joke is a one-shot curio, which would take up – and does take up here – a hundred pages at the most generous.

The core story of The Killing Joke is that Batman goes to see the Joker at Arkham Asylum to talk to him about the need to de-escalate: that one of them will end up dead on their current trajectory.  He finds the Joker has escaped, and replaced himself with a doppelganger.  The freshly-escaped Joker proceeds to attack Barbara Gordon – daughter of Commissioner Jim Gordon, and both Batgirl and the future Oracle – paralysing her in a shooting.  He then kidnaps Jim, taking him to a disused fun fair, and tortures him – attempting to send him mad – with images of Jim’s naked, bleeding daughter, as Batman races to intervene.  This is intercut with the Joker’s backstory as a failed stand- up comedian who, whilst married and an expectant father, agrees to take part in a heist, disguised as The Red Hood.  This is not a particularly long or involved story. It is more a slightly grim tone poem musing on the fragility, or not, of our sanity, as well as teasing a Joker backstory that the author knows is a bad idea to tell.

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Even the attempts to expand the story to a still-relatively-short DC animated movie in the 2016 Mark Hamill/Kevin Conroy feature were to mixed results.  The story is the story, and adding Batgirl/Batman romances doesn’t contribute anything to that core 48-page experience from 1988.

With this in mind, Batman: The Killing Joke is, at 309 pages, a massive overstretch.  There are attempts to spread the core story throughout the novel, with the Joker-Batman meeting taking place in the earliest pages of the book.  The Joker backstory stuff takes place well before halfway too.  For the rest of the original Moore tale, the story does not really start until around 220 pages in, where we finally start to see what the Joker did upon his escape from Arkham.  Even then, with a mere 90 pages to go, we are subjected to a great deal of padding, as we get all the details of how he set up the technology both to capture images of Barbara, and to display them to her father.

For the rest of the book’s length, there is a pointless tale of Python Palmeres, and his distribution of a drug known as ‘Giggle Sniff’.  In parallel with this, pages – so many pages – on the earliest incarnation of the Internet (the Arpanet).  It was a genuine struggle at each sitting to remember what had been read previously.  Nothing sticks, because nothing is really relevant to anything – the internet having the tiniest relevance to this telling of the events of the original story.  The book is a quick read, but, again, nothing sticks.  What could be anticipated, fairly, as an expansion and deepening of the story, turned out to be just an offensive amount of padding.  The writers appear to have had a list of characters to name-check too, so we get Harley Quinn, Julian Day (The Calendar Man – featured heavily in the aforementioned The Long Halloween), Oswald Cobblepot and many others being mentioned and, well, that’s it.

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As for the events of The Killing Joke and how they are represented here – it is fine.  Mostly.  The original story ended on something that has long been debated to be a cliff-hanger, as the Joker’s ultimate fate could be read as uncertain.  This is not the case here.  All the sub-text has become… text.  There are no shades of grey, and we even get two to three scenes afterwards, the reason for which is unclear.  It is as if The Shawshank Redemption ended with Andy and Red meeting up… but then they go for dinner, then Red comes back and unpacks his case, then we see how everyone is at the prison.  There is no understanding of the rhythms of original version of The Killing Joke, and it was certainly not a tale designed to tell us everything about everyone, then tease future stories.  So, whilst largely honouring the material in the small portion of the book that is of relevance, the writers demonstrate little understanding of what that original work was doing.

A novelisation could be a wonderful opportunity to deepen that character’s internal monologue – a facet of comic books that is already usually represented very well – and enable us to look at scenes and events in ways that may differ from the literal.  Batman: The Killing Joke reads, however, more like a video game novelisation when dealing with the established events – simply telling us what happens, as though a narration, rather than storytelling.  For those parts that are new, they add nothing, and represent deeply unimpressive writing.

The Killing Joke was a landmark piece of work, and a tale that still holds its power, and this is the only benefit to reading Batman: The Killing Joke.  Thankfully, that is a sizeable benefit, but this book can be recommended only to those who would struggle with the comic book format or animated films – both of which did a significantly better job.

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