One of my earliest memories as a comic book reader is reading a copy of The Killing Joke. Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke isn’t one of the best graphic novels ever written, hell, to call it a graphic novel might even be a bit of an exaggeration as it’s only about 60 to 65 pages, total (and, to be completely fair, I would count Watchmen in the same vein – it was 12 separate issues first people, not a novel). That said, this does not make it any less of an amazing Bat Family story and, quite possibly, the DEFINITIVE Joker story.
What the story captures incredibly well, and sets the pace that still caries the vibe 26 years after press (the original release was March of 1988), is that Joker and Batman relationship. (ed. note: what follows is all PERSONAL opinion) What has always made that relationship great is that The Joker is the perfect antithesis and foil to Batman. Batman is the “World’s Greatest Detective,” he makes his living off of figuring out what makes his villains tick, tracking them down, and often outsmarting them in a game of wits. Batman, though, for all his intelligence, has often been unable to outsmart The Joker over the long game. He doesn’t know what makes Mista’ J tick, he never knows his true motivations, and he can never do what it will take to stop a criminal like him. This is all because Batman, unlike any of his other villains, has no idea who The Joker was and where he came from. Just like it is for the readers, The Joker’s origins are a mystery to Bruce Wayne as well and he can never truly grasp what it would take to stop him.
What makes The Killing Joke such a fascinating story (and the film follows this plot line almost to a T) is that it posits to give The Joker an actual backstory. The Joker is a family man. He has a wife, with a child on the way, and is trying to provide for them. At the same time, he is trying to be a stand-up comedian and make progress in that venture. The Joker feels like a loser and a failure. In this way, Alan Moore almost makes the character sympathetic, in the same way that 2015 documentary “Welcome to Leith” (trailer) manages to create sympathy for a white supremacist that intended to force people from their homes and out of towns, but instead finds himself on the receiving end of hate; At times, you don’t like yourself for sympathizing with the villain. In some ways, reading a novel or comic book allows you to detach yourself from those feelings and keep moving; it’s all in your head after all. When the picture moves, though, and the characters are brought to life with brilliant voice acting, as in the case of DC animated’s “The Killing Joke” (releasing on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday August 2nd), you may have a harder time removing yourself from these feelings.
“The Killing Joke” largely follows the exact same story as the Alan Moore story; The Joker escapes from Arkham, Batman seeks him out, Joker causes chaos as revenge, and Batman comes to the rescue with horrifying results for all involved. Without significantly spoiling anything, while this sounds like the common setup of a Batman-Joker comic storyline, there are real stakes for characters you both know and don’t know and there is a kill count. This is very much a high level PG-13 or low level Rated R story set within that Batman mythos (to whit, DC did release two different versions – a PG-13 and a Rated R). It is worth mentioning that it seems like DC, in an effort to beef up the run-time, added some storyline elements that didn’t exist in the original story. This is mostly in the form of a “prologue” of sorts that establishes an odd random gangster character stalking Batgirl and a Batman-Batgirl romance that culminates in a far overblown sex scene that is in no way steamy or interesting. One can only make the assumption that the scene was added to establish some emotional context for what was to come later in the story and to create a longer run-time to A) make the film long enough to charge $19.99 for the physical media release and B) meet theater needs for the special DC
one two night only special screening event. This encompasses about the first half-hour of the film until we get to the Batman detective aspects and Joker enters the fray. In no way did it take me out of the story and if anyone says it did, they are complaining for the sake of complaining. This is a solid DC story and the film is a great addition to it.
One thing that “The Killing Joke” absolutely nails is the cast for it’s animated tale. DC has made great strides in terms of creating an “Animated Universe” to rival Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (though it is now somewhat a second thought given DC establishing it’s own Cinematic Universe) but one thing that has always bugged me is the way that voices tend to change from film to film. DC made the excellent, and fan friendly, decision for “Killing Joke” to bring back a piece of it’s “Batman: The Animated Series” cast with Kevin Conroy (“Batman”) and Mark Hamill (“The Joker”) returning to the roles they made famous and Tara Strong returning to a role she has played on occasion over the years as “Batgirl.” The voice cast is phenomenal, truly. While it is certainly possible to convey emotional through a comic book panel, nothing can quite move a person like a voice, or a moving performance, and when you have actors and actresses that embody their performances the way that the ones here do, it is second to none. Hamill, over time, has come to be thought of as the quintessential Joker. While some may disagree, or have different favorites, he owns this performance, especially in the dramatic and flashback moments, and brings like to a Joker that is both reflective and murderously insane at the same time. It’s something that we will not forget in what Hamill says is his last voice performance as the character.
As with any animated film, the animation style certainly must be mentioned. It’s been mentioned in some online forums that fans are disappointed that DC chose to not utilize the same animation style that was used in “Batman: The Animated Series” and fair enough. If you’ve spent any considerable amount of time watching the “TAS” then you know why it is so universally loved. I feel that, in this case though, the animation style utilized was perfect for what the story was. “The Killing Joke” is not a story for children, so the animation used should not be for children. “TAS” was a very smooth show. By that I mean that everything, quite literally, looked very smooth. The art in “Killing Joke” has no such smoothness. There are jagged edges to characters, things don’t look perfect and safe. And why should they? If you have any familiarity with the story, this is not one that was playing it safe. Alan Moore has stated that he sees Batman and The Joker as mirror images of one another, something I alluded to previously and, further, critics have said that both Batman and Joker are tragic characters that (at least in Moore’s version of the Joker tale) are results of one bad day. These aren’t perfect creatures we are discussing; these are very damaged characters that are in no way perfect, fixable entities. To gloss them over in a smooth, more colorful way… It simply wouldn’t do the story justice.
All of that said, while I did enjoy DC’s effort with “The Killing Joke” I certainly enjoyed the book more and encourage people to read it. For this author, that does nothing to diminish either the film OR the book, we live in a world where both can exist and it is good that they do. For the comic industry, it’s good for people to see this, hear critical response, and seek out the book to see what the differences are. For the film industry, it’s good that comic readers will want to see their favorite story played out and compare dreams to reality. Whenever these comic stories are committed to digital or celluloid, we shouldn’t waste time debating whether it should or should not have happened, we should enjoy it. What a time to be alive as a fan.
You can buy “The Killing Joke” on August 2nd at Amazon.
You can buy The Killing Joke, also, on Amazon.