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Batman: The Killing Joke

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Batman: The Killing Joke
Cover to Batman: The Killing Joke. Art by Brian Bolland.
Publication information
Publisher DC Comics
Format One-shot
Publication date March 1988
Number of issues 1
Main character(s) Batman
The Joker
James Gordon
Barbara Gordon
Creative team
Writer(s) Alan Moore
Artist(s) Brian Bolland
Letterer(s) Richard Starkings
Colorist(s) John Higgins (original)
Brian Bolland (Deluxe Edition)
Creator(s) Alan Moore
Brian Bolland
John Higgins
Editor(s) Dennis O'Neil
Collected editions
Batman: The Killing Joke ISBN 0-930289-45-5
DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore ISBN 1401209270
Batman: The Killing Joke - 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition ISBN 9781401216672

Batman: The Killing Joke is a 1988 one-shot graphic novel featuring the characters Batman and the Joker written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland, and published by DC Comics. Set in the fictional U.S. city of Gotham, Batman: The Killing Joke provides an origin story for the Joker, an established comic book supervillain and nemesis of Batman. Taking place over two timelines, The Killing Joke depicts the Joker attempting to drive Jim Gordon insane and Batman's desperate attempt to stop him.

Created by Moore as his own take on Joker's source and psychology,[1] the story became famous for its origin of the Joker as a tragic character; a family man and failed comedian who suffered "one bad day" that finally drove him insane. Moore stated that he attempted to show the similarities between the two characters. The story's effects on the mainstream Batman continuity also included the shooting and paralysis of Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl), an event that laid the groundwork for her to develop the identity of Oracle.

Many critics consider the graphic novel to be the definitive Joker story and one of the best Batman stories ever published. The comic won the Eisner Award for 'Best Graphic Album' in 1989 and appeared on The New York Times Best Seller List in May 2009. In 2006, The Killing Joke was reprinted as part of the trade paperback DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore. In 2008, DC Comics reprinted the story in a deluxe hardcover edition, which features new coloring by Bolland, with a more somber, realistic, and subdued palette than the original. Elements of The Killing Joke have inspired or been incorporated into other aspects of Batman media, such as films and video games.

Background and creation

DC editor Dick Giordano asked Brian Bolland what project he wanted to work on next.[when?] Bolland recounted, "I thought about it in terms of who's my favourite writer at the moment, what hero I would really love to do, and which villain? I basically came up with Alan, Batman and the Joker."[2] Bolland's version of the Joker stemmed in part from his having recently seen the film The Man Who Laughs.[3] Giordano's invitation led directly to Bolland working with writer Alan Moore to create a plausible background story for the Joker.

Although the story takes pains to stress that it is merely one possible 'origin story,' it has been widely accepted and adopted into DC continuity, and a central mutilation of a long-running character had to be specially approved by editor Wein.[3] Bolland said that he saw "Judge Death [as] almost a dry run for drawing the Joker." He also recounted that "by the time Alan had finished Watchmen he had fallen out with DC to a certain extent ... [i]n the end, he only continued to do Killing Joke as a favour to me."[2]

The 48-page prestige format one-shot comic took a considerable amount of time to produce. Both Moore and Bolland are well known for their meticulous and time-consuming work; both creators' then-recently finished 12-issue maxiseries titles had seen delays.[1] He was aided by the laid back attitude taken by DC, who he says "seemed prepared to let me do it at my own pace." The original editor, Len Wein, left the company, and was replaced by Dennis O'Neil, a "very hands-off sort of guy," with whom Bolland only recalls having one conversation about the book.[2]

Bolland envisaged the flashback sequences in black and white, and instructed Watchmen-colorist John Higgins to use "muted November colors". He was upset when he saw the finished comic had "garish ... hideous glowing purples and pinks ... and my precious Eraserhead-esque flashback sequences swamped in orange."[3] The 2008-published 20th anniversary edition of the book featured new colouring by Bolland, restoring his artistic intentions to the palette.

Plot summary

Joker, before his accident, with his pregnant wife; by Brian Bolland.

The man who will become the Joker is an unnamed engineer who quits his job at a chemical company to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife Jeannie, he agrees to guide two criminals through the chemical plant he previously worked at so that they can rob the card company next door. During the planning, the police inform him that his wife has died in a household accident. Grief-stricken, the engineer tries to withdraw from the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his commitment to them.

At the plant, the criminals make him don a special mask to become the infamous Red Hood. Unknown to the engineer, the criminals plan to use this disguise to implicate any accomplice as the mastermind and to divert attention away from themselves. Once inside, they run into security personnel, and a shootout ensues. The criminals are gunned down and the engineer finds himself confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance.

Terrified, the engineer jumps into the chemical plant's waste pound lock to escape Batman and is swept through a pipe leading to the outside. Once outside, he discovers, to his horror, that the chemicals have permanently bleached his skin chalk-white, stained his lips ruby-red and dyed his hair bright green. This disfigurement, compounded with the man's misfortunes of that one day, drives him completely insane and marks the birth of the Joker.

The Joker, after emerging from the canal of chemical waste.

In the present day, the Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and imprisons him in a run-down amusement park and shoots and paralyzes his daughter Barbara (aka Batgirl). His henchmen then strip Gordon naked and cage him in the park's freak show. He chains Gordon to one of the park's rides and forces him to view giant pictures of his wounded daughter, naked, hoping to drive Gordon insane in order to prove that the most upstanding citizen can go mad after having "one bad day." Once Gordon has run the horrifying gauntlet, the Joker puts him on display in the freak show, ridiculing him as "the average man," a naïve weakling doomed to insanity.

Batman's attempts to locate Commissioner Gordon are unsuccessful until the Joker sends him a clue that leads him to the amusement park. Batman arrives to save Gordon, and the Joker retreats into the funhouse. Though traumatized by the ordeal, Gordon retains his sanity and moral code, and he insists that Batman capture the Joker "by the book" in order to show him that adhering to the legal process works. Batman enters the funhouse and faces the Joker's traps, while the Joker tries to persuade his old foe that the world is "a black, awful joke" and thus not worth fighting for. He also states that it takes only "one bad day" to turn an ordinary man insane, and taunts Batman by correctly speculating if it was one bad day where he lost a loved one at the hands of a criminal and how that drove Batman into becoming a vigilante. Batman tracks down and subdues the Joker, tells him that Gordon survived everything he suffered at the Joker's hands, and suggests that the Joker is alone in his madness. Batman then attempts to reach out to the Joker and offers to help his old foe recover and put an end to their everlasting war, which Batman fears may one day result in a fight to the death. The Joker declines, saying it is too late for that. He then says that this situation reminds him of a joke, and proceeds to tell the joke. Batman chuckles at the punch line, accompanying the Joker's maniacal cackling as the police arrive. Batman then reaches out to put a hand on the Joker's shoulder and the light disappears as the rain continues to fall.[4][5]

Themes and analysis

The book explores Moore's assertion that, psychologically, "Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other"[6] by delving into the relationship between the two. The story itself shows how the Joker and Batman came to terms with their respective tragic days, both eventually leading to their present lives and confrontation. Critic Geoff Klock further explained that "both Batman and the Joker are creations of a random and tragic "one bad day." Batman spends his life forging meaning from the random tragedy, whereas the Joker reflects the absurdity of "life, and all its random injustice."[7]

The trials the Joker put Commissioner Gordon through were meant to serve as "proof that there is something buried deep within each lunatic, a nugget of insanity, that is simply waiting for the right moment to spring forth."[8] Unlike the Joker, Gordon kept his wits and moral code. The story is also famous for changing how the Modern Age of Comics perceived Batman comics by bringing it back to its darker roots.[9] The comic book, however, delves deeper in order to present Batman's own psychology, how he was just as insane as the clown, and how he and the Joker perceived the world according to differing points of view, with the Joker's interpreted through a joke.[10]

The Joker serves as an unreliable narrator. He admits to his own uncertainty, as he has disparate memories of the single event ("Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another ... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"), accentuating the comic's depiction of "a world unraveling toward relentless urban violence and moral nihilism ..."[11]

Critical reception and legacy

Although a one-shot, The Killing Joke had an extraordinary impact on the DC Universe—most significantly, Barbara Gordon's paralysis. DC officially retired the hero in the one-shot comic Batgirl Special #1 (July 1988).[12] This eventually led to her identity as Oracle in the Birds of Prey series (which was later adapted into a TV series of the same title that incorporated Killing Joke elements into its continuity) and other DC Universe appearances. This event, along with a Batman storyline that takes place shortly after The Killing Joke involving the Joker murdering Robin (Jason Todd), Batman: A Death in the Family, leads Batman's obsession with the Clown Prince of Crime to a personal level. The mantle of Batgirl would eventually be passed to successor Cassandra Cain[13] and later, Stephanie Brown.[14] Gordon's paralysis was later retconned into a temporary event that lasted only three years[15] in DC Comics' 2011 line-wide title relaunch, The New 52, which saw her restored as the first and only Batgirl.[16]

The graphic novel won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album and garnered Alan Moore the Best Writer award in 1989. Hilary Goldstein of IGN Comics praised The Killing Joke, calling it "easily the greatest Joker story ever told," and adding that "Moore's rhythmic dialogue and Bolland's organic art create a unique story often mimicked but never matched."[8] IGN declared The Killing Joke the third-greatest Batman graphic novel, after The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One.[17] James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate called The Killing Joke "one of the greatest comics of the 20th century, period."[18] Van Jensen of ComicMix said, "Each time [I read The Killing Joke] I'm amazed all over again at how Alan Moore and Brian Bolland teamed to pack such intensity, ferocity and humanity into those pages.[19] B.L. Wooldridge of Batman in Comics called the graphic novel "an incredible story, with Moore at his best and awe-inspiring art by painter Brian Bolland."[20] Comics historians Robert Greenberger and Matthew K. Manning describe it as "the definitive Joker story of all time."[21] Manning additionally called it "one of the most powerful and disturbing stories in the history of Gotham City."[22]

Andy Shaw of Grovel had a more lukewarm response to The Killing Joke, saying that though "wonderfully executed," it "suffer[s] from its reliance on the rules of the superhero story."[23] Seb Patrick of Den of Geek also had a mixed response, calling The Killing Joke "one of the most revered and influential 'Batman' stories ever written and arguably the definitive Joker story," but adding that it's "not at the level of [Alan Moore's] true masterpieces [such as] Watchmen, V for Vendetta, [and] The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."[24]

Creator's response

In a 2000 interview, Moore said: "I don't think it's a very good book. It's not saying anything very interesting."[25] In 2003, he elaborated:

The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn't about anything that you're ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there's no important human information being imparted ... Yeah, it was something that I thought was clumsy, misjudged and had no real human importance. It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn't really relate to the real world in any way.[26]

In a 2006 interview with Wizard magazine, Moore was also critical about his decision to cripple Barbara Gordon: "I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon - who was Batgirl at the time - and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project ... [He] said, 'Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.' It was probably one of the areas where they should've reined me in, but they didn't."[27]

In the introduction to the story as it appears in the DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore trade paperback, Brian Bolland disputes the widely held belief that the story started as a Batman annual story and ended up as a prestige-format book. Bolland recalls that the idea for a one-off Batman story focusing on the Joker—with Batman more of an incidental character—was his. Bolland says that in 1984, DC editor Dick Giordano told him he could do any project for DC he wanted, and Bolland requested to do a Batman/Joker prestige book with Moore as writer. Bolland has also expressed dissatisfaction with the final book, and regrets that its impending schedule for release meant he could not color the book himself (John Higgins was the colorist). Bolland says that "the end result wasn't quite what I'd hoped. I don't think it rates with some of the highlights of Alan's career."[28] March 2008 saw the release of the artwork as Bolland intended it: the twentieth anniversary hardcover edition of The Killing Joke is completely recolored by Bolland himself. The book made The New York Times Best Seller list in May 2009.[29]

Influence on Joker stories

Critic Mark Vogler wrote that The Killing Joke provided the Joker "with a sympathetic back story as it presented some of the villain's most vile offenses."[30] Moore's rendition of the Joker's origin employs elements of the 1951 story "The Man Behind the Red Hood" (Detective Comics #168), which established the concept of the Joker originally having been a thief known only as the Red Hood. The tragic and human elements of the character's story, coupled with his barbaric crimes as the Joker, portray the character as more of a three-dimensional human being. During an interview with Salon, Moore explained that Joker's psychotic nature could have been caused by a "bad decision" in his life.[1]

Much of the Joker's backstory from The Killing Joke is also referenced in 2004's "Pushback" (Batman: Gotham Knights #50-55; reprinted with #66 as Batman: Hush Returns), in which the events are observed and reported by the Riddler, who recounts that the pregnant wife of the pre-accident Joker, who is called "Jack" prior to his accident, was kidnapped and murdered by the criminals in order to force his compliance.[31][32]

"No Joke"

In 2007, Geoff Johns wrote a companion story to The Killing Joke entitled "No Joke" that appeared in the series Booster Gold.[33]

In the story, Booster Gold is charged by Rip Hunter to go back in time and save Barbara from being shot by the Joker. Booster arrives at the carnival shortly after the Joker has rounded up the freaks, only to be attacked by them. He manages to escape (after the Joker torments him), but arrives too late to save Barbara. Catching the Joker in the middle of taking photos of the wounded Barbara (after having struck down Commissioner Gordon), Booster attacks the Joker in a rage; the Joker nevertheless gains the upper hand, snapping several photos of Booster as well. Rip removes Booster moments before he is killed, but Booster demands to be sent back again. Booster fails several times until Rip reveals that the Joker is destined to paralyze her, as it would ensure that she would become Oracle.

The story also reveals that Batman kept the photos of Barbara and Booster, and had been waiting until Booster came of age before confronting him. Batman thanks Booster for trying to stop the Joker and offers him his friendship. Eventually, Dick Grayson, who becomes his mentor's temporary successor as Batman, would also learn about this and offer his thanks as well.

"Ladies' Night"

In 2010, writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Cliff Chiang collaborated on a one-shot story called "Ladies' Night", which was published in the anthology series The Brave and the Bold. The story is set shortly before The Killing Joke, and deals with Zatanna and Wonder Woman struggling to come to terms with the impending attack on Barbara after Zatanna has a precognitive dream about it. Like "No Joke," the story heavily implies that the heroines cannot alter Barbara's fate, despite their desire to do so, instead giving her a final night on the town before she loses the use of her legs. The story also implies that Wonder Woman served as the inspiration for Barbara Gordon's eventual codename of Oracle.[34]

The New 52

When DC comics relaunched its universe in 2011, many of Batman's stories were erased or altered, but The Killing Joke story was still intact. In the new continuity, Barbara Gordon recovered from the paralysis inflicted upon her by the Joker's bullet which lasted for four years. Although she resumes her work as Batgirl one year after recovering her mobility, she continues to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder when exposed to gunfire that could result in receiving new spinal damage.[35]

On March 13, 2015 DC Comics released 25 Joker-themed variant covers for its various monthly series for release that June, in celebration of the character's 75th anniversary. Among them was a cover to Batgirl #41 by artist Rafael Albuquerque that took its inspiration from The Killing Joke. The cover depicts the Joker standing next to a tearful Batgirl, who has a red smile painted across her mouth. The Joker has one hand holding a revolver draped over Batgirl's shoulder and is pointing to her cheek with the other hand, as if gesturing to shoot her. The cover quickly drew criticism for highlighting a dark period in the character's history, especially when juxtaposed with the youthful, more optimistic direction of the series at the time. The hashtag #changethecover drew dozens of posts on Twitter and Tumblr asking DC to not release the variant. DC ultimately withdrew the cover from publication at the request of Albuquerque, who stated, "My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art...For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled."[36]

In other media


Animated version
  • In 2011, during Comic-Con, actor Mark Hamill stated that he would be willing to voice the Joker for an adaption of The Killing Joke, encouraging fans to campaign for said adaptation,[37][38] most notably in a tweet made on October 24, 2011.[39] Since then, a Facebook page titled "Petition to get Mark Hamill to play the Joker in animated Killing Joke" has been set up by his fans.[40] In 2013, Bruce Timm also expressed a desire to create the project, saying it was only a possibility.[41] On July 10, 2015, during the Justice League: Gods and Monsters panel at San Diego Comic-Con, Bruce Timm announced that an animated film based on the novel is in development and slated to be released in 2016. Sam Liu will direct and Timm will executive produce the film. The film will feature a 15-minute prologue that sets up the story.[42][43] On July 17, Hamill tweeted that he hoped that he would be contacted to reprise his role as the Joker.[44] On July 27, Collider reported that Hamill will voice The Joker in the film.[45] Warner Bros. has reportedly given the filmmakers the go-ahead to make the film rated R, although that does not necessarily mean the film will be.[46]
Influence on other films
  • Along with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Tim Burton has mentioned that The Killing Joke influenced his film adaptation of Batman: "I was never a giant comic book fan, but I've always loved the image of Batman and the Joker. The reason I've never been a comic book fan — and I think it started when I was a child — is because I could never tell which box I was supposed to read. I don't know if it was dyslexia or whatever, but that's why I loved The Killing Joke, because for the first time I could tell which one to read. It's my favorite. It's the first comic I've ever loved. And the success of those graphic novels made our ideas more acceptable."[47]
  • Director Christopher Nolan has mentioned that The Killing Joke served as an influence for the version of the Joker appearing in the 2008 feature film The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger, who played the Joker, stated in an interview that he was given a copy of The Killing Joke as reference for the role.[48]
  • The story is referenced in a flashback scene in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies, Batman: Under the Red Hood. In the movie, the antagonist Red Hood lured Batman to the chemical factory where the Joker's accident took place. Batman remembered the events like in the comic, where a fleeing Joker attempted to escape while trying to claim that he was set up but accidentally fell into the toxic waste and disfigured him. Red Hood called it Batman's greatest failure.[49]


  • Birds of Prey features a slight retelling of The Killing Joke in the series prologue. In this version Barbara is shot by the Joker, who clearly knows that she is Batgirl, after she opens her front door.[50]
  • The Batman features some homages to The Killing Joke: In the season one two-parter, "The Rubberface of Comedy/The Clayface of Tragedy", Joker tortures Detective Ethan Bennett by breaking him in a way similar to the way he tortured Gordon in the book, and the "one bad day" is mentioned by the transformed Bennett into Clayface in the 2nd part.

Video games

  • The Joker, in his Hawaiian attire, appears as an unlockable playable character in Lego Batman: The Videogame.
  • The 2009 video game Batman: Arkham Asylum adapted a post-The Killing Joke timeline, in that Barbara Gordon feeds Batman information as Oracle. Several references to the story are also made in the game.[51] The Joker's makeshift throne made of mannequins at the end of the game is almost identical to the one in the graphic novel. During the game, it is revealed that the Joker had been using e-mail under the alias "Jack White," which Batman identifies as "one of Joker's oldest aliases." The Joker even personally makes a knowing reference to the story: "There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum ... Oh hell, you've heard that one before, haven't you?"
  • In the 2011 video game Batman: Arkham City, which is the sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum, when the Joker's interview tapes are found, he retells his origin from The Killing Joke.[52] In this version, he reveals that the two thugs worked for Carmine Falcone. He apparently blames Batman for what happened to him. Hugo Strange then accuses him of having fabricated a series of events in order to conceal the truth about his condition, as he has read twelve different accounts of his past, all different, except for one detail: Batman. He then paraphrases a line from the book: "I like to keep things interesting. A wise man once told me that if you have to have an origin story, you're better off making it multiple choice".
  • In 2013 video game Injustice: Gods Among Us, a downloadable content Killing Joke pack includes three skins for the character from the story. It includes his Hawaiian attire, the Red Hood, and his hat and long coat.[53]
  • In Batman: Arkham Origins, there are several references to The Killing Joke. When Batman enters a carnival-esque room, Joker tells him he got a great deal on an out-of-service amusement park, "You should have seen the look on the real estate agent's face when we shook hands on the deal!" In a level featuring a psychiatric interview with Dr. Harleen Quinzel, Joker is playable as the Red Hood, walking through the chemical plant that will end with him becoming the Joker. While promoting the game, Troy Baker, who voices the Joker in the game, recites a monologue from the graphic novel.[54]
  • In Batman: Arkham Knight, while under the influence of Scarecrow's latest toxin, Batman hallucinates the Joker's shooting of Barbara Gordon after she is kidnapped by the mysterious Arkham Knight, a hallucination of Joker noting that he merely got lucky when he shot Barbara as he was ignorant of her true ties to Batman, and also claimed that he had actually been aiming for Barbara's head.


The Killing Joke is included in the 2006 trade paperback collection DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.[55]

In March 2008, a deluxe hardcover version of the book was released, featuring recoloring of the book by Brian Bolland. The new colors featured black-and-white flashbacks, as opposed to Higgins' colors, along with one or two items per panel colored in pink or red, up until the helmet of the Red Hood is revealed. In addition to recoloring the pages, Bolland also removed the yellow oval around the bat symbol on Batman's chest.[56] Also included is a colored version of Bolland's "An Innocent Guy" (originally published in Batman Black and White), an introduction by Tim Sale and an epilogue by Bolland. Van Jensen of ComicMix said that "the new colors really do improve the book, giving it a subtlety and grimness not present in the original."[19] James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate said that the original version "is outdone by Bolland's recoloring", which he said "gives the comic a more timeless quality".[18] Seb Patrick of Den of Geek had a lukewarm reaction, calling the recoloring of the flashbacks "superb", but commenting that "some of the [other] changes seem to have less of a point — increasing definition for the sake of it, but giving the book too much of a present-day feel rather than looking like it was printed in the 1980s."[24]


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