It’s a curious one, The Killing Joke. On the one hand, it’s one of the most revered and influential Batman stories ever written, and arguably the “definitive” Joker story – this new Deluxe Edition coincides with The Dark Knight, whose creators have claimed it as a significant influence on their portrayal, while Tim Burton stated similar back when making his own Batman in 1989. And yet, despite its massive popularity (in an age long before graphic novels made their way into bookshops, it was reprinted an unprecedented number of times), it also comes in for some criticism – not least from its own creators.
Writer Alan Moore has himself used the words “clumsy, misjudged and devoid of real human importance” to describe it – and while he’s perhaps being overly harsh, he does at least have a point in that it’s not at the level of his true masterpieces (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). The treatment meted out to former Batgirl Barbara Gordon, while it arguably led to her becoming a far more significant character in her new role as Oracle, is nevertheless fairly distasteful (it looks worse in retrospect, mind – the trend for female characters to be violently used as little more than catalysts for male heroes’ angst has only grown since the late 80s, but you can hardly hold this one instance against the man who wrote Halo Jones, Lost Girls and LOEG’s Mina Murray), and while the morally ambiguous ending is a great scene in its own right, it doesn’t square well with the actions of the Joker in the preceding pages.
But it is a superbly atmospheric story, and the tale of the man who would become the Joker (well, possibly – it’s easy to forget that it’s not necessarily meant to be a true recollection) is affectingly tragic. It’s also littered with neat moments – not just the closing allegorical joke, but also the quite superb “it’s empty” gun gag, and the “Loo-oo-oony” song.
Where it really shines, though, is in the art – it’s a crying shame, frankly, that artist Brian Bolland is such a meticulously slow worker that he decided against ever doing internal artwork again (concentrating entirely on covers) after Killing Joke – nobody draws the Joker quite like him (nobody draws hair quite like him, either), and he’s a superbly expressive and crisp storyteller. It’s perhaps stretching it to say he’s “wasted” on cover art – because he’s just about the best in the business – but interior work such as this is an indication of just what we’re missing.
And yet even Bolland, like Moore, was always somewhat dissatisfied with the end result. While not blaming colourist John Higgins (who was brought in at short notice to do a quick job after Bolland had taken so long on the pencils), he was disappointed that the tone didn’t really match his original vision – and so, with this new edition, has taken the opportunity to go back to the original inked art and give it a computer-enhanced makeover. Although it has to be said that in terms of success in improving the original, the results are a mixed bag.
The biggest change is in reducing the flashback sequences to greyscale, only colouring any red items and subtly increasing their saturation until the Red Hood’s costume makes its appearance. It’s a superb, if slightly unoriginal stylistic choice, and it works well in contrast to the sharp hues of the Joker himself. Elsewhere, though, some of the 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. That said, Bolland is also allowed to tweak certain details here and there – these include, unsettlingly, changing the “tears” in the Joker’s post-transformation to droplets of blood
Ironically, meanwhile, perhaps Moore’s biggest beef with the book – that it was only ever really intended to be a double-length one-off Batman story (although Bolland disputes the notion that it was intended for an annual), and he was thus horrified to find it stuck in cardstock and marketed as a “graphic novel” – is arguably made worse by releasing it in a lavish hardback format. Discounting extras, you’re basically paying twelve quid or so for just 48 pages of actual story. Those extras, meanwhile, include a few bits and bobs of sketch and reference art, plus Bolland’s other published Batman story – a brief vignette he also wrote, originally for the Batman : Black and White compilation and coloured here for the first time. As you’d expect, it looks great, and it’s a dark little character piece, but it doesn’t feel hugely essential.
If you haven’t read the book – or if you’re enough of a fan of it to want to own the best available edition – then it’s a lovely presentation that will sit proudly on any shelf. But despite the sturdy cover, is it really worth paying so much for what is, essentially, two-and-a-half single comics’ worth of material? The story itself, despite its flaws, is pretty much mandatory reading as far as modern-day superhero comics go, but I’d almost be tempted to suggest waiting to see if the recolouring job – which is certainly classy, even if it falsely dates the book – makes it into the next paperback printing. It’s a great comic, superbly presented – but just as on its original publication, it’s simply in the wrong format.