Batman: The Killing Joke - Critical Reception and Legacy

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). This eventually led to her identity as Oracle in the Birds of Prey series and other DC Universe appearances. (Birds of Prey was also adapted into a TV series of the same title which incorporated Killing Joke elements into its continuity.) 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 and later, Stephanie Brown. Gordon's paralysis was later retconned into a temporary event that lasted only three years in DC Comics' 2011 line-wide title relaunch, The New 52, which saw her restored as the first and only Batgirl.

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." IGN declared The Killing Joke the third-greatest Batman graphic novel, after The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate called The Killing Joke "one of the greatest comics of the 20th century, period." Aaron Albert of characterized "Moore's writing spot on" and praised Bolland's artwork, calling it "realistic and downright creepy in a few sections." Van Jensen of ComicMix said, "Each time I'm amazed all over again at how Alan Moore and Brian Bolland teamed to pack such intensity, ferocity and humanity into those pages. 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." Comics historians Robert Greenberger and Matthew K. Manning describe it as "the definitive Joker story of all time". Manning additionally called it "one of the most powerful and disturbing stories in the history of Gotham City."

Andy Shaw of Grovel had a more lukewarm response to The Killing Joke, saying that though "wonderfully executed", it "suffer from its reliance on the rules of the superhero story." 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 added that it's "not at the level of true masterpieces Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

Despite the popularity of the story, Moore himself would later find much fault with it. In a 2000 interview he said, "I don't think it's a very good book. It's not saying anything very interesting." Reflecting on his varying attitudes toward it in 2003, he elaborated:

Ultimately, at the end of the day, 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. Now, that said, 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. On the other hand, I've seen some of the other–there've been worse Batman books than The Killing Joke. 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. That in terms of what I want from a book from my writing. 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.

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... said, 'Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.' It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t."

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." 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.

The book has been the subject of feminist critique, criticizing the treatment of Barbara Gordon. Author Brian Cronin, in Was Superman A Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed (2009) notes that " readers felt the violence towards Barbara Gordon was too much, and even Moore, in retrospect, has expressed his displeasure with how the story turned out." In Superheroes and Superegos: Analyzing the Minds Behind the Masks (2010), author Sharon Packer wrote: "Anyone who feels that feminist critics overreacted to accident is advised to consult the source material ... Moore's The Killing Joke is sadistic to the core. It shows Gordon stripped and mutilated, with before, during, and after photos of the attack displayed before her bound and gagged father, the police commissioner. She is more than merely disabled." Gail Simone included the character's paralysis in a list of "major female characters that had been killed, mutilated, and depowered", dubbing the phenomenon "Women in Refrigerators" in reference to a 1994 Green Lantern story where the title character discovers his girlfriend's mutilated body in his refrigerator. Jeffrey A. Brown, author of Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture (2011) noted The Killing Joke as an example of the "inherent misogyny of the male-dominated comic book industry" in light of the "relatively unequal violence are subjected to." While male characters may be critically injured or killed, they are more than likely to be returned to their original conception, while "women on the other hand, are more likely to be casually, but irreparably, wounded such as when Barbara Gordon's (the original Batgirl) spine was shattered by the Joker just for fun and has been restricted to a wheelchair for over a decade now."

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