Batman: The Killing Joke

Cover to Batman: The Killing Joke. Art by Brian Bolland.
Publication information
Publisher DC Comics
Format One-shot
Genre Superhero
Publication date March 1988
Number of issues 1
Main character(s) Previous Appearance of Batman Batman Next Appearance of Batman
Previous Appearance of The Joker The Joker Next Appearance of 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 one-shot superhero graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland. It was first published by DC Comics in 1988, and has remained in print since then, having also been reprinted as part of the trade paperback DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.

Considered by many critics to be the definitive Joker story and one of the best Batman stories ever published, the story's effects on the mainstream Batman continuity included the shooting and paralysis of Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl) by the Joker, an event that laid the groundwork for her to develop the identity of Oracle, an expert computer Hacker and a vital source of information for Batman and other superheroes (though Barbara's paralysis would be healed with the 2011 initiative The New 52).

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. It made The New York Times Best Seller list in May 2009.

Background and creation

DC editor Dick Giordano asked Brian Bolland what project he wanted to work on next. 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."[1] Bolland's Joker fascination stemmed in part from his having recently seen the film The Man Who Laughs.[2] 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.[2] 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."[1]

The 64-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. 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.[1]

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."[2] The 2008-published 20th anniversary edition of the book featured new colouring by Bolland, restoring his artistic intentions to the palate.

Plot summary

The plot revolves around the Joker's attempt to drive Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon insane, and is intercut with the villain's flashbacks to his life before his disfigurement and criminal life.

thumb|left|Jack, 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.

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

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.

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 (a.k.a. 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 speculating if it was one bad day 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:

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum... and one night, one night they decide they don't like living in an asylum any more. They decide they're going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light... stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend did not dare make the leap. Y'see... Y'see, he's afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea... He says 'Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!' B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says... He says 'Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!'

Batman chuckles, accompanying the Joker's maniacal cackling as the police arrive.[3][4]


Another theme explores the possibility that Batman is just as insane as the criminals he faces, but manifests insanity in a different way. In an interview, Moore summarized the theme: "Psychologically, Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other."[5]

Says critic Geoff Klock: "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.'"[6]

The Joker also 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..."[7]

The joke that the Joker tells at the end of the book was performed by Red Skelton on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 29, 1968.[8]

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).[9] 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[10] and later, Stephanie Brown.[11] Gordon's paralysis was later retconned into a temporary event that lasted only three years[12] in DC Comics' 2011 line-wide title relaunch, The New 52, which saw her restored as the first and only Batgirl.[13]

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."[14] IGN declared The Killing Joke the third-greatest Batman graphic novel, after The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One.[15] James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate called The Killing Joke "one of the greatest comics of the 20th century, period."[16] 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.[17] 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."[18] Comics historians Robert Greenberger and Matthew K. Manning describe it as "the definitive Joker story of all time."[19] Manning additionally called it "one of the most powerful and disturbing stories in the history of Gotham City."[20]

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."[21] 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.'"[22]

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."[23] 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.[24]

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."[25]

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."[26] 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.[27]

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 "[many] 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."[28] In Superheroes and Superegos: Analyzing the Minds Behind the Masks (2010), author Sharon Packer wrote: "Anyone who feels that feminist critics overreacted to [Gordon's] 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."[29] 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.[30] 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 [female characters] are subjected to."[30] 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."[30]

Influence in other media

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."[31]

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.[32]

The story is referenced in "Harley's Holiday", an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, when Harley Quinn asks him why he tried to save her when all she had ever done was torment him, Batman replies "I had a bad day too, once", referencing the "bad day" mentioned in The Killing Joke. In the 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. In "Strange Minds", Batman enters Joker's mind to rescue Ellen Yin, and encounters a past version of the Joker un-transformed, and dreaming of being a comedian in a chemical plant, the same one where he becomes Joker.

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. 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. 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 Batman: Arkham Origins, a flashback shows the Joker as the Red Hood walking along a path that becomes increasingly carnival-esque, culminating in a demonic Batman knocking him into a green pool. That sequence seems to indicate that version of the Joker and The Killing Joke Joker share the same origin.

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.[33]

Influence on the Joker's origin

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. Critic Mark Vogler wrote that The Killing Joke "provid[ed] the Joker with a sympathetic back story as it presented some of the villain's most vile offenses."[34]

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.[35][36]

This origin was referenced in the Elseworlds storyline Batman: In Darkest Knight, which depicted a world in which Bruce Wayne received the Green Lantern ring and saved the Red Hood from falling into the chemical bath. However, a Joker analogue is created when Sinestro goes insane after attempting to copy the mind of Joe Chill to learn more about his enemy.

"No Joke"

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

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.[37]


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

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.[38] 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."[17] 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".[16] 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."[22]


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