In 1988, DC Comics published what is considered to be the definitive Joker story, and one of the best Batman tales ever written. It depicted one possible origin of the Joker, the mutilation of a popular character, and Joker’s attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon stark-raving mad. And because of such, met with some controversy.
DC put together writer Alan Moore, of Watchmen and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen fame, and artist Brian Bolland, both from England, to do a 64-page, one-shot story involving Batman and Joker. Titled The Killing Joke, Moore and Bolland’s now-classic tale revolved around Joker’s attempt to drive James Gordon insane, interspersed with Joker’s origin story.
In this origin, we see Joker, real name unrevealed, as a chemical engineer turned failed-stand-up-comic, who tries to bring in some money for his family by helping two criminals inside the plant he works at to rob the factory next door. During the planning stages, Joker’s pregnant wife dies in a household accident, and he tries to leave the crooks. He’s strong-armed into helping, and forced to play the role of the Red Hood, a “criminal mastermind” the two thugs will implicate and frame for the heist.
Expectedly, Batman shows up, dispatches the crooks, then faces the unwilling, terrified chemical engineer. To escape, the engineer dives into a vat of chemicals and is swept outside, where he notices his skin has turned chalk-white, his lips stained ruby red, and his hair dyed bright green. His disfigurement, coupled with his one bad day, drives him permanently insane.
Then we cut to the present, where Barbara Gordon and her father, Commissioner James Gordon are spending time together in her apartment when there is a knock at her door. Barbara opens it and is somewhat surprised to see the Joker standing outside. She is promptly shot in the stomach, the bullet shattering her spine, and flung backward into her glass table. James Gordon is kidnapped and taken to an abandoned amusement park where the Joker graphically tortures and humiliates him relentlessly, intent on proving that one bad day can drive a man insane.
The Killing Joke was a singularly important event in the DC Universe, as the paralyzed Barbara Gordon put away her Batgirl togs and became Oracle, the DCU’s information broker. But as popular as it was, some critics received it harshly, saying that it was “sadistic to the extreme.” Even Alan Moore has come out against it in the years since it was published, and others right along with him claim it isn’t his best work. However, it was re-released in hardcover with special features in 2009, which landed on the New York Times bestseller list. The story itself is hailed by IGN as the third best Batman story of all time. Heath Ledger used it as reference material for his role as the Joker.
Because of the content and subject matter, a library patron in Columbus, Nebraska demanded that the graphic novel be removed from the library’s shelves in 2013. The patron insisted that the book “advocates rape,” and was “very adult.” The library’s meeting board met to discuss it and ruled against removing it from the shelves, claiming that many comic books include violence, and that the patron’s interpretation of rape was “misconstrued.” But while The Killing Joke won this round, it makes the list of Alan Moore’s books that have been challenged or banned by libraries. A list that includes League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Watchmen, and Neonomicon, which was banned from a South Carolina library in 2012.
The Killing Joke is a visceral, graphic book, and many comic book writers are now telling stories just like it. Comics are starting to find acceptance from an entertainment industry that once snubbed them. The days of comics being written solely for children are over. They’re growing up. Maybe it’s time some grown-ups followed suit.