Book review–Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke is adapted into a new novel

Review by C.J. Bunce

Probably the second best-known work writer Alan Moore is known for in the U.S. outside of his Watchmen series, Batman: The Killing Joke was both a retelling of the origin story of The Joker and the story of his using a physical assault on Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl to attempt to torture and ruin Gotham police commissioner Jim Gordon.  The book is one of the 1980s big four revolutionary comics (along with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, and Watchmen) that caused a shift in how superhero stories are told (and it was the only comic director Tim Burton had ever read, setting the tone for the dark 1989 Batman movie featuring Jack Nicholson’s version of The Joker that Burton would begin filming only weeks later).  It’s a controversial graphic novel–the sexual assault and gunshot that resulted in Barbara Gordon losing the use of her legs and resulting in her change of persona to the deskbound computer whiz called Oracle angered many readers, and the ending is ambiguous and perplexing–why is Batman laughing at the end of the story?  Following the lead of the Marvel Comics new library of novelized adaptations of comic books and graphic novels, Batman: The Killing Joke is now the first of at least three new hardcover novel adaptations of DC Comics stories (to be followed by Batman: The Court of Owls on November 13, 2018, and Harley Quinn: Mad Love on February 12, 2019) published by Titan Books (also the publisher of the Marvel paperback novels).  Written by Christa Faust (Peepland, Fringe, Supernatural) and Gary Phillips (Violent Spring, Peepshow), their adaptation is a straightforward, faithful take on the graphic novel with a few updates.

The impact of the graphic novel cannot be overstated.  A key draw was the prestige format and the fact the book was a one-shot story, not like the three big predecessor books mentioned above that were monthly single issues compiled into a trade comic.  At the time we didn’t think the story would be absorbed into the regular continuity of DC Comics, but it slowly became a reference point even beyond its impact on Batgirl stories for the next 30 years.  (The book was so popular we couldn’t wait a minute to read it–one of my oldest friends was reading his copy on his music stand during our high school band practice, prompting the band director to throw it across the room, to our horror).

So how is the new novel adaptation?

You can’t really come up with enough synonyms for vile and despicable to describe The Joker in the original story and in this adaptation.  Before this story–and only about nine months before DC Comics would use fans to allow The Joker to kill Batman’s sidekick Robin with a tire iron in the pages of the Batman monthly comic book–The Joker was a bit of a silly villain.  Sure, he was always dastardly and Batman’s age-old key foe, but readers never saw him in such “true crime” acts so explicitly.  This is commonplace in the Batman stories now, but before you wouldn’t find a character shot, stripped naked, and photographed and another one stripped naked and tortured, both as plot devices ultimately used by The Joker to get Batman to show-up for the battle.  Authors Faust and Phillips do the most justice to Commissioner Gordon’s character, whose focus during his torture in a revived old amusement park is only the thoughts of his daughter’s safety and survival.  By the end of the book readers have learned that they couldn’t blame Gordon were he to walk away from these events as a destroyed pool of a man.  On the flipside, Barbara Gordon’s attack is handled partially from her viewpoint trying to understand what happened to her in real time, and partially from the view of one of The Joker’s stooges.  Barbara plays a more active role here in saving her father (and surviving), and instead of seeing herself as the victim she uses the bystander stooge to help further her superhero self into a new persona in a smartly conceived update via a coda to the story.

Brian Bolland’s cover to the original graphic novel of Batman: The Killing Joke from March 1988.

Arguably the novel does not go far enough to use the medium to get into the heads of the other main characters, The Joker and Batman.  In the graphic novel, there is more than a speck of pity a reader may have for the character at the beginning of his story–a down-and-out comedian with a pregnant wife who is accidentally killed at home using a defective appliance.  Without Brian Bolland’s artwork, the reader does not get as fully immersed in the transformation the character makes, the outrageous and shocking level of clown-faced theatrics, psychotic laughter, and darkness Moore and Bolland’s readers first saw.

Authors Faust and Phillips make some other interesting updates.  They adapt The Joker’s attack on Barbara Gordon with a swap of a live video feed for the 35MM camera–the cover image the graphic novel is known for.  This story is pre-Internet, but they use that as an opportunity for characters to forecast a coming interconnected network to retrieve information, including Russian hacking.  And in a world that has the Gotham TV series with Donal Logue playing Harvey Bullock, it’s welcome seeing Bullock getting some nice handling in a story.  Harley Quinn makes an appearance, although her character wouldn’t be created until more than four years after the original story was written (not a problem, just an interesting curiosity).  The book is a bit of a mash-up of time and space–forward matter states the story takes place in the 1980s of the original, yet it is updated for modern technology.  The approach works–the authors paint a bleak but realistic portrait of Gotham City reflecting the aura of debauchery, drugs, sex, and misogyny of the real Times Square before it was cleaned up that has seen its own revival of late.  Most of the criminals–and there are many minor baddies in the book–are loathsome real-world-inspired creeps that society continues to try to flush out.

The next DC Comics to be adapted into hardcover novels.

But the authors also do not expand on what makes Batman tick (although they include that he doesn’t eat bread or other carbohydrates, which seems odd).  What made Batman visit The Joker at the beginning of the story to call a truce, and why would he try again at the end of the story after knowing that The Joker had so violently attacked Barbara and Jim?  Is it simply because he is tired of the repetition?  Ultimately it’s Commissioner Gordon who makes the call, directing Batman to “play it by the book” and see that The Joker gets back to his cell in Arkham Asylum.  Ultimately we’re reminded that this story is not a great Batman tale so much as a great showcase for The Joker.

The novel of Batman: The Killing Joke is a good read, despite some of the missing gut-punches found in Brian Bolland’s original artwork.  The format and well-written prose provides another venue for fans of DC Comics to get their fix for their favorite characters.  The audio version would be ideal for visually impaired readers, who have only had access to the bare descriptive audio versions of the original comic book previously.

Just released from Titan Books, order your copy of Batman: The Killing Joke–the novel, from Elite Comics, your local comic book store, or find it here at Amazon.

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