15 November 2009

Alan Moore Month: In Defence Of The Killing Joke

My favourite Alan Moore book is the one everyone hates, including him.

I'm talking, of course, about The Killing Joke.

Moore has said that he feels it's lacking in substance, and by and large the critics seem to agree. I don't, though. The piece carries a strong message and has some interesting and well-explored themes. The thing is; those themes, and that message, are present in everything Moore writes, and probably everything he says and does too; as such we, and he, tend to overlook them. We don't think of them as being the core of a Moore comic, because they're always there, in the background. So when they're all that's present, it's easy to think that there's nothing at all. I'd argue, however, that the lack of distraction and dilution makes the piece purer, and the clearest expression of the man's concerns in print; precisely because there was no conscious intent to impart an idea or a message, it becomes the most primal iteration of the message there is.

So, what IS the message? Basically, violence is stupid, and violent conflict can only ever be destructive; that the only workable solution to conflict is communication and compromise. It's a pacifist parable, in the only genre would would think was completely unsuited to it.

It's perfect, and I love it.

As I've said, this idea comes up in all of Moore's works; it's there in Watchmen, it's there in V, it's especially prominent in Tom Strong (my second favourite of Moore's works), but in all of these other concerns end up grabbing the limelight. pacifism is so integral to Moore's worldview that it seems unworthy of special attention; but in the world outside of his magic cave, the idea that violence is an acceptable and effective way of solving problems remains sadly popular. For me, while I'm happy to read his thoughts on the nature of time and reality, (wo)man's ascent to self-made god(ess)hood, his ruminations on the effect fascist rule has on interpersonal relationships, and so on ad infinitum... none of them is as IMPORTANT an issue as pacifism. The central flaw of our culture is that we just won't stop hurting each other. this is something that is worth addressing head on and with our eyes wide open, and The Killing Joke does exactly that.

I know, I know, the generally held opinion is that the story is about the similarities between it's two protagonists. Moore himself has said that the book is about that parallel, and how he feels that isn't a particularly interesting or original observation. He's right, and while that's certainly an element of the piece, it's not what excites about it. Among the things that do excite me are Gordon's refusal to stoop to the Joker's level -- "it has to be by the book" -- by resorting to emotionally cathartic violence, and the fact that Batman concludes the piece by offering the Joker psychiatric help. This moment in particular is something we tend to miss when talking about this book. How many times have we read a Batman story in which ol' big ears will decide that he's going to settle things between him and the Joker "once and for all"? Now, stop me if I'm wrong, but doesn't that pretty much ALWAYS mean that he's "finally" decided going to kill him? This book offers the alternative solution. the BETTER solution.

And yes, okay, it fails. Because it would. Because in a conflict this entrenched, it takes more than a single olive branch to heal the rift (if you'll allow me to mix metaphors like an inexperienced chef). They've come too far, been fighting too long; and let's be honest, Batman himself is already far too commited to violence for this to be a workable solution.

Which is the tragedy, and the point of the story. Violence solves nothing. Punching people solves nothing, and Batman is someone who tries to solve his problems by punching people. So it stands to reason that even at his wisest, even when he gets that little glimmer of inspiration that leads him to a more enlightened solution, he will never, ever solve his biggest, most flamboyant problem. Violence doesn't work, so Batman doesn't work.

Sure, Batman takes the Joker away at the end, to be locked up once more in the institution he got out of so easily (so easily that we don't even need to see the escape itself) at the beginning of the story. Sure, Batman gets to chalk this one up in the "win" column. But we know the truth; the Joker has turned down the only thing that might ever stop him from being who he his; and as long as the Joker walks the earth we know he'll keep escaping, we know he'll keep killing; we know that Batman is a failure. the Joker is the symbol of everything that is wrong with Batman; the one problem he simply cannot solve. The Batman is a creature of violence; born of violence and ultimately undone by it.

Of course, it also helps that it's absolutely gorgeous to look at. Brian Bolland is of course one of the greatest draftsmen of the last fifty years, as well as a master storyteller (a more unusual combination than it should be in cartoonists), and this is quite possibly the best sequential work of is career. Again I find myself in the minority camp, as I much prefer the John Higgins colouring on the original edition rather than Bolland's own re-coloured version. Bolland is too reverential to his own line, keeping to a dour grey pallette, only breaking out brighter colours for melodramatic effect (blood and so forth). Higgins is far more adventurous, purples and yellows and greens saturating the page, giving the whole piece a chemical mood. The difference in the two artist's approaches is best summed up on my favourite page, the one where the joke is told. This isn't just my favourite page in the book, this is one of my favourite pages ever. Bolland's storytelling here is sublime; the body language, the carefully chosen camera angles, the lighting which alternately hides and then illuminates the Joker's face, the way the tips of the joker's fingers protrude ever-so-slightly over the border in panel 5 (I think it's panel 5? I don't have the book to hand)... all of it is brilliant. In the original, Higgins' colouring compliments Bolland's performance beautifully, the gaudy carnival lights in the background placing us in a vaudeville setting; in Bolland's recoloured version, the lights are plain, the piece washed out, literally drained of colour; and in the process, some of it's life. It's like listening to your favourite song by your favourite band but with the rhythm track removed. Sure, the guitars and the vocals are still fantastic, the lyrics still move you, the musicianship is still worthy of adulation... but it sounds a damn sight better with the whole band.

Anyway, I think I've wandered away from my point. Which was: The Killing Joke is very, very good; it is, in fact, a damn sight better than we generally give it credit for. Let's stop calling this the lesser Moore work, please. Take it as it is, and judge it for what it is; one of the greatest, most definitive Batman stories ever told, the one that cuts to the heart of the tragedy; the one work by Alan Moore that most clearly expresses the core theme of his ouvre, and the greatest work of Brian Bolland's career. That's not bad, not bad at all.

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Blogger T said...

Well done! I honestly thought The Killing Joke was always more than what Alan made it out to be; it's about pacifism, it's about the subjectivity of insanity (Gordon went through everything Joker did save a dip in a chemical bath, yet stayed sane because his psychological makeup is completely different from the Joker's) and, yes, it's about Batman and the Joker. Moore says it wasn't very original to point out their similarities, but I think very few people at that point in time had put the two characters side by side and said, "you know, they're not really that far removed from each other." Deconstruction was a fairly new trend in comics back then, after all.

I'm also a fan of the original coloring; I've seen some of Bolland's recolored pages and didn't think they were bad, but they lacked the visual punch of Higgins' work.

February 3, 2010 1:38 AM  

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