Alan Moore, perhaps more than any other comic writer, has created works that stand the test of time. At his best, he is capable of creating stories that arguably rival the best his contemporaries can come up with in any medium, from film to prose. Batman: The Killing Joke is a classic Moore script, suffering from only one small problem: it’s crippled by its reliance on the rules of the superhero story.
The book’s execution is superb. The narrative flows beautifully, despite flashing between the present day (a particularly vicious battle between Batman and his arch-enemy The Joker) and the past (The Joker’s origins and first run-in with Batman). It is wonderfully executed, from the links between the two storylines to the Watchmen-like visual panels that speak volumes without the need for words.
Bolland’s artwork is equally stunning. The characters’ expressions speak for themselves – Moore barely needs to fill the speech bubbles with dialogue. And while John Higgins’ original colouring added a dimension to Bolland’s work that lifted it off the page, Bolland’s own colouring, featured in the Deluxe Edition, takes it to another dimension, adding a subtlety of palette that simply wasn’t available to Higgins at the time.
So what’s the problem? Well, while there’s no denying that this is a wonderful Batman story, the necessity of playing by the unwritten rules of such a tale round off its spiky edges. At the beginning of the book we’re almost promised a mould-breaking story along the lines of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The Joker is initially portrayed as a brutal piece of work, capable of unspeakable acts of violence; while Batman can only see an ending where one or the other are destroyed. Without giving too much away, the ending is a little more traditional than the promise (or at best, ambiguous enough to leave it open to interpretation) and, as a result, a little disappointing.
We’re left with a book that Batman fans will adore. It’s hard hitting enough but it’s incapable of squeezing out of its own shackles. Apart from the seminal superhero deconstruction Watchmen, Moore didn’t visit the traditional end of the genre again. And for fans of what he can achieve without creative constraints like these, this is a very good thing. So the joke is actually on the reader – the question remains whether or not we’ll ever see the punch line.