Ever since I was a kid and grew out of the Beano & the Dandy, I’ve never really been one for religiously buying regular comics.
There are a lot of reasons for that, from the bulk of my grown=up comic education coming via the graphic novels and annuals owned by friends – which was a wide ranging church, from Calvin & Hobbs to Akira via Watchmen, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Judge Dredd and a whole lot in between – to not really having the regular disposable income during much of my twenties to keep up with a series as it unfolded and therein never really getting into the habit of hitting up my local comic shop every week.
Nonetheless, I am – and always have been – an avid comic fan, using libraries, my friend’s collections and the odd month where I had a spare handful of cash to pick up something new, preferably in the tidy form of a collection or graphic novel so I can get the whole story in one gluttonous sitting.
Now that I’m a bit more grown up, I wanted to be a bit more organized in my collecting and as I do that, I’d like to talk about some of my favorite graphic novels/trade paperbacks/collections and why I’ve chosen to spend my spare cash on that particular book. Pretty much by definition, the books that I talk about are all ones that I consider to be 5/5 so that’s why you won’t see any ratings at the bottom of the page.
Now, where to begin? Of course, with Batman…
Batman: The Killing Joke
Story: Allan Moore
Art: Brian Bolland
I first read this at some point in my mid-teens, where my image of the Caped Crusader was torn between Adam West and Michael Keaton and the Joker was either Jack Nicholson or Cesar Romero. At that cynical age where I was probably close to deriding comics as kid’s stuff, superheroes as silly and all of this just a bit too immature (hysterical given the music I was listening to at the time) the Killing Joke was one of the comics that turned me into the fan of the medium that I am today.
It was edgy and violent, poignant and funny and did more to flesh out the character of the Joker than any work I can think of before or since and providing one of the prime inspiration’s for Heath Ledger’s critically acclaimed interpretation of the character decades later.
Batman’s monologue in Arkham at the start of the book and reprised towards the the end is almost the perfect summation of the deadly dance between the two characters and when partnered with the contrast between the Joker’s sympathetic origin story and later rampage, it’s just a perfect story.
That’s not to say that it’s an easy ride, because it’s unsettling, graphic and cuts a little too close to the bone when it makes us sympathise with the villain, even as he hurts, humiliates and kills innocent people. To top that uneasy dichotomy the story doesn’t even give us a definitive ending – is Batman truly laughing at the end, or is he breaking his own rules and reaching out to finish the Joker off once and for all. Maybe both?
As well as all this, the art from Brian Bolland is excellent throughout, conveying the horror and insanity of Joker and his works, along with the poignancy of his origin and the steadfast determination of the Batman. Looking at it again, I’m almost surprised by how clean and shiny the art looks, as I had remembered it being darker, grungier in appearance. It’s almost like many of the panels IMPLY griminess without actually going for that distressed look which is so common in comics with dark themes nowadays.
In this way, as well as by walking the fine line between the freakish characters and activities and a sense of gritty realism the book straddles generations and genres of comics, combining the clean lines of yesteryear with the griminess of what was to become almost standard fare in terms of both characterization and art.
This book showed me that comics could be grown up, that something can be fun and pretty and silly and very serious, disturbing, meaningful and touching all at the same time.
The Killing Joke led me to Watchmen and V for Vendetta, convinced me to dig out some of those old 2000AD annuals, to look past movies at the books that inspired them and most of all it taught me that comics can use the fantastical, the silly and the obtuse to talk about real world issues in ways that traditional media tend to shy away from as being ‘too difficult.’
If you haven’t read this book and you are in any way a fan of Batman or dark comics in general, you simply must obtain a copy at your soonest opportunity.
The writer of this piece was: Chris Napier
You can also find Chris on Twitter.