Fandom Heresies: The Killing Joke; Or How Alan Moore Doesn’t Understand Batman, Part One

Hello my fellow random response generators! This week, as long promised, we’re going to dive into The Killing Joke, Alan Moore’s most famous work for DC and unarguably his worst. No, seriously: even Moore himself hates The Killing Joke, and with good reason: it’s a deeply misogynistic tale, complete with the use of rape imagery to titillate the reader (yes, I know Moore has said the Joker didn’t rape Barbara. The imagery is still there), thoroughly abelist and generally just a nasty, pathetic little story. While a lot of the problems we would see from Moore in later years (seriously, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is just one long thematic sequel to this steaming pile of crap) are here, it’s not hard to see why he’d reject this story in particular. The Killing Joke is nothing more than an exercise in Alan Moore’s worst tendencies and darkest fantasies.

Today, we’re going to set up a little background for Alan Moore’s most infamous work. But first, if you enjoy my writing you can support me on Patreon or buy me a hot chocolate.

Join me under the cut!

Like everything else in the modern DC Universe, The Killing Joke can be traced back to Crisis On Infinite Earths and DC’s decision to let Marv Wolfman run hog-wild over their universe. That particular bit of insanity is a whole series of posts on its own, but suffice to say Crisis was the one event that really did change everything. Fifty years of DC continuity was thrown out in 1985. While the ejection of DC’s multiverse at the time (Earth-Two, Earth-Three, etc.), Crisis also wiped out some thirty years of Earth-One continuity (starting from Superboy’s first appearance in More Fun Comics #101, January-February 1945).

That was a huge change, because Earth-One was DC’s main continuity for all of the Silver Age and most of the Bronze Age. Batman, Superman and the rest of their friends essentially started the latter half of the Bronze Age with a clean slate (for the record, and I’ll go into this more in a later post, I consider the Dark Age of Comics to be limited to a handful of companies and something neither Marvel nor DC did anything more than dabble in; the term I’ll use for DC’s output in the 90’s until The New 52 is Iron Age).

So, starting with a new slate, DC decided to make their universe as dark and nasty as teen friendly comics allowed. Hiring talent like John Byrne (fresh from his success on X-Men) Frank Miller (the guy who re-invented both Daredevil and Wolverine) along with mainstays like Marv Wolfman, George Perez and Alan Moore (who reinvented Swamp Thing back in 1983), DC went to work with a will, making a universe that is so 80s it hurts. It’s a perfect encapsulation of mid-80s anti-Reagan/anti-Thatcher anxiety, especially as many of the new writers coming up were vaguely liberal-ish. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Dark Knight Returns, where Reagan is out-and-out a bad guy, which makes Miller’s later turn to reactionary politics hilarious in all the wrong ways.

Now, Moore had been working in comics since long before 1985-6. He started working in Marvel’s UK imprint of all places, working on things like Captain Britain, Miracleman and 2000AD. But it was the mid-eighties that catapulted him to superstardom (for a time; Moore would retreat to independent comics after what we will charitably call contract disputes with DC). This is the era of Watchmen (’86-’87), V for Vendetta (’82-’88; Moore’s complaints about the movie being a thinly veiled screed against Bushism is mindbogglingly hypocritical); and his best work for DC (and in general, honestly) For the Man Who Has Everything (1985). He also continued working on Swamp Thing at the time.

You’ll notice there’s precious little Batman work, or even anything remotely like Batman like Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil (there’s a lot to dislike about Miller and I’ll have a go at him in another post, but he did have experience as noir-ish writer). In point of fact, Moore didn’t like Batman and preferred Superman. He’d only worked on one other Batman story, Mortal Clay, and never picked up a Batman-esque character again. No, V and Rorshach don’t count. Moore himself has always been more of a fantasy/science-fiction/horror writer, which is totally fair. No writer is good at or interested in everything, but it is weird that DC would pick a writer with a stated disinterest in Batman, no experience on writing Batman or similar characters and whose talents generally lay elsewhere to write a Batman one-shot.

So here is (some) of the context surrounding The Killing Joke. We have a company driving to become Darker and Edgier, an experienced writer who is experienced with an entirely different set of characters and doesn’t like the character he’s writing for, the political and cultural climate of the mid-80s and the blank slate that was Crisis. We’ll go into the character’s context next week.

See you then!