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September 19, 2014

Don’t Ban Our Comics! #1: Jeff Ayers reflects on THE KILLING JOKE

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I remember going into my local comic shop when I first started collecting comics circa 1994. I was mesmerized by the sheer vastness of comics there were, and had no real idea what direction my collecting would take me. (Spoiler: I saw the cover of Wolverine #82 by Adam Kubert and was hooked on that character forever.) But this shop, like most others, had prized books --- the gems of the collection, or the owners personal favorites --- adorning the top of the wall: books like THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN, various older X-Men and Spider-Man books, and BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, which totally caught my eye. Brian Bolland’s iconic cover showed the Joker’s jagged teeth bared as he held a camera to his face and uttered one word to me and everyone who saw that graphic novel: “Smile!”

It was perfect, and chilling, and I had to have it. But even at that time --- the book only having been out for a few years --- a first print in such good condition cost more than even a few months of my allowance. But the idea stuck with me, and eventually I found a ragged, well-read copy in a dollar bin a year or so later, which I scooped up immediately. I took it home and devoured it in one sitting and was blown away. Alan Moore’s take on the origin of the Joker, laid out panel by panel in front of me, was breathtaking, as were the gruesome images of violence against the Gordon family, which stuck with me for some time. Those images didn’t traumatize the 13-year-old me --- I had seen Alien and Indiana Jones and Hellraiser by that point, so I was well seasoned in the horrific. But some people do believe that what lies within this book needs to be banned from shelves. The images are very graphic.

In this well-crafted graphic novel, Moore brings his very best to the table. The Batman and Joker dichotomy is a story done to death by today’s standards, but back in 1988, it hadn’t been done to quite this caliber. The book begins with Batman finding out that Joker had escaped Arkham yet again, and he tries to handle the situation immediately. But Joker has other plans. He shows up at Commissioner Gordon’s home and shoots his daughter, Barbara, in her stomach, fracturing her spine. (She would later find superheroic work as the Oracle, but as of this book, her future was sketchy at best.) Joker then shows his sadistic side, taking photos of the crime and going so far as to strip Barbara nude as well. Then he lures Gordon to his new hideout, an abandoned amusement park, and subjects him to the pictures, trying to drive him mad. All of this happens in tandem with a beautiful origin story: The Joker, once a failed comedian trying to provide for his girlfriend, got in over his head, and one bad day turned everything around and formed the sadistic clown who would soon terrorize Gotham. This is the inherent message in Moore’s tale: that Batman and the Joker are eerily similar, and that one bad day can change everything for a person --- as the Joker tries to prove to Batman by driving Gordon insane. But it doesn’t work. Gordon resists, and Batman takes Joker into custody --- although not before he and Gordon come to terms with all that has happened.

A few short years later, the Joker goes even further, killing Robin and his mother in a violent explosion. But the events of this novel drew a lot of attention from people, citing that it might be too violent and sadistic for young readers. Alan Moore himself has famously said that he feels DC should have reined him in a little. It has been the subject of countless discussions on feminism and the portrayal of women in comics due to the barbaric violence committed against Barbara. Recently, it was nearly banned from shelves in the Nebraska Public Library, but the proposition was ultimately voted down.

What the Joker does within these pages is deplorable. But we live in a world where things ten times worse are shown on the news on a daily basis. There are many things in this world to crusade against, but personally, I will never understand the crusade against the written word. Words are just that --- letters on a page --- and can be read or not as easily as one can change a television channel. THE KILLING JOKE is widely regarded as one of the greatest Batman stories of all time, and has made a lasting impression on Batman’s mythology. I highly recommend you read it for yourself, to get a picture of the Joker and Batman as they truly are: flawed, insane men who truly believe that what they do is necessary.