One of the most famous Batman stories was penned, then released in 1988, as part of a one shot publication from DC Comics. Released in graphic novel form, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke — which featured iconic artwork from Brian Bolland — won awards and helped alter Batgirl’s saga, helping her become the Oracle. It is known most, however, for telling the Joker’s origin story. Said origin was loosely adapted from the 1951 story arc, The Man Behind the Red Hood.
Fast-forward to September of 2018, during which Alan Moore’s beloved story came returned in a new, novelized form. Dubbed Batman: The Killing Joke – A DC Comics Novel, this effort from writers Christa Faust and Gary Phillips brought this dark tale to a new format, and made it longer in the process. Why? I guess it was determined that the original graphic novel wouldn’t make for a long enough novelization, which led to new story content being added in order to increase the page count.
Although my comics and superhero loving friends told me lots about The Killing Joke back when they were obsessed and collecting its special edition, I’ve never actually read the original graphic novel. Truth be told, I never got into comics all that much, and that is doubly so for graphic novels. That said, I respect and appreciate the medium. As a kid, I owned and read some Spider-Man, X-Files and miscellaneous other books, but didn’t buy them regularly or truly get into the world of comic books. As such, I missed out on some of the classics, including this particular tale.
At least that was the case until the present, when I was able to read through an elongated version over the course of approximately 293 white and type-filled pages. I did so thanks to a hardcover version of the book — which, itself, is quite beautiful due to a very nice slipcover — that was shipped to me by Titan Books and its partners.
Did I enjoy myself? Yes and no. We’ll get to that later, though.
For the uninitiated, The Killing Joke tells a story about an unnamed man who’s left his engineering job to become a stand up comedian. Strapped for cash, and lacking in on-stage success, he finds himself wrapped up in a criminal plan to earn some extra money. A gig that involves robbing the playing card company that sits next door to the chemical plant in which he once worked. He’s needed as a way in, because he’s promised to lead the crew through the plant so that they can have better and easier access to their destination.
Despite trying to get out of it at the last minute, the man succumbs to pressure after a loss and ends up going through with his promised assistance. As is usually the case in superhero fiction, things don’t go as planned and the shit hits the fan, leading the man to attempt escape through caustic means. The result is a transformation that forever alters not just his physical and outward appearance, but also the fabric of his fragile mind.
The above happens at the beginning of this somewhat lengthy novel, and is just the start of the tale, which fast-forwards to a future Gotham where Batman and the Joker face off for yet another time. In-between lays death, heartbreak, criminality and trickery, with only some of it having to do with the Joker himself. Parts of this take place within Arkham Asylum, where the insane criminal mastermind is hoping to make a daring escape, while others take place in different parts of Gotham, like a drug manufacturing warehouse and a rich gang member’s swanky hideout.
If you’ve read this story before, you’ll likely have noticed some of the differences, which I’d seen mentioned in certain reviews before diving in myself. From what I can gather, all of the stuff pertaining to drug manufacturer Python Palmares, his Giggle Sniff enterprise and an earlier encounter between Batman, Batgirl and some other rich ne’er do wells has been manufactured for this novelized edition. It’s pretty easy to tell, too, because it feels very forced an inorganic in comparison to the rest of the story. In fact, this is so much the case that The Killing Joke‘s novelization doesn’t really feel like much of a Joker book. Because of all of the drug, gang and related interplay, Batman and the Joker don’t factor into the story nearly as much as expected, and there are decently long stretches where they’re not mentioned.
That is not a positive thing.
If the authors had avoided padding this thing so much, it would’ve been a shorter but better book. The result of their interference is something that meanders a lot and doesn’t feel cohesive. The main storyline is there, but it’s spread thin and almost feels like a secondary plot at times. There’s too much dull and unfortunately forgettable stuff dealing with Python Palmares, his crew, Giggle Sniff and people who wish to take him down. It’s all content that isn’t necessary, and it tends to be pretty tedious.
For the most part, this is a relatively well written affair, although it won’t win any awards. Then again, it’s not like I went in expecting an incredibly written book, given that this is an elongated take on a popular graphic novel. Like licensed video games, licensed books based on popular properties aren’t always the greatest. The writing and grammar are both fine for the most part, but there are some mistakes and editing errors to be found within this really nice looking hardcover edition.
Going into Batman: The Killing Joke – A DC Comics Novel by Christa Faust and Gary Phillips — which is a mouthful of a title for sure — I hoped for the best. I truly wanted to love this book like many love the graphic novel it’s based on and tells the tale of. I went in with an open mind, hoped for a fun read and was also hopeful that some of the middling reviews I’d read wouldn’t be similar to my own opinion once I’d reached the final sentence. Unfortunately, that wasn’t necessarily the case. While I liked parts of the book, and found the stuff containing the important interplay between Batman, Batgirl, Commissioner Gordon and The Joker to be both pretty good and quite disturbing, the rest of the novel fell pretty flat for me. The stuff about the drug, the gang behind it and the other criminals really didn’t have that much intrigue, personality or creativity to it, nor did it help the novel. Some of the stuff about the early Internet was interesting, but the authors made things confusing by making up technology as it suited them. At one point, computers are quite limited and take forever to download a single image. Then, not long after, live video is playing across Gotham’s computers in what is supposed to be the 80s.
If you’re a diehard Batman fan, you’ve probably already read Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke in its original, graphic novel form. You might get something out of this, but should not expect anything great from DC Comics’ novelization attempt. Meanwhile, those who are new to the story — like me — should go in knowing the same. While it’s nice to read this story about how the Joker became a white faced, green haired and crazy villain with no respect for human life, the padding that surrounds and inhibits it keeps it from really sliding home.
**This review is based on a copy of the book that we were provided with.**
Please stay tuned for our reviews of the other two DC Comics Batman novels, Harley Quinn: Mad Love and Batman: The Court of Owls.