The more you try to stay away from the DC, given the gory, the loud, the stereotype, the cliche and the sheer political incorrectness, the more DC lures you with its irresistible gory, loud, stereotype, cliche and SHEER political incorrectness. Who doesn’t like tidbits of barely implicit animated child-porn with morning tea!
We are all going straight to the hellhole of Arkham along with Alan Moore some day.
Batman The Killing Joke (1988) is arguably Moore’s best – surely one of his best in the Superhero series, specially for its ambiguous ending, where Batman starts laughing uncontrollably with Joker at the latter’s joke about two madmen escaping from an asylum; the city police patrol waits in apprehension with their bright headlights silhouetting the pair, as the reader’s eye gradually pans to the incessant raindrops falling at their feet. But it is a great book also for the Red-hood reconnection from the ’50s, one of the liveliest Bat vs. Joker fight scenes and the BDUMPs – the gates of the tunnel of madness closing one after another behind Commissioner Gordon, as they often do when you or I end up having a real bad day.
Does Batman finally kill Joker? Or the contrary? Or do they embrace in a passionate kiss (and a lot more) as The Hooded Utilitarian (don’t confuse him with the Hooded Justice or any of the other fictitious heroes) suggests! Although it is a matter of contemplation – if the Bat vs. Joker story indeed ends in the mood for love, what would the nature of that love be! A totally evil and insensitive guess would be Naturally Born Killers! Ouch.
However my point of interest here is not the story itself but the reworking of the pictures in the book by the artist Brian Bolland in the year 2008 for the republished deluxe edition. As a Batman-veteran, having read enough of him and having followed Christopher Nolan long enough, thus getting somewhat used to the rants of the enemies-till-death-duo (gays/two faces of the same being – sounds familiar?/just the superhero vs. the archvillain – which would be naive – unless you’ve already seen Unbreakable), the initial theme of the book seems less striking. What acts as a winning factor for this book is Bolland’s haunting version of the Joker – as Tim Sale says in the foreword of The Killing Joke: Brrrrrr. I just got chills.
John Higgins‘s skillful, intense but classical style of pulp-fiction-coloring (‘pre computer days of ”blue line”, airbrush and poster colors’), which was possibly the sole style of coloring comics those days, did enough justice within the limitations to the intended chill that Sale warns about. But Higgins’s ‘scary’ is not the psychedelic ‘scary’ of Bolland’s nightmarish frenzy, where river-water turns into blood. In the new edition, shades of expressions of the body and the face say it all, painting the backgrounds and the flashbacks with minimal colors and allowing selective hues to define the characters – thus creating a dim-lit mystery, a stronger but eerier realistic aura.
What Bolland possibly had felt (and many other artists must have felt it too while taking part in any collaborative artwork because artists – like the rest of the humans – are doing it for letting that same madness out of their own personal system you see and if one of them could do the other’s job well enough there would bloody well not be any collaboration) can naturally be compared to a reluctant mother forced to hire a hand for taking care of her beloved child. Let us read his own polite words in the afterword of the deluxe edition on this matter:
The most notable absentee from this edition is THE KILLING JOKE’s original colorist, John Higgins, and I want to thank him for jumping in when he did and finishing the book so promptly. Back in the pre-computer days […], even though I had specific views on how I wanted it to look, I wouldn’t have been able to color it myself. It’s probably well known that John’s choice of colors turned out to be startlingly at odds with what I had in mind so, in February 2007, when Bob Harras told me about this edition, I said, ”PLEASE can I recolor the whole thing?”
Lucky for Bolland, this child of his could be reworked on (thanks to ‘Technical wizard’ Jeb Woodard). And there it is – The Killing Joke, even more killing than before to the contemporary eye, complete with the additional ‘solely Bolland’s mini-Bat-story’ depicting Batman’s most deadliest enemy so far, as if to prove a point, and thanks to him for that. In this new edition Joker is not hiding behind the gloriously significant colors of the violent red or the mysterious blue or the garish green, he is right there in front of you in the darned white light that gives you such a feeling of safety and normalcy. This is the moment of glory for your nightmares when they have finally won over your rationality and come true. What is worse, they are not trying to mystify themselves in their multicolored protective layers (Higgins’s) or in their swishy dreaminess (say, in Dave McKean‘s, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth) any more.
What is interesting in this reworking-process is how the same piece of art evokes different needs of treatment in two different artists, or equivalently how distinct minds take to different means while dealing with the same emotion. What about a single artist placed in different periods of time, given the tools and pre-existing culture available to her at those points? That is, when it is not a battle of two minds but the battle of one with the Time ? It will probably not be the same thing at all! For a single artist may have the artistic vision to go beyond her time. Even otherwise, one should be able to see a continuous path indicating the development of her artistic brain, if one pays enough attention, incomparable to the stark contrast of two distinct ones.
Or possibly one would find a trail of a lone soul, drawn out of herself like Jack Sparrow at the Dead man’s chest, stuck in eternal collaboration with oneself and oneself only. Which category would you put her in? The Big Bat or the Bad Joke? Possibly that is the reason artists are encouraged to collaborate with one another. The weight of one’s mind can be too heavy to bear.
The trademark of many great DC stories are in their not-sure-what-happened-at-the-end-ness. Killing Joke is somewhere at the top of that list. Bolland’s almost desaturated touch in the penultimate panel mercilessly plays the joke on the reader, while Bolland himself is finally assured of his glory since this time, the madman who is holding the flashlight from the bottom of the wall for him to walk down along the beam of light is Brian Bolland himself.