Batman: The Killing Joke
Cover of Batman: The Killing Joke
by Brian Bolland
Publication information
PublisherDC Comics
Publication dateMarch 1988
No. of issues1
Main character(s)
Creative team
Created byAlan Moore
Brian Bolland
John Higgins
Written byAlan Moore
Artist(s)Brian Bolland
Letterer(s)Richard Starkings
Colorist(s)John Higgins (original)
Brian Bolland (Deluxe Edition)
Editor(s)Dennis O'Neil
Collected editions
Trade PaperbackISBN 0930289455
Trade Paperback (Titan Books)ISBN 1852860820
DC Universe: The Stories of Alan MooreISBN 1401209270
2008 Deluxe EditionISBN 5012256263
NoirISBN 140126364X
Absolute EditionISBN 1401284124
NovelISBN 1785658107
2019 Deluxe EditionISBN 1401294057

Batman: The Killing Joke is a 1988 DC Comics one-shot graphic novel featuring the characters Batman and the Joker written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. The Killing Joke provides an origin story for the supervillain the Joker, loosely adapted from the 1951 story "The Man Behind the Red Hood!", which was written by Batman co-creator Bill Finger. The Joker's origin is presented via flashback, while simultaneously depicting his attempt to drive Jim Gordon insane and Batman's desperate attempt to stop him.

Created by Moore, Bolland, and Higgins as their own take on the Joker's source and psychology,[1] the story became famous for its origin of the Joker as a tragic character; a family man and failed comedian who suffered "one bad day" that finally drove him insane. Moore stated that he attempted to show the similarities and contrasts between Batman and the Joker. The story's effects on the mainstream Batman continuity also included the shooting and paralysis of Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl), an event that eventually leads her to develop the identity of Oracle, secret data broker for the DC Universe's superhero community and leader of the superhero team Birds of Prey.

Many critics consider the graphic novel to be the definitive Joker story and one of the best Batman stories ever published, though the story's exploitative treatment of Barbara Gordon has garnered criticism. The comic won the Eisner Award for "Best Graphic Album" in 1989 and appeared on The New York Times Best Seller List in May 2009. In 2006, The Killing Joke was reprinted as part of the trade paperback DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore. In 2008, DC Comics reprinted the story in a deluxe hardcover edition, which features new coloring by Bolland, with a more sombre, realistic, and subdued palette than the original. Elements of The Killing Joke have inspired or been incorporated into other aspects of Batman media.

Background and creation

Artist Brian Bolland conceived the idea for the story after watching the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, which features a character named Gwynplaine (played by Conrad Veidt) whose rictus grin inspired the visual design of the Joker.[2] Bolland's rendition of the Joker was partially influenced by that film.[3] DC editor Dick Giordano's invitation led directly to Bolland working with writer Alan Moore to create a plausible background story for the Joker. He recounted: "I thought about it in terms of who's my favorite writer at the moment, what hero I would really love to do, and which villain? I basically came up with Alan, Batman and the Joker".[4]

Although the story takes pains to stress that it is merely one possible "origin story" for the Joker, it has been widely accepted and adopted into DC continuity, and editor Len Wein had to ask the publisher for approval of a central mutilation of long-running character Barbara Gordon.[3] Bolland said that he saw "Judge Death [as] almost a dry run for drawing the Joker". He also recounted that "by the time Alan had finished Watchmen he had fallen out with DC to a certain extent... in the end, he only continued to do Killing Joke as a favor to me".[4]

The 48-page prestige format one-shot comic took a considerable amount of time to produce. Both Moore and Bolland are well known for their meticulous and time-consuming work; both creators' then-recently finished 12-issue maxiseries titles – Moore's Watchmen and Bolland's Camelot 3000 – had seen delays.[1] Bolland was aided by the laid-back attitude taken by DC, who he says "seemed prepared to let me do it at my own pace". The original editor, Len Wein, left the company, and was replaced by Dennis O'Neil, a "very hands-off sort of guy", with whom Bolland only recalls having one conversation about the book.[4]

Bolland envisaged the flashback sequences in black and white, and instructed Watchmen colorist John Higgins to use "muted November colors". He was upset when he saw the finished comic had "garish... hideous glowing purples and pinks... and my precious Eraserhead-esque flashback sequences swamped in orange".[3] The 2008-published 20th anniversary edition of the book featured new colouring by Bolland, restoring his artistic intentions to the palette. The first problem was that all the original artwork had long disappeared in the hands of collectors but thankfully, someone in DC figured out a way to reverse engineer the already colored prints to isolate the black & white from the colors. In addition to recoloring, Bolland also did a touchup on several of the character's faces using Photoshop.[5]

Plot summary

Joker, before his accident, with his pregnant wife. Art by Brian Bolland and John Higgins.

An unnamed man quits his job at a chemical company to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, he agrees to guide two criminals through the chemical plant where he previously worked so that they can rob the playing card company next to it. The police inform him that his wife and unborn child have died in a household accident. Grief-stricken, the comedian tries to withdraw from the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his commitment.

At the plant, the criminals encounter security personnel, and a shootout ensues in which the comedian's two accomplices are killed. The comedian is then confronted by Batman. He flees by jumping into the chemical plant's waste pound lock and is swept through a pipe leading outside. He discovers to his shock that the chemicals have permanently bleached his skin chalk-white, stained his lips red and dyed his hair green. His disfigurement, compounded by the loss of his family, drives him completely insane and marks the birth of the Joker. He later admits that he is not sure whether this actually happened, as he tends to remember his past differently at different times.

The Joker, after emerging from the canal of chemical waste. Art by Brian Bolland and John Higgins.

In present day, Batman goes to Arkham Asylum to talk with the Joker about ending their years-long feud, only to find that the Joker has escaped. The Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon and kidnaps her father, Commissioner James "Jim" Gordon. He takes Gordon to a run-down amusement park, where he cages him in the park's freak show. He forces Gordon to view blown-up photos of a wounded Barbara, lying stripped nude on the floor after the shooting, much to Gordon's horror. He then puts Gordon on display before the park's freaks, ridiculing him as "the average man", a weakling doomed to insanity.

Batman's attempts to locate Commissioner Gordon are unsuccessful until the Joker sends him an invitation to the amusement park. Though traumatized by his ordeal, Gordon retains his sanity and moral code, and insists that Batman capture the Joker "by the book" to "show him that our way works". Batman dodges a series of booby traps while the Joker tries to persuade his nemesis that the world is a "black, awful joke" that is not worth fighting for, and it only takes "one bad day" to drive an ordinary man insane.

Batman subdues the Joker and tells him that Gordon is as sane as ever, and the Joker is alone in his madness. He offers to help the Joker rehabilitate in order to end their everlasting war, which Batman fears may one day result in a fight to the death. The Joker apologetically declines, saying it is too late for that. He says that the situation reminds him of a joke about two inmates in an asylum who try to escape. Batman chuckles at the joke's punchline, and as the two old foes share a laugh, he grabs the Joker as police arrive.

Themes and analysis

The book explores Moore's assertion that, psychologically, "Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other"[6] by delving into the relationship between the two. The story itself shows how the Joker and Batman came to terms with their respective life-altering tragedies, which both eventually lead to their present lives and confrontation. Critic Geoff Klock further explained that "both Batman and the Joker are creations of a random and tragic 'one bad day'. Batman spends his life forging meaning from the random tragedy, whereas the Joker reflects the absurdity of life, and all its random injustice".[7]

The torments that the Joker puts Commissioner Gordon through are meant to serve as "proof that there is something buried deep within each lunatic, a nugget of insanity, that is simply waiting for the right moment to spring forth".[8] Unlike the Joker, however, Gordon emerges from his ordeal with his sanity and moral code intact. The story is also famous for returning Batman to his darker roots, which changed how the Modern Age of Comics perceived the character.[9] The Killing Joke delves deep into the character's psychology, framing him as being just as insane as the Joker, and postulating that he and the Joker perceive the world according to differing points of view, with the Joker viewing the world as one big joke.[10]

The final panels of the book have been the subject of interpretation and debate.[11] According to one view, Batman and the Joker, who have been fighting for years, end all of their disputes by having a good laugh about it all.[12] Another interpretation, popularized by comic writer Grant Morrison, is that Batman kills the Joker at the end of the story, hence the title "The Killing Joke". Grant Morrison acknowledges the ambiguous nature of the story's ending, which they believe is a part of its enduring appeal, with the original script providing no further information.[13]

The Joker serves as an unreliable narrator. He admits to his own uncertainty, as he has disparate memories of the single event ("Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another...If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"), accentuating the comic's depiction of "a world unraveling toward relentless urban violence and moral nihilism".[14]

References in other storylines

Oracle Year One: Born of Hope

In 1996, John Ostrander and Kim Yale wrote a story entitled "Oracle: Year One: Born of Hope" which appeared in The Batman Chronicles #5. The story consists of Barbara recounting the events of The Killing Joke from her perspective, and the immediate aftermath of those events, including her recovery from her injuries and her adoption of the Oracle mantle.

No Joke

In 2007, Geoff Johns wrote a companion story to The Killing Joke entitled "No Joke" that appeared in the series Booster Gold.[15]

In the story, Booster Gold is charged by Rip Hunter to go back in time and save Barbara from being shot by the Joker. Booster arrives at the carnival and is attacked by Joker's freaks. He manages to escape, but arrives too late to save Barbara. Catching the Joker in the middle of taking photos of his victim, Booster attacks in a rage. The Joker nevertheless gains the upper hand, snapping several photos of Booster in the process. Rip returns Booster to the future before the Joker can murder him, but Booster demands to be sent back again. He fails several times until learning that the Joker is destined to paralyze her, as this prompts her to become the Oracle. Rip did this to demonstrate that some points in time, like Barbara's paralysis, are fixed and cannot be altered, so that Booster would not continue insisting on rescuing his friend Ted Kord from death, another fixed point. The story also reveals that Batman kept the photos of Barbara and Booster, and had been waiting until Booster came of age before confronting him. Batman thanks Booster for trying to stop the Joker and offers him his friendship. Eventually, Dick Grayson, who becomes the new Batman for a short time, would also learn about this and offer his thanks to Booster.

"Ladies' Night"

In 2010, writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Cliff Chiang collaborated on a one-shot story called "Ladies' Night", which was published in the anthology series The Brave and the Bold. The story is set shortly before The Killing Joke and deals with Zatanna and Wonder Woman struggling to come to terms with the impending attack on Barbara after Zatanna has a precognitive dream about it. Like "No Joke", the story heavily implies that the heroines cannot alter Barbara's fate, despite their desire to do so, instead giving her a final night on the town before she loses the use of her legs. The story also implies that Wonder Woman served as the inspiration for Barbara Gordon's eventual codename of the Oracle.[16]

The New 52

When DC Comics relaunched its continuity in 2011, many of Batman's stories were erased from history or altered, but the events of The Killing Joke remained intact. In the new continuity, Barbara Gordon recovered from the paralysis after three years. Although she resumes her work as Batgirl one year after recovering her mobility, she continues to have posttraumatic stress disorder when exposed to gunfire that could result in receiving new spinal damage.[17]

In March 2015, DC Comics released 25 Joker-themed variant covers for its various monthly series in celebration of the character's 75th anniversary. Among them was a cover to Batgirl #41 by artist Rafael Albuquerque that took its inspiration from The Killing Joke. The cover depicts the Joker standing next to a tearful Batgirl, who has a red smile painted across her mouth. The Joker has one hand holding a revolver draped over Batgirl's shoulder and is pointing to her cheek with the other hand, as if gesturing to shoot her. The cover quickly drew criticism for highlighting a dark period in the character's history, especially when juxtaposed with the youthful, more optimistic direction of the series at the time. The hashtag #changethecover drew dozens of posts on Twitter and Tumblr asking DC not to release the variant. DC ultimately withdrew the cover from publication at the request of Albuquerque, who said that he did not want to hurt or upset anyone through his art.[18]

Three Jokers

The 2020 book Batman: Three Jokers features the Joker's pregnant wife, Jeannie, and includes more details about what happened to her.[19]

In other media


Live action



Video games


Novelists Christa Faust and Gary Phillips wrote a novel adaptation of Alan Moore's story, published on September 25, 2018, by Titan Books.[32]


One of the two covers of the comic book Darkwing Duck Annual, published in March 2011, was a homage to Brian Bolland's cover of The Killing Joke.[33]

Reception and legacy

Although a one-shot, the events of The Killing Joke were adopted into ongoing comic book storylines. DC Comics officially retired Batgirl in the one-shot comic Batgirl Special #1 (July 1988),[34] and when Barbara Gordon reappeared in the Suicide Squad series, she was in a wheelchair and became the computer hacker known as the Oracle. This event, along with a Batman storyline that takes place shortly afterward, "A Death in the Family", involving the Joker murdering Robin (Jason Todd), The Killing Joke, leads Batman's obsession with the Clown Prince of Crime to a personal level. The mantle of Batgirl would eventually be passed to successor Cassandra Cain[35] and later, Stephanie Brown.[36] Gordon's paralysis was later retconned into a temporary event that lasted only three years[37] in DC Comics' 2011 line-wide title relaunch, The New 52, which saw her restored as the first and only Batgirl.[38]

The graphic novel won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album and garnered Alan Moore the Best Writer award in 1989. Hilary Goldstein of IGN praised The Killing Joke, calling it "easily the greatest Joker story ever told" and adding that "Moore's rhythmic dialogue and Bolland's organic art create a unique story often mimicked but never matched".[8] IGN declared The Killing Joke the third-greatest Batman graphic novel, after The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One.[39] James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate called The Killing Joke "one of the greatest comics of the 20th century".[40] Van Jensen of ComicMix said: "Each time I read The Killing Joke I'm amazed all over again at how Alan Moore and Brian Bolland teamed to pack such intensity, ferocity and humanity into those pages".[41] B.L. Wooldridge of Batman in Comics called the graphic novel "an incredible story, with Moore at his best and awe-inspiring art by painter Brian Bolland".[42] Comics historians Robert Greenberger and Matthew K. Manning describe it as "the definitive Joker story of all time".[43] Manning additionally called it "one of the most powerful and disturbing stories in the history of Gotham City".[44]

Seb Patrick of Den of Geek also had a mixed response, calling The Killing Joke "one of the most revered and influential 'Batman' stories ever written and arguably the definitive Joker story", but adding that it's "not at the level of [Alan Moore's] true masterpieces such as Watchmen, V for Vendetta [and] The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen".[45]

Creator's response

In a 2000 interview, and elsewhere, Moore has been critical of his work: "I don't think it's a very good book. It's not saying anything very interesting".[46] Later qualifying that personal critique, he summarized the book saying: "I was making a point... '[that] there are a lot of similarities between Batman and the Joker'. That was the main point of The Killing Joke".[47] In 2003, he further clarified why, with the benefit of hindsight, it was this view that leads him to consider it one his lesser works:

"The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn't about anything that you're ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there's no important human information being imparted...Yeah, it was something that I thought was clumsy, misjudged and had no real human importance. It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn't really relate to the real world in any way".[48]

Bolland gave his own thoughts on Moore's response in 2008:

"The Killing Joke was not a project instigated by Alan, nor was it, as far as I know, a labour of love for him, and it doesn't usually appear in a list of his greatest works. I was glad he agreed to write it, though".[49]

In a 2004 interview with Wizard magazine, Moore was also critical about his decision to disable Barbara Gordon: "I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon – who was Batgirl at the time – and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project... [He] said, 'Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch'. It was probably one of the areas where they should've reined me in, but they didn't".[50]

In the introduction to the story as it appears in the trade paperback DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, Brian Bolland disputes the widely held belief that the story started as a Batman annual story and ended up as a prestige-format book. Bolland recalls that the idea for a one-off Batman story focusing on the Joker—with Batman more of an incidental character—was his. Bolland says that in 1984, Dick Giordano told him he could do any project for DC he wanted, and Bolland requested to do a Batman/Joker prestige book with Moore as writer. Bolland has also expressed dissatisfaction with the final book, and regrets that its impending schedule for release meant he could not color the book himself (John Higgins was the colorist). Bolland says that "the end result wasn't quite what I'd hoped. I don't think it rates with some of the highlights of Alan's career".[51] March 2008 saw the release of the artwork as Bolland intended it: the twentieth anniversary hardcover edition of The Killing Joke is completely recolored by Bolland himself. The book made The New York Times Best Seller list in May 2009.[52]

Influence on other Joker stories

Critic Mark Vogler wrote that The Killing Joke provided the Joker "with a sympathetic back story as it presented some of the villain's most vile offenses".[53] Moore's rendition of the Joker's origin employs elements of the 1951 story "The Man Behind the Red Hood" (Detective Comics #168), which established the concept of the Joker originally having been a thief known only as the Red Hood. According to Will Brooker, in his 2001 book Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon, the tragic and human elements of the character's story, coupled with his barbaric crimes as the Joker, reveal the character as more of a three-dimensional human being. During an interview with Salon, Moore explained that the Joker's psychotic nature could have been caused by a "bad decision" in his life.[1]

Much of the Joker's backstory from The Killing Joke is also referred to in 2004's "Pushback" (Batman: Gotham Knights #50-55; reprinted with #66 as Batman: Hush Returns), in which the events are observed and reported by the Riddler, who recounts that the pregnant wife of the pre-accident Joker, who is called "Jack" prior to his accident, was kidnapped and murdered by the criminals in order to force his compliance.[54][55]

Feminist interpretations

Many have argued that the novel implies that Barbara Gordon is raped by the Joker. The book has been the subject of feminist critique, criticizing the treatment of Barbara Gordon. Author Brian Cronin notes that "many readers felt the violence towards Barbara Gordon was too much, and even Moore, in retrospect, has expressed his displeasure with how the story turned out".[56] Author Sharon Packer wrote: "Anyone who feels that feminist critics overreacted to Gordon's accident is advised to consult the source material ... Moore's The Killing Joke is sadistic to the core. It shows Gordon stripped and mutilated, with before, during and after photos of the attack displayed before her bound and gagged father, the police commissioner. She is more than merely disabled".[57] Gail Simone included the character's paralysis in a list of "major female characters that had been killed, mutilated, and depowered", dubbing the phenomenon "Women in Refrigerators" in reference to a 1994 Green Lantern story where the title character discovers his girlfriend's mutilated body in his refrigerator. Author Jeffrey A. Brown noted The Killing Joke as an example of the "relatively unequal violence female characters are subjected to" in the major DC/Marvel Comics industry. While male characters may be critically injured or killed, they are more than likely to be returned to their original conception, while "women on the other hand, are more likely to be casually, but irreparably, wounded such as when Barbara Gordon's (the original Batgirl) spine was shattered by the Joker just for fun and has been restricted to a wheelchair for over a decade now".[58]

Collected editions

Title Material collected Published date ISBN
Batman: The Killing Joke Original graphic novel 1988 0930289455
DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore Batman: The Killing Joke (original colors) and Superman Annual #11, Detective Comics #549-550, Green Lantern #188, Vigilante #17-18, The Omega Men #26-27, DC Comics Presents #85, Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2-3, Superman #423, Action Comics #583, Secret Origins #10 January 2006 978-1401209278
Batman: The Killing Joke Deluxe Edition Batman: The Killing Joke (new colors) and material from Batman: Black and White #4 2008 5012256263
Batman Noir: The Killing Joke Batman: The Killing Joke (no colors) and material from Batman: Black and White #4 August 2016 978-1401263645
Absolute Batman: The Killing Joke Batman: The Killing Joke (original and new colors) and material from Batman: Black and White #4, Countdown #31, Who's Who in the DC Universe #13 September 2018 978-1401284121
Batman: The Killing Joke Deluxe Edition (Black Label Edition) Batman: The Killing Joke (new colors) and material from Batman: Black and White #4, Countdown #31, Who's Who in the DC Universe #13 September 2019 978-1401294052


The entire story was recolored by Brian Bolland for the 2008 Deluxe Edition. The new colors featured black-and-white flashbacks, as opposed to Higgins' colors, along with one or two items per panel colored in pink or red, up until the helmet of the Red Hood is revealed. In addition to recoloring the pages, Bolland also removed the yellow oval around the bat symbol on Batman's chest.[59] A colored version of Bolland's "An Innocent Guy" was also included. Van Jensen of ComicMix said that "the new colors really do improve the book, giving it a subtlety and grimness not present in the original".[41] James Donnelly of Pop Syndicate said that the original version "is outdone by Bolland's recoloring", which he said "gives the comic a more timeless quality".[40] Seb Patrick of Den of Geek had a lukewarm reaction, calling the recoloring of the flashbacks "superb", but commenting that "some of the [other] changes seem to have less of a point — increasing definition for the sake of it, but giving the book too much of a present-day feel rather than looking like it was printed in the 1980s".[45]

John Higgins' original coloring can still be found in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.


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