After watching dozens of Batman-related cartoons and movies, I've decided to finally take the plunge and tackle some quintessential Batman comics. When done right, the Joker is my favorite Batman villain, so I knew I wanted to focus on classic stories involving Batman and the Joker. Based on that subject, Kyle pointed me to Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. Both tales come from well-known authors who delve into the origins of madness and Batman's relationship with the Joker, but I definitely preferred one over the other. Spoilers follow (for almost 30 year old comics).
The art. I don't have much experience with comics, but I still have a general idea of what I expect a comic to look like. The Killing Joke fit that bill - the art was clean, vivid, bright, and the panels were easy to tell apart and follow. Some of the images are fairly iconic, particularly the shots of the Joker, but I'll also admit that much of the art didn't stick out as unusual or highly memorable to me as a whole.
If The Killing Joke conjures adjectives like clean, bright and vivid, Arkham Asylum can only be found on the other end of the spectrum. Everything is dark, fuzzy and distorted. Initially I was pretty frustrated with it - some of the text is almost indecipherable. I felt like the art was actually impeding my ability to understand and enjoy the story. As I trudged on, though, what I initially viewed as an obstacle eventually became a vehicle. The disorienting imagery actually added to my perception of the story and the overall experience. Batman crawled through a dark insane asylum, I read these crazy panels. We both went through some difficult times together, no? By the end of the book, I felt that Arkham's dark and trippy imagery would stick with me longer, however frustrating it felt at the time. And the portrayal of The Joker felt more like something out of the horror genre.
The Story. It's hard to separate story from character when it comes to Batman and the Joker, because the Joker's "schtick" is his chaos and insanity. But as far as plot is concerned, a lot more action per-page occurs in The Killing Joke. The Joker sets out to prove anyone can go mad as a result of external influences, and in doing so captures Commissioner Gordon and tortures him.
The backbone of the Joker's plan to drive Gordon mad involves Gordon's daughter, Barbara. The Joker shoots her through the spine, leaving her paralyzed, and then strips her naked and takes photographs of her wounded body. He then ties Gordon up and forces him to look at the pictures of his mutilated daughter (while he's trapped in a super-cliche fun-house). I'm going to play my "feminist card" for a second here and say I really disliked the use of Barbara as a plot device to torture Gordon. I didn't feel particularly offended by the imagery itself, but I did feel like the writer was going for some kind of superficial shock value, which irked me.
The best part of the The Killing Joke is Joker's origin story and the possibility that it's all made up, though his story was admittedly fairly cliched - it involves the tragic death of a loved one, a scary bad guy, and an accident with transforming, radioactive chemicals. The last few panels left me intrigued. I wasn't sure if something of significance had happened (did Batman choke the Joker?) or if it just ended on a really plain note.
Just as we spend The Killing Joke shifting between two stories - Joker's past and the present - we spend Arkham Asylum weaving between two narratives. One is the story of Amadeus Arkham, founder of Arkham Asylum, set in the distant past. The other is the present-day story of Batman and his showdown with the Joker and the other inhabitants of Arkham Asylum, who have taken over the establishment and are holding hostages. My favorite tale of the two was the backstory of Amadeus Arkham, who spends his life trying to cure mental illness, after growing up to watch his mother lose her grip on reality, only to find it in himself.
At first I thought I knew where Batman's story was going, and I was a little disappointed. Let me guess, Batman wanders around an asylum and eventually realizes his own sanity is a little shaky? I was surprised to see Morrison approach this a different way: Batman knows he's had a traumatic past, and he's afraid he's emotionally damaged. He goes into the asylum expecting the worst from himself, and that makes the story much more interesting.
The ending was wrapped up fairly neatly, but there were elements that left me puzzled. For example, Amadeus Arkham finds a Joker card underneath his daughter's bed (Arkham explains that his daughter suffers from nightmares and seems disturbed). Arkham's story is taking place decades earlier, but both the motif of the Bat and the Joker come up.
The characters. This is where I think The Killing Joke really didn't work, for me. The Killing Joke barely involves Batman at all, which is fine, but where he does show up he ends up acting more like Superman. He charges in and tells the Joker he's ready to resolve the strife between them, continuously offering to help him. The few glimpses we get at Batman are of a basic boy scout, which feels like such a waste in a story like this.
The Joker also fell short of my expectations. My favorite take on the Joker involves complete chaos and madness. In The Killing Joke, the Joker comes across as more calculating, precise, and filled with hatred. I'd argue the whole point of his grand plan was to demonstrate he wasn't at fault for his actions, that everything he did was a result of the external influences and tragedies he encountered years ago. Since when does the Joker need to justify, and even rationalize, his actions?
“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day." - The Joker, The Killing Joke
As I mentioned earlier, I thought the way Arkham Asylum handled Batman was its most impressive attribute. Rather than getting caught off guard by his internal turmoil, Batman walks into the situation knowing who he is and what to expect from himself. He knows he's been scarred and is capable of madness, too. And he starts to go in that direction, but in the end he's able to handle his personal demons - because he's always acknowledged them. I've always been most impressed with complex characters that are very self-aware, and I appreciated that touch here. It would have felt very false if he strolled in thinking everything would be fine.
We see less of the Joker's personality in Arkham Asylum than we do in The Killing Joke, but what we do see (when we can read his lines) feels right. He's cheeky, sarcastic, and an agent of chaos: he insists he wants Batman brought to the asylum, but he has no idea what to do when he arrives, suggesting a game of hide-and-go-seek. When Batman proposes that Two Face decides if he can leave, the Joker is thrilled at the suggestion. Though this characterization includes slightly less anger, I actually find it the more disturbing of the two.