Ah, The Killing Joke, the definitive Joker storyline. There is a lot that can be said of this one. I should start out that the version I will be reviewing will be the 2008 reprint as opposed to the original since that is the copy I own. Hence my commentary on the art applies to this specific edition only.
In terms of plot the story starts out strong. It starts off with the Joker having escaped custody via a body double, with a fake interrogation setting up the conflict between the Batman and the Joker and the former fearing that one may one day end up killing the other. The story focuses on two main narratives, one where the Joker tries to drive Jim Gordon insane by injuring his daughter Barbara, unwittingly ending her career as Batgirl in the process, and mentally torturing him inside a run down amusement park. The other narrative thread explores a possible origin for the Joker which may or may not be fiction. The story revolves around a poor man who tries to keep he and his wife afloat, making a deal with some gangsters to lead them into an old chemical plant where he used to work. During the raid, he is placed into the iconic red hood suit to act as a scapegoat, causing him to become a target for Batman. He is knocked into a chemical bath and is driven insane upon seeing his new face.
The plot is strong and overall everything adds up to create an ending where you can’t help but feel sorry for the Joker. However I ask one important question, is one supposed to feel sorry for the Joker? The story dethrones him from his persona as the clown prince of crime, instead portraying him as a more human character. The ending, where he and Batman tell jokes in the rain, humanises him and the two are forced to bitterly admit that their rivalry is never going to end. He isn’t just an embodiment of chaos, but a man.
The art reflects this, especially in the 2008 reprint colours. Towards the end, the Joker is portrayed with the menace and terror he deserves. The scene where he shoots Barbara Gordon is chilling, as are many of his scenes with Jim Gordon in the amusement park. Yet it serves to humanise him as well, and I wonder. Towards the end the art makes him look less like the Joker and more the man he used to be. While I’m sure this was intentional, and I commend them in using this way to show him, I cannot decide whether a humanised Joker is a good thing.
In the modern era the Joker has become the embodiment of chaos, fundamentally opposed to Batman’s order. I cannot help but compare him to the Joker from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, who is a more classical embodiment of that ideal. However The Killing Joke, is at its core different from all the subsequent Joker stories it inspired. For one moment the Joker is more than just an ideal, but a man. For better or worse, it worked. Despite my disagreements with its creative philosophy, it is still one of the best Joker stories ever written .
IN A WORD: UNIQUE