Sometimes, a thing can grow much bigger than itself.
The Killing Joke, a Batman comic by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland published in 1988, is a perfect case in point. Never absent from any list of essential Batman reading, it is shocking and controversial, inspiring countless tracts and endless debate far outpacing the comic’s own 46-page length. The mere suggestion of the book inspires intense reactions, and the discussion over some of the book’s more problematic plot points dogs it wherever it goes. At this point, the simple question, is it good? is pretty much irrelevant. Like The Dark Knight Returns, at this point The Killing Joke is such a significant entry in (and influence upon) the Batman canon, it scarcely matters if it’s good.
Moosehead Breweries, Ltd., would seem an odd pairing with such a controversial classic, then. For most of the brewery’s nearly 150-year history, Moosehead occupied a comfortable, if unusual, position as an independent brewery, but just a little too big to be considered a craft brewery. Though inoffensive and catering to popular tastes, it is a Canadian institution, as is the family that founded it and continues to operate it today: the Olands. While the history of the brewery boasts plenty of dramatic moments, Moosehead finds itself discussed most these days in relation to the longest and most expensive murder trial in the history of Saint John, New Brunswick. Though presently in appeal, Dennis Oland, cousin to the current Moosehead president, was convicted in December of last year for the violent murder of Richard Oland, his own father. Though both Dennis and Richard Oland were just peripheral to Moosehead’s operations, it has nevertheless cast a pall over the Oland (and thus, the Moosehead) name – one can’t openly drink a Moosehead lager right now without getting embroiled in a did-he-or-didn’t-he discussion.
But: is it good? Well, yeah. I guess. But regarding both Moosehead Lager and The Killing Joke, both are much, much less than what all the hubbub would have you think.
Both are well-crafted. A lager is a tough beer to perfect because the pale malt profile and subtle hop presence leave little-to-nothing to hide behind. Moosehead is a perfectly palatable lager. The Killing Joke, too, is masterfully constructed – you might recall me discussing the book previously, in which I said:
“This book is like a persuasive essay. It presents arguments and proofs to support a thesis, and its different parts play together so well, it’s little wonder it is frequently embraced as the definitive take on the Joker’s origin.”
I stand by the assessment. Alan Moore has a mastery over storytelling and narrative, playing his characters like ideological chess pieces to construct an elegant, near-irrefutable statement. He does this as effectively in a book as short as The Killing Joke as he does in a denser opus such as Watchmen. Again, I will quote myself to summarize:
“The Killing Joke offers two narratives: in one, the Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum, abducts James Gordon and tries to drive him mad through the psychological and physical torment of himself and his loved ones. In the other, we learn how the Joker himself was an ordinary man once, who was driven mad by traumas of his own.”
Constructing the scorecard for this book, I found it nigh impossible to award it a score that wouldn’t convey too much enthusiasm: it is magnificently written, the art is superb, the plot is well put-together, the characters are well portrayed. It is even a reasonably entertaining read, though I deducted marks due to the sheer unpleasantness of a few moments throughout. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland both deliver outstanding work in The Killing Joke, and that makes it very, very hard to criticize. Consider even the moments that are pinpointed as particularly problematic – namely, the crippling and (implicit) sexual assault of Barbara Gordon. This is a pretty cut-and-dry instance of fridging a female character, right? As someone who is an enormous and unabashed fan of Batgirl, certainly, it is an upsetting moment, a disrespectful, almost flippant, dismissal of a character with incredible agency prior to this. But here’s the thing: Alan Moore is too good a storyteller to overtly fridge a character – Barbara isn’t crippled because of Moore’s own whims, she’s crippled because of the Joker’s. Really, The Killing Joke is a narrative of the Joker’s making – he very intentionally harms Barbara as a fridging, explicitly to serve as a motivator for the male protagonist (Jim Gordon).
Of course, there is the problem of Alan Moore’s track record with female characters. As Grant Morrison famously observed in an interview with Rolling Stone, “[H]ow many times has somebody been raped in an Alan Moore story?… We know Alan Moore isn’t a misogynist but fuck, he’s obsessed with rape.” Morrison isn’t wrong – while I always read the sexual assault angle of The Killing Joke as ambiguous, an intentional obfuscation to allow Gordon’s mind to find the most disturbing conclusion it could, I acknowledge that my own bias is probably forgiving the actual story. (My reading of the Joker doesn’t permit sexual violence of any manner, and despite the persistent attempts at queer-coding the character, I pretty firmly feel the most effective reading of the character is entirely asexual). Thus, Moore’s narrative decision, even if it is Moore-as-the-Joker, seems to jump too easily to sexual assault as a prop.
Then, even after parsing all that, one must consider The Killing Joke in context. A lot of folks contend that Moore and Bolland never intended the book as an in-continuity story, and while I can’t find any real verification for this claim, it gains some validity due to a pretty solid interpretation of its ending as Batman outright killing the Joker (foreshadowed neatly in The Cult!) Honestly, I prefer this interpretation of the ending – it adds both poignancy to the Joker’s last joke (ie, Batman and the Joker are the two men in the insane asylum, and Batman is the man who turns off the flashlight), while also proving Joker’s “one-bad-day-is-all-it-takes” premise, albeit breaking Batman instead of Gordon. By accepting the story in continuity, it renders it entirely nihilistic – Batman doesn’t kill the Joker, the Joker’s premise was wrong, and all the suffering endured was entirely without purpose. Moreover, as we’ll see in only two week’s time, A Death in the Family fulfills exactly the same narrative purpose, essentially rendering The Killing Joke redundant, even diminishing the harm done to Barbara by outdoing it. But, while removing The Killing Joke from continuity doesn’t diminish (and even amplifies) the sheer craftsmanship of the book, it does diminish its importance. Thus, one is hard-pressed to identify any substantial purpose to this book, particularly if one rejects the premise of the Joker having a concrete origin story.
Thus, we find ourselves reflecting on Moosehead Lager. It’s crisp and clear, not unlike Brian Bolland’s near-flawless art in The Killing Joke. It is light and appealing – words which one wouldn’t necessarily use in relation to The Killing Joke, though its classic status and big, satisfying reveals might tease the real secret at the book’s core: though it dresses itself in the trappings of a difficult narrative, it is actually a very simple and accessible one that demands little of its reader. No – cutting through all the chatter, speculation, and controversy, both are shown to be classic for exactly the same reason. Really, The Killing Joke is much more like Moosehead Lager than one would think – neither boil down to a question of did-he-or-didn’t-he. They’re well-crafted, sure, but stripped of their reputations, well-crafted is about the highest praise each deserves.