But it’s wrong to tie the thoughtful Moore too closely to the reactionary Miller. Moore’s celebrated series V for Vendetta posted a warning about Thatcherism and supplied the Occupy movement with a face. He turned a repudiated horror comic, Swamp Thing, into a repudiation of Reaganism. In 1988, he went so far as to form the publishing imprint Mad Love so that he could bring out a comic protesting homophobic English legislation. Compared to the rest of his work, then, The Killing Joke marked a regression. The last of the much-lauded graphic novels of the late ’80s, it exemplified traits that continue to bedevil the superhero genre today—misogyny, nihilism, and sadism for the sake of fanboys.
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“The Killing Joke was not a project instigated by Alan,” writes the artist Brian Bolland in the afterword to the 2008 edition, “nor was it, as far as I know, a labor of love for him.” This is an unsurprising revelation. By the late ’80s, Moore, arguably the biggest name in comics, had stretched the concept of men in spandex as far as it could go. His 12-issue series Watchmen was looking a lot like the genre’s Citizen Kane, its Ulysses. Moore seemed to have consolidated everything that had come before, from Golden Age propaganda to pulpy ’50s horror, demonstrating effortless facility with the medium and its history, while reversing superhero cliches. “I’m not a Republic serial villain,” says the villain toward the end of Watchmen, in his Antarctic lair. (He’s been cornered by the heroes, who assume they’ve foiled his plot.) “Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?” Unbeknownst to the heroes, he’s already wiped out New York.
In the superhero movies of today, of course, violence is a non-event. Cities are routinely incinerated, their faceless occupants vaporized out of frame. (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a particularly egregious recent example of this.) But the obliteration of a major American city at the end of Watchmen was moving precisely because the previous 11 issues had acquainted readers with its citizens. Moore wisely reserved plenty of panels for the non-superpowered civilian, who doesn’t keep spandex under her clothes. It was at this point that the illustrator, Dave Gibbons, broke the nine-panel grid, the book’s dominant style, and used whole pages to pan across piled corpses. The images were devastating; form exploded to accommodate content’s blast radius.
The Killing Joke dispensed with such thoughtfulness. Batman’s nemesis, it turns out, was a struggling comedian who lost his pregnant wife the very same day he plunged into a vat at the local chemical plant—conveniently located next to the local playing-card company. (“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy,” explains the Joker.) Running parallel to this over-determined origin is a present-day plot in which the Joker conspires to illustrate the “random injustice” of life. He shoots the character Batgirl in the spine, then trusses her father up in bondage gear, taunting him with photographs of his naked, paralyzed daughter. When the time came for his editor to sign off on the maiming, Moore recalled him saying, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.” Later, Moore admitted, “It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.”