Digging through the library’s graphic novel shelves, I came across two well regarded Batman stories I’d never gotten around to reading: The Killing Joke and The Long Halloween, both of which were cited as inspirations to the film The Dark Knight. Reading them back to back, it’s interesting how that film merges a major plot thread from each story into its script. The Joker’s plot in The Killing Joke is not unlike his games in the film, just as the film adapted The Long Halloween‘s origin of Two Face mixed with a noir mob story.
When it comes to Batman, my favorite graphic novel is, hands down, The Dark Knight Returns. Besides being one of the best told Batman stories, it nails a version of the character that balances the many, turbulent pieces much better than anything else. In film, it’s The Dark Knight, both because it’s an incredible piece of cinema and because, like Frank Miller’s work with the character, it just gets everything right.
Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is regarded as one of the best – if not the best- Joker story in print. Though at this point, it feels like everything that Alan Moore writes getting regarded as the best thing in print, so set your expectations somewhere near realistic. For a short novel – I read it over a single lunch hour – it managed to paint a portrait of the Joker that’s stuck around ever since. You can feel the Joker of The Killing Joke lurking in much of the really great Batman work that’s come since, and that’s because Moore’s Joker is a terrifying, distinct brand of psychopath. If there’s something you like about the Joker in The Animated Series, The Dark Knight or any modern Batman comic, it probably gasped its first breath here.
The basic hook is perfect: The Joker believes that all that separates a good, sane man from a madman like himself is one bad day. That’s it. A single bad day is all that separates us from madness. To prove it, he targets one of Gotham’s best men: Commissioner Jim Gordon. He shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon (an event that would stay a part of Batman continuity), kidnaps Jim and subjects him to tortures both physical and psychological. It’s ending is also a classic. I don’t want to spoil the final joke that the Joker shares with Batman, but it’s memorable.
Yet for all of that, it’s not a classic graphic novel. A lot of what makes it great is the impact it had. But as a story, it’s lacking. Compare Joker’s attempt to break Gordon with the far more horrifying escalation of terror and violence in The Dark Knight‘s version of the theme. In The Dark Knight, you reach a point where you honestly believe the Joker might be right, that he might show Gotham that they’re all as sick and twisted as he is. In The Killing Joke that never feels like a threat, since other than shooting Barbara the best the Joker’s got left is dressing Gordon up like an S&M slave and showing him naked pictures of his daughter. A couple of weeks of that might smash him, but a day? C’mon, now.
It also makes the odd choice of giving the Joker an origin. This is probably not a good idea in any case, but when your origin is the least interesting part of the book, it’s become a liability. The Dark Knight‘s play with the idea of his history being “multiple choice”, as the Joker says, is far more effective. Do you want to know how I got these scars?
The Long Halloween is technically a sequel to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which I have not read. Nothing in the book refers directly back to it, though, so there’s no danger in picking this up first. I need to get to Year One soon, though. More Frank Miller Batman. w00t.
Written by Jeph Loeb with art by Tim Sale, The Long Halloween is a sprawling tale of the fall of Gotham’s old school mobs and the rise of the freakshow that is Batman’s rogue’s gallery. More than anything in the book, I liked that The Long Halloween showed how Batman’s presence might be changing the city without just saying, over and over again, “Hey, do you think these people are showing up because you did?” There’s a distinct moment of transition near the end of the book that nails the change so well that perhaps people should consider the point made and move on.
It’s also the story of how Two Face came to be, and though there are shades of the Harvey Dent we see in The Dark Knight, this version of Two Face’s origin is as lacking in punch as the Joker’s plan was in The Killing Joke. It works, I guess, and it plays some important notes that make you question if Dent has problems well before his face is scarred, but something about the break that sends him over the edge doesn’t have the impact I wanted. It just doesn’t compare to to the horrifying trial the Joker puts him through with his fiancee in The Dark Knight.
Like The Killing Joke, this novel has a lot of great ideas and texture but misses something in the execution for me. With The Killing Joke it was the thin plot. In The Long Halloween, I think it’s the actual character writing. Especially the dialog. It’s not bad, but there are enough times when Batman’s morose narration seems overdone to break the illusion. It’s a good version of Batman, but not a great one.
What is great is the use of Batman’s mob villains, Carmine Falcone and Salvatore Moroni. I have to image a lot of what they did in this bled into Chris Nolan’s films, though to be fair I don’t know how much of this was set up in Year One. Frank Miller may deserve more of the credit than Loeb, but nonetheless The Long Halloween uses more run of the mill organized crime very, very well. It also sets up the Harvey/Gordon/Batman on the roof promising to take down the mob motif that worked so well in the film, and it works here almost as well. It also has a great version of the Batman/Catwoman and Bruce/Selina relationship insanity, which it uses as character texture and not a brute force plot device.
I’d check both books out, flaws and all, though. They’re strong Batman stories and they set up a lot of things other stories recycle mercilessly. But then I’d probably watch The Dark Knight again, because dude, it’s awesome.