What Makes A Cover? Batman: The Killing Joke

by Koom Kankesan

The cover of Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the most genuinely frightening comic book covers ever created. Along with Daredevil: Born Again, Killing Joke is probably the single story most responsible for kick starting my headlong fall into puberty. The first time I saw it, a kid named Paul had it among a large pile of current comics he often brought with him to the school cafeteria. The Killing Joke stood out because, utilizing the still relatively new prestige format, it was like no other comic book I’d seen before. Lance Parkin, in Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, describes The Killing Joke as the Platonic ideal of what a comic book, in terms of its production format, could be: the squarebound format, the colours, the glossy paper, no ads, the fact that it did not kick off with a splash page reassuringly throwing up a banner of friendly creators and title.

There was a darkness that pulsed from the comic. The fear it generated was thrilling and exciting. Some sub-cosmic frequency that signalled adulthood and sophistication. The impact of its cover with its palette of purple, green, and ash – the sheen, sharp linework, glee with which the Joker grinned at me… these were not things one could easily forget. When I bought it a year later, like Born Again, I had to smuggle it into the home and read it at night once my parents were asleep. That witching hour – after midnight – seemed perfect for it. The cover haunts me still: it makes me want to write around it instead of attacking the subject directly.

Bolland’s depiction of the Joker is terrifying while beautiful at the same time. It is what the Lake poets spoke of when espousing the beautiful and the sublime. Its primary effect comes from the threat of implied violence. And that violence is sexual in nature. The gaze is extremely central to this. The idea of the gaze, and more specifically the male gaze, and who controls it, are the subject of an oft read film paper by Laura Mulvey, but has now fallen into common usage and is often used in critiques of advertisements and other subtle patriarchal constructs.

The general idea of the gaze is much older of course but the fundamental element is that the person who is looking (whether it is a white man or a doctor or a comic book reader) has power in the dynamic over that which is seen or looked at. This has been engaged with (the spectator’s scopophilia) in films like Rear Window and Peeping Tom. But aren’t comics like film in this regard? Isn’t the reader usually in a place of power given that he/she usually gets to look at the comic’s subjects without being seen, gets an overview of the subject and his/her actions from some God-like perspective? Also, given that she/he is often sutured into the gaze of characters within the comic that are often imbued with a sense of status and favour, as far as the narrative goes, doesn’t the reader enjoy a sort of privileged identification?
Partly what is so striking about The Killing Joke’s cover is that the Joker is undoubtedly looking directly at us, the reader. And we cannot quite look back because we are startled by his action, and his face, especially his eyes, is mostly hidden. There had been many instances of comics breaking the fourth wall before this book but never so audaciously and so threateningly. The Joker’s awareness, communicated through his grinning facial muscles, the deadly mirthful eyes, the smiling lips and yellow teeth, indicate someone who is in perfect control while we are not. The one word speech bubble (smile!), though unnecessary, signals our powerlessness – the Joker is assuming a position of authority much as a schoolmaster or parent or tradesman might do when instructing you and moving you around – except that he is in the process of taking your life. It is a shock to the system to have our comfort as viewers taken away in this fashion. He is about to take our photo and this engenders an attitude of surprise: an involuntary defensiveness and recoil. As Billy Baldwin says to Cindy Crawford in 1995’s fairly forgettable film Fair Game, a gun is an awful lot like a camera – you just point and click.
[*Trigger Warning for scenes of implied assault below.]

This is no post-modern, wannabe fun, breaking of the fourth wall (like the She-Hulk cover above). This goes way beyond that. It’s not a violent cover in the traditional sense of that word – nothing ostensibly heinous is happening on it – nothing beyond a click of the shutter, that is. But in that click, a fair amount of violence is implied. A serial killer has just taken our picture, marking us. The idea of one’s soul being captured in the click of a camera shutter briefly flits through one’s mind. The camera, with its German writing, dark lens containing reflective spots, can be felt in all its weight and strangeness. The camera, along with the book’s format, launches the image beyond the ken of comics into psychological reality – it has uncomfortably invaded our sense of safety.

Those who have read the book know exactly the point in the story to which this moment alludes to: the paralysis of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) through a gunshot to the spine inflicted by the Joker, before he unclothes and photographs her, all to prove some unreal point to her father (Jim Gordon): that we are all just a bad day from going completely mad. However, the Joker on the cover isn’t clothed in the Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts he sports so flippantly inside the book when he carries out his nefarious deed. On the cover, he is wearing his trademark purple trench coat (only it palpably feels like it could be leather – its seventies flamboyance in line with the depiction of pimps in that era’s films and the implied violence they carried around with them), with his clownishly grotesquely large bow tie and wide brimmed hat. This effectively removes the moment from the book and gives it an eternalism and supernatural life of its own. This moment continually happens to you, the viewer. It happens again and again and though this is not a horror story per se, it reaches for the same pitch of horror as Halloween or Friday the 13th.

The dark lighting, lack of context, the ideal essence of Joker-ness on the cover, all remove him from that moment in time in the book. We are the next victim and might undergo the same thing as Barbara Gordon. Knowing what happens to Barbara Gordon in the book (or if we haven’t read it yet, perhaps unconsciously sensing it) makes the nature of this action sexual. It is a sexualized killing, even though neither rape nor killing are quite spelled out in the events of the book: they are left to suggestion and implication.

Besides the freezing/motion of this moment, with all of its implied threat and violence, the remarkable way Brian Bolland renders the Joker must also be discussed. Though he might have drawn the Joker once or twice before this, he unleashed a version of the Crown Prince of Crime in this work that has been more genuinely terrifying, more adult and twisted, than any version of the Joker before or since. Even at his most terrifying prior to this, there was something innocent about Batman’s escapades involving The Joker: it was more about the gags than the homicide. The Joker is still a theatrical entity in Moore and Bolland’s hands, but that theatre is now a grand guignol. Even Bolland’s current sketches of the Joker (with a less elongated skull and a more pointed face), though disturbing, are not as menacing as his Killing Joke era depictions of Batman’s arch nemesis.

Bolland originally elongated the face so that the skull bore a physiognomy that could no longer pretend to be human. This was a demon’s skull that signified a spirit walking around in circus clothes. The words ‘rictus grin’ or ‘rictus smile’ have been used plenty of times to describe the Joker and they suggest Death. The hair is fine and green, the features sharp, but what is there behind the face? It is an unfathomable personality, it is ageless and inscrutable in aspect. Bolland’s ability to freeze the curls in mid twist and flutter, the fact that you can veritably touch the flecks of foam on the cherry red lips and smell the stains of his discoloured teeth, all add to the effect.

The Batman Noir cover of The Killing Joke opted to use that famous panel from the inside – the origin one where the Joker has just emerged from the chemical vat – point of madness evident in his eyes as he sticks his gloved hands into his dripping hair. Though this is an incredibly iconic image, one of the most powerful in the history of comics, and though the Joker is staring straight at us, it is not half so scary as the original Killing Joke cover for the reasons mentioned above. The Absolute Killing Joke sports an image that attempts to show a side view of the original image on the spine.

This too misses the mark. What was so effective about the original was that he was in partial darkness while being rendered in incredible detail and we couldn’t look AT him because we were the unaware subject, the next victim in his spree, like a sparrow before a cat pounces on it. And that is what is ultimately so striking and unusual and powerful about this cover – we are so surprised every time we spy this cover gazing at us that we never notice that the drawing of the Joker’s right nostril is a little stiff, that the ear doesn’t look quite right (these features have been corrected in the Absolute Killing Joke cover above but somehow make the face less terrifying). The original drawing squirms with such vitality and dread force that it maintains its hold every time we cross paths with it. The book reads us instead of vice versa. The Deluxe version of the book kept the arresting image but changed the font – it was no longer tilted and eschewed the neon green (evoking the chemical slime the Joker had fallen into) for a classier white script. This changed something too – the tilt of the original script and its bold 80s luminescence were in keeping with the off kilter mood and brashness of the assault. Neither can Christian Olivares fidelity to the image, in an attempt to recreate it using cosplay, quite replicate the sinister implications of that pure Comics image.
I recently added the Wish App to my phone and one of the things I came across was a hoodie with a rendering of The Killing Joke’s cover on it. I think it’s been copied by someone, is not Bolland’s own pencils, and is certainly not licensed. I was tempted to order it for its novelty, the potential to scare the bejeezus out of whomever stopped to glance at me, but then I thought better of it. Wish has a reputation for not being reliable when it comes to shipping what it advertises. With my luck, I’d probably get a cardigan portraying The Penguin with a camcorder.

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