by Christa Faust, Gary Phillips
Series: BatmanHardcover, 293 pg.
Titan Books, 2018
Read: May 14, 2019
Leland liked to think that she had a finely tuned bullshit detector. It went with the job and–much to the dismay of the men she dated–tended to spill over into her private life, as well. Something about the Joker, however, messed with her ability on the deepest level. Like a magnet throwing off a compass needle.
She’d dealt with more than her share of compulsive liars, narcissists, and psychotics so alienated from reality that they were unable to distinguish truth from fiction. But the Joker was different.
Her testimony in court had led to the judgment that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, and he had been remanded to her care at Arkham. Yet, in her darkest, most sleepless hours she wondered if maybe he wasn’t insane after all. Not in the clinical sense, at last. Perhaps it was all just an elaborate act. A complex joke with an unfathomable punchline they might never see coming. If it ever came at all.
I don’t think I got my hands on the original The Killing Joke in 1988, I think my friend and I waited until ’89 for financial reasons (in your early teens and unemployable, funds were tight), but maybe we were some of the early readers. The when is murky, but our reactions were not. This was a fantastic story with unbelievable art — it blew our young minds. In the years since, I’ve read it countless times, and while I still enjoy the core of the book, there are bits that make me wonder why. Bolland’s art still blows me away.
The animated movie version wasn’t bad, as I recall. I’ve only watched it once and my memory’s not crisp about it. My point is, that I know this story pretty well. When I heard that Titan books was going to be doing a series of new novels about Batman and they’d start with an adaptation of this story, I was skeptical, but at the same time — an extended version of this story? This could be really good — but how were they going to get that much material?
It turns out that the key to that is the same strategy that allowed Peter Jackson to make a smallish children’s novel into a very long movie trilogy — just make up a bunch of stuff and shove it in here and there. Obviously, any novel treatment of the graphic novel (or movie) is going to do that to some extent — but I’d be willing to wager that up to 65% of this book is new, and not even hinted at in the original. Which bothers me on one level, but intrigues me on others — also, I liked the new stuff.
Batman and Batgirl are independently (usually) looking into the appearance and distribution of a new drug on Gotham’s scene — Giggle Sniff. It’s based on the Joker’s venom and is selling like crazy. There’s a lot of bouncing around as the Caped Crusaders tear through the underworld, looking for the sources of the drug — and interfering as much as possible with the sales and distribution. Commissioner Gordon and Detective Bullock are also nosing around, and turning up the heat on the dealers. There are some great action sequences, some interesting characters introduced.
While that’s going on, the Joker’s breaking out of Arkham and setting the stage for what he wants to do next. Then we get the adaptation of the Killing joke in the last quarter or so of the novel. Here, there’s minimal changes form the source material — some expanding of ideas, but nothing major or objectionable. If you know the graphic novel, then you know exactly what happens at this point, and if you don’t, I’m not going to spill the beans. I even liked their take on Batman’s reaction to the dumb joke told at the end — I think they made that problematic moment work.
The characters are well done, the action moves well — it’s just the execution of the idea overall that gives me any pause. There’s a little bit about the birth of the Internet as we now know it that’s really nicely pulled off.
The bits of this book that were an adaptation of the Moore/Bolland graphic novel were really well done — and the way these authors filled in some of the details and gave a very contemporary backstory to part of it worked in ways I didn’t expect. Also, the Giggle Sniff part of the book was pretty good. And if either one of them had been the core of a novel, I’d very likely be more positive about those books. But shoving the two of these together? It didn’t work that well. I liked the novel, but I can’t recommend it too highly because the two parts of the novel are just too distinct from one another to see why the authors made these choices.