Let me start this review by saying right up front that what Alan Moore does to poor Barbara is totally out of proportion. Sure he wants to show us that the Joker is monstrous and capable of doing extreme evil as easily as he could steal candy from a baby (to radically revise Nietzsche’s characterisation of the Superman), but as the act is symbolic, and is simply a reminder, it’s not clear that it is necessary that it involve such astonishing cruelty to a warm and positive character. For once, it seems, Moore forgot that his character was human, and did just treat her as pasteboard, her meaning lying in what she symbolised rather than who she was. If it’s any consolation, Moore now regrets this, and has even gone to the extent of satirising himself in Tomorrow Stories 2, where poor American Angel suffers a fate even worse than Barbara’s.
So, that out of the way, let’s look at what Moore’s grand scheme is. The conception of Batman and the Joker presented here is quite fascinating. Right from the outset, Batman has realised that he and the Joker are essentially symbiotic, and that their only alternatives are coexistence or mutual destruction. This is a profoundly troubled Batman who is aware that he cannot really live up to his own goal. And though rage briefly spurs him to violence, it is clear that he wants to talk to the Joker, to connect with him, to be at peace with him, rather than to kill him. The Joker is a vividly three-dimensional character, he knows that something forces him to do bad things, but he admits he doesn’t know why or what, and his glee in his badness is clearly forced, covering the bleakness that emerges in the final sad colloquy with Batman.
And this is where we see the key. Batman and the Joker are both forced to play out roles, though neither is entirely sure why, and those roles are the two sides of human nature. Batman is the questing seeker after perfection that is the human spirit, the light half of our minds. The Joker is the shadow, the animal that lurk in each of us, ready to take over should our inner Batman ever release his vigilance. So their symbiosis represents very exactly the fact that they are both within each of us, and to be fully human is not to be one or the other but to be both and to harness them in such a way that we can move forward as integrated individuals. And at the end of The Killing Joke Moore shows us his two halves of a fractured psyche sadly discussing whether it is even possible for them to move forward together. The answer, though it is left unresolved, appears to be ‘no’, a fatalism that I and Moore as of today would reject, but it provides a fitting end for a sombre tale.