A brilliant comic, one of those works that transcends the genre to the point where some non-comic readers I’ve shown it to have been able to really appreciate it.
The art is stunning and evocative, used very well to communicate the story and the themes, rather than just as a complement to them. The last three panels are the real key to the entire story, and they communicate the information purely visually, cinematically, with no dialogue or even characters shown.
For a time, the comic seems to be an “origin story” of the Joker, but it eventually swerves and reveals both the comic itself and the Joker himself to be much darker and more twisted than that. The book is more a meditation on “true evil”, of unspeakably painful crimes, and how ostensibly good people are meant to deal with the perpetrators of such evil, on an uneven playing field. The ending of the story is ambiguous in terms of specifics, but whichever way you read it (I prefer the more “final” reading of the ending, myself), it shows there is no easy answer or reaction to terrible madness and crime.
The story’s treatment of Barbara Gordon is uncomfortable in more ways than Moore perhaps intended, but I think this is more indicative of her treatment by DC as a wider force, rather than a specific failing of this story itself. I do wish she was more than a prop in this story, but ultimately this is a story about the Joker and Batman – I wish there had been more Barbara stories (both then and now) to counterbalance stories like this, where she’s present but not a focus.
Alan Moore is my favourite writer of comics, and while he’s not fond of this story, I certainly am.
I give it four choices of backstory, and the light from a torch.