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Opinion: Why I’m Not Excited About ‘The Killing Joke’

Over the past several months, the internet has been abuzz with the news that DC Entertainment will be releasing an animated version of Batman: The Killing Joke starring longtime Batman voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. The company has stressed that the adaptation of the well-known tale from writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland would be Rated-R to maintain its “mature” elements. The buzz reached a fever pitch with the release of the film’s first official trailer, which gained tons of coverage online. I must admit, however, that seeing this saddens me, as there is perhaps no comic book story I dislike more than The Killing Joke.

WARNING: Major Spoilers for The Killing Joke Follow.

Before I get into my dislike for the story, a quick primer for those unfamiliar with it. The Killing Joke is a 1988 one-shot graphic novel from Moore and Bolland that focuses on the Dark Knight’s long-running antagonist, the Joker. The story takes place over two timelines, with the first telling an origin story for the Joker that’s loosely based on the character’s first Golden Age appearance as The Red Hood. The second, and much more problematic storyline occurs in the “present day” and features Joker shooting the former Batgirl Barbara Gordon in the spine, stripping her naked and taking photos of her (it’s also heavily implied, though never directly stated that he sexually assaulted her as well), then kidnapping her father Jim Gordon. Joker proceeds to strip Gordon naked, chain him up and force him to look at photos of his nude daughter bleeding from a signal wound. In the end, Batman saves the day, though Barbara is left paralyzed from the waste down.

The main issue that I, and many others, have with The Killing Joke is its treatment of Barbara Gordon. Batgirl was one of DC’s biggest female characters of the late silver and Bronze Age, and this story has her shot and paralyzed for no other reason than to be a prop in the ongoing war between Batman and Joker. It’s one of the most prominent examples of a female comics character being “fridged” for absolutely no good reason. On top of that, it doesn’t even make sense in the story, as Barbara doesn’t even put up a fight against Joker, even though she was one of the DCU’s better fighters. Even the book’s writer Alan Moore looks back on it somewhat badly, saying in 2009

“Again, it was never intended as a blanket approach for all comic books. It was just an experiment that I was trying, and it worked better in some cases than it did in others. Yeah, Marvelman and Watchmen—those are pretty good books. On the other hand, where I was doing the same things in The Killing Joke, it was entirely inappropriate… I think so. This has nothing to do with Brian Bolland’s artwork, which was of course exquisite. I’ve never really liked my story in The Killing Joke. I think it put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it. It was too nasty, it was too physically violent.”

Before diving into The Killing Joke’s lasting legacy, I have to clarify a major misconception that many have about the book; Barbara Gordon becoming Oracle had nothing to do with the story. DC originally had no plans for the character going forward, with editor Len Wein going as far as to tell the creative team “cripple the bitch” when the idea of her shooting was pitched. It was only after TKJ’s publication, when husband and wife creators Kim Yale and John Ostrander introduced the Oracle concept, mainly due to how disgusted they were over what happened to Barbara.

Speaking of Oracle, while the concept of Barbara living with her disability and continuing to be a type of hero is an admirable one that worked very well for over two decades, the one major drawback is that it defined Barbara by Joker’s assault. There were innumerable flashbacks to the events over the years, with Barbara’s torture time and time again. Even when Barbara returned to her Batgirl identity after the New 52 reboot, the Joker shooting and sexually assaulting her reminded a constantly harped upon element of her backstory even though nearly every other story from DC’s past was either completely wiped from contrite or at least significantly altered.

The controversy around The Killing Joke was reignited in 2015 when a controversial variant cover that referenced that story was previewed for an issue of the then-youth friend Batgirl title. After complaints, including from the book’s creative team of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, who had nothing to do with the cover, it was cancelled. The story was seemingly finally wiped from continuity just this year. However, the presence of the animated film confirms that DC is going to continue pushing the story.

Beyond my dislike of the story’s treatment of Barbara from a feminist perspective, I’ve also always been bothered by the idea that the story is “mature.” In my opinion, a heroic woman reduced to nothing but a prop, shot through the spine, stripped, photographed nude and then having said photos being forced upon her chained up father is not “mature.” It’s shock value gratuitous sexual violence for nothing but shock value gratuitous violence’s sake.

Suffice to say, the above is solely my opinion. While I may not like The Killing Joke, I’m not calling for censorship here. I don’t think the book should be banned or erased from history. However, I have no interest in seeing the animated version or the talk of how “mature” it is, and truly wish DC would take a break from incessantly promoting The Killing Joke.

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