It's time to kill 'The Killing Joke'
In case you haven’t heard, DC Comics and Bruce Timm are teaming up to animate a classic Batman story. Mark Hamill is even supposed to be on board to reprise the voice of the Joker. There’s just one problem. The story in question is Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke.”
It is the Batman comic heard round the world. Perhaps no other individual graphic novel has reverberated through the BatVerse like Moore’s 1988 one-shot. Sure, Batman pummeling Superman in “The Dark Knight Returns” is well-known. Yes, “Batman: Year One” sets up the universe. But neither of those tales have left a lasting controversy in their wake or sent an untold number of potential fans — mostly women — fleeing from comic books.
“The Killing Joke” is ostensibly the story of Joker’s origin. Or one of Joker’s origins. Perhaps Joker’s most popular origin. The set up is thus: a failed stand-up comedian and struggling family man, the Joker agrees to help some goons by leading them through his former place of work in return for cash: ACE Chemicals. Things go wrong, Batman shows up, all the goons die, and He-Who-Will-Be-Joker escapes Batman by jumping into a vat of chemicals and being washed through the pipes to the outside.
Thus the Joker was born.
Cut to current events. The Joker wants to prove any man is only “one bad day” away from becoming like him. He chooses Commissioner Gordon as his guinea pig and Barbara Gordon/Batgirl as the catalyst. The Joker’s goons enter Gordon’s apartment, shoot Batgirl through the spine, and strip her naked to take pictures to use to drive her father insane. While the main question of “The Killing Joke” is whether or not Batman kills his nemesis in the end, the other question much speculated about is whether or not the Joker or his goons raped Batgirl.
But the focus whether penetration was involved is beside the point. Barbara Gordon was sexually assaulted and left for dead. Her pain and her naked body was used to shock and titillate the reader, to drive home how deranged the Joker really was without giving Batgirl a chance to fight back or even have a shred of agency.
At the time, no one at DC seemed concerned about the treatment of Barbara Gordon in “The Killing Joke.” Alan Moore has even gone on record to say someone should have pumped the brakes. From an interview with Wizard Magazine in 2006:
I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon - who was Batgirl at the time - and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project...[He] said, 'Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.' It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.
While this attitude today would raise more than a few eyebrows, it was fairly typical of its time; when women were objects with dialogue, little more than props utilized to further the story of the male heroes. Problematic storylines pepper the history of comic books (and all other media) as we grow and evolve as a culture. The difference? No one is clamoring to see Green Lantern’s girlfriend cut up and stuffed in the refrigerator (GREEN LANTERN #54 from 1994) or Ms. Marvel drugged and raped (THE AVENGERS #200 from 1980) as an animated movie.
The fate of Batgirl would’ve been a footnote in comics’ history if not for writer Kim Yale. Displeased with “The Killing Joke” being Barbara’s final curtain call, Yale and her husband John Ostrander fished her out of the discard pile to create Oracle. Speaking to The Great Curve in 2005, Yale recalled her decision:
There were no plans for [Barbara] in the continuity at that time. We decided that if that happened, we weren’t just going to make her better magically — we wanted to explore what happened when someone like her was crippled and how she would respond.
Barbara’s transformation into Oracle and subsequent journey to defeat her demons and retake the mantle of Batgirl (and satisfyingly stomp Joker’s face into the ground in BATGIRL #15) has resonated with fans. Her comic has consistently been in the Top 40 for sales.
Women are the fastest growing group of comics consumers. To return to a story that hinges on the exploitative victimization of a major female superhero seems like a step in the wrong direction. When even Batgirl’s creative team disagrees with using that imagery, it might be time to let it go.
“The Killing Joke” will always have a place in the annals of Batman lore but it’s time to stop trying to resurrect it for a modern audience.
It’s time to let “The Killing Joke” die.