Tag Archives: batman

Why The Killing Joke Must Exist

The Killing Joke.  Written by Alan Moore.  Drawn by Brian Bolland.  Published by DC Comics.  Hated by many.  Loved by many more.

It’s about to be adapted into a direct to DVD animated feature for probably a PG-13 audience featuring Mark Hamill coming out of retirement (he quit voicing the Joker during the Arkham Games) to voice his iconic role as the Joker, and Kevin Conroy wants to voice the Batman!  It’s a comic fan’s wet dream.  So why are so many people up in arms against it?

The controversy over The Killing Joke has been abuzz in the background probably since its publication.  It is often cited as the best Batman story, best Joker story, and a major turning point for the classic Barbara Gordon Batgirl.  That last one is where the controversy comes in.

If you haven’t read it, please do so before finishing this article.  It’s okay, I’ll wait.

You see, the Joker escapes Arkham to prove to Batman that all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.  We also get to see a possible origin story for the Joker.  While many theories have been done and many more are still coming out, this one is the fan favorite that tops the list.  This origin story sees the Joker as a family man left widowed and childless.

To accomplish his goal, he invades the apartment of Commissioner James Gordon, where his daughter, Barbara, is over for a visit.  When the Joker rings the doorbell, Barbara answers the door.  The Joker shoots Barbara while his goons subdue James.  After James is dragged off, the Joker begins to unbutton the injured Barbara’s blouse.  It should be noted that he was wearing a camera around his neck.  Everything else that happens is implied, as we switch immediately to the next scene and don’t see Barbara again until she is visited by Batman in the hospital.  It is assumed that some form of sexual assault occurred.

As it turns out, Jim Gordon is the “sane man” that he’s trying to drive mad.  To accomplish this, Jim is beaten, stripped, humiliated, bound, walked on a leash, and sent through the Joker’s darkride which has been lined with nude pictures of Barbara lying in her own blood.

Batman comes and saves the day, Jim Gordon does not succumb, etc.  In the course of the book, Jim Gordon is expected to just shake off his trauma and in later books, he is back to business as usual.  What happens to Barbara?  That’s where things get good.

As The Killing Joke was set up in a way where it could’ve been ignored as non-canonical, DC had options.  They could have just pretended it didn’t happen (the most likely course), they could’ve dropped Barbara from the books, or they could’ve just left her as a librarian (her day job) in a wheelchair.  They went for the unexpected.  Gail Simone wrote excellent stories while consulting Dr. Andrea Letamendi which explored Barbara’s PTSD and eventually turned the wheelchair-bound Barbara into a new type of crimefighter, Oracle.

Basically DC said, what happened stuck.  Barbara was scarred and came back stronger than before.  She was no longer just a two-dimensional extension of a male legacy hero.  She was now carving out a new path for herself.

Many people laud DC and Gail Simone for the Oracle storylines in one breath, and decry The Killing Joke in the next.  Don’t they see how hypocritical that is?  You cannot have Oracle without The Killing Joke!  We all wish that tragedies didn’t happen, but they do.  And it is what we do with that tragedy that forges us.  If we are to create relateable characters, so too it must be for them.

Many cry out, “But not that!  You cannot depict sexual assualt!  That’s insensitive to the victims!”  Here’s the funny thing about that: to date, not one person raising that cry that I have heard has come out as a rape victim.  Also, during Twitter’s #changethecover controversy, many rape victims came out in SUPPORT of The Killing Joke.  One such survivor is Piper Steed, who was very publicly vocal and open in #changethecover about her own rape experience, the recovery, her PTSD, and how The Killing Joke HELPED HER COPE.  Note: she cited The Killing Joke.  While the subsequent Oracle storyline was instrumental, it was The Killing Joke that she credited with helping her.  It was one of her prized possessions that she regretted having to leave behind when she moved, it was one of her favorite gifts she recieved, she wanted to buy the sadly cancelled variant cover homage to it, and she is stoked about the upcoming adaptation.

There should be NO trauma that is off the table for a writer to use.  If we do not depict the adversity, how then can we depict the triumph over it?  Every story is built on some form of conflict.  Characters are defined by how much they overcome.  Who wants to limit the strength of a character?  By limiting the obstacles depicted, one limits how much the character’s strength can be built, tested, and/or displayed.

“But you can’t display that kind thing against women!”  Yeah, you can.  Not only that, but such stories MUST exist if for no other reason than it has helped many real women deal with similar problems.  It is a tool for depicting strong women and empowering them later.  Besides, are we to gloss over what happened to Jim Gordon in the story?  Or Jason Todd in A Death In The Family?  “But they had agency!  That’s different!”  I’ve yet to encounter anyone who can explain to me the “agency” that those two male characters had and Barbara didn’t.  And no, male does not automatically equal “agency”.

There are many classic, powerful stories out there that depict the worst this world has to offer.  They are also the stepping stones by which the best the world has to offer can be presented.  For the very best that this world has to offer is not in the good times, or the dull times, it is in the darkest of moments that the best shines through.  That is why we cannot limit what kinds of violence, or difficulties, or means, or charater types, or ANYTHING else a writer may use!  Sure, we could conceiveably limit the offensive material, if we could all agree on what’s offensive.  But the moment we do, we remove not only the extremities of putrid crap that can be written, but the best that can be written as well.  Any experience that has been had, and any experience never had that can be dreamt, all of these MUST be able to be depicted in ANY medium.  You never know who could benefit.

You never know who could be rescued from their depths.

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Harley Quinn

     There is no doubt that the character of Harley Quinn has become a major fan favorite. It’s not hard to see why. Harley is a very layered character.

     I should probably start off with the fact that I neither am, nor do I desire to be, familiar with DC’s New 52. This is probably a relief to many Harley fans who have been critical of the New 52 take on Dr. Quinzel.

     Harley Quinn was created for Joker’s Favor, an episode of Batman: The Animated Series (referred to by fans as Batman TAS). I find it interesting that she was originally intended to be a disposable character, much like her beloved Mistah J (The Joker). Given that the Joker is very much involved with Harley’s origin, he and his relationship to Batman bear a detailed overview in this article.

     The Joker is undoubtedly Batman’s opposite number. Batman was created to be a lasting follow-up to the success of Superman, the Joker was meant to be a disposable villain du jour. Batman’s origin and mission are clear cut, the Joker has many pre-acid origin stories and his mission known only to himself. Many of these origins include tragedy, particularly the fan-favorite presented in The Killing Joke. For the purposes of this article, The Killing Joke shall be the Joker’s true origin given that it was confirmed pre-New 52 by the Riddler in Batman: Gotham Knights # 54. In The Killing Joke, we find out that the Joker was widowed in his defining tragedy. Please note that his late wife bears some resemblance to Harley. Approximate height, approx. weight, both are blonde, etc. This will come up later. Both men have opposite responses to their respective tragedies. Batman becomes a dark, grim, and serious protector in almost demonic garb. The Joker becomes a bright, happy, and seemingly flippant criminal mastermind. Batman won’t kill, the Joker is a mass murderer. The difference in these approaches could lie in the details of their circumstances.

     Batman was a child who saw his parents die in a senseless and random crime. The Joker is a father who lost his wife and unborn child in a series of events resulting from his own bad choices (provided we take the Riddler’s account over the baby bottle warmer incident). We even see in the Flashpoint series what Batman would be if Thomas Wayne saw Bruce die instead. Batman had the leavening influence of Alfred, a surrogate father figure. The Joker had no uplifting figure to guide him.

     Batman took in Dick Grayson to become the first Robin. In doing so, he becomes a father figure. He essentially takes his late father’s role as his own. Robin was created, like Batman, to be an enduring character. Harley Quinn was created as the disposable sidekick to the Joker, who was also supposed to be a one-shot wonder. Like the Joker, Harley endured anyway. The Joker may have consciously meant to manipulate Harley, but he really seems to have taken her in as a surrogate for his late wife.

     This is where the appearance note from earlier comes in. The Joker sometimes can be genuinely loving toward Harley. In these moments, the Joker sees her like he did his late wife. But then, like a flipped switch, the Joker beats and berates Harley. It seems as though the transference of his feelings from his late wife to Harley cannot be maintained due to the simple fact that they are two separate people. When this reality can no longer be ignored, the Joker punishes Harley for not being his late wife. The absence of a child who should have been born long ago makes the separation from reality even shorter-lived.

     I can personally guarantee that I have many Harley fans up in arms right now. Mention anything about the abusive nature of Harley’s relationship with the Joker, and her hardcore fans will immediately go into denial. “You just don’t understand their relationship.” “Their love is just different, that’s all.” “He loves her, really. He’s just a little rough sometimes.” These fans often spout the same rationalizations that Harley does herself. Yet, the Joker is unquestionably abusive toward Harley.

     I base my observations on the Harley/Joker relationship on my own experience with battered women. My mother has taught women’s self-defense classes often attended by the residents of battered shelters. During some of these classes, I was mom’s yuki (throwing dummy). We have had the occasional relative/family friend who has been abused. And being on work-for-welfare programs myself, I have had working relationships with many battered women. This is not to say that abuse is related to income or lack thereof, or even that all or most women on welfare are abused. What I am saying is that it comes to the surface more often among those with no appearances to keep.

     I don’t believe that the Joker really loves Harley. I believe that he loves the idea of her, of having that surrogate for what he lost. Even if the Joker does love Harley, that fact alone would not preclude abuse, nor would it make the abuse okay. The Joker would need to confront the issues behind his abusive behavior BEFORE attempting to form a romantic relationship of any sort. He would be best off doing this through therapy as a single adult. An abuse victim cannot change their abuser from within the relationship. Their best bet is to leave, seek help, and once they reach a certain point in their own recovery they can form an intimate relationship with someone new. A former victim may forgive their former abuser, but they should never return to that abuser. At the very least, not in a romantic setting. In short, permanently breaking up the Joker/Harley relationship would be the healthiest thing for both of them as people (though it may not be the best character move for storytelling purposes).

     We see Harley go through a battered spouse cycle quite often. According to the Batman TAS episode, Mad Love, the Joker was charming at first. The devolving of the relationship into an abusive state was gradual and easily rationalized away. He beats her and puts her down verbally on a regular basis. She claims to deserve it. She gets fed up. She leaves. She forms friendships that serve as a support network, i.e. Poison Ivy. She misses him. He acts sweet. She goes back. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. Either a defining moment will have to occur where she breaks this cycle and leaves him permanently, she will kill him, he will kill her, a suicide-homicide situation occurs to kill them both, or a freak accident kills one of them before any of the other options occur. There is no other possibility. If they were real people, they would not die of old age. They would no reconcile and live happily ever after.

     This is where Harley becomes as important of a character to our current social landscape as Wonder Woman was in the 60’s, if not more. There are far too many misconceptions in our society regarding abuse and those who have endured it. A series in any media regarding Harley could address them all. We would see her in the abuse cycle, how she got into it, who she was before, who she is during, who she becomes after, who her abuser was before, who he is during, and how she can eventually break the cycle. Through her connections with others we could also see how men are also abused (an oft under-reported issue) and what happens to those who don’t break the cycle. The world needs that story.

Recommended Podcast: The Arkham Sessions

If you are of my generation, one cartoon stood above the rest.  Batman: The Animated Series.  It brought back action cartoons and took them seriously.  Production values were high, and the writing was top notch.  Almost two decades later, they still hold up.
But what if?  What if we were to put the series and its characters under the microscope, psychologically speaking?  That’s exactly what the Arkham Sessions does.  Armed with a licensed psychologist and a writer’s bible, the Arkham Sessions peels back the layers episode by episode.
What is really going on under the character masks?