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.