It’s one of the most acclaimed Batman stories for a reason, but that reason becomes more nebulous as time goes on. With the nearing release of The Killing Joke’s animated adaptation along with the confirmation of its “R” rating, excitement and adulation over this story is nearing a fever pitch. But why exactly is that?
Initially it’s not hard to see why, at least when it comes to Batman fans. The story, written and illustrated by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland respectively, was published at the height of the dark age of comics. Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight (Returns), Animal Man by Grant Morrison, Hellblazer and other books printed by DC Comics had been pushing the superhero genre to new heights and levels of maturity. Much of this was owed to the “British Invasion” of writers throughout the 1980s, consisting of Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan and, most famously, Alan Moore. These writers brought to superhero comics a fresh and stark sense of maturity that gave the genre a shot in the arm in terms of respectability with the public. Stories going beyond simple good and evil punch-ups involved psychoanalytical explorations, stronger uses of violence and sexuality, queer themes and grounded, more believable uses of language. As a result, superhero comics became a darker venue for traditional storytelling. The characters became more complex, more flawed, and deeper in the way readers could relate to them, for better or worse.
This brings us to The Killing Joke, a sort of “origin” story for the Joker, told in a way which both humanizes him and reaffirms his mania. The story’s beginnings come from Brian Bolland, artist on Camelot 3000, who was told he could do whatever story he liked based on that book’s great success. Bolland’s clout gave him license to pick both his favorite writer and character and suggested that a story about the Joker would be interesting to tell. In true Alan Moore fashion, the Joker’s origin was recounted with an element of bathetic humanity involving a pregnant wife, a failing career and a disastrous crime. In forty-eight pages everything one needs to know about the Joker’s motivations are made plain for the reader, and his perspective on life is every bit as understandable as the Batman’s, relating the two in an inextricable way which is both subversive and plainly obvious; a way that was instantly echoed in the Tim Burton Batman film the next year.
But the Joker’s origin is not the main reason why people often recall this story.
Beyond the Joker’s history or the psychoanalytical connections unearthed between him and Batman, Barbara Gordon’s paralyzing and subsequent sexual abuse has remained the central talking point and main memory of The Killing Joke in the years since its release. The book’s legacy has been entirely consumed by that pivotal scene so completely that it’s taken on life in the minds of readers who haven’t even read the story. Punch in “The Killing Joke” into Google Images and the first suggested add-on to narrow the search is the word “rape”. The often-presumed darker nature of Barbara’s assault lent itself to discussions and arguments of the book’s merits for years, but it’s the way in which the Joker’s status as a super villain massively improved that I think explains why people come back to The Killing Joke.
It’s not as though Joker’s status as Batman’s main enemy was solidified in such a way before. Initially introduced as a fiendish murderer in Batman #1 (1940), the Joker had evolved and devolved just like most of Batman’s other rogues throughout the decades. Ceaser Romero played the character as a giggling trickster, same as the comics’ presentation throughout the Silver Age. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams brought the character back to his diabolical roots in the seminal “Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!” (from Batman #251, 1973), a move which was set in stone during the Marshall Rogers/Steven Englehart run of Detective Comics a few years later. Batman: The Dark Knight (Returns) featured the most evil iteration of the Joker in 1986, depicting him as an unrepentant serial killer whose obsession with Batman delved into taboo in its implied homoromanticism. Throughout all these interpretations, the Joker’s been Batman’s enemy, sometimes his main enemy, but he’s never been given a persona beyond that of a villain to defeat.
The Killing Joke improves on that persona. The Joker is given a reason to be. Though there is a way out for picky comic book fans with the suggestion that he’s making the whole thing up, it remains enough thematic rope to go on that the Joker’s made a stronger character and someone who deserves to be Batman’s (a character whose psychology has been stretched and strained over the years) opposite number.
But the assault on Barbara Gordon and the kidnapping and torturing of Commissioner Gordon works to double down on the Joker’s mania, so as the tragic backstory appears to smooth his rough edges the attack on the Gordons works to sharpen them even further. Thus, the Joker is someone who the audience can empathize with due to the unfortunate circumstances that made him, and then appreciate his convictions and unrelenting cruelty in order to prove his point to Batman. The shift of the character is so effective that the readers’ empathy is reflected in Batman’s, even in the wake of the horrific crimes inflicted on his friends. He doesn’t indulge in dealing out the same level of violence that the Joker afforded the Gordons, and the Joker’s cursed existence becomes the overriding talking point in the book’s final moments. The Gordons’ ruined state is entirely passed over, even by Commissioner Gordon himself who demanded that Joker be brought in “by the book”. Joker’s talking point is made more of the universal concern that justice for James and Barbara.
This has all been approached in the stories and conversations following The Killing Joke. Initially meant to be an “out-of-continuity” story, DC elected to keep the events in the persisting timeline so Barbara’s paralysis stayed with her for decades. Doing so granted amnesty towards the Joker (and this story) even further. And while Kim Yale and John Ostrander redeemed Barbara’s fate in turning her into the information broker Oracle, and DC restored her back to Batgirl anyway in 2011, The Killing Joke’s prestige has yet to falter throughout these amendments.
One might ask, “Why should it?”, and in that way I’m reminded of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film which was innovative and deeply influential in the time it was released (1915), but can never be held in complete esteem due to its reframing of history by way of demonizing African Americans and venerating the Ku Klux Klan. The Killing Joke has a lot going for it. The artwork by Brian Bolland is gorgeous, Moore’s script is terrific and the plot at large is perfectly sound. There’s nothing wrong with it as long as you don’t think about Barbara Gordon. But what happens to Barbara cannot be divorced from the larger context the scene finds itself in. Whether she was actively Batgirl at the time or not, the character is one of two women with dialogue in the entire issue, and of those two she’s the one who doesn’t die. In that way Joker uses a beloved woman to torture Jim Gordon and Barbara’s personhood is rendered inert. For a big crux of the Joker’s plan, Barbara Gordon as her own person doesn’t factor in her own maiming. The fact that she was Batgirl is a happy coincidence.
And this began a trend with the Joker where his victims’ personal histories became erased the moment they became his victims. Long before Jason Todd was resurrected as the angsty Red Hood, he was the Robin that the Joker killed. Sarah Essen, a cop and wife of Jim Gordon who featured prominently in memorable storylines such as Batman: Year One became another notch on Joker’s hit-list when she met her end by his hand at the end of No Man’s Land. In all three of these instances, the Joker escapes exacted retribution that matches the enormity of his crimes. He’s quietly arrested at the end of The Killing Joke, is shot and disappears for a long time in Death in the Family, and immediately surrenders in No Man’s Land. It’s as though punishing the Joker at the same level of prejudice he gave others would dwell on the severity of his crimes, and the character wouldn’t be as fun to read anymore.
As a result, the Joker’s character enjoys the renown of the horrible acts he’s committed without the enormity and weight of those acts reflecting badly on him. Fans adore his most notorious stories such as Killing Joke, Death in the Family and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker without ever stopping to think too hard about the awful consequences of his actions. The fact that he’s killed, molested and tortured simply adds to his aura as a big bad villain for Batman to defeat, or fail to defeat. There’s a salacious glee in seeing the Joker commit these atrocities without Batman sufficiently revenging his friends by (at the very least) beating him to an inch of his life. Even Batman, the main hero of the franchise, steps to the side whenever the call for another of Joker’s Worst Hits comes calling to add to the list. All Batman and friends can do is grimace and ruminate over what the Joker will do next. Just like the audience, albeit with less excitement.
No further is this evidenced than in the excitement over the news that the Killing Joke movie will be “R” rated in order to keep adherence to the book’s content intact. And Barbara Gordon’s paralyzing and sexual abuse is at the top of the “MUST-SEE” list. Because what else in the story is worth witnessing on-screen? The Siamese Twins? The crooks who bullied Joker into the Axis Chemicals job getting shot? Commissioner Gordon’s dick? It’s the perverse anticipation of that scene, the scene of Barbara’s shot and naked body bleeding out with her faced wincing in pain and anguish blazoned across for everyone to see, because that would mean (again) that the Joker is bad news.
This isn’t a call against The Killing Joke being made into a film, or having it be rated “R”, or the story at all. At the end of the day I myself enjoy it for the artwork and general characterizations of Joker and Batman. But as time goes on the innate misogyny of the book becomes harder and harder to push to the side, in addition with the prurient glee others express in their exaltation of it. With Barbara Gordon dancing across rooftops as Batgirl in current comic continuity, I wonder if there’s ever a need to think back to The Killing Joke again. More so than the resurrecting of Jason Todd and the restructuring of DC continuity, the “multiple choice” option of Joker’s origin renders no real reason to mention or even read the story at all. But it’s been made timeless by the reactions of its fans’ descendants, going against the very nature of the climate in which the story came out in the first place. Like the comic books that followed trying to emulate the “British Invasion” by being overtly violent and sexual, promotions of the film are all about how “Shocking” and “Dark” it is without describing what it’s actually about. Joker’s backstory, the connection Batman feels with him and the pressure both men have towards killing one another are totally gone from the trailers, replaced by Joker laughing and everyone else looking somber and serious and Joker laughing some more, as though actually showing what the comic book characters were like wouldn’t be enough to bring in the only audience that’s going to watch the movie in the first place.
In any case, I will be checking out the film when it premieres at San Diego Comic-Con. The reunion of Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Tara Strong goes a long way in making this adaptation feel all the more legitimate. However, this should be the final word on The Killing Joke. The shifts in storytelling priorities push the original story further and further in the past, and I’m not looking to stay with it. Should it remain there, hopefully others will be willing to move along with me as well.