Has The Killing Joke Run Its Course?

Let’s talk about Batman some more, shall we?

Let’s talk about “The Killing Joke” in particular. It’s definitely worth talking about, considering the impact that it had in the then canonical setting of Gotham. No doubt you’ve heard the news that Bruce Timm, creator of “Batman: The Animated Series,” is doing an animated adaptation of the story.

I don’t know how this may be received by certain readers so let’s just put up another trigger warning for sexual assault and rape, since it’s going to be discussed here.

My question: “Is this trip really necessary?”

Think about it. The general gist is that the Joker kidnaps Jim Gordon and subjects him to massive psychological abuse and humiliation in order to break him, proving the Joker’s point that all it takes is “one bad day” to become like him. This action starts with the Joker showing up at Gordon’s door and shooting Barabara (aka Batgirl) clear through the spine. That’s not all, though. As Jim goes through his nightmarish funhouse he’s treated to images of his own daughter, wounded, unconscious and in a state of undress (which implies the Joker may have taken things even further).

A number of fans of TKJ are quick to defend this work, citing it as an origin story, that it led to the creation of Oracle, and that the Joker is not a nice person (duh!). Some also point to what happened to Jason Todd in “A Death In the Family” in defense of the sexual assault on Barbara.

So let’s address those, shall we?

First of all, TKJ was originally intended as a one-shot story. Even the Joker is a little unclear about his origin when he says “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” And while the Joker is one of Batman’s greatest adversaries, there’s ways to show that without resorting to something like sexual assault (I’ll go into that aspect of the writing a little later).

As for the death of Jason Todd and the creation of Oracle: While Jason was brutally beaten he was never subjected to sexual assault or rape. Second of all, Jason Todd still had some agency at the end of his life — he threw himself on a bomb in an effort to save another person. Barbara never had a chance to even react to the Joker. In five panels she goes from opening the door to unconcious and paralyzed.* On top of that, Batgirl was retired by DC in another one shot in July 1988 (TKJ was published in the same year, with the special supposedly setting up Barabra for this moment). Jason’s death, however, was put to a popular vote. His death was chosen by a very narrow margin: 72 votes against his survival, less that 0.1% of the total cast.

Are we seeing the difference here?

Jason Todd had a chance at survival. Jason had agency. Barabara never had a hope in hell.

And she could have been Oracle without TKJ. By the end of Batgirl Special #1, Barbara had made the decision to no longer be a crime fighter. It would have been easy for her to transition into Oracle, be fully abled, and be the brains behind the Birds of Prey. Hell, she could even have been paralyzed, but due to injuries incurred actually fighting the Joker and his goons.

The whole point of Barabara’s sexual assault** wasn’t for her advancement at all. It’s sole purpose was to be the crucible through which Jim Gordon is made to endure. Barbara gets the same “refrigerator treatment” as Alexandra DeWitt.+ Outside of that violent incident, Barbara has no involvement in TKJ whatsoever.

Let’s be honest. The use of rape/sexual assault as a plot device or means for character development is just lazy, poor writing, plain and simple — moreso if it’s used for someone OTHER than the victim. Even Alan Moore admitted that he should have been reined in when writing TKJ (Wizard Magazine, 2006). There are many ways to write strong heroines and putting them through events like this is not the best way to do so — oh wait, this wasn’t about Barbara in the first place.

With that in mind, I ask the question again: “Is this trip really necessary?” My answer is no, especially when the zeitgeist has so drastically changed in the past 27 years. Women are a significant portion of the fandom and they are not afraid to express their opinions (or at least, they shouldn’t be, right, gentlemen?). More people are becoming cognizant that certain tools and methods that worked in writing then don’t work today. The Killing Joke is one of those stories that does not stand the test of time. We don’t need an adaptation of The Killing Joke.

Before the fan boys start clogging my comment queue — no, this is not a call to ban or censor Bruce Timm’s adaptation. This is a criticism — a statement of opinion supported by elements of the work and critical thought. While the Killing Joke was a powerful story, it used some damned lazy writing to advance the plot, and while it did have a lot of impact in 1988, the same story would not be well received today.

So, in 2016, Bruce Timm’s take on TKJ will be released. I have no intention of watching it, but I do wonder. Bruce is an excellent story teller, and he’s broken some rules of animation in the past with Batman:TAS. He’s also done right by numerous women in his body of work (e.g. Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, Catwoman), and he’s not afraid to take established characters in different directions (Justice League: Gods and Monsters). Will Bruce take a different tack with the Joker and Barbara? Will he remove the sexual assault and maybe even give Batgirl a fighting chance? And if he does, how will the TKJ fanboys react?

Like I said, I do wonder.

*Here’s the scene, thanks to Wikipedia (Trigger Warning: violence, sexual assault). Note the expression on Barbara’s face right before the Joker pulls the trigger. This is not the face of a trained superhero — I don’t care if she’s retired from being Batgirl, Barbara knows how to handle herself.

** I don’t care how the fan boys try to defend it. Taking advantage of an unconscious, paralyzed person like that? Sexual assault. Doesn’t matter if you don’t see him undressing her or doing anything worse, it’s still sexual assault.

+Don’t know who that is? Alexandra was Kyle Rayner’s (aka the Green Lantern’s) girlfriend introduced in Green Lantern #48, then killed in GL #54 and stuffed in a fridge to give Kyle the plot device he needs to become a True Hero.

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1 comment so far

  1. Robert on

    Thank you for this insightful critique into how perception and consumption of a media can change with the times.


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