With its animated adaptation only a few months away, people are talking about “The Killing Joke” more than ever before. But the conversations you hear now are different than the ones in comic shops back in 1988, 1998, or even 2008, most likely.
Time hasn’t been kind to the story many fans think of as THE definitive Joker tale. Newer readers from all backgrounds and genders aren’t distracted enough by flashes of formalistic brilliance from creators Alan Moore and Brian Bolland to miss the book’s misogynistic treatment of Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl), and they’re talking about it — amongst themselves and with the larger comics community with candor, intelligence, and grace.
Or at least they’re trying to. Time and again I see their comments met, and often silenced, with the same knee-jerk fan-splainin’ responses from fan(atic)s who deal in ‘fake geek girls’ accusations and, even worse, outright harassment. And, frankly, I’m sick of it.
So in an effort to pay forward some of the introspection and examination those new voices have given me, as well as signal-boost a little sanity into the discussion, I offer this collection of thoughts on “The Killing Joke” from someone who has been followed the book since its first printing. As a white male comics fan in his late 30’s, I am (sadly) THE target demographic for Batman comics. I read the original Prestige Format release of “The Killing Joke” in 1989, and have revisited it many times over the years. I even made sure to specifically include a John Higgins-colored printing in my bound collection of Alan Moore’s DC Universe work. Trust me, on this particular subject, call me a ‘fake geek’ at your fucking peril.
Let’s start with the good. And there are things worth praising about “The Killing Joke”:
- Moore’s script, on a technical level, is on par with the other DC material he was working on at the time (“Watchmen”, the Clayface story). The dialogue works, the scene-to-scene transitions on overlapping visual cues still holds up, and he manages to give us a pre-Joker figure that invites sympathy. No small feat.
Plus, and this is something I think gets lost in everyone’s remembrance of the story, Moore writes to the Batman of the pre-Miller era by having him concerned about his foes as well as their victims. “The Killing Joke” starts with Batman actually trying to TALK to the Joker, appeal to anything resembling a better angel of any nature in that devil. That compassion, even in the face of a hopeless crusade, is a chivalrous virtue you’d think we’d see more of from the Dark Knight (or Caped Crusader, depending on your preference), but seldom do any more.
- All that said, Bolland’s art was and continues to be the selling point for this story. One of his strengths (and simultaneous weaknesses) is an ability to render the hell out of things with a sheen that makes them more real than real. Over the years that tendency has, in my opinion, calcified his work to the point that it looks TOO stiff, TOO statuesque. But in “The Killing Joke” he reached that sweet spot of being able to zoom in for the detailed close-up but still have enough cartoonist elasticity for action and movement. I can count on one hand the number of sequential stories Bolland has drawn in the 30 years since “The Killing Joke” came out, and that has to be because he knew his work on that book would be impossible to top.
- This might seem blasphemous to say given the badmouthing and retconning his work has received, but John Higgins’ coloring is (again) the unsung hero of this Moore comic. Is there another colorist of that era who could visualize insanity, giving it an actual palette like Higgins? No, there isn’t. I know this is the ‘praise’ section, but Bolland stripping the book of Higgins coloring shows a George Lucas-level misunderstanding of what makes their work ‘work’ in the first place. Bolland’s coloring makes it look like every other Batman comic and completely negates the tension between his precise line and Higgins’ dirty day-glo palette. The Joker is trying to infect everyone else with his insanity; the panels with him are SUPPOSED to be disorienting!Continued below
The good bits of “The Killing Joke” are the result of THREE creators working together, not just two. Actually, I take that back. There are FOUR creators at work, lest we forget letterer extraordinaire Richard Starkings.
Number one has to be the victimization of Barbara Gordon.
(POSSIBLE TRIGGER WARNING – Skip down to the next section if need be)
(And I can’t believe I have to say this since I think it would have been obvious with her being stripped and photographed naked, but I’ve seen people say that what happened to her was not sexual assault since we don’t know if she was raped, so I’m including this from Wikipedia:)
[In the United States]…The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network defines sexual assault as “unwanted sexual contact that stops short of rape or attempted rape. This includes sexual touching and fondling.
Here’s where Bolland’s clarity works against him. As quickly and easily as we fall in love with the Bolland woman (be it 2000 AD’s Judge Anderson or Debbie Harry pinups or whathaveyou), we are just as quickly cut to the heart when we see Barbara lying on her floor, clutching the still-bleeding gunshot wound, grimacing in agony as The Joker starts unbuttoning her blouse. Barbara is a twice-removed sacrificial lamb on the altar of Joker’s obsession with Batman by way of attacking her father; paralyzed “to prove a point”. I can’t think of a stronger in-your-face portrayal of victimization in a mainstream comic; worse than The Comedian’s attempted rape of Silk Spectre in “Watchmen” by Dave Gibbons, worse than Doctor Light raping Sue Dibney in “Identity Crisis” by Rags Morales. So I guess the point was proven, wasn’t it?
Number two is that for all the praise and buzz “The Killing Joke” has gotten over the decades, there’s really nothing about the story itself to justify the nastiness. No larger point is made and no insight gained like we see in “Watchmen” or “V for Vendetta”. The house of Joker cards Moore and Bolland build is too flimsy support the crushing weight of the Barbara Gordon treatment.
To his credit, Moore has since come out and admitted he went too far with “The Killing Joke” and that either he shouldn’t have written that scene or that DC should have rejected it, instead of editor Len Wein’s apocryphal agreement of ‘Yeah, cripple the bitch.’
I’ll also concede a point that the original intention of “The Killing Joke” was NOT for it to be canon, but rather one of the ‘imaginary’ stories that Moore was much more known for at the time. Specifically, I’ve always had the feeling Moore was aiming for something like the Warner Brothers cartoon A Sheep in the Deep, where we see the main characters before, during, and after their ‘day jobs’ as cartoon antagonists. He doesn’t go as far as Neil Gaiman does with that idea in his ‘A Black & White World’ for the first “Batman: Black & White” miniseries, but there’s still a strong sense of Batman & the Joker being the only two ‘real’ characters in the story. Their final conversation only makes sense if you look at it as being “off the clock”, where life in the DC Universe and the particulars of Batman caring for his friends and partners (as well as the more extreme Joker color scheme) only apply while “on the clock”.
Otherwise, the Batman you’ve spent years reading & supporting really does share a laugh with the Joker hours after he cripples Barbara Gordon…
“But it gave us Oracle,” they say. “Where would we get such a positive role model for the handicapped if we don’t have “The Killing Joke”?”
Oh, I don’t know. Maybe from another writer being allowed to write a story disabling Barbara Gordon in a way that WASN’T a completely misogynistic nightmare? I’m not a writer but I’ll spot you one I just came up with: Babs is rescuing kids from a burning building when part of the ceiling collapses on her, breaking her back. She has to go through the whole emotional arc of coming to terms with her new reality but turning it into a different way to help people. Still changed by a random act, but she is a hero throughout, never a victim.Continued below
And “The Killing Joke” didn’t give us Oracle. Kim Yale and John Ostrander gave us Oracle in their “Suicide Squad” run when it became abundantly clear the Bat-Office had every intention of keeping “The Killing Joke” in-continuity and Barbara off the table. My only justification for how Denny O’Neill would have let that stand is that it happened before he had his come-to-Jesus realization of the modern mythological nature of these characters after Jason Todd was killed, and by that point Barbara’s path was set.
And why did “The Killing Joke” become canon? Because fans demanded it to the tune of 14 different printings of the original Prestige Format one-shot. Not one, not two, not ten…fourteen! And to say the story is canon is actually underselling it. “The Killing Joke” isn’t just canon; it’s gospel.
How many opportunities has DC had to wipe it from continuity? I can think of at least four major ones: Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, New 52, Rebirth. And I know there have been minor tweaks and adjustments regarding what actually happened that night between Barbara and the Joker, but that’s ultimately just rearranging Titanic deck chairs. The ship is still going down.
“The Killing Joke” is more problematic than any of Moore’s other work that has been slid over to the Vertigo imprint after the fact. I can’t think of anything in “Swamp Thing” that rivals this, and yet that is ‘suggested for mature readers’ while “The Killing Joke” goes without any warning label. I wonder what the difference is?
SUGGESTED FOR IMMATURE READERS
This is really a larger point than I can fully make here, but it’s occurred to me more than once that the idea of mainstream American comics growing up in the mid-80’s is actually completely untrue. Comics grew older, but they didn’t grow up. Growing up means reaching some kind of understanding with the world and your place in it. If were children before the mid-80’s, then books like “Watchmen”, “Dark Knight”, “Miracleman” and “The Killing Joke” were really a sign of growth into adolescence. And like any teen, with that age comes the cry for attention, the pushing of boundaries, and the need for acceptance. This applies to both sides of the table, incidentally: creators of the era are just as guilty of stuffing needless ‘reality’ onto characters never meant to bear that weight, as fans are from buying it by the truckload to show they weren’t just reading “kid’s stuff” but something that was important.
Did I mention “The Killing Joke”‘s 14 printings? How about Tim Burton’s pullquote of how much he loved “The Killing Joke” and how influential it was on the biggest blockbuster of the decade? How about being carpet-bombed with panels of “The Killing Joke”‘s Joker portraits, or the Batman-grabbing-Joker-across-the-table image in every single comics-ordering ad for a good five years afterwards? You would have a hard time making heads or tails out of Dave McKean’s art out-of-context (or in-context, personally), but Bolland’s work was MADE for it.
Batman was king, and this was the Batman story to own. Not too weird like “Arkham Asylum”, shorter than “Dark Knight Returns”… and it mattered! Don’t ask, just buy it!
And buy it we did. And we’ve kept on buying it, in every form DC has given it to us: Prestige Format, Alan Moore omnibus, even an oversized re-colored Deluxe Edition.
But those are still just comics. Anyone who’s anyone knows that no story is really worth your time unless it MOVES! And SPEAKS! So DC is giving us a faithful R-rated animated adaptation (doesn’t that mean the source material should be R-rated or carry a warning label?). And they don’t have just anyone working on it. They’ve got Bruce Timm! Kevin Conroy! MARK HAMILL! Adapted by Brian Azzarello, so you know there’s going to be some sick twisted shit in there! It’ll be the apotheosis of everyone’s animated careers with Batman and the Joker!
The only problem is … they already adapted “The Killing Joke” to the DCAU in every way that matters. And even did it in a way that answered all the problems I mention above.Continued below
And they did it 16 years ago.
It’s called Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.
IT’D BE FUNNY IF IT WEREN’T SO PATHETIC. OH, WHAT THE HECK, I’LL LAUGH ANYWAY!
Although the main story revolves around Terry McGinnis (aka Batman ‘Beyond’), the part people first think of when the movie is mentioned is the flashback to the final confrontation between Bruce & The Joker. That flashback hits so many “Killing Joke” beats I’m shocked people aren’t talking about it more. Or maybe they are and I’m just late to the party. But consider the similarities. In both stories:
- Joker kidnaps one of Batman’s allies and completely destroys them just to get back at Batman.
- Batman scours the city looking for him.
- Batman receives a rooftop invite to the Joker’s lair.
- Joker uses horrific pictures and narration to try and break someone.
- One of Batman’s soldiers is scarred for life.
In case you didn’t notice all that before now, you probably didn’t recognize the similarities without the misogyny, Batman acting completely out of character for a continuity-based story, and the fact that Joker’s actions & Batman’s reactions make sense in the continuity they are supposed to take place in, unlike “The Killing Joke”. The only person laughing is the Joker and Joker Jr (aka Tim Drake), but Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini don’t even end the scene before they give Drake more agency than Barbara Gordon could have ever dreamed of in “The Killing Joke”. And that’s not even counting the further exploration of that night’s aftereffects in the rest of the movie.
On top of that, Return of the Joker has Conroy & Hamill delivering career-high performances in their roles, as well as some of, if not THE, best animation the DCAU ever saw — far above the over-rendered and choppy animation we see coming for us in the animated “Killing Joke” trailer just released.
But that movie is coming. And at this point I’m sure “Watchmen” will go out of print before “The Killing Joke”. So what do we do now?
THE LAST LAUGH?
In the last of my “Killing Joke” re-reads in writing this essay, I either hit a critical mass of some kind or I finally got ‘the joke’. I started hearing Batman’s last plea to the Joker not in Kevin Conroy’s voice (because who else would Batman sound like?)…but my own. Batman was saying everything I wanted to say to anyone who can’t see how damaging it is for this comics industry that we all love to keep endorsing and perpetuating material that hurts the very same new readers we want to share that industry with.
Maybe that’s how “The Killing Joke” can find its real meaning, almost 30 years after it was first told. Not as a comment on what we were, but on where we find ourselves as an industry now. Struggling between those who have no qualms about the damage they cause to prove their point, and the rest of us trying to keep that damage from hurting anyone else.
There’s been wild speculation about how Moore & Bolland’s version of “The Killing Joke” actually ends. But the version we’re living in now? That punchline is up to us to deliver.