On The Killing Joke and “Problematic”

DC Comics’ next animated film, scheduled for the summer, is a long awaited adaptation of writer Alan Moore’s seminal Batman story The Killing Joke. Besides being a staple story for the Joker, and one of the few storylines in comics to have broken out somewhat into the wider cultural discourse along with Moore’s Watchmen, or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; The Killing Joke is perhaps best known for its treatment of Barbara Gordon.

Barbara Gordon is probably best known for her tenure as Batgirl. Introduced to comics in 1967, her creation is more than partially due to the Adam West led Batman television show. Long story short, the show’s ratings were dropping, so the producers wanted to add a female lead in order to broaden its audience. A few artists later, and Barbara Gordon, police commissioner’s daughter by day and masked vigilante at night, was born. Between the comics and TV show, where she was brought to life by Yvonne Craig; Barbara quickly became a hit, and would appear in the comics as Batgirl until 1988, when The Killing Joke was published.

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In The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon is shot and paralyzed by the Joker as part of his plan to drive her father, James Gordon insane. Within TKJ, the Joker is not aware that Barbara is Batgirl, only of her relation to the police commissioner, and Barbara is not an active player in the plot before or after her crippling. This event is one of the better known examples of a female character in comics being “fridged,” or harmed over the course of a plot for the benefit of a male character’s story arc or development, and even Alan Moore has stated regret over this decision.

Barbara’s crippling by the Joker, and its effect on The Killing Joke as a whole, I believes is a prime example of a media object being problematic. That word, problematic sees more use every day that the last, and over time, I feel, has lost some of its meaning. So, for context, when I use problematic, I mean it to describe a work that I believe has (a great amount of) artistic merit, importance, or that I enjoy; but can recognize as having disagreeable, backwards, or aged politics. The essence of problematic is the dissonance between a work being good and it being right.

Before moving on, I want to digress and discuss Alan Moore for a bit. He’s plainly one of the best writers comic books has ever had. That said, he seemingly has no respect for comics, or at least superhero comics, as a medium partly defined by storytelling through multiple creative teams over years. And, that’s perfectly ok when it comes to the characters he creates that he feels ownership over. No fault in being protective of your babies. What’s interesting is how he doesn’t seem to have that much regard for creations that aren’t his. Look at everything that happens in Watchmen and consider he wanted to tell that story with previously existing, decades old, comics characters. He’s a writer who cares about telling his story at the expense of another writer’s ability to build on the continuity he contributes to. And that disregard for a tradition of shared storytelling extends to his treatment of Barbara in The Killing Joke.

Now, as a story, I think The Killing Joke is incredibly well crafted. It explores interesting ideas in the relationship between Batman and Joker, the Joker’s motivations, and the fragility of morals and sanity. And the scene where Joker shoots Barbara works brilliantly as a plot-point, and a character moment for the Joker, demonstrating how evil he can be. TJK is evocative, engaging, interesting, grotesque, and overall, a great comic and story. The problem here is that Barbara’s crippling has nothing at all to do with her, and everything to do with Joker and Gordon.

Stepping back somewhat, mechanically, there is nothing wrong with using a human as a plot device. After all, none of those humans, no matter how likable or well written, are real, and no matter how many of them you shoot in story, nobody dies. The problem isn’t with the murder of fictional characters, it’s with which ones get brutalized, and how often that happens, and what effect that has on the understanding of the world it gives its audiences. Because it’s not bad, in and of itself, to want to tell a story where a women is the object of male attention. It’s not bad to tell a story where a woman gets murdered. It’s not bad to tell stories where there are no women at all. What is bad is when women are objects in every story, or when every story requires the death of a woman to motivate a male character’s actions, or when there are no stories where female characters have agencies or motivations not related to another character with a Y-chromosome. Because our stories are our culture, our stories are our values, and are stories are our understanding of our world. And when all of our stories have the same problem of relegating the women of our stories as objects to be played with by the men of our stories, it shows that we feel that women should be relegated as the objects of men by the real world. And no matter how artistically meritorious The Killing Joke is, that it might have permanently ended the story of Barbara Gordon will always be its darkest blemish…

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Which is why we are so lucky, and should be so excited that Oracle exists. Oracle is Babara’s identity after the events of The Killing Joke where she leans into her intellegence and computer expertise to become one of DC’s most powerful and influential information brokers. As Oracle, Barbara becomes an even more indispensable asset to the Bat-family, and a leader to other teams like The Birds of Prey. And, we should appreciate and not take for granted, the work of John Ostrander and Kim Yale who decided that being paralyzed wouldn’t be the end of Barbara’s story. That Ostrander and Yale didn’t fall into the trap of not seeing disabled characters as non-characters, and found parts of Barbara Gordon that didn’t have to do with her body that still made her not just viable as a character, but incredible. And when people give credit to The Killing Joke for giving us Oracle by paralyzing Barbara, they should really be thanking Ostrander and Yale for taking a character who would have otherwise been discarded, and finding new stories to tell instead.

As The Killing Joke has aged, and people have recognized it’s more problematic elements, many fans of comics have debated whether or not the story should remain in canon; and with recent developments in the DC comics, its canon status has been made more and more ambiguous. My stance on canon, when it comes to The Killing Joke, or any story, is that I don’t believe things have to be written in or out. I think writers should feel free to use whatever they want from the past to tell whatever stories they want to in the future. So, I suppose it should stay in canon, but I’m of the fast-and-loose camp when it comes to the idea of canon in the first place.

So, when it comes down to adapting The Killing Joke, and the issue of whether or not to adapt what happens to Barbara Gordon, I would have to argue for leaving it in. Frankly, the movie is being made because people like the story The Killing Joke tells, and the treatment of Barbara Gordon is a part of that. And, as the movie looks to be a straight adaptation, I think the story would suffer if it didn’t include Barbara’s scene. Should they try to handle adapting that scene as tastefully as possible? Of course. And from the previews going around, it does seem like the people behind this adaptation are invested in expanding Barbara’s role in the story so that the events of TKJ become part of her story instead of just resulting in her becoming a plot-point in the stories of the other characters. And that might be the best we can hope for. Because more important than looking to, and criticizing the past is driving artists to create more inclusive and thoughtful stories in the future.

 

(This essay is adapted from a conversation I had with Lastofthescofflaws on Youtube.)

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