This summer, DC will release a direct-to-video animated adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke, based upon the 1988 one-shot of the same name written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland. Produced by Bruce Timm, the film will star Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as the Joker, Tara Strong as Batgirl and, um, Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon? Yeah, kinda weird that last one. Guess he had the day off from God’s Not Dead 2 or something.
I present the above dry list of facts to make something clear: I should, by all rights, be excited as all fuck for this project. I mean, here we have my favorite Batman, my favorite Joker, possibly the best female voice actor in the business and, um…the Shrim guy. Simply put, we’re getting the band back together here. Hell, we’re getting a supergroup. Much respect to the 1966 series starring Adam West, but when I think “Batman”, I think of Batman: The Animated Series. I honestly cannot think of a more perfect introduction to a character. Shit, it gets the “perfect introduction” stuff out of the way in the title sequence:
Barring one or two admittedly important details, those sixty seconds will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about Batman, at least in the sense of his appeal as a character. And believe it or not, the rest of the show is all uphill from there. To be quite honest, every time I feel down on myself, like there’s no point to going on, I remind myself “look, asshole, you got Kevin Freaking Conroy for a Batman. You are a lucky, lucky bastard”.
And these people are adapting The Killing Joke, long one of my favorite Batman comics. Whatever my feelings about the man may be nowadays (which, believe me, is and likely will be an article unto itself), and however far behind him his glory days may be, there’s a reason Alan Moore has the reputation he has in comics. There was just about no beating the guy in his heyday, with Watchmen being only the laziest, most obvious example. My personal favorite would be his Swamp Thing run, which set a bar for human drama and social awareness that isn’t often met even today. Bolland’s a great artist too, at least when he’s not content to rest on his laurels, which definitely isn’t the case in The Killing Joke.
So, here we have an adaptation of a Batman comic I’ve always considered one of the all-time greats, with a cast whose voices I’ve always heard in my head every time I’ve read the comic anyway. Also the guy from Jeepers Creepers 2. So, match made in heaven, right? I should already have the film preordered and ready to go, right?
Well…yeah. About that…
In recent months I’ve become aware of a backlash against The Killing Joke. A pretty big one, in fact. No less than Gail Simone has said she isn’t terribly fond of it on social media. A Killing Joke-inspired Batgirl variant cover by Rafael Albuquerque triggered an uproar, resulting in it being withdrawn from sale at Albuquerque’s request. Hell, Alan Moore doesn’t even seem that fond of the thing. And Bolland hated the original coloring. For such an iconic Batman comic, nobody actually seems all that fond of it. Why exactly is that?
There is, of course, an easy way out here. Namely, blah blah blah political correctness blah blah blah SJWs blah blah blah comics are a white males-only drinking fountain. I’m not doing that shit. Not now, not ever. I may be an idiot sometimes, and I may be an asshole sometimes, but I take a lot of pride in not being an idiotic asshole. I owe myself that much, to say nothing of my millions and millions of readers. It’s an easy explanation (and a pretty hateful, depressingly commonplace one at that), and the thing about easy explanations is that they’re very rarely correct or complete.
Instead, I’d like to take a second look at The Killing Joke. Try to understand where its detractors are coming from, and compare it to my own impressions of the book. Even if I don’t change any minds (possibly not even my own), I might succeed in some deeper understanding of the whole thing, if not appreciation.
Full disclosure: I haven’t actually read The Killing Joke in a while, and don’t have a copy on hand. I remember it pretty well, though (the story very much sticks with you, if nothing else) and will be referring to available online sources and screencaps whenever and wherever possible.
So! Easy stuff out of the way first! While this article will be mainly about the comic, the movie not being out yet, let’s have a look at the trailer:
Yeah. It sucks. I seriously think DC/Warner spent more money on ten minutes of B:TAS animation than they did on this entire movie. That’s what pisses me off the most about DC nowadays: they seem to half-ass everything. Except protecting sexual predators. Again, my feelings about present-day DC are and will be another article. Several articles, most likely.
Moving on to the comic itself…I get why people find it problematic. I really do. It is not a fun or happy read. The core plot device concerns a longtime, beloved member of the Bat-Family being robbed of both her ability to walk and her dignity, simply to prove a point that is not only bogus, but nonsensical. In fact, and I realize how bizarre this sounds, but this story being as expertly crafted as it is may actually work against it. Here, take a look at The Incident In Question (MASSIVE trigger warning, BTW).
Jeez, that is some top-notch composition there. There’s the moment of confusion, the moment of “oh, fuck“, the bullet punching through meat and bone, glasses and shoes flying off and the final crash through glass into a bloody heap on the floor. I’ve read this page dozens of times, and it still feels like I’m the one getting shot. I literally cannot imagine what it must have been like reading this scene in 1988. And the worst thing is, the Joker’s nowhere near done (EVEN MORE MASSIVE trigger warning).
Now, more than a few people have interpreted this scene to mean that the Joker and/or his henchmen proceeded to rape Barbara after shooting her. I don’t believe this myself…if we stick to the strictest definition of “rape”. But must we? I don’t think so, no. While I don’t think the suddenly-now-former Batgirl was penetrated by anything other than a bullet in that scene, the fact remains that, by being stripped and photographed, she was sexually assaulted. No disputing that at all. And again…jeez, Bolland really knows his stuff. That shit hurts to look at. I seriously debated even putting it in, but the point must be made. To read The Killing Joke is to feel absolutely awful.
Another reason it’s hard to imagine what reading this in 1988 must have been like? At the time, the Joker doing this sort of thing was unprecedented. He’d been around for 48 years at that point, and for most of it he’d been a simple career criminal with a weird gimmick and an iconic look (literally–he is based on the playing card, after all). While he’d been steadily getting more dangerous over the previous decade or so, his plots still revolved around crazy stuff like attempting to copyright mutated fish. His preferred murder weapon was laughing gas, for fuck’s sake. Prior to The Killing Joke, Joker existed safely in the realm of “ridiculous cartoon villain”–you couldn’t imagine any of the stuff he did actually happening to anyone in real life. That would never be the case again. In one fell swoop, the Joker had gone from this:
So, yeah, it’s horrifying. Which leads nicely into another one of those easy explanations: it’s SUPPOSED to be. This one’s a little harder to knock down, because it’s mostly true. It doesn’t even qualify as the lazy excuse it usually is because, again, it’s a superbly well-crafted comic.The real problem, I think, is one of misplaced context. Nowadays The Killing Joke is regarded as a game-changer, which from what I can tell is precisely not what Alan Moore set out to do. Rather, Moore wanted to do what he does best: reverse-engineer an iconic element of comics. Why, exactly, does the Batman/Joker rivalry work as well as it does? As things stood in 1988, here we had a guy who decided to dress like a bat and beat the hell out of criminals due to an incredibly traumatic childhood experience, and his archenemy was a larcenous clown. Despite what the Tim Burton movies would have you believe, Joker didn’t shoot Bruce Wayne’s parents–it was just some random mugger. Could have happened to anybody. Has happened to more than a few people in real life. And here the most memorable villain is, by contrast, completely unrealistic. How does this work, exactly?
Well, for starters, it’s not like dressing like a bat and beating the hell out of criminals is realistic, either. I’ve always found the argument that Batman is better than Superman because he’s more believable a fairly stupid one. There’s very, very little room for the real world in superhero comics. That’s kind of the point. Aaaand I think I’m sidetracked.
I think, instead, the question is one of polar opposites. Moore gives the Joker a story that is not unlike Batman’s. The particulars vary (a dead pregnant wife rather than dead parents), but the end result is the same: pushed to an extreme by desperation and grief.
And then he takes it away.
That “multiple choice past” line is the comic’s most memorable, and a pretty spectacular defense of Moore’s thesis. Batman has clear motivations, Joker doesn’t. Batman protects, Joker destroys. Batman has partners and allies, Joker simply has pawns and victims. Batman tries to prevent what happened to him from happening to anyone else, Joker wants what happened to him to happen to everyone else (even if he doesn’t know what it actually was–hell, especially then). Batman knows the world still has good people in it, Joker “knows” everyone’s just as crazy and broken as him. By savaging Barbara, Joker’s trying to explain himself in the only way he knows how. It’s entirely possible he’s been doing that all along, realized he wasn’t getting the point across and going after Barbara the way he did was simply raising his voice.
Taken on its own, this is all powerful stuff. The trouble is, it can’t be taken on its own.
The Killing Joke wasn’t originally intended to be an in-continuity story, but it became one in very short order. Barbara would spend the next 23 years wheelchair-bound, and Joker’s characterization from that moment forward was that of a full-blown murderous psychopath. I’m not saying he doesn’t work well that way, because he really does, it’s just that he worked pretty damn well as a larcenous clown too. And The Killing Joke, or at least DC’s handling of it, has ensured we’ll really never see that Joker in continuity again. Joker killing Robin nine months later just drove the point home–the serial killer was here to stay. This calcification, I think, made the character less interesting in the long run. DC’s quite prone to missing the forest for the trees, and this is one of the more obvious examples of that.
Which is not to say it’s all bad–we did (eventually) get Oracle out of the deal, after all. I’ve always considered Barbara a more effective and interesting character as Oracle than as Batgirl, and one of the major issues I had with the 2011 DC relaunch was the effective erasure of that period of her life (without even copping to it). Barbara was Batgirl, she got shot, she got fixed, she was Batgirl again. No in-between. Superheroes work best when they represent something, and Oracle represented triumph over horrific trauma. DC chose to negate that, which is one of the reasons I choose not to buy DC products too much nowadays.
So, what are my final thoughts on The Killing Joke? It’s a superbly well-made comic that’s every bit as problematic as people say. Even if you understand all the contextual problems I was talking about, it’s way easier to admire than like. And even getting to that point requires way more legwork than a truly great comic. Unfortunately, at this point I have no reason to think the movie (which, parents be warned, is rated R for a fucking reason) will have any appreciation for the nuances at play here. Hell, they couldn’t even be bothered to animate the thing properly. Still, there’s that cast…