Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Leaving The Killing Joke Behind

“Hey,” I thought to myself, “maybe The Killing Joke was never really okay. Maybe a story where a female character is shot, violated, and left for dead, just so a male character could have an emotional reaction was never something we should have celebrated, and we (some of us, anyway) are only now just waking up to how that’s problematic. Iconic though it is, maybe future iterations and stories of Batgirl shouldn’t feel beholden to something so ugly just because it happened over 20 years ago.”

All that occurred to me after a day or so of quietly observing and reflecting on this latest controversy. It wasn’t a conclusion I was expecting to come to. I love The Killing Joke and have enjoyed revisiting it for years. I personally didn’t find the cover offensive. Initially I even disagreed with the argument that as a variant cover it’s tonally wrong for this iteration of Batgirl. I felt it fit this latest theme of variants, and it evoked the story that most defines Batgirl's relationship with the Joker.

But I’m not reading Batgirl, and I realized my initial reaction might have been very different if I were engaged with the series. For those that are--for those that are trying to move beyond a time and place where women and minorities are treated poorly in comics (if they’re reflected at all)—this cover was an unwanted reminder of an ugly event that depicts women as victims, something many progressive fans are trying to move past. My lack of sensitivity to this issue was a probable sign that I was losing touch with what’s current in comics and a failure to see the activism of those who are trying make mainstream comics a more inclusive place.

So I took the time to think about what about this whole debacle bothered me. Because something was bothering me, like something stuck in my teeth.  The cover in question is a great piece of artwork by an artist who I admire. And while I approve and applaud of his decision to have it pulled, I still felt conflicted, and I asked myself, “why is the cover a problem if the story it recalls isn’t?” To which a voice replied, “Maybe the story is a problem.”

That’s where I find myself now: I loved The Killing Joke for all it gave me both as a Batman fan and later as a comic creator, but its content is now a relic of the past, a past we should all be trying to leave behind. I will continue to appreciate the book, but as something antiquated. This iconic story will always be a big part of comic book history, but it shouldn’t determine its future. 

For those who are ahead of the curve about these matters, don’t wait up. Keep moving forward. For people like me who need to catch up, accept that this material bothers people, and instead of becoming entrenched, let's ask ourselves why that is. Never be afraid to revaluate the things you love. Even if it diminishes that which you cherish, you will grow to be better.


  1. Well said, sir!

    The cover is a fine piece of art, and The Killing Joke is a fine story, insofar as it illuminates the character of Batman or the Joker or Jim Gordon. But it says nothing about Barbara Gordon. She's an object, a (female) vehicle used to explore/explain the important male characters. Her depiction lacks dignity and humanity.

    And The Killing Joke is one in a long tradition of stories, in comics and other media, where women are murdered, mangled, raped, or ridiculed for the purpose of developing the male protagonist/antagonist. Isn't that exactly the sort of thing that the "Women in Refrigerators" site was all about?

    So yeah, sure, the Joker brutalizing Batgirl is a legitimate narrative beat, but surely we could do better than that. Nowadays it feels cheap, crass, and insensitive. And like you argue, maybe it was always that way. If I recall correctly, even Alan Moore regretted his decision to cripple and humiliate Barbara Gordon -- but I don't think he much liked any of The Killing Joke, in the end.

    Which isn't to say anything about how completely tone-deaf the cover is given the current Batgirl comic, which has gone to great lengths to establish Batgirl as a strong, resourceful, positive role model for female (and male!) fans.

    1. Those are all excellent points you make, and they highlight the very notions I found myself grappling with. As always, your words are refreshing and enlightening, John! Thank you for your keen insight, my friend!