Warning: This post discusses some graphic material and there are spoilers, so proceed at your own risk!
When it comes to comic books/graphic novels starring Gotham’s caped crusader, two of the most iconic are Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). Miller’s treatment has already made it to the big screen (in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy), and Moore’s work will be joining his shortly, albeit in an animated format.
Of the two novels, Moore’s is easily the most controversial, mainly for its plot line concerning Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Having never read any of the Batman comics or graphic novels growing up, I wasn’t really aware of the Killing Joke’s content until the controversy over Rafael Albuquerque’s cover variant exploded all over my Twitter feed last year. I read the various articles about the cover and its homage to Moore’s story with interest, but never picked up the book itself – though this was mainly due to the fact that it was always shrink-wrapped at Barnes&Noble and, I thought, too expensive.
Yet with Bruce Timm’s animated feature set to hit theaters next week, I decided that it was high time I checked it out and borrowed a copy of the 2008 deluxe addition, which includes an introduction from artist Tim Sale and an afterword from the comic’s original illustrator, Brian Bolland. Bolland also recolored the pages in that addition, relying on a more subdued color palette than the one used by John Higgins in 1986.
If you, like me, are unfamiliar with Moore’s slim 64-page volume, The Killing Joke is most known for two things: creating what is considered to be the definitive origin story for the Joker – Batman’s arch nemesis – and using the paralyzation and suggested rape of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, to drive the story forward.
When it comes to the former – the transformation of the Joker from a struggling stand-up comedian to the Clown Prince of Crime – the comic is interesting, if a little thin. Through flashbacks, the Joker is shown as a fairly typical husband who is struggling to provide for his pregnant wife. Worried about finances, he makes a deal with the mob and experiences “one bad day” that pushes him over the edge.
While I completely agree with the people who think that this story line humanizes the Joker, I was surprised by the fact that there wasn’t a “You Did This to Me!” sort of confrontation between him and Batman, especially considering the latter’s role in his shift from mild-mannered family man to insane megalomaniac. I found it even stranger considering all of Batman’s talk about the two of them being locked in a battle to the death. I’m sure Moore figured that people would have prior knowledge of their animus, but still, I expected more from such an iconic tale.
Now, when it comes to the Joker’s shooting, paralyzing, and violating of Barbara, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about that. I totally understand the frustration over her maiming being used just to torment her father, Commissioner Gordon, and to give Batman something to rage against, but having not read Batgirl comics either, I didn’t get the same sort of “she’s lost her agency” feeling that other readers have.
I was also surprised, especially given the controversy, how little Barbara is even in the book (which, admittedly, is another long-running complaint). Indeed, the violence she’s subjected to takes up just 10 panels. And honestly, I thought it was fairly tastefully done.
Believe me, that sentence felt just as weird to write as it likely did to read.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the Joker’s actions against Barbara are horrific and I hate the fact that sexual violence against women is used so often as a plot point to – as feminist scholar Samantha Langsdale writes – “launch heroes into heroism and villains into villainy.” I guess it’s just that I expected the whole thing to be more graphic than it was.
And maybe that in and of itself is part of the problem with reading The Killing Joke for the first time 28 years after its publication. Our standards for what is “shocking” have been so lowered that what was once disturbing now elicits more of a “meh” reaction.
It’s also hard to gauge what it truly was like to read The Killing Joke when it first came out since every Batman story I grew up with was likely influenced by it in some way. Interestingly, Moore seems to regret that legacy, saying once that his graphic novels were “meant to be something that would liberate comics. Instead . . . [t]hey’ve lost a lot of their original innocence, and they can’t get that back. And, they’re stuck, it seems, in this kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis. I’m not too proud of being the author of that regrettable trend.” Unfortunately, based on some of the initial feedback of Timm’s feature film, it seems like that trend continues.