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The Killing Joke: We're Not Laughing Any More

OracleYesterday’s release of a trailer for the upcoming animated version of famous Batman story The Killing Joke kicked off much discussion of the source material in various circles.

For a number reasons more or less this exact discussion surfaces whenever The Killing Joke is in the news. I was particularly aware of yesterday’s iteration because well-known comics writer Gail Simone ended up at ground zero for a lot of the Twitter-based ‘debate’.

The various strands of conversation that intersected Simone’s timeline, often followed into other people’s feeds and then back again, seemed such a perfect representation of how in multiple ways a certain segment of fandom deals with the most common critiques of The Killing Joke that it felt worth spending a little time interrogating the key points.

In fact, as is evident from Gail Simone’s mentions, people who’ve never read a comic in their lives feel entirely qualified to express a view on this. Mostly, it seems, people who don’t like women very much.

Quick background: The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland. It’s a Batman/Joker story that infamously used the shooting/crippling and abuse of Barbara Gordon (AKA Batgirl, and daughter of Commissioner Gordon) in a Joker plan to prove that anyone, no matter how ‘good’ can be tipped over the edge by extreme enough circumstances. In this case he’s trying to use Jim Gordon to prove the point. Barbara is collateral damage.

The animated version was recently announced as DC’s first R-Rated Batman animation, which itself led to a lot of debate. There’s nothing in the print version that seems to justify an R, so the assumption (and that’s all it is) that many people made is that unless they’re changing the story significantly, it must be playing up the sexual nature of Barbara’s abuse, as that’s the only close to ‘adult’ content in the source. (It’s tangentially of note that the shooting and crippling of an unarmed character is less potentially controversial or worthy of restriction from children’s viewing than her subsequent abuse.) But I stress that at this stage no one commenting actually knows what’s caused the R.

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Among several legitimate criticisms of The Killing Joke, the one that inevitably sets off the most extreme debate is that it plays into a common and highly sexist trope; the abuse of a female character to provide motivation for or to further the story of a male one. In comics in particular, the term ‘fridging’ tends to be applied to the practice, arising from Simone’s own ‘Women in Refrigerators’ examination. (Yes, a woman character was actually killed and left in a fridge for the male hero to find in a Green Lantern comic.)

Pre-TKJ, Barbara had a long history as a character with agency and an established life that was dependent neither on her father nor the rest of the Bat-family. She wasn’t top-tier, but well-established and much loved. As Simone pointed out yesterday, she’d also recently had an unexpectedly successful one-shot and was so was back on the map. In terms of The Killing Joke, though, she exists only to be abused as part of an attack on her father and Batman.

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When the problematic nature of this narrative is mentioned, a fairly stock set of responses tend to rear their heads, which is what I want to address. The following are either direct quotations or very close paraphrases of comments made yesterday.

“Male characters in comics get abused too. And in greater numbers.”

Yes they do, though the ‘greater numbers’ thing is meaningless in a medium where male characters outnumber female ones to the degree that occurs in comics. No one that I’ve seen has ever denied that. What matters is the nature and the frequency of the abuse.

Take a look at the Women in Refrigerators list. A shocking proportion of the list, which is not even complete up to the present time, are women who have had multiple abuses inflicted on them, frequently in the interest of someone else's story. Additionally, the sexual component of much of that abuse is far higher, as is the degree to which women have mental breakdowns, mental illnesses and similar situations inflicted on them, reflecting the way that women are seen as more generally mentally fragile than men. No one is saying that male characters aren’t the victims of abuse. The devil is in the detail.

This argument is closely related to:

“Why aren’t you also complaining about Nightwing having been raped? Do you only care about women as victims?”

This one’s about as glaring an example of derailment as you’ll ever see. Years after The Killing Joke, former Robin Dick Grayson was the victim of an assault that has itself been debated extensively, including by its author. Why exactly it should be considered relevant to a discussion of what happened in The Killing Joke has never been clear, given that they have literally no bearing on each other. Equally, while it’s possible they’re out there, I’ve never seen the opinion seriously expressed that being unhappy or angry about one situation prevents one from also being unhappy or angry about another, unrelated, situation.

“It’s not made explicit that Barbara was raped in The Killing Joke - she’s only definitely shot, crippled, stripped and photographed.”

Another bit of deflection. Most people who’ve read The Killing Joke are familiar with what’s actually depicted. Equally, most people who have a problem with it don’t dwell on the “was it rape or not” point and instead focus on that whole “abuse of a female character in service of a male character’s story” thing that definitely did happen, and indeed happens all the time.

The Killing Joke shows how strong and unstoppable Barbara is.”

It categorically doesn’t, and I can’t understand how anyone can suggest it does. To quote Simone on Twitter:

The fact that the character went on to have a long and meaningful existence after The Killing Joke is in spite of what Moore did in this story, not due to it.

The variant on this is:

The Killing Joke is the origin of Oracle, and that’s what makes it awesome!”

Again - it’s really not. Oracle is the identity that Kim Yale developed for Barbara when she was working on Suicide Squad with John Ostrander. Arguably one of the finest DC characters ever, Oracle was what Barbara became in order to support her fellow heroes in the DCU when unable to fight physically any longer.  Yale and Ostrander took a character that Moore and the (“cripple the bitch”) powers-that-were at DC had literally used and thrown away and, recognising the spirit that had always been there, reignited and redirected it.

[Editorialising even more than elsewhere here, I’d also posit that most of the people extolling Oracle in this way are far more interested in using her as a stick to beat The Killing Joke objectors than they are in her as a character in her own right. Oh the irony.]

The Killing Joke wasn’t meant to be canon. Moore was making some ill-defined point about dark and grim something-or-other.”

Does nothing to invalidate any of the criticisms of it. If anything, invalidates all the defences around what other people did with Barbara afterwards.

“Even Alan Moore doesn’t like it any more and says he wouldn’t do the same thing again.”

So? He still did it. It still exists with all its imperfections. See this entire article so far.

"Censorship!"

Nope

“Puritanism!”

This one actually cracks me up. There’s this weird subset of the discussions targeting Gail Simone specifically which includes the strange allegation that people only have a problem with the naked photos aspect because they think the naked female body is inherently sexual (and that sexual = bad). They further suggest that the objectors want to stop any depiction of sexual activity of any kind in comics, and that, well, they’re dirty puritans. Few writers in comics write such gleefully filthy sex in their stories as Gail Simone.

“Batgirl was a non-character anyway. Also, you just don’t understand her.”

Gail Simone wrote Oracle for years, and reintroduced Batgirl when the New 52 retconned her previously inoperable injuries to allow her to put on the costume again. You could (and I would) argue that no one currently working in comics has a better sense of Barbara’s character and what makes that character work. Watching people (mostly men) explain Babs to her is endlessly entertaining. Though probably not for her. And anyway, Barbara's quality as a character isn’t relevant to the argument. Her fridging as a character is.

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Clearly many of the ‘defences’ of The Killing Joke address assumed objections that really don’t exist - but that’s derailment for you. And none of them actually address the specifically stated problem, which is that a female character is abused and reduced to little more than a prop in order to motivate the man/men in her life. Again. The closest I saw anyone get to this was a line of thought around the fact that everything in the story is a prop to be used by the writer; men, women, everything, so it’s sexist only to dwell on the treatment of the only woman involved. Yes. Really.

And presumably I’m not the only one then to note that this only really draws more attention to the way Moore actually deployed his ‘props’, and what that says about his intent in the story and his view of a suitable role for women in his fiction.

It’s all very depressing.

Gail Simone is where I started on this little journey, and it’s to her I’ll return for the last word. It’s important to note that in all this, her resolutely maintained position is that everyone is free to like what they like, just as she doesn’t like The Killing Joke, while also calling people out on some of the more arrant nonsense they spout about it. 

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