You know, I really wanted to write about something nice today. I have a post about The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt still in my draft folder and a million things I want to write about Steven Universe. I could even talk about the fact I finally watched How To Train Your Dragon 2 last night.
No, I got to talk about The Killing Joke today to prove someone wrong on The Internet. Just be aware that there is a blanket trigger warning on this post for sexual assault.
If you’ve been out of the loop in the comics community lately, DC Comics editorial made yet another bad move. For the 75th anniversary of The Joker’s debut, DC decided to do a special variant cover line featuring the iconic villain with characters from the books for the month of June. Most were fairly innocuous and I actually actively like the Javier Pulido cover for Catwoman that I want a print of it.
And then there was the Batgirl cover. I apologize right now for including the image.
Making a reference to the iconic Alan Moore and Brian Bolland story The Killing Joke, the cover by Rafael Albuquerque features the Joker dressed in the same outfit he wore when he shot Barbara Gordon with his arm around her while she looks scared and helpless in her Batgirl of Burnside costume.
Naturally, the cover sparked controversy and a campaign was started to have it changed. It was refreshing that in comparison to the Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover, the move was quick with Albuquerque apologizing and requesting that DC cancel the cover. In a perfect world, that would have been the end of it and I’m grateful to Albuquerque for realizing the implications, apologizing, and taking action to correct it.
Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world and there’s been a firestorm this week of people on the Internet acting like freedom of speech has been attacked, with death threats being given to the people who started the protest and the current creative team coming under fire even though they had nothing to do with the cover.
The worst opinion I’ve seen lately though came on a friend’s wall post about it. The friend himself was initially not understanding of the controversy, but it naturally drew some comments of “They’re superheroes! Of course they face violence!” and “If it was Jason Todd on the cover, it wouldn’t be drawing the same controversy!” Those are annoying on their own, but then someone chimed in with, “There are no gender roles in the Jokers world, only opportunities to cause chaos, misery and pain. That’s the ultimate irony of the Joker. If you think that he chose Barbara because she was female, and not because she was Gordon’s child, you’re wrong.”
I didn’t even argue on the thread. My response was to just blink at my phone and say to myself, “They read The Killing Joke, right? I mean, I know it’s been a while since I read The Killing Joke, but…”
I think you can see where this is going. I haven’t read The Killing Joke since 2008, back when all I knew about comics was the basics they recommend to everyone just getting into Batman. My favorite book at the time was The Dark Knight Returns.
I don’t really remember my first impression of The Killing Joke. It didn’t strike a chord with me then. I said I liked it, but it did just kind of take up space on my shelf between now and then.
Re-reading it seven years later when I have a better understanding of things like comics history and feminist theory, it still doesn’t really strike a chord with me. In fact, it proves some of my issues with Alan Moore and the tropes he relies on.
If you’re unfamiliar with The Killing Joke, it’s a short story by Moore and Bolland about The Joker torturing Jim Gordon to try and prove a point that all one person needs to go insane is “one bad day.” Batman goes on the hunt to stop him, contemplating if he’s finally going to have to kill The Joker. It also flashes back to one of the possible origin stories for The Joker and what caused him to go mad.
I’ll admit, it does pose a good question of what that line of good and evil is between Batman and The Joker, something that has been explored in various ways ever since.
But did Moore really need The Joker to sexually assault Barbara Gordon to do it though?
Yes, Barbara was specifically attacked because she is Jim Gordon’s daughter. However, men in media tend to not have the same violence applied to them that women do. If the person sitting at home with Jim that night had been his son, he might have been shot and that would be the end of it. For Barbara though, she’s not only shot through the spine, but she was stripped naked and photographed just to psychologically torture her father. The original pages Bolland drew out imply further assault (Link is NSFW).
Not only is this a shining example of the Women in Refrigerators, but also an example of Moore’s reliance on rape as a plot device for his female characters and just how imbalanced it is for women in comics. Yeah, a superhero of any gender will face violence, but I don’t think people seem to realize that often for women, it leads to death, rape, or depowering for the man to angst to or just be a tragedy instead of sacrifice. Even in her hospital room, Barbara’s pain and suffering feels like a footnote to what Jim and Bruce are going through in the main story. Plus, do I even NEED to mention everything Harley Quinn has been put through at the hands of The Joker to prove that his ability to cause misery and chaos does have a particular bend when it comes to women?
Bolland states in the edition I have that he hates what happened to Barbara, but it sits worse with me that he didn’t speak up. Maybe this story that was supposed to be non-canon wouldn’t be repeated over and over again. It’s even implied that Jim is raped in the comic as well by three dwarves, but no one’s been trying to keep that plot point canon for almost thirty years.
I can understand why The Killing Joke struck a chord that it did with the comic reading public and I’m glad it lead to the creation of The Oracle, but we need to come to an understanding as a community that not all history is worth repeating. The Joker is not an indiscriminate troublemaker, women in comics deserve better than their pain to only serve to further the plot for their men-identified counterparts, and Barbara Gordon as a character deserves to move on with her life, whether it be as Oracle or The Batgirl of Burnside.
The internet made me re-read The Killing Joke and I’m not sure if I’m better or worse off for it.
If you really need to have The Killing Joke referenced in a Batgirl cover to have your life be complete, maybe seek out the Harley Quinn variant of Batgirl #39 by Cliff Chiang. It fits the tone of the comic better and is actually a clever turn on the cover. If you’re looking for victims here though, I’m certainly not going to help you.