Re-Evaluating “The Killing Joke”

The Killing Joke 1At San Diego Comic-Con a few weeks ago, Bruce Timm announced that he would be producing a direct-to-video animated version of “The Killing Joke.” This was cause for much celebration for many fans on its own, but their celebration was soon heightened by the announcement that Joker veteran Mark Hamill would be returning to do the voice of the Joker. While either of these announcements would have been enough to produce massive amounts of excitement on the part of fans, together these two announcements create something new, something entirely different, something larger than life. You have one of the most iconic voices for the Joker combined with one of the most famous Batman stories. It sounds to me like an idea that prints money, and judging by the response from the fans, I’m not far off. And this is something I find a little disturbing. I get the Hamill thing. His version of the Joker is really one of the best of all time, and his voice and laugh have become associated with the character in many fans’ minds. I know I’m not the only one to hear Hamill’s voice when I read the Joker in the comic books. Any time he revisits the character is exciting and very welcomed. I, like many other people, struggle with the choice of “The Killing Joke” as the story to adapt. I didn't always feel this way. When I first purchased this book off a sale shelf for about five bucks, I was blown away. I felt like the story was complex, providing an excellent backstory for the Joker, while still maintaining an air of mystery for the character. I thought he interactions between Batman and Commissioner Gordon were all extremely well-done, and the ambiguous ending was remarkably thought-provoking in every way. Over the years, though, as I've grown as a writer, reader, and person, I've started to question that original assessment. I've started questioning if this story really deserves as much praise as it receives. Now, a couple of ground rules before I proceed. I understand that the terms "good" and "great" are subjective, so let me define them for you up front in the sense that I will be using them. I'm not referring to personal gauge of a story. I can find a story "good" or "great" on a personal enjoyment level, and regardless of what other people say, that rating of a story does not disappear. I can hold onto that as long as possible. In this article, however, I will be using "good" and "great" on a technical level. Personal opinion aside, "good" and "great" writing uses specific rules and conventions to build its structure. Sometimes a writer can play with those rules, but there is always a certain degree of technical competence in "good" or "great" writing. The easiest example of this I can give is something like Twilight, which I'm sure all of the people reading this have read. Twilight appeals to a lot of people. A lot. People who enjoy it find it to be a "good" book, or even "great." However, if you break the story down to its technical components, it has a lot of issues in terms of characterization, dialogue, construction, etc. Now, if this stuff doesn't matter to you, you might still find the story "good" or "great." I have no problem with this. I'm not here to tell you what to enjoy, or what media to consume. If Twilight is your jam, then enjoy it. Life is too short to be ashamed by the stuff you enjoy. I'll just be over here listening to my rad Stryper albums. So, as you read the following, please understand that I am not trying to tell you that you can't or shouldn't enjoy "The Killing Joke." All I'm trying to say is that the more I read it, and the more I think about it, the more I'm starting to question if this story is all that good on a technical level. This story is often cited as one of the greatest Batman stories of all time, and I'm starting to question if it should be. Let's start with the controversy, since you can't have a discussion about "The Killing Joke" without at least acknowledging it. Now, most of the controversy surrounding this story is over the portrayal of Barbara Gordon, specifically the whole crippling and sexual assault. Within the story, she is a non-character, serving a single purpose: as a catalyst for the three male figures in the story to hammer out the issues that they’re dealing with. It’s the very definition of “fridging” as defined by Gail Simone. This is further enhanced by the alleged words of editor Len Wein, who reportedly told writer Alan Moore to “cripple the bitch.” All around, this is extremely troublesome, yet for some reason, people worship this story, and if anyone questions its brilliance, or even brings up its problematic nature, he or she gets shot down by a legion of “A Killing Joke” fans. My primary issue with this, and why I think it hurts the quality of the story overall, is how it ignores Barbara's perspective. Follow me for a second. If I write a story that has four primary figures, and I demote one of those figures to a tertiary status, that's not a bad decision in itself. Often, you want to establish a hierarchy of importance for your characters so that you can avoid overcrowding in your story. However, say I demote one of those figures to a tertiary status, but make that character the most important figure in the story. How does that gel? Because make no mistake: Barbara Gordon is the most important character in "The Killing Joke." Without her, there is no story. She is the catalyst for all of the events. If she isn't shot and raped, the Joker has no plans, the Batman doesn't feel motivated, and Gordon's mental status is never tested. She is literally the lynchpin that holds the entire story together. Remove her, and it all crumbles. And, she's given what? A few on-panel appearances? Some inconsequential lines of dialogue? Some exploitative, shocking nudity? This is all made even more troubling when you consider Barbara's apparent position as "victim" in this story. Now, as a writer matures, I think he or she starts to realize that it's the story of the victims that give a crime drama its weight. The villain can be interesting, and the hero can save the day, but it's the story behind the victim that makes a crime drama great. Who is the victim in "The Killing Joke?" It's not Barbara Gordon. You would think it would be, because she's shot in the spine and sexually assaulted. However, it's not. She has no story within the story. She has no perspective or agency. As previously mentioned, she is a non-character, a set-piece. The real victim of "The Killing Joke" is Jim Gordon, her father. He's the one that's kidnapped, possibly sexually assaulted, and psychologically tortured by the Joker. His perspective is showcased, and he's the one that has to deal with what the Joker has done. Let me reiterate: You have a major character in the DCU shot, crippled, and brutalized, but it a secondary character that's the real victim. Take the gender out of the equation. You still have a story that has four primary forces, one of which -- the most important -- is reduced to a set-piece, used only to give another character -- the secondary character, her father -- character development. Tell me again, how "The Killing Joke" is a great story. Often, when defending "The Killing Joke," fans will trot out the Oracle argument. For those who don't know, Oracle is the tech-wizard character that wheelchair-bound Barbara Gordon becomes after the events of this story. Now, I love Oracle. I think Oracle is the best example in comic books of making lemonade out of lemons. But, don't kid yourself. When "The Killing Joke" was written, Oracle was in no way the plan for the character. DC had no plans for the character, which is why they allowed Moore to cripple her. While I think we can all agree that Oracle was a wonderful addition to the DCU, praise for that should in no way be directed toward "The Killing Joke." Send the praise for Oracle to Kim Yale and John Ostrander. They saw the potential that DC didn't. They fought back against throwing Barbara into the trash heap. Yale and Ostrander giving Barbara agency and voice? That is a good story. the-killing-joke 2I want to talk about the ending before I go because I think it's important. The ending is pretty ambiguous, which I believe adds quite a bit to the mystique of this story. After finally capturing the Joker, Batman offers him assistance in getting well, assistance that the Joker turns down. The Joker than tells Batman a joke, and the comic ends with the two of them laughing in the rain. The ambiguity of the ending is sealed by Brian Bolland's artwork, which slowly shifts away from the two central figures as the police arrive. Did Batman kill the Joker? Did he just arrest him? What exactly happened? No one knows, and both the writer and artist have been quiet on the subject. What I want to know is what happened to Barbara? We've already established Barbara as the most important element of this story, the catalyst that spurs the entire thing along. In this sense, she almost becomes a MacGuffin. In literary terms, a MacGuffin is the object of desire that pushes all the characters through any given story. Sometimes the MacGuffin is physical, like The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or metaphysical, like the idea of control in Star Wars. Most stories have some form of MacGuffin that drives the plot, and gives the main characters a reason to keep going. I would say that since Barbara Gordon is the central figure of "The Killing Joke," she is the MacGuffin in this story. So, what happens to her? There's next to no mention of her in the final pages. There is only Batman and the Joker laughing at a joke. What happened to the driving focus of the story? For a parallel, can you imagine watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, and somewhere near the end, everyone just sort of forgets about the ark? No other mention? No one is like, "Hey. What happened to that ark?" If you want the shooting of Barbara Gordon to matter within the context of this story, you have make her the focus of the story. And, here, she's not. She's shot, crippled, tortured, brutalized, and cast to the side, to never be thought of again. It almost appears that the writer's forgot about her. Which brings me to the most terrifying piece of this entire situation. I forgot about her as well. When I first read this story some 20 years ago, I thought it was brilliant. But, I never gave an additional thought to Barbara. Had I, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed the story as much. Because, on the whole, her lack of agency and voice in the comic, her lack of even appearing to matter within the context of the story, makes the story construction up to and including the ambiguous ending questionable. When viewing the story through this lens, it comes off as weak storytelling. Now, again, I'm not trying to tell you that you can't like the comic. I'm not telling you that you shouldn't like the comic. You are free to enjoy whatever comics you want. When you read this story, though, look past the names on the cover, and the history, and the nostalgia, and ask yourself: is this comic really that good? You might be surprised by your answer.
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Christopher David Lawton

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