DC Comics fans are up in arms over an upcoming, animated adaptation of one of Batman’s most controversial storylines: The Killing Joke. Most fans are eagerly awaiting the film. Others, though, are crying foul, arguing that the new film, like the comic it's based on, is built upon sexual violence and misogyny masquerading as character building.
Though there have been many different Joker origin stories, in 1988, writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland teamed up to tell the most iconic tale of how the Joker came to be.
In Batman: The Killing Joke, the Joker actually begins his life as an unfulfilled engineer who decides to quit his job to pursue his lifelong dream of being a comedian. The man, who is unnamed throughout the entire story, is struggling to support his pregnant wife. Though he loves being a comedian, it’s far from the well-paying job he’d thought it would be and, in time, he turns to crime in order to make ends meet.
Through a series of events, the man is apprehended by Batman during a routine robbery at a chemical plant where he accidentally falls into a vat of toxic chemicals that bleach his skin paper white, turn his hair bright green, and stain his lips permanently red. His gruesome transformation drives him literally insane and he becomes The Joker, Batman’s arch nemesis.
As an origin story, The Killing Joke does an extremely good job of adding layers and nuance to a character who’s often conceptualized as being an inexplicable psychopath who causes mayhem just for the sake of it. As a whole, though, The Killing Joke does a fair amount of its work explaining the Joker at the brutal expense of another character: Batgirl.
The Killing Joke is really about the Joker proving a point—that “one bad day” can be more than enough to drive a person just as insane as he is. In an effort to prove that point, he picks a target, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, and decides to hurt him by brutalizing Gordon’s daughter, Barbara (who is also secretly Batgirl.)
One of The Killing Joke’s most gruesome scenes involves the Joker shooting Barbara, out of costume, directly through the spine in front of her father. He then proceeds to undress her and photograph her nude to further humiliate her father. For good measure, he shoots Jim as well.
The Killing Joke had long-lasting implications for Batgirl fans for decades after it was first published. Barbara was left in a wheelchair-bound and deeply traumatized. For readers, though, The Killing Joke also left a dark smudge on the DC universe that, for a while, abused and disposed of a well-loved superheroine just to make a male villain more “complex.”
In the 26 years after The Killing Joke was first published, Barbara went on to become the Oracle, a crimefighting hacker and one of the most high-profile, disabled superheroes in all of comics. In 2011, as a part of DC's New 52, company-wide reboot to draw in new readers, Barbara was aged back into a young, recent college grad who'd recently regained her ability to walk.
The events of The Killing Joke were not erased, but rather than decomissioning Batgirl, Barbara undergoes experimental therapy and extensive rehabilitation. Since the Batgirl began its new run, the series has consistently sold well in comic shops across the country and been praised for its fresh, young take on a strong, female member of the Bat family.
Defenders of The Killing Joke often use Barbara's subsequent renaissance as Oracle as a trial-by-fire justification for her brutal treatment. Donna Dickens, managing editor for HitFix's Harpy, says that that justification is utter nonsense.
"[T]he idea that “The Killing Joke” set up Barbara to become the Oracle is, quite frankly, bullshit," Dickens told Fusion. "At the time the comic was released, DC had no plans to do anything with Batgirl; it wasn’t until Kim Yale fished her out of the discard pile that Oracle became a character. Oracle is a wonderful character but her existence is in spite of Killing Joke, not because of it."
All of this leaves The Killing Joke in a problematic space.
A true-to-the-comics adaptation of the story arc would hit those same beats that made the original story so difficult to stomach. Barbara would be shot, her body would be violated, and she would be left, essentially, a brutalized victim devoid of agency.
All of the work that's gone into breathing new life into modern-day Barbara would, for newcomers, be undercut with a sadistic attack that isn't adding anything to current storylines. Batgirl from nearly 30 years ago may have overcome her trauma at the hands of the Joker and come out stronger as a result, but what good could DC possibly come from rehashing this story?
At the time of publishing, DC Comics could not be reached for comment.
It's possible that a new, more modern retelling of the story could eliminate the themes of sexual violence from plot, but many die-hard fans are insisting that that would be disingenuous. People with attachments to the original Killing Joke have taken to Twitter and are gathering around the #DontKillTheJoke hashtag to show their support.
"Media isn't supposed to make us all warm and fuzzy inside," Reddit user lokuas wrote. "The best art always makes us question ourselves, it makes us uncomfortable, it makes us think. If we only made things that were devoid of questionable content, there would be no media worth partaking in."
In her piece It's time to kill 'The Killing Joke,' Donna Dickens reasons that clamoring to revisit Batgirl's treatment in The Killing Joke serves no purpose other than to revel in her abuse and blatantly ignore how that might come across to female readers.
"Women are the fastest growing group of comics consumers," Dickens points out. "To return to a story that hinges on the exploitative victimization of a major female superhero seems like a step in the wrong direction. "[I]t might be time to let it go."
Mark Hamill, who lent his voice to the unforgettable Joker of Batman: The Animated series has expressed his interest in working on the film despite insisting that he wouldn't be returning to the character. This new Killing Joke, in short, is almost certainly going to be a thing. The only question now is which direction DC decides to take it in.