Sunday, 1 May 2016

Why 'The Killing Joke' Film Is A Bad Idea

A lot of comic book fans like the work of Alan Moore, some will go so far as to say they love his work, citing him as one of the greatest comic book writers of all time.  Out of all of his works two stand out as his best, one being the twelve part miniseries 'Watchmen', the other being the single issue 'The Killing Joke'.

'The Killing Joke' is a Batman story that has gone on to have some of the most lasting effect in the character's history, and some fans have been calling for the work to be adapted in some form for years.  Since the announcement that DC would be producing the story as an R-Rated animated feature, starring the voice talents of long time series stars Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and Joker respectively, some fans have been cheering the production.

Since the publication of the original book there have been people who have taken issue with the story, people who are speaking out against it yet again as the film nears its release.

Some fans have issues with the story because Moore attempts to tell an origin story for the Joker, something that has been done several times over the years and being met with several degrees of reactions.  Whilst there is no definitive answer as to who the iconic villain is or how he ended up the way he is, Moore's is regarded by some to be a 'definitive' answer to this question, which is a stance that angers some fans who believe that his origin should never be confirmed.  Personally my favourite of these possible origins is the Pale Man created by Scott Snyder, but that's doesn't really add much to this conversation, I just wanted to share a little.

The main issue that many of the detractors have with the story, aside from the Joker origin, is the depiction of the violence that the Joker visits upon the supporting character of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl.  In the story the Joker shoots Barbara, an injury that goes on to cause long term damage that would leave the character crippled and wheelchair bound for the next 24 years of comic publication, then he strips her naked and takes photographs of her to use as a weapon against her father.

People have said that 'The Killing Joke' is built upon a foundation of sexual abuse and misogyny.  Whilst the events of 'The Killing Joke' would go on to be a point of huge character development for Barbara Gordon and many fans cite that as justification for the assault.  Some fans say that her development into Oracle and her prominence as the first major comic book character with a visible disability is due to 'The Killing Joke', and that it absolves the violence done upon her in that book.

What some people don't realise is that at the time that 'The Killing Joke' was written there were no plans for any of that.  No one in the company had the intention of turning Barbara into the character that she would go on to become.

In the build up to 'The Killing Joke' Barbara gave up the mantle of Batgirl to prepare her for Moore's story.  Speaking to Wizard Magazine in 2006 Moore even went on to say that he felt that someone should have stepped in to prevent him from what he did to the character.

'I asked DC if they had a problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon - who was Batgirl at the time - and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project ... [he] said, 'Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch'.  It was probably one of the areas where they should have reined me in, but they didn't'.

The Joker sexually assaults Barbara following her injury.
That was it as far as DC were concerned, Barbara was crippled and they had no intention of doing anything else with the character.  It was only through the intervention of writer Kim Yale and her husband John Ostrander that Barbara became the character many would know and love.  Not pleased with the way she had been treated in 'The Killing Joke', and unhappy with DC executive's decision to do nothing with the character, they slowly began to create the Oracle identity for her over the course of several titles, including Suicide Squad, Hawk and Dove, Manhunter and, most famously, Birds of Prey.

Barbara would go on in the role of Oracle for many more years, both as a major player in the Birds of Prey title, thanks to the writing of Gail Simone, and the wider DC universe as a whole.  But these developments are not because of Alan Moore, but rather in spite of him, to correct a huge disservice done upon the character under his direction.

Alan Moore did not write 'The Killing Joke' with Barbara's extended development in mind, but simply used her as a plot device in which to write a story about men.  The killing of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner's girlfriend Alex is often held up as a prime example of women being assaulted in order to further a man's story, and the term 'women in refrigerators' comes from this, but the crippling and sexual assault of Barbara Gordon is possibly the most well-known, even if people do not think of it in these terms.

This puts the new film in a problematic position.  Whilst the comic books had many years following the release of the book to correct the damage done to the character and give Barbara room to grow, the film will not have the option to do this.  Yes, there may be some kind of montage at the end that shows Barbara going on to becoming Oracle and her growth as a person, but I highly doubt that anything like that will be included.  No, in this film Barbara is only going to be used in the same way that she was in the original book, as a victim.

The harm done to Barbara within this film will also be heightened by the fact that the character has gone through a resurgence in recent years, having once again become Batgirl during the New 52 relaunch.  The new Batgirl comic has been a critical and financial success for DC, with her book frequently being in the Top 40 for sales each issue.

With the character being in such a high profile position right now, and with many new readers discovering the character for the first time, some possibly only even mildly aware of her backstory in 'The Killing Joke', the film using her as a victim of abuse will surely disturb and upset many fans of the character, and of the DC universe in general.

It's important to acknowledge the fact that this film is being widely advertised as being an R-Rated film, which has delighted some fans.  Whilst some of the decision to make the film R-Rated may have come from the success of the recent 'Deadpool' film and DC's frantic desire to appeal to an adult audience (their previously unannounced plan to release an R-Rated version of 'Batman V Superman' being revealed only after the success of 'Deadpool' being an indicator of this) it goes a long way to tell us the kind of graphic images that will be incorporated into the film.

During the course of the story we see Barbara sexually assaulted, along with her father being stripped naked by dwarfs in bondage clothing and forced to see pictures of his naked and abused daughter.  Making the project R-Rated means that the creators have free reign to show as much of this as they want to, in as much graphic detail as they like.

The original artwork before being censored contained
more nudity and sexual content.
At the time of the release of the book DC made the decision to censor some of the content, as the original artwork was much more graphic and sexual in its content.  At the time this choice was probably one of the best moves that DC could make, as comics were still something of a fragile industry and the focus of a great deal of criticism.  In today's climate, with comic book properties being in both such high demand and producing such a high turnover for their companies there is nothing to prevent DC from being able to show the events of the story in all of their graphic detail.

With us having had several live action and animated Batman movies that have shown high levels of violence that have not needed to resort to encroaching into R-Rated territory there are only two possible reasons why this project would be given such a rating, to include extremely strong language or to include graphic violence and scenes of sexual assault.  Personally I doubt that the decision was made to include strong language.

So we now stand at a point where we will be receiving a Batman film that revels in the violence and sexual assault of one of the franchise's most beloved and powerful female characters, where she will be put through extreme violence simply to tell a story about men, namely Batman, the Joker and Commissioner Gordon.

Whilst some are already arguing that removing these scenes from the story would somehow lessen it to the point of making the story pointless you must consider the wider ramifications of what this will be saying to female viewers.  A Publishers Weekly report released in 2014 found that women aged between 17 and 33 were the fastest growing group in comic book readership and retail, something that has only continued since with the inclusion of more female led solo books from Marvel and DC, as well as female centric independent series.

To produce a story that hinges so centrally on the exploitative victimisation of a major female superhero and comic book icon only ignores the inclusion of so many more female readers and fans than any other time in comic book history.  Surely to produce work such as this will go on to alienate this growing audience and could even damage the success of this film, as well as future project.

DC are aware of the trouble with the content of 'The Killing Joke', as they recently chose to remove a variant cover for issue 41 of the latest volume of 'Batgirl' for choosing to reference the events of 'The Killing Joke' and depicting Barbara in a victim role once again.  If DC are so acutely aware of the trouble around this kind of content to the point that they take action to remove it, it raises the question of why they are now prepared to ignore this female audience and the disturbing nature of the story just because it is in film form rather than in print.

I believe that a lot people's views on 'The Killing Joke' are sadly going to be dictated by gender.  Women, and those men who have an awareness of these kinds of issues, will surely have a problem with film and find it disturbing, whilst many men will see no issue with it.  The fight over this issue, and believe me there already is one going on online, centres over people's views of violence against women and sexual assault and will not be one where a middle ground will be found.

The comics industry has made great strides in being more inclusive and appealing to a female audience over the last few years, but 'The Killing Joke' film feels like a huge step backwards in this area.



  1. Why The Killing Joke Shouldn't Be A Movie.
    I agree with a lot of your points about Barbara Gordon/Batgirl being used as a victim, primarily to further a story of male protagonists/antagonists. Perhaps her subsequent development into Oracle was an attempt to right a wrong. But perhaps there may be another way to look at it.
    Barbara's abuse was more about how vile Joker was. Look at what he did to Robin in Death In The Family. Barbara's treatment may well have been brutal, but she wouldn't have gone down without a fight, had she not been shot.
    As for how she develops into Oracle, even though it might have been see as damage control, it could also be argued that, because her character was so well defined, her development was a natural progression that was felt very organic.
    I feel that the R rating might allow the writers to be more honest and faithful to the source material, much in the same way that The Dark Knight Returns was handled. That shows a deeply flawed Batman, just short of being over the edge and I really didn't see them compromising on what Frank Miller wrote. I'm glad Kevin Conroy is there. He is the best Batman never to wear the cowl and, I don't think anyone has anything bad to say about Mark Hamill. His performances as both Joker and The Trickster have been nothing short of chilling.
    I trust that the female audience is intelligent enough to see this story in its context. It was published in the 1980s and if they keep that setting, it can be seen as a period piece, written in a less enlightened era. Obviously, it's not a perfect world, but I think gender politics has come a long way since 1988. I think the boat can withstand a little rocking. Maybe films like this might even push debate a little further.
    Simon Hunter

  2. "Personally my favourite of these possible origins is the Pale Man created by Scott Snyder, but that's doesn't really add much to this conversation, I just wanted to share a little."

    On the contrary I believe that does actually add to the conversation.

    Simply put, the Killing Joke doesn't work very well as a story, and not just because of issues relating to gender (which you quite rightly highlight above). The characterization is rubbish. The plot is predictable and boring. The pacing is jumpy and awkward. The writing is completely uninteresting. While Brian Bollard's undoubtedly quite talented, his artwork is nothing special in TKJ (just to stick to artists who have drawn Batman or Batfamily books, I would say the artwork in TKJ isn't nearly as good as the work of Dick Sprang, Babs Tarr or Carmine Infantino).

    DC shouldn't make an adaptation of TKJ simply because TKJ fails as a story. I think Alan Moore is one of the greatest writers of comics ever but TKJ is some of the worst stuff I've read written by him. I find it genuinely baffling that someone who wrote such great works like Top Ten, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, For the Man who Has Everything, Watchmen, Swamp Thing and some of the best 2000ad short stories ever published, also wrote one of the worst Batman stories I've ever read.