No One is Laughing: The Killing Joke Twenty Years On…

The Killing Joke is a… controversial part of DC lore even twenty years after it was originally published. It was written by Alan Moore during his time a DC, and – measured against his other contributions at the time like Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Watchmen or Swamp Thing – it’s generally considered something of a flawed masterpiece. A standalone graphic novel exploring the character of the Joker (and, perhaps, offering the definitive reimagining), the story is as famous for its telling (or, indeed retelling – the origin story offered here is expanded from The Man Behind the Red Hood, originally published in 1951) of the events that led the Joker to madness and his obsession with Batman.

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It is also famous as the story which put Barbara Gordon in a wheelchair.

Moore himself has been somewhat unkind to the story as he glances back at his career:

I mean, Brian [Bolland] did a wonderful job on the art but I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting.

Or even:

Batman: The Killing Joke, which still sells, and I believe that it has been accepted that it was the main influence on the first Batman film, for what’s that worth, is a terrible book. I mean, it doesn’t say anything.

However, over the past few years the book has found itself almost at the centre of a very interesting debate on the state of modern comic books. Indeed, it has been revisited recently by J. Michael Straczynski in an issue of his wonderful The Brave & The Bold and by Geoff Johns in 52 Pick-Up.

Hell, the story itself even gets a sly reference in a recent DC animated universe adaptation, the very well put together Under the Hood – there’s a reference made to the Joker and “the friends’ he’s crippled”, as well as the Joker’s fascination with documenting the occasion with a camera. I think it’s safe to say that the story is a key part of DC’s tapestry of continuity, but it’s still interesting to see so much discussion around it now of all times.

Of course, the story itself has always been somewhat hotly debated. The most controversial aspect of the book is the crippling of Barbara Gordon, former Batgirl, by the Joker. She isn’t shot saving an old lady, or stopping a bank robbery – she’s shot at home with her father. She is then stripped naked, and the Joker takes pictures of her lying there.

The real kicker, however, is that Barbara isn’t vicitimised for herself. The Joker will likely never know that he placed Batgirl in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. He honestly doesn’t seem too bothered. He really just wants to get at her father, to drive him mad, to prove a point. The shooting of Barbara is an event that only really has an impact because of the effect it has on her father. In other words, the Joker uses Barbara to get to her dad.

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To be fair, there’s a lot of discussion about whether this is an example of “women in refrigerators”, the shamefully long history of comic book exploitation of female characters only to exploit the emotional impact such violence has on the male characters. Some would argue that it is a clear cut case of exploitation:

The Killing Joke is clearly not Barbara Gordon’s story. The attack, which included the Joker stripping off her clothes and photographing her naked, had nothing to do with her. She exists only as a device with which to torture Jim Gordon and Batman. The Joker is not even aware that the woman he is attacking is Batgirl, although he would no doubt find that hilarious.

I’m not so easily convinced, to be honest – though I will concede that Moore clearly didn’t have anything particularly thoughtful in mind for Barbara when she was shot. Indeed, writer Kurt Busiek has made the observation that the book pretty much forgets about her for the final sequence where her mentor, Batman, and the clown share a joke:

I don’t think sharing a laugh with the torturer of someone you love is a “way out.” It’s a bad story from an excellent writer. We don’t have to tie things up in knots pretending it’s good. It doesn’t work. Moore thinks so himself.

In fact, it was the excellent work of John and Kim Ostrander who actually managed to call Batman on that in-universe not too shortly afterwards, with a wheelchair-bound Barbara confronting the vigilante on his conduct:

I caught him, Barbara…

Oh yes, I heard about that. I heard how you two stood there laughing over some private joke. Tell me — was it me?

- Batman and Barbara Gordon, The Batman Chronicles #5

Barbara Gordon in the wake of the story has always presented something of a dilemma to writers. Barbara is in a wheelchair. John and Kim Ostrander turned her into Oracle, one of the most prominent disabled superheroes out there. However, Barbara lives in a world where magic is commonplace and technology allows people like Lex Luthor to build cyborgs once a week. How is it possible that Zatanna doesn’t pop around and say a few words to get her walking again? Or how come Batman doesn’t take her to a Lazarus Pit?

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Hell, when a villain severed Damian Wayne’s spine in an issue of Batman & Robin by Grant Morrison (a series which, he repeatedly concedes, he peppered with references to The Killing Joke and other iconic Joker stories), he’s healed by mumbo jumbo (a cloned spine) almost straight away. Indeed, Morrison seems to intentionally position it as a contrast to the manner in which Oracle has remained in a wheelchair since The Killing Joke.

Of course, DC can’t heal her. How would that look – healing perhaps the most iconic disabled superheroine on the planet by applying some techno-speak or special magic? It would be hugely insulting to the community she has come to represent so well. It would undermine the fact that she plays a vital role in the universe at the moment – it would create the impression that she would be “better” if she weren’t in the chair. And that is a message that the company are uncomfortable sending (rightly so). It’s a tough nut to crack:

It’s a tough question to crack, because it’s a Catch-22 almost anyway you look at it. One could argue that curing Barbara and allowing her to be Batgirl again would simply allow her to do more good fighting crime than she ever could in a wheelchair, but then you look insensitive to the ability and usefulness she has in other capacities as Oracle. Conversely, you could say that removing Barbara from her wheelchair drastically alters her character, but then wouldn’t that indicate that this is a character defined by her handicap? This begs the question of why so many fans adore her: is it because she’s a bold and daring leader that rivals the Calculator in brains? Or is it because she’s all of that, but stuck in a wheelchair? Think about the question, and surely many of you will find an answer you don’t like.

So, Barbara has been in that wheelchair for two decades, a constant remind of perhaps the Joker’s first truly horrifying act (though by now means his last). I think it’s fair to look at The Killing Joke as something of a watershed. Afterwards, villains became more violent and violence became more graphic. It’s almost as though the “grim and gritty” era of the nineties flowed from The Killing Joke and the notion that you were allowed to maim and torture an innocent girl in a mainstream comic. And I think that’s perhaps why The Killing Joke has become a focal point.

A lot of people trace the violence of the nineties back to a fundamental misunderstanding of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and they are more than likely right. The novels redefined the medium, and a lot of people watching simplified the idea down to the fact that violence and darkness were the key to the success of both stories (it’s an incorrect assumption – the appeal of those stories comes from their complexity).

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In recent years, at both DC and Marvel, we’ve seen a firm reaction to this era of nihilism and violence. Writers like Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison are accused of revitalising hokey Silver Age concepts. Hal Jordan and Barry Allen have both been raised from the dead. Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis are both firm rebukes to the era of empty violence that we’ve seen. However, no matter how far these writers may wind back the clock and how many characters they may resurrect, Barbara Gordon will always remain in that wheelchair.

However, unlike Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke is within continuity. It is possible for stories to reference and explore that little chapter in a way that just isn’t possible with the other two titles. Rather than being an alternate universe, The Killing Joke actually happened to Batman and his supporting cast (and, indeed, to the DC Universe as a whole).

So, in this bright an cheerful world, how do we make our peace with The Killing Joke? It’s interesting to note that both Geoff Johns and J. Michael Straczynski, perhaps two of the highest profile comic book writers in the world, have both offered their own unique perspective on the event, drawing the story in the wider context of DC continuity.One can only imagine how Moore, himself an old curmudgeon, feels about this, given how downright critical he was of the fact that Geoff Johns wrote Blackest Night as an affectionate homage to a Green Lantern annual Moore wrote years back:

I increasingly get a sense of the comics industry going through my trashcan like raccoons in the dead of the night… That’s a good image, isn’t it? They weren’t even particularly good ideas.

Anyway, neither of the two writers handling the event is able to really explain how or why the story is as crucial as it is – Johns had time travelling superhero Booster Gold attempt to foil the Joker’s plan during his 52 Pick-Up arc, only to serve as a lesson from his mentor Rip Hunter:

Barbara Gordon was always meant destined to be paralyzed and become the cyber crime-fighter called Oracle. That’s the way it was supposed to be. The Joker will always shoot Barbara Gordon.

I’m not necessarily convinced. If time can be in flux enough for villains to prevent good things from happening (and it clearly is, as Booster is tasked with stopping them from killing Superman’s adoptive great-grandfather or Guy Gardner), surely it works the other way around too? The only explanation we’re given is that “it’s solidified time”. Which seems quite arbitrary.

Somehow an inexplicably, The Killing Joke is a moment outside DC’s magic. It’s the mistake which can’t be rectified. The wonder and brightness of Johns’ Silver Age trappings simply have no power over it.

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It seems an unnecessary exploration to me, but perhaps a good one if we needed one to be explicitly mentioned. That said, when you draw attention to a strange aspect of anything, even to explain it, it only serves to draw more attention to it. However, Johns’ story is relatively tactful and demonstrates his genuine affection for one of the medium’s greatest writers.

However, J. Michael Straczynski’s take is something I’ve had a bit of trouble reconciling. I have genuinely loved his The Brave and the Bold run, with its quirky team-ups and mostly well-written cast – I appreciate Straczynski has a tendency to speak through his characters (after all, isn’t his first Superman arc – Grounded – one long fillibuster?), but he makes some smart and well-observed points. Plus he makes Aquaman a badass, which counts for a lot.

Anyway, he has approached The Killing Joke twice in his first collection of issues. In Small Problems, he posits an alternative origin to the character, in sharp contrast to Moore’s sympathetic unfunny comedian changed by “one bad day”. Of course, Moore himself didn’t pretend his version would be definitive (“if I’m going to have a past, I want it to be multiple choice!” to quote the clown), but it’s still interesting to see how DC is tinkering with the notion that the Joker might have been a good person before his tragedy. Lovers and Madmen, for example, was a recent retelling of the character’s origin which painted him as a sadistic gangster. In Small Problems, he’s a sociopathic child. The idea seems to be to move away from a more complex and (dare I say it…) sympathetic portrayal of the character to one whose ghoulish exterior now reflects what he always looked like.

However, Straczynski’s most interesting approach to The Killing Joke occurs in Girls’ Night Out. The story sees magician Zatanna and superhero Wonder Woman take a trip to Gotham to spend a night with Barbara (who is, at the time, Batgirl). They do all manner of stereotypical things – they go to a nightclub, two of them share an emotional moment in a bathroom, the hot nerdy one wonders why nobody wants to dance with her (Zatanna has to magic a guy into wanting to dance with her!), and they share a lovely bond. It’s a clichéfest, but it seems like friendly enough throwaway fare until you realise what Straczynski is doing.

It starts to become obvious with Zatanna (who we glimpse in opening page waking up from a horrible nightmare), explaining to Barbara about the oracles of classical civilisation. However, he puts the key words in Barbara’s mouth:

And if they told you the future and you did anything to try and change it, you’d only make things a thousand times worse.

He does allow Wonder Woman to clarify in case you didn’t get the memo:

And the greatest burden of all was to be an oracle of prophecy. When there was nothing you could do to alter the course of the future, because you had just enough information to know something was going to happen, but not enough information to stop it from happening.

After this, we see Barbara at home with her father, and we watch the familiar scenes play out – she gets him a cup of coffee, there’s a knock at the door… At the same time, we also see a conversation between Wonder Woman and Zatanna from earlier, in which Zatanna confesses her visions to Wonder Woman:

And if I do try, I could make it even worse –

I know –

– I’d do anything to stop it from happening.

And here is where Straczynski loses me.

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The most common criticism of The Killing Joke is that it victimised Barbara Gordon for no other reason than to serve as a point of conflict between the Joker and Batman and Commissioner Gordon. She wasn’t actively involved in any of this. None of the story was about her and she was simply treated as a disposable woman. She wasn’t an active part of the plot.

And yet, Straczynski’s reponse is to do exactly the same thing.

Barbara Gordon is no more an active part of Girls’ Night Out than she was of The Killing Joke. Hell, Straczynski does expect us to feel sympathy for her, but he also wants us to pity the horrible situation that Wonder Woman and Zatanna have found themselves in. Except they don’t make any effort to empower Barbara at all – the power and the decision at the crux of the story (despite what Straczynski would suggest by giving key lines to Barbara) rest entirely with Zatanna (and is later shared with Wonder Woman).

Of course, if I found out a close friend was going to be badly hurt, I’d do a little bit more than take them for a night out. Hell, even assuming that Zatanna is correct and the choice is between “Barbara Gordon being paralyzed from the waist down” (and the fact that she intentionally steers the conversation towards the data-gathering nature of oracles suggests she knows more of the future than a simple “bad feeling” would let on) or “something ambiguous but more terrible”, there’s still no excuse for Zatanna and Wonder Woman’s actions. You see this isn’t their choice to make.

There’s a reason that superheroes don’t throw each other in front of the train whenever a “noble sacrifice” is called for (and, like it or lump it, that’s what Straczynski asks us to accept this as). The person making the sacrifice is empowered. Superman didn’t trick Barry Allen into giving his life to save earth in Crisis on Infinite Earths and Batman didn’t trick Hal Jordon into restarting the sun as part of his heroic sacrifice in Final Night. They are heroes because they respect individual autonomy and individual choice – it isn’t their place to decide who should sacrifice for the greater good.

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Straczynski makes Barbara a pawn in a game she isn’t even aware is going on, just like in The Killing Joke. Despite his obvious distaste for the graphic novel, he makes the same fundamental missteps. Except the Joker somehow seems less evil because he’s a villain, it isn’t his job to empower people; whereas Zatanna and Wonder Woman just seem like horrible people – particularly since the issue is sold on its “strong female characters”. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine (but equally offensive) Batman and Superman simply taking Jason Todd out for his first drink if they knew A Death in the Family was coming. However, Straczynski seems to suggest that because these are female characters it is okay. Zatanna even has a mini breakdown in the bathroom, praying Barbara can “remember dancing”. You know what I’d be hoping for? That she can pull through getting shot point blank and have a long and fulfilling life.

The Killing Joke is a key part of DC’s history, but it’s also an awkwardly positioned one. You can trace a lot of the nineties excess back to this and similar other series (of course, The Killing Joke is perhaps the only major one which is explicitly in mainstream continuity). However, it’s also an aspect of comic book history which deserves to handled with tact and care. There are various threads – most notably how magic or time-travelling characters might attempt to intervene with Barbara’s plight – which simply shouldn’t be tugged if you don’t want to completely deconstruct the story (and it’s far too popular for that).

Perhaps The Matrix and its faux philosophical observations can offer a potential position on the events of that Alan Moore story. Just repeat these words in a Laurence Fishburne voice: “What happened happened and couldn’t have happened any other way.”

Now, let’s get focused on the future. After all, the most offensive part of Straczynski’s Girls’ Night Out is the final line:

I was having my favourite dream. I have it all the time. I was dancing. I was beautiful. I was dancing.

No, Barbara, you are beautiful.

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About Darren

Darren is a pop culture commentator and lover of movie and comics. He won the Best Pop Culture Award at the Irish Blog Awards in 2011, and is now officially a member of the Online Film Critics Society. He can also be caught idly humming John Williams' Superman theme to himself.