The Killing Joke
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Content warnings: Abuse, sexual assault

Bruce Timm. Kevin Conroy. Mark Hamill. With the confirmation of the legendary Batman the Animated Series trinity reuniting for one of the most influential Batman stories in comics’ history, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, every Dark Knight fan from across the globe has been reveling in this fusion of peak nostalgia.

As a survivor, it borders on terrifying.

It’s not that the cheers are an act of outright violence in themselves. I don’t believe that the majority of people interested in the film look at other people with traumas that include sexual assault and a family history of multiple kinds of abuse, people like me, and say out loud, “You deserved every second of what happened to you.” But for every eager social media declaration posted without caveat, I also know there can only be willful ignorance or a cognitive dissonance that betrays the lack of importance of creating space for these kinds of scars. It’s the instinct to look away that feels so dangerous.

As much as Moore’s superb writing shaped the complex psychological relationship of heroes and their villains to come, not to mention the fan favorite for The Joker’s backstory, I find it hard to believe that any person who’s read the story can ignore the brutality that even the writer himself described in an interview as “one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.” In fact, it’s fair to say it’s near impossible not to read a plot description without encountering some form of feminist critique, whether it’s because of sexual assault and abuse, ableism, or multiple cases of victimized women as plot points for male character development (i.e., Women in Refrigerators).

And yet, here we are. Years of panel after panel of Barbara Gordon struggling to survive with post-traumatic stress disorder from a bullet wound whose intent had little to do with her standing as a hero in her own right. The legacy of the now infamous lines by editor Len Wein to “cr-pple the b—h” allowed to continue under the guise of bringing a classic to life. In addition (as if these cruel depictions weren’t enough), readers seem to forget or dismiss the fact that Jim Gordon was also sexually humiliated, assaulted, and endured several kinds of abuse himself as well as seeing his daughter suffer. In all instances, rather than implied torture, both characters receive graphic treatment of their most excruciating moments. And for what?

While the counterargument that great art remains static, that works that were seminal in their time cannot be reconstructed for an audience that ought to know better perplexes me, it’s the lack of empathy from DC Comics and its fanbase that’s truly frightening. For what purpose do we need an exact “faithful adaptation” of one of the most misogynistic, triggering stories comic books have to offer? What necessity does an R-rating serve beyond a greedy grab for Deadpool money ? How is it that nearly three decades later we’re still having these conversations about the sick fetishization of abuse confusing shock value for brilliance within the same exact context? How is it that Bruce Timm can acknowledge that the source material is “bleak” (in an interview found here), yet the only change seems to be additions to the story to meet the full length feature time rather than a modification of the toxic narrative at its core?

It’s been over a year since the internet erupted in fury over an artistic nod to The Killing Joke for the cover art of an issue of Batgirl, an outrage so insistent it prompted the company to mercifully pull the artwork. Even as recently as this past Valentine’s Day DC came under fire again for romanticizing the abusive relationship between Harley Quinn and The Joker despite the fact that the couple is no longer canon. And on and on the list seems to continue. At what point are the voices of survivors and our few true allies finally heard? What recounting of our trauma makes us deserving of control over how our experiences are stolen, exaggerated by fantasy, minimized emotionally, and then fed back to us with the faulty logic that “that’s just how the real world is?” How do we fight for our actual physical, mental, and emotional safety when so many people won’t even stand up for us in fiction?

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  • Lauren Bullock

    Contributor

    Lauren is a writer, performer, and reincarnated sailor senshi. She enjoys long walks in the woods and fighting crime as a costumed vigilante of many aliases.

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  • James Cornelius Buie III

    If I’m correct, the thesis here is that because people have suffered severe emotional trauma as a result of physical and sexual abuse, these things shouldn’t be depicted, or perhaps more specifically, trivialized and/or glorified?

    I can cosign glorified, but not depicted and trivialized. Art, which is admittedly a loose word, shouldn’t be shackled by societal taboos. If an artist chooses to depict atrocities, that’s fair game. If they choose to trivialize them, we can argue that it should’ve been handled with more care, but that’s ultimately still fair game. Perhaps they were out to tell a story, not plant a flag on some moral high ground. Or perhaps the minimalization was a deliberate move to make a larger point. That’s almost certainly not the case with TKJ, but the point remains.

    If an artist choose to glorify an atrocity, they should absolutely be allowed to, but you’re totally right to lambast them for it. However, I also don’t think that’s the case in TKJ. My guess is that it was a trivialization for the sake of telling a very specific story. Yes it’s playing off of some very real pain, but that’s almost the point. If you’re going to depict someone as a monster, how better than to focus on their monstrosity? Sure, it may minimize the suffering of the victim, but the point of the horror isn’t the victim. It’s the culprit.

    • Laura Miller (@SoulessGinger8)

      Couldn’t have said it better myself. On top of that, changing or minimizing what she goes through demeans her as a character. Babs is strong; she put herself back together after being literally destroyed and overcame some horribly traumatic memories. She is pretty much the poster child for overcoming adversity and/or disability. She is “living” proof that someone can only take part of you if you let them. By changing her story and nerfing what happened to her, you diminish her strength as a character. Babs stared down her fear and overcame it, refusing to let her attacker scare her into changing her life or herself. The irony of these women asking that her story be censored because their feelings are too fragile is spectacular.

  • priya

    I was gonna say something else but I’m throughly distracted– I find it really telling and gross that the only other comment is a dude telling you you’re wrong >>__<<<<<<

    • James Cornelius Buie III

      I’m open to discussion. I feel like I laid out my counter argument rather succinctly. What specifically do you disagree with?

      • Edmund Black (@Edmund_Black)

        She disagrees with your gender.

      • Lily Darrow

        Clearly, you are guilty of the despicable and heinous crime of being male.

    • Josh

      You missed his point. He wasn’t trying to tell her she was wrong or her feelings or the feelings of others are baseless. Just that the entire concept of art it that it is free expression of whatever the artist chooses to portray. If art is limited to only portraying safe and friendly images that will not serve as a traumatic reminder to someone’s horrific past experiences then it won’t really be free expression will it? I am all for showing outrage at glorification of an inhumane experience but simply depicting something like that does not warrant hatred and rage. Will it still trigger someone, yes and that is extremely unfortunate and they have every right to be upset if reminded of an experience by a depiction of it, but to suggest that depictions of everything negative should be made taboo would take the art out of art. My mother and her family are from Africa and they experienced attrocities moving into the western world, especially her parents, in the early 90’s, but when faced with reminders of how Black people are treated in the form of movies and the news they never rally for the censorship of such things and deal with it in their own way (e.g stop watching the show or simply not look when it is being depicted).

  • johnham

    I can’t believe two dudes showed up immediately with the same barely-coherent “artistic freedom” argument.

    Nobody is suggesting that anything be “censored.” The suggestion here is not that DC should be disallowed from making this, but that it will result in some degree of harm for survivors. Calling attention to this fact doesn’t constitute a call for censorship or an abridgment of the rights of DC or its creatives. Grow up.

    • Greg

      “How is it that Bruce Timm can acknowledge that the source material is “bleak”, yet the only change seems to be additions to the story to meet the full length feature time rather than a modification of the toxic narrative at its core?”

      She *directly* calls for a change to the story in the article. She literally used the phrase “modification of the toxic narrative”. Please tell me that you can understand that she wants the original story of “The Killing Joke” to change for the animated film version, because she doesn’t approve of the source material.

    • KaineDamo (@kainedamo)

      Ultimately, I think your response is disengeneuous, it’s like a motte-and-bailey argument, on one hand saying the art is harmful and unnecessary but on the other saying you’re not calling for censorship? Let’s look at a couple of quotes from the article.

      ‘For what purpose do we need an exact “faithful adaptation” of one of the most misogynistic, triggering stories comic books have to offer? What necessity does an R-rating serve beyond a greedy grab for Deadpool money ?

      At what point are the voices of survivors and our few true allies finally heard? What recounting of our trauma makes us deserving of control over how our experiences are stolen, exaggerated by fantasy, minimized emotionally, and then fed back to us with the faulty logic that “that’s just how the real world is?”’

      If not control over art, if not censorship, what IS she asking for? ‘Listen to survivors’, to what end? Just listen and agree that this art shouldn’t exist? She presents a very authoritarian view point.

      • johnham

        TKJ will continue to exist regardless of this article. The article criticizes the decision to reconstitute this specific story in 2016, instead of A) doing something “inspired by” TKJ that addresses or ameliorates its issues, or B) just not remaking it at all.

        Criticizing this decision isn’t a demand for “authoritarian” control over anyone’s artistic expression.

        • Laura Miller (@SoulessGinger8)

          Censorship does not require an “authoritarian” element to be censorship. The actual definition of a censor is “a person who examines books, movies, letters, etc., and removes things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.” That’s it.

          The Mormon Church doesn’t like sex, drugs, violence, and so on. They take movies, edit them to remove the aforementioned unseemly segments and re-release them as “clean flicks” so they don’t offend anyone or corrupt the youth. That is censorship, and that is exactly what you and the author are proposing be done to TKJ. You want something removed from the story for emotional and moral reasons; you want it censored.

          • Greg

            Love your comments on here. Succinct, intelligent, and they can’t even crucify you for the crime of having a combo serving of penis and an opinion. Well done!

    • geo

      Did we even read the same article? The writer argues against creating the story as-is and asks for change more than once. Albeit there may be good reason to… but there is also reason not to.

      My cop-out here is that everyone’s values will make them consider some reason over the other, and that I do not intend to argue for one side… but don’t pretend this article isn’t decidedly on one side.

    • Lenny Carl Fitzgerald

      Barely Coherent? It may be a problem with your understanding of the English language (Barely Coherent is hyphenated why?) rather than his expression because it is quite clear what his intent is.

      Its quite telling that thus far the only criticism of his statement stems from the fact that he is a dude and thats it.

      Also suggesting something be changed to suit your sensibilities is censorship. Censorship is not the same thing as prohibition.

      Here is the definition of censorship per the ACLU.

      > Artistic Freedom
      Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups

      Get a dictionary, you need one.

      • johnham

        A critic “suggesting something be changed” does not constitute censorship. I think it’s safe to assume that the author of this piece is not likely to “impos[e] their personal political or moral values” on DC Comics, Inc. any time in the near term future, so you can rest easy tonight.

        • Anon

          > It’s been over a year since the internet erupted in fury over an artistic nod to The Killing Joke for the cover art of an issue of Batgirl, an outrage so insistent it prompted the company to mercifully pull the artwork.

          The author is clearly calling for a repeat of the successful censorship of the referenced campaign. The article does not itself constitute censorship, but it exists as an attempt at something that would.

          > Critique: a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.

          The article above is not a critique. It is an opinion piece.

        • TerribleName

          But the author makes clear that they would prefer to impose their values on DC Comics. A call for censorship doesn’t cease to be a call for censorship merely because the person calling for it doesn’t have the power to enforce their will. The author absolutely expresses a desire to change the story to suit their values, and references other campaigns where art was removed to suit values. This is beyond the realm of mere criticism, where one criticizes a piece but does not call for altering or suppressing the piece.

    • Laura Miller (@SoulessGinger8)

      She is literally telling them to not publish something because she doesn’t want to see it. That is the definition of censorship.

      • BatFan

        Exactly. This is ridiculous. Should we never have murder in comics just because families have had members murdered? Should we never depict racism or touch on other harsh subjects just because people have experienced it or known people to experience it?
        Oh by the way I’m a survivor and I have no problem with this book, because guess what it’s a comic book! It’s not f&$king real ffs!
        Just because a subject is hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be dealt with at all in any form of media otherwise we would all live in a fantasy world were we can pretend there are no murderers rapists or racists.

    • Edindro

      Really? Because just in one sentence:

      “The legacy of the now infamous lines by editor Len Wein to “cr-pple the b—h” allowed to continue under the guise of bringing a classic to life. ”

      Suggests two things

      1. It’s allowed and that’s bad.

      2. The attempt to bring a classic back to life is a lie and there are some nefarious reason this is being allowed to happen.

      I’m not sure where you get that this is just about awareness…it is clearly a complaint that the depiction of sexual violence exists in this story at all.

  • Edmund Black (@Edmund_Black)

    If DC needs to pull artwork for even referencing TKJ and daring to romanticize the Joker’s and Quinn’s non-canon relationship brings them under fire as “problematic”, then when are reactionaries ever going to be satisfied?
    The removal of all depictions of violence and abuse, sexual or otherwise?
    What is this entire post but an argument against the inclusion “problematic” topics?

    Now, I disagree with Lauren’s stance against a “faithful adaption” as Josh and James do, but she’s laid out an intelligent argument for her position and they have responded in kind.

    You, on the other hand, have no actual arguments counter to what Josh and James have said, so you resort to calling them “two dudes” to somehow dismiss their points on the basis of their gender. You claim they are making “barely coherent” arguments about artistic freedom, but you do not refute any of their points. You say they are accusing Lauren of calling for censorship, but clearly neither are doing so.

    And you end with a juvenile attempt to belittle those who took the time to quite respectfully respond to Lauren’s thoughts with their own. Go take a look in the mirror and come back with something constructive to the discussion.

    • lackless

      It’s a nice rhetorical technique. You respond to your (male) opponent’s gender instead of his arguments. You wait for someone to use the word “sexist,” and then you derail the conversation into a semantic argument about whether sexism only refers to sexual prejudice backed by social machinery or if it means all sex-based prejudice. Pretty soon, no one remembers that you didn’t have a strong answer to the original point.

      Also, name calling feels really good on the internet.

  • hillary2016

    How utterly privileged and sexist. You are gonna make it so far once you make it out of mums basement.

  • itsnotmyfault1

    I know that most of the time, the writers just write. They don’t get to pick the images shown on the article.

    But, if you’re going to have a trolly-as-heck editor that puts puts in pictures with such incredibly humorous timing, you should probably find somewhere better to send your work: http://i.imgur.com/ux8e2HM.png

    The point of it was that Gordon DIDN’T break. Neither one. Joker was so sure he was breaking them and drawing out madness to replace easily broken morals, but he failed. The point of the Killing Joke was to show that incredible heroism and strength of will. To show that there are heroes that can overcome their horrific trauma, and that those heroes are worth looking up to.

    They even sort of recreated that scene in the Dark Knight film, but with ferries FILLED TO THE BRIM just to hammer the point home.

  • Pitchguest

    Wait, what? The Joker and Harley Quinn as a couple is no longer canon? Since when?

    Also, what the hell is this article even trying to convey? Filmmakers can’t portray traumatic events? What’s your point?

    • Edindro

      Meh – Batman has too many canon’s to even use the word canon in regards to it lol.

  • lackless

    I’ll concede your trauma isn’t the punchline, but maybe the punchline isn’t your trauma, either?

  • Bilbo

    The world doesn’t revolve around you, despite what your appallingly negligent parents told you every second of the day. HTH

  • Bert Clere

    Lots of issues here to meditate over and take seriously. What are the uses of violence in a work of art? Moore is a brilliant storyteller. But he goes disturbing places, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with critiquing that. Chesterton said that art, like morality, involves drawing a line somewhere. That’s not a very popular idea among artists. But, to me, Moore crosses the line in a number of places. I’m certainly not against violence in comic books. But there’s a point where it becomes sadistic and indulgent. I admit it’s difficult to know where the line is. But I certainly find the Barbara Gordon storyline as disturbing as the author here.

  • James Cornelius Buie III

    A month after the fact, I’m still intrigued by this thread. I’m disappointed I didn’t keep up with the conversation after essentially sparking the firestorm of discussion about the balance between emotional trauma and artistic freedom.

    I guess now what I’d like to do is summarize my counterpoint and ask a question of the author. First, I think this entire debate boils down to a discussion of freedom of speech. I believe that freedom of speech, or in this case freedom of artistic expression, needs to be protected from censorship. Full stop. Likewise, if people choose to criticize someone’s free speech, be it in the form of art or any other medium, that right to criticize should also be protected.

    I feel terribly for anyone who is a victim of sexual assault. As someone who is lucky enough to have avoided such horror, I can only imagine the toll it would take. But to turn around and suppress freedom of expression in an attempt to avoid that pain is a misuse of one’s energy. Like Laura said, Barbara had the strength to turn around and overcome her hell. That’s fucking fantastic, and should be the focus here. Even if that hadn’t happened; even if this was a story about the glorification of atrocities, it should be allowed to exist, as should the rightful criticism it would warrant. Censorship isn’t the answer. Open honest discussion, and ultimately compassion, is.

    To the author of this post, after reading all our comments, do you still stand by the call for “a modification of the toxic narrative at its core?” Do you still wish for someone to come along and effectively “mercifully pull the artwork?” Do you still find TKJ to be nothing more than a shameless glorification and exploitation of your trauma?

  • Omoizele Oz Okoawo

    I need to write an essay about this but after rereading The Killing Joke, a story that I barely remembered from the 80’s, I felt like the writer appropriated the experience of being raped or assaulted without actually doing any research into what that’s like and what it means not only for the people who suffer the assault but from the people who love them. The fact that Batman can actually have the conversation he has with the Joker at the end blew my mind. If someone shot a friend of mine, took naked pictures of her bleeding to death on the floor, and then proceeded to kidnap her father, who was also a friend, strip him buck naked and show him pictures of his dying daughter, the only conversation I could have with him would involve a blow torch, a chainsaw, and tourniquets.

    The fact that the person who commits the assault is the one we are supposed to sympathize with in this story is ridiculous. It felt like when CNN commentators talked about how sad it was to watch the rapists crying about how their lives were over during the Steubenville high school football player rape case which is probably why so many people were triggered by it.

    What’s worse is the fact that because the Joker is so loved by the editors he never goes away, it feels like he never gets punished for what he does and since in the majority of rape cases the rapist isn’t punished is it any wonder that people found this crap triggering? In fact he goes on to commit even more murders all based off the weak sauce excuse that his wife and child died in an accident and in trying to escape Batman he took an extreme skin bleaching treatment.

    I keep reading about morons who say garbage like, “So you’re trying to say that no one can talk about rape in fiction?” That’s bullshit. What I’m saying is that if you are going to write about it do the damn research. To me the Killing Joke looks like a blonde haired blue eyed girl wearing an Indian headdress at Coachella because it looks cool or like a person whose never even been in the military wearing earrings designed to look like the Medal Of Honor except it’s worse because they had a chance to shift the conversation for an entire generation if they had done the research but they failed and ended up pumping out some status quo rape culture sympathize with the rapist bullshit.

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