Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why We Can't (and Shouldn't) "Just Forget About The Killing Joke"

Thirteen months ago, the Joker made his first - and until today, last - appearance in The New 52 DC Comics, gracing the pages of Detective Comics 1.  Over the course of the issue, the Clown Prince of Crime did what he does best: wreak havoc, taunt Batman, and terrorize Gotham with his personal brand of comedy.  After the book's shocking conclusion - the Joker allowing newcomer villain Dollmaker to flay off the skin of the clown's face - the Harlequin of Hate disappeared for the next twelve months before reappearing this week in Batman 13.  Returning to reclaim his face and his city, the Joker revealed his new goal: Feeling that Batman has let himself grow soft, what with the sidekicks, fellow heroes, and the whole "being kidnapped and tortured by Owls" incident, the Joker has decided to attack and destroy everything Batman holds dear, so that the Dark Knight can return to being the hero he once was and direct his focus back the most important homicidal clown in the Bat's life.

Canonical picture of Batman and Joker kissing unrelated.

So why I am starting a post about Alan Moore's 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke with a summary of the first issue of Scott Snyder's 2012 Batman arc "Death of the Family"?  Well, apart from "Death of the Family" looking to be totally awesome and something that everyone, comic fan or not, should check out, it's because "Death of the Family" is a crossover event focusing at least in part of the Joker's schemes for the rest of the Bat family.  And in particular, his upcoming confrontation with Barbara Gordon.

The upcoming Batgirl 14
If you've read my blog at all prior to this post, you know that I adore Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl or Oracle, depending on the time period.  I particularly love Gail Simone's current Batgirl series, which has dealt heavily with the most infamous scene of The Killing Joke: The Joker crippling Barbara Gordon with a bullet to the spine, then stripping her clothes off and photographing her bleeding body.  Barbara's shooting and subsequent paralysis in comics lead to her creating a new alter ego, the hacker Oracle.  Outside of comics, the story's treatment of Barbara was not well received by feminist critics.  Despite the major impact of the shooting on Barbara Gordon's life, she was little more than a plot device in the story itself and was only targeted to hurt her father, Gotham's police commissioner.  Barbara was yet another victim of Women in Refrigerators Syndrome, a disturbing trend in comics of female characters being killed, mutilated, and de-powered.  Usually, as was the case with The Killing Joke, women experience these horrors not for their own development or story lines, but to motivate a male character.

Why? Because the editor said "cripple the bitch," that's why.
The first year of Gail Simone's Batgirl run has revisited The Killing Joke extensively, dealing with themes of Barbara's post traumatic stress disorder from the shooting, and her struggles with survivor's guilt regarding the regained use of her legs.  The four issue arc that ended this week, which revolved around Batgirl's fight against the murderous vigilante Knightfall, focused less on Barbara's mobility and emotional stability than the previous installments.  However, with "Death of the Family," Barbara will face the Joker with the use of her legs for the first time since 1988, a confrontation which Simone promises will be intense and cathartic.  Revisiting The Killing Joke will be inevitable under such circumstances.  Some fans, such as myself, can't wait to see Batgirl's part in this twisted story arc.  Others are not exactly looking forward to it.

The original scene.
One of the criticisms I've seen time and time again of the current Batgirl series is that the comics bring up The Killing Joke too often.  It was referenced within the first few pages of Batgirl 1 and the shooting has remained a major factor in the story lines ever since.  Some Barbara fans are sick of hearing about the time she was stuffed into the fridge, sick of Barbara's nightmares about her shooting and her constant thoughts regarding her ability to walk and her time in the wheelchair.  They've already seen Barbara work through her trauma once as Oracle, and they want Batgirl to kick ass and have fun, not mope.  They want to drop The Killing Joke and move on with Barbara's story.

As I've said before, far be it from me to tell people what to like.  But regardless of whether one loves or loathes the New 52 Batgirl,  I will vehemently argue that we should never forget The Killing Joke, not in Barbara's past, and not in comics history.  Whether, like Alan Moore himself has grown to, one regards the comic as needless, dreary dreck, or thinks it's a brilliant piece of writing and a definitive Joker story, "moving on" from the book and its impact of Barbara's history is not the answer.  I've seen many arguments to the contrary, and I'll try to address them all here:

1.  Barbara already worked through her trauma while she was in the wheelchair.  There's no sense in revisiting it again.  

The Killing Joke, revisited.
Barbara came to terms with the shooting and its impact on her life in the previous comics continuity.  The Barbara Gordon of the New 52 is younger, and has not had all the experiences of her pre-relaunch self.  Furthermore, even if she did come to terms with the shooting during her time in the chair in the New 52, regaining mobility would bring the experience back to the surface, raw and irritated all over again.    Especially when she's returned to physically fighting crime, risking the renewed use of her legs with every villain she encounters.  And especially when she's about to be confronted by the Joker again.

2.  The constant moping about her paralysis is dragging down the story.  They should have removed The Killing Joke from continuity entirely.

This is one of those instances in which the relaunch was damned no matter what it did.  When it was announced that Barbara would walk again, there was immediate outrage that her time as a disabled icon would be erased.  When it turned out that she'd still been a paraplegic and the time still affected her, there was ire about how she focused too much on that experience and that it should have been left out completely.

Even if you think that The Killing Joke should have been removed from continuity, it hasn't, and it's not about to disappear.  Being irritated with the character for having PTSD over a terrible experience and working through the impact the trauma had on her life strikes me as more disrespectful to the character than revisiting her horrible experience ever could be. 

3.  No one but Gail Simone wants to see Barbara confront the Joker again.  Been there, done that.

Oracle vs. Joker

Yeah, no.  I've been waiting for this moment since I heard Barbara would walk again, and I know I'm not the only fan who feels this way.  If you're not interested in seeing it, fine, but I'm sick of hearing about how Gail Simone can't let go of the past and is writing her own self insert fan fiction and so on.  She's treating the character with the same respect she's always shown Barbara Gordon, and attacking her as a supposed deluded fan girl just because you aren't enjoying the arc is gross and uncalled for.





4.  The Killing Joke isn't about Barbara.  The story fridges her and tosses her aside.  I don't want to see her dwell on something that wasn't even about her.

Batgirl 15
The Killing Joke wasn't about Barbara.  One of the things I've respected most about Simone's writing is that she's taken a story that used Barbara as a plot device and then ditched her and turned it into a story that is Barbara's in her own right, showcasing how she's lived with the experience and how she's recovering.  The creation of Oracle used The Killing Joke in a similar way, and Oracle was also met with protests that DC ought to just throw Barbara in a healing Lazarus pit and move on.

The Killing Joke wasn't Barbara's story.  She was the equivalent of the opening kill at the start of a horror movie.  But today The Killing Joke is as much Barbara's story as it is Bruce and the Joker's.  She's not the opening kill.  She's the girl who takes a beating, feels the pain, but refuses to stay down.  And that, as Oracle or as Batgirl, is awesome.

5.  The Killing Joke is a gross and problematic story, and even Alan Moore regrets writing it.  Let's move the hell on already and forget about it.

This, for me, is the big one.  The problematic elements of the story are exactly why we shouldn't toss it aside.  When Gail Simone realized that the treatment of women in comics tended toward the gross and problematic, she didn't forget about it and focus on positive portrayals.  She started the Women in Refrigerators web page and ended up working in the comic industry, writing all the badass female characters all the time.   The treatment of Barbara in the story should not be forgotten.  It should be remembered, discussed, critiqued.  We should make it clear that the casual maiming of female characters is not okay, and not something that we as fans will tolerate.  If we ignore stories like these, if we decide that what's done is done and we should just let it die, nothing will change.  We'll still live in a world in which an author can ask, "Is it all right if I cripple this woman?" and an editor can answer, "Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch."

I don't want to forget The Killing Joke.  I want a world in which Barbara remembers it, in which readers can't dismiss the terrible impact it had on a character's life, and can't tolerate the same casual cruelty happening to a female character again.  I want readers to remember it, and further to remember how despite the trauma, Barbara is growing and recovering.   How, despite the attack that she will carry with her for the rest of her life, she's still strong.  And most of all, be it paralyzed or walking, you can't keep a Batgirl down.