Because It’s Not Funny: Why No One Should Ever Read “The Killing Joke” Again

I bought this comic sometime in 2008 or 2009, during its most recent resurgence to popularity. As The Dark Knight‘s release date approached and Heath Ledger revealed it as a source of inspiration for his upcoming performance, Moore and Bolland’s 1988 one-shot (re)surfaced as the definitive depiction, “easily the greatest Joker story ever told.” The Killing Joke is a bizarre, brutal carnival ride of a comic book to be sure, but it doesn’t add anything meaningful to the characters it involves and torments and maims.

It does a lot of subtracting. It robs a beloved heroine of her dignity and the use of her legs. It lowers the Batman to the Joker’s level of depravity. And it diminishes the value and complexity of one of the most compelling villains in comic books.

Why does anyone like this comic? Why did I like this comic?

Until sometime last year, I would’ve sung the same praises everybody sings of The Killing Joke. But last year I did some reading, and I did some thinking, and I changed my mind. I took my copy of this wretched mistake of a Batman comic down to my local Half Price Books and received quite a fair sum of cash for it. (My copy was hardcover, you see. I hate hardcover comics anyway.)

The reading I did was mostly of the Gail Simone variety. She’s currently writing Batgirl in DC’s New 52 lineup, and she is the coiner of the comic-book criticism called “women in refrigerators,” which basically argues that, just like in real life, comic book men treat comic book women like shit to be used and thrown away.

In The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl is having some hot chocolate and hanging out with her police-commissioner dad Jim Gordon when the Joker shows up at their door and shoots Barbara through the spine. While his goons drag the commissioner away, Joker strips Barbara naked and snaps those photographs we see him leering about on the cover.

So the cover of the The Killing Joke is us looking through Barbara’s eyes, naked, humiliated and paraplegic, dying on her father’s living room floor. DC threw their most popular Bat-family heroine under the misogynist Joker-bus just to make a point: That Joker guy? He’s a sicko. When Alan Moore pitched the story to DC’s executives, they (allegedly) replied, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”

Later in the comic we learn Joker is only using Barbara to torment her father, with whom he has much older beef. But he’s just trying to make a point: even the sanest person can lose their marbles over a single, horrible day.

The only thing I can appreciate about this comic anymore is how it’s so ironically meta: Alan Moore uses Barbara Gordon to make the point that Joker’s a sicko by writing a story in which Joker uses Barbara Gordon to make the point that anybody can turn into a sicko. Only it’s worse when Alan Moore does it because he’s a real person and (allegedly) not a sicko.

(For the record, Watchmen is fucking brilliant.)

So I’ll ask again: Why does anyone like The Killing Joke? It’s gratuitous and vile, and we’re still only talking about the first of my three complaints. 

Back to the refrigerator for a sec. Batgirl is arguably the highest-profile incident of this nauseating genre trope, despite not being the one it’s named for. But in the New 52, Gail Simone has taken Barbara back to the streets of Gotham, giving her back the cape and cowl no other woman has ever worn with so much style and character. Except now she’s got confidence issues, survivor’s guilt and an entirely rational fear of guns. She’s a real person, which tends to set her apart in a world where dudes (and dudettes) can bend steel with their bare hands.

I liked Barbara Gordon as Oracle, but 26 years after Killing Joke, we can be honest about what her new alter-ego really was: a Band-Aid on a wound that ran a lot deeper through DC and comic books in general than anybody realized at the time.

On to gripe #2: Moore makes Batman complicit in Joker’s violent misogyny.

Killing Joke has this weird ending where Batman catches up to Joker in his creepy Carnival-o’-Horrors and like, doesn’t kick the living shit out of him. I mean, this fucking piece of trash has just humiliated and brutalized two of his closest friends and partners in crime-fighting, damaging them both for life. You can’t unring the bell, and all that.

Of all the ways I relate to Batman as a character, our mutual disgust and hatred for victimization is the most visceral. That uncontrollable blood-red rage that grabs you by the gut when something bad is happening to somebody and nobody’s doing anything to make it stop. When I watch movies or TV shows where one person in a position of power abuses or tortures another, the following thought crosses my mind 9 times out of 10: “This show could really use more Batman right about now.” Batman doesn’t exist because his parents got shot. Batman exists because Bruce Wayne watched his parents get shot and he couldn’t do anything to stop it, and one day he decided that should never, ever happen again to anyone else.

All this is to stay: Joker should be lying in a bloody, broken heap by the last frame of this comic, possibly dead. Because if anything could force Batman to break his one rule, it should’ve been this. But instead Bats tries to talk it out with the craziest crazy in all of comic books. Joker is somehow lucid for a moment and says “Thanks but no thanks” and then tells Batman a joke.

And Batman laughs. He has a good guffaw with his ol’ buddy the Joker and then sends him off with a pat on the shoulder (literally — see image). HAHAHA, Barbara Gordon’s crippled for life, HAHAHEE. Hilarious.

I should note that my personal Bat-hero Grant Morrison sees it differently, and as usual, iconoclastically so. Seriously — listen to the clip. It does dramatically change how we could talk about this comic.

Or at least, it would change things if DC hadn’t decided to adopt Killing Joke into their mainstream canon, meaning Batman cannot possibly have killed the Joker at the end of this comic as Morrison suggests. Which means the only other interpretation is the one where Batman is a heartless bastard and the Joker wins, because he finally got his arch-nemesis to crack a smile.

That’s not my Batman. My Batman never lets the Joker win. My Batman is the one Neil Gaiman wrote in his fucking legendary story-to-end-all-Batman-stories Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader:

“Smile, damn you, why don’t you smile?!”

“Because it’s not funny.”

So here’s gripe #3, and it is a minor gripe compared to the others: The Killing Joke makes Joker boring. He tells Jim Gordon this origin story about being a shitty comedian who got mixed up with some gangsters and had “one bad day,” unceremoniously toppling him off the proverbial sanity-wagon. But he also says “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice,” implying the whole thing might be a fabrication.

The point is there’s a bunch of missing variables. We don’t know for certain who the Joker is, or why he is, and I don’t think we ever should know. Origin stories give a character their raison d’être; they let us get inside their heads and they tell us why these people choose to paint on some tights and leap over tall buildings and such.

But why would you ever want to be inside the Joker’s head? And who cares what lives in there anyway? Could anything explain (much less excuse) the fact that he’s killed and maimed and tortured hundreds of people?

In one of its many claims to greatness, The Dark Knight takes Moore’s multiple choice idea seriously and pairs it with the single most important truth about the Joker, which so many comic writers (including Moore) have either ignored or failed to understand:

Luckily Heath Ledger’s performance doesn’t have much of anything in common with The Killing Joke; his Joker is far more dynamic and unpredictable and unsettling, without any of the casual misogyny.

Bottom line: don’t buy this comic, don’t read this comic, and don’t let it slide if you see this comic on your friends’ bookshelves. It bears some discussion; most people probably just gloss over the poor treatment Barbara receives because it’s the Joker and he’s “supposed” to be like that, but sexualized violence against women absolutely isn’t okay.

If you must read the Joker, pick up these instead, and if you must read Alan Moore, read Watchmen.

Actually, you should read Watchmen either way.

Late-Nite TNG: “Remember Me”

Yes, I know it’s not late-night anymore. But I watched the episode last night, so sue me. Anyway, in my continued explorations of Batman and the DC Comics world at large, I have come across a trend called “Women in Refrigerators,” which as you might guess relates to some pretty sickening treatment of female characters in superhero comics. Most disturbingly, some of the comics I had intended to include in my Batman Comics Canon are accessories to this misogynist genre trope.

More on that to follow, but by 7 o’clock last night I was so depressed reading about how frequently this trend occurs that I needed to expose myself to something on the other end of the feminist spectrum. Where, oh where do I turn? To science fiction, of course. To its great credit, sci-fi has long been one of the leading genres to feature women not just as token representatives of their gender, but as normal, complicated, fully-actualized people. And which TV show was a pioneer even within science fiction?

I selected the fourth-season episode called “Remember Me” mostly because I hadn’t watched any of Season 4 recently and I couldn’t remember the plot of this particular episode off the top of my head. One of the nice things about TNG is that it’s not a serialized show, so you can skip around to find an episode you haven’t seen in a while.

Anyway, the plot runs as follows: Dr. Beverly Crusher is accidentally trapped in a static warp bubble during one of her son Wesley’s experiments with the warp drive in Main Engineering. Strangely, Dr. Crusher’s existence inside the warp bubble creates an alternate reality based on her thought patterns at the moment of the accident, which happened to revolve around the gradual loss of friends and coworkers we all experience as we get older. In this alternate reality, the crew and passengers of the Enterprise begin disappearing at an alarming rate, until eventually she is the only crew member on a starship capable of comfortably transporting over a thousand people. Even more bizarre is that as people vanish, none of the remaining crew members (or the ship’s computer) remember that they ever existed at all.

Naturally, this leads to Captain Picard and the other crew members being skeptical of Dr. Crusher’s claims that the crew is disappearing, but instead of dismissing her as a crazy lady and packing her off to the proverbial loony bin, her crewmates take her seriously and attempt to help her investigate the phenomenon. Captain Picard is on her side right up until he finally disappears, too, having previously stated: “Beverly, your word has always been good enough for me.”

Dr. Beverly Crusher, last woman standing in an alternate reality.

It would have been soooo easy for this episode to devolve into a gaggle of mostly male Starfleet officers wringing their hands and declaring “Dr. Crusher’s gone batty! Whatever can we do to fix her poor, confused little mind?” But, in stalwart Star Trek fashion, the writers took the high road. After everybody has vanished, Dr. Crusher kicks her brain into high gear, asking pointed questions of the ship’s computer to deduce exactly what is going on. The two clues that allow her to figure it all out reveal themselves when she inquires 1) what is the mission statement of the Enterprise (to explore the galaxy) and whether she is qualified to accomplish that mission all alone (no), and 2) what is the nature of the universe, to which the computer responds, “The universe is a spherical region approximately 705 meters in diameter.”

The first clue allows her to confirm that she is not losing her mind, and the second narrows down the problem to an all-too-measurable extent: the universe is collapsing around her, progressively erasing everyone on the ship (presumably she is immune to these effects because it was her mind that created this reality in the first place).

Don’t go towards the light… Wait wait no! Do go towards it! Hurry up, your universe is collapsing!!

Over the course of the episode, Dr. Crusher experiences all the emotions we might expect of someone in her situation: confusion, stress, frustration, fear. And, like any reasonable individual, she does briefly consider the possibility that she might be going crazy. But for the most part she remains calm, rational, and professional, as evidenced by her quick thinking and sound deductive reasoning as the show nears its conclusion. And let’s not forget that her alternate reality was precipitated by her consideration of a fear that everyone must face at some point in life: that we will eventually lose the people we love.

While all of this is going on inside the warp bubble, the crew on the real (or rather, original) Enterprise are able to figure out what happened to Beverly, and for her part, she correctly assumes that the odd “atmospheric disturbances” she has witnessed were her crewmates’ attempts to retrieve her from this alternate dimension. She leaps through the gateway back into her original reality just as the warp bubble finally collapses, and all is returned to normal on the Enterprise.

It’s a credit to this television show and Star Trek as a whole that we can select an episode more or less at random and it will present its female characters in such a positive, well-rounded manner. This episode also passes the Bechdel test with flying colors as Dr. Crusher consults Deanna Troi, the ship’s counselor, about her mental stability (or the possible lack thereof). Just off the cuff, I would expect most other TNG episodes to pass the test as well.

Overall, this was a great episode — I had forgotten most of the important plot points, and it serendipitously satisfied my goal of engaging with some good feminist fiction. I’m thinking this “Late-Nite TNG” thing might have to become a continuing mission (pun intended), as I tend to get the urge to watch some Trek quite frequently. Anyway, until next time,

LLAP!