Unpacking the controversial landmine that is The Killing Joke
Despite being 30 years old, The Killing Joke may be one of the most divisive comic books ever written.
Though I once crowned The Killing Joke as the most controversial comic book of all time, it’s not really as bad as some comics. In fact, The Killing Joke was widely praised during its original release. Written by Watchmen legend Alan Moore, the comic won the Eisner Award in 1989 and was an influence for Tim Burton’s acclaimed Batman movie adaptation. Even today, it’s easy to find fans who consider it one of the best superhero comics ever written.
On the other hand, The Killing Joke carries a sour connotation whenever its brought up in modern times. In 2015, a variant cover of Batgirl #41 whipped up a storm of controversy for referencing The Killing Joke, leading to petitions to get the cover pulled and petitions against those petitions to keep the variant as is. In 2016, DC put out an R-rated animated adaptation of The Killing Joke that sought to rectify the “mistakes” of the original story… only to somehow make them kind of worse in the end. This is one comic in which there’s no safe stance to take on it, since you’re going to rustle someone’s jimmies no matter what side you take.
What is it about this Batman story that draws such a strong reaction out of everyone? In the hopes of maybe attempting a nuanced take on the subject, let’s look at the good and the bad surrounding this seminal tale.
Note: The following completely spoils The Killing Joke. Yes, it’s a 30 year old comic, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Why The Killing Joke is beloved.
The Killing Joke is primarily a story about the Joker, and from strictly that lens, it’s a pretty captivating tale.
Throughout the story, we’re given glimpses into the day that turned the Joker into, well, the Joker. What starts with a man down on his luck spirals wildly out of control, and this contextualizes the Joker’s actions throughout The Killing Joke. The guy is obviously insane, but he’s out to prove a point: one bad day can break anyone, and even the sanest among us could find ourselves becoming just like him. By elaborating on the Joker’s backstory, The Killing Joke allows the reader to become sympathetic to the character and properly understand his argument. Readers shouldn’t be agreeing with him, but the writing invites us to see the world from the Joker’s perspective.
The majority of the comic focuses on Joker’s torture of commissioner Gordon, which we’ll get to in a bit for… well, potentially obvious reasons. But it’s really Joker’s relationship to Batman that provides the best conflict in the story. The Killing Joke is immediately framed by Batman’s endless struggle with the Joker: Batman will always capture the Joker, the Joker always escapes captivity, and the cycle goes on and on. As Batman points out, this tired song and dance between the two will only end when one of them dies. This is another clever narrative technique that delivers a sense of both dread and finality to The Killing Joke. Longtime comic book readers will be familiar with the “villain of the week” formula that pits the usual smorgasbord of bad guys against the heroes on a regular rotation, but now we know the characters in this story are aware of the cycle. This tells us early on that Joker will take it too far this time, and both Batman and his adversary will have to decide if their battle will finally end or continue into perpetuity.
The story ends with a delightfully ambiguous ending following an almost uncanny moment of understanding between Batman and Joker. Both of them realize that they are who they are because of a “bad day.” Both of them understand that they are broken people. And, in a shocking twist, we even get what could be considered a moment of clarity from the Joker as he explains that it’s “too late” for him. It brings an almost cosmic sense to their struggle, as if the two are fated to fight each other by the universe itself. Yet underneath their facades are just regular, broken people. We see Batman grab Joker in the ending panels, but we’re left to decide for ourselves what actually happens here. Does Batman finally kill Joker, or does he bring him in “by the book” and continue their inevitable destiny? No one knows for sure, but you can read lengthy fan arguments for both sides.
Combine all this with iconic artwork by Brian Bolland, and it’s easy to see why The Killing Joke left such an impact on the comic book industry. Like many great works, it deconstructs the superhero genre while also telling a good superhero story, which causes readers to think about the reality of the world these characters actually live in. Of course, given that the story was written by Alan Moore during his incredible hot streak, fans wouldn’t have expected anything less.
Why The Killing Joke is loathed.
Despite everything The Killing Joke does well, it does have one major shortcoming. Unfortunately, this one shortcoming happens to be a very large and complicated can of worms.
The Killing Joke does some crappy things with Barbara Gordon.
Depending on who you ask, this is either a negligible criticism or something that ruins the entire comic. I’m not here to take a hard line on the subject. Heck, I don’t even know if I’m really qualified to, honestly. Still, there’s a lot to unpack here, and it’s worth pointing out that the following gets into some pretty disturbing territory (if you’d like to skip it, just jump right to the verdict).
For those who haven’t read the comic or need a refresher, Barbara’s role in the story goes like this: The Joker shows up at Commissioner Gordon’s house and shoots the lower part of Barbara’s spine. This renders her paralyzed from the waist down, which Commissioner Gordon witnesses first hand. Then, in a bid to torture the Commissioner, the Joker undresses Barbara and photographs her suffering on the floor, which he later shows the Commissioner in hopes that this will be the “bad day” that drives him insane.
This is a trope commonly referred to as “women in refrigerators,” or “fridging” for short. The trope gets its name from Green Lantern #48, in which the title hero finds his love interest dead and stuffed into a refrigerator. Though tropes aren’t inherently bad, this one has long since drawn scorn from comic book fans and feminists alike for reducing women to objects of plot convenience. Sure, Barbara isn’t killed in The Killing Joke, but her sole purpose in the story is to be a source of turmoil for the Commissioner. Her actual suffering is given no spotlight. Heck, when Batman sees her in the hospital, the conversation is still focused on the Commissioner and not, you know, the woman who was just shot and rendered immobile for the rest of her life. In short, Barbara virtually doesn’t matter in The Killing Joke. She could functionally be replaced by a dog and serve almost the same purpose in the story.
Moreover, the fact that the Joker photographs Barbara nude adds a whole other uncomfortable layer to the story. Sure, it could be a lot worse, but the fact that anyone is invited to think of a “worse” option is bad to begin with. I’ll level with you, I’m 100% in over my head trying to talk about this. Any crime or attack of even a vaguely sexual nature in media needs to be handled with a lot of care and nuance from everyone involved. It’s the type of thing where writers really need to ask themselves if they need to put this in their story, since it’s such a dark and awful place for so many people. You can see the logic at play in The Killing Joke. After all, the whole point is that the Joker has finally gone too far, so the reader does need to be shocked for the plot point to land. But again, Barbara’s suffering is about Commissioner Gordan. It lends an uncomfortable sense that Barbara is treated this way because she’s so disposable in the story (which Moore basically confirmed was the case).
If you want to take away all outside social commentary about The Killing Joke, Barbara’s treatment by the Joker still seems antithetical to the whole point of the story. See, in media, a character that does anything approaching sexual humiliation usually does so to be irredeemable to the audience. This is because you can mentally justify, say, violence in media if it’s a means to stop bad guys, but sexual torture can’t be justified by any means. This is in stark contrast to The Killing Joke‘s mission to paint the Joker as sympathetic to the reader. Yes, you can argue that perhaps this is intentional, or maybe it holds more credence for why Joker thinks there’s no hope for him. But at the end of the day, you have to wonder if there could have been a better way to achieve this without employing a tired trope in comic books that went on to make an entire subset of comic book fans feel alienated.
Was The Killing Joke just a sign of the times in which it was made? Maybe, sure. It’s still a point well worth discussing, especially in light of Moore distancing himself from The Killing Joke in recent years.
Can a verdict be reached about The Killing Joke?
The problem with discourse on the internet is, much like Sith lords, everyone always deals in absolutes. Either The Killing Joke is an awful and regressive story, or it’s a flawless masterpiece and people are overreacting. The thing about art is that it’s complicated, and works like The Killing Joke don’t fall neatly into these black or white outlooks.
Most people don’t have a problem appreciating classic animation from the 1940s, but if you look closely at what people were drawing at the time, you’ll find a fair share of racist content that would be considered absolutely untenable today. That doesn’t mean all classic animation is bad: it’s the bad parts that are bad. The Killing Joke is no different. Whether it’s a lack of care from the comic’s editing staff or just a reflection of its time, The Killing Joke has some potentially upsetting material in it. That doesn’t mean the whole thing is awful, though. Even if Moore thinks it’s a totally inhuman story, The Killing Joke packs some interesting ideas that helped shape the comic book industry as we know it.
People are just as entitled to like the story as they are to never want to read it. At the end of the day, all that matters is that everyone understands each other. There’s no unwriting The Killing Joke – but we can change the future of how our industry thinks. And perhaps if a healthy dialogue can be reached, we can realize things like “sympathetic villain stories” and “non-disposable female characters” aren’t mutually exclusive! Sure, compromise and discussion isn’t always that easy, but hopefully we can all agree that comics are great and we want the industry to be the best it can be.
In the end, can a final verdict be reached about The Killing Joke? Well, it’s an awful lot like a bad day. Maybe it’ll drive you insane, or maybe you’ll be just fine. But if you really want to know what I think, The Killing Joke is…