The Controversy of The Killing Joke

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As most know, Batman: The Killing Joke was a one-shot graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland.  It’s a controversial tome and has become even more so in the days of internet forums. In the graphic novel, Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) was shot and crippled by the Joker.

Whether her maiming was sexist or not is still hotly debated even today. Some of the loudest opinions on both sides of the debate come from people who admit to having never read the book.

The focus of The Killing Joke was not the crippling of Barbara but rather Batman’s relationship with his polar opposite, the Joker.

In their own ways, both Batman and the Joker are absolutes. Batman embodies order and the Joker has always been the essence of chaos. However if one examines the two men further, their similarities become apparent.

Neither are capable of sustaining a normal life or relationships. Both resort to violence to enforce their limited world views. Both think in absolutes. Both are damaged goods.

The Killing Joke emphasized this by presenting a possible origin story for the Joker. His memories, seamlessly blended into the story, depicted him as a failed comedian with a pregnant wife and a chemist’s background. A series of poor decisions resulted in one bad day in which he lost everything in quick succession.

The graphic novel highlighted his desire to prove that everyone had the potential to be like  the Joker, or someone very like him, that potential madness exists in even the most law-abiding individuals. In order to do this, he kidnapped and terrorized Commissioner Gordon.

In short, he tried to drive Gordon insane. Since Commissioner Gordon represented Gotham’s law, the Joker was trying to prove that lofty concepts like law and justice dissolve in the face of real trauma.

Alan Moore assigned the standard super-hero story roles to various characters. Batman was of course the hero, the Joker was his foil and antagonist, while Commissioner Gordon and Barbara were assigned the roles of victims. Both were abused by the Joker and in both cases, their abuse was used to setup a confrontation between the antagonist and the hero.

Barbara Gordon was shot and crippled by the Joker in the early pages of the book. She was also stripped naked and photographed. Some internet theorists infer that this means she was also raped (although Word Of God states otherwise).

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Regardless, she was still debased. Being stripped naked and photographed against her will was still a terrible violation. Her father’s abuse at the hand of the Joker also involved nudity. He too was stripped naked before being forced to don a fetish dog collar. Both of them suffered abuse that, while not sexual in nature, carried sexual overtones.

Although Moore’s treatment of Barbara can be viewed as problematic, it’s not necessarily indicative of sexism. Batgirl was reduced to the role of sidekick in the story. Sidekicks are often hurt or kidnapped in order to motivate the hero. In certain stories, they lack agency, existing solely as plot devices.

Her role in The Killing Joke could have easily been fulfilled by any other sidekick connected to Batman — but Batgirl’s relationship to Gordon made her the logical choice. Barbara’s abuse is used to torment her father in an attempt to precipitate a break-down.

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In turn, Gordon’s abuse was perpetrated simply to prove a point and to get to Batman. Had the Joker succeeded in breaking Gordon, he would have proven the futility of Batman’s values. On the surface both Gordon and Barbara’s abuse serve the same purpose, that of engineering the final showdown between hero and villain.

Some see Barbara’s role as problematic because she was the only female character in the mostly male cast of The Killing Joke. Furthermore, the graphic novel showed Gordon surviving his trauma. Despite the Joker’s attempt to drive him insane, he retained his rationality and love of order, even going so far as to insist that Batman should take down the Joker without resorting to the villain’s methods.

Since Gordon represented the rational, we needed to be shown that he survived his trauma with his wits intact. His survival was the triumph of order in the face of insanity.

Although Barbara overcame her abuse to become Oracle, this wasn’t shown in The Killing Joke itself. The brevity of the graphic novel and various creative choices meant that her last appearance in the graphic novel showed her her weeping and clutching Batman.

Was this a sexist interpretation of her character or simply a necessary creative choice to maintain the narrative’s focus and pacing?

Works of fiction are partly defined by our relationship with them. We read them. We interpret them. We find symbolism in them and, sometimes, we project our own views onto them.

One can defend Moore’s treatment of Barbara or make a compelling case that it was in fact sexist.

All I’m saying is read the damn book before you decide one way or another.

LJ Phillips
About LJ Phillips (82 Articles)
LJ Phillips is an ex-bodyguard and professional artist who has had three solo exhibitions. He has also published numerous articles and pieces of short fiction. His interests include Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, over-analyzing pop culture and staring into the abyss. Currently he lives in SA and spends his free time working on his various creator-owned comics.

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