Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Sex and the Killing Joke

First there were comic books. Then there was Alan Moore.

OK, a whole bunch of stuff happened between the development of the medium we call comic books and the advent of writer Alan Moore in the American comic book scene. But such was the shock to the system that madman from across the water had on the way we read comic books, the way we thought about them.  It’s been over 30 years since Alan Moore first made his mark in America, taking over as writer of DC’s Swamp Thing series. Yet his influence holds sway over fans and professionals to this day. Watchmen. V For Vendetta. Miracleman. These are significant touchpoints in the history of comics where Moore changed the very definition of what makes a protagonist in a comic book.

One particularly significant work from Alan Moore for DC Comics was the graphic novel, The Killing Joke. 

Produced with fellow Brit superstar artist Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke is an ultimate confrontation between the Batman and the Joker. Moore reveals that like Batman, the Joker was born from the emotional scars of a very bad day. But where Batman seeks to bring order, the Joker brings chaos. The Batman expects the world to make sense; the Joker expects the world to not make any sense at all.  Moore’s examination of the dichotomy between Batman and Joker is moving and thought provoking. Paired with the gorgeous artwork of Brian Bolland with colorist John Higgins, The Killing Jokes rightfully stands as a classic.

But it is not without controversy.

Early on, there is a sequence where the Joker invades the home of Commissioner Gordon and he shoots his daughter Barbara through the spine, paralyzing her. While she is helpless, the Joker strips Barbara of her clothes and takes photos of her. It is a very uneasy sequence to witness. Barbara’s trauma is taken further than anything we were used to. The overtones of sexual violence are very disturbing. 

Moore’s intent was to show a Joker going further than ever before. He wants to show Commissioner Gordon his own very, very bad day and drive him to madness. Because madness is the only response that makes sense from the Joker’s perspective. Any other response is just crazy. 

Still, the assault on Barbara Gordon (who had only recently given up her crime fighting career as Batgirl) has troubling connotations, however unintentional. Within the pages of The Killing Joke, Barbara is only one of two female characters and she exists to get shot by the Joker to motivate the subsequent actions of her father and Batman. Barbara is reduced to victim and plot device.

There is another woman in the story; we see her in flashbacks to a time before the Joker was the Joker. A struggling comedian gets roped into a life of crime to provide for his pregnant wife who ultimately winds up being killed in a freak accident. So there’s that.

To be fair, The Killing Joke is a sparsely populated story. We have Batman, Barbara, the Commissioner, the Joker plus the pre-Joker comedian and his wife as well as assorted hoods. The fact that two people who need to drive the story forward are both women and both wind up being victims is unfortunate but I’m sure was unintentional. I believe Alan Moore has himself expressed regret about that circumstance of the story.

This weekend saw the debut of the new animated film based on The Killing Joke. It is an adaption with a pretty amazing pedigree. 

  • Bruce Timm, famed producer of the legendary Batman: The Animated Series. 
  • Voice actors Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. 
  • Noted comic book writer Brian Azzarello co-writing the adaption. 

The Killing Joke is notable for being the first animated super hero movie to earn an R rating. It has also earned a lot of scorn. 

The negative feedback stems from a good intention. Bruce Timm noted that The Killing Joke did not provide enough material for a full movie so a decision was made to bolster the role of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, to actually have her involved in the action of the film instead of just showing up to get shot by the Joker. The idea was to develop Barbara within the movie and make us care about her as a character.

So the 1st third of the movie is an extended prologue that establishes a working relationship between Batman and Batgirl. Except Batgirl comes off as not particularly well skilled but appears to be in this super hero game to be close to her crush, a certain Caped Crusader. It is a crush that gives in to lust when Batman and Batgirl have sex on a rooftop.

Hold on. Did I just write “Batman and Batgirl have sex on a rooftop”?  

Yes. Yes, I did. 

After that sexual encounter, Batman tries to shut Batgirl out. Yes, Batman’s being a total dick about it. Meanwhile, Batgirl is telling Batman to stop being a dick about it, it was just sex, it doesn’t mean anything.

Yes, this is how The Killing Joke earned that R rating.

Then the story picks up where the original comic starts. And poor Barbara gets shot by the Joker.

Except now she’s the girl Batman had sex with and he feels guilty about that which I guess adds extra motivation to the Batman beating the crap out of the Joker. Because male super heroes only really get riled up at bad guys who have done bad things to the hero’s wife/girlfriend/girl he had sex with.   

So Barbara Gordon becomes even more of a plot device than before. 

Never mind the relative “ick” factor of Batman and Batgirl having a sexual relationship. In most stories, Batman has at best a father/daughter rapport with Batgirl. In other stories, he barely tolerates her.  So the idea of Batman and Batgirl having sex is virtually inconceivable.*

*Though not 100% unheard of. In the Batman Beyond comic, Bruce Wayne gets Barbara Gordon pregnant which drives a wedge between Bruce and Dick Grayson.

The sad thing is that all the people associated with this seemed to think they were doing right by Barbara Gordon, that these additions were improvements to her story. But all it does is take Barbara from being a victim once to being a victim twice.

Barbara and The Killing Joke both deserved better. 


Tomorrow, a subject more fun to talk about as The Pixar Project continues with The Incredibles. 

And Friday and Saturday, I catch up with the political stories for the week coming out of the Democratic National Convention. 

Until next time, remember to be good to one another.

I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You

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