Monday 3 August 2015

The Comics Ramble: In Non-Defense of The Killing Joke

This will not be pleasant. We're going to be going into detail today about Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke and the specifics of what did and did not happen to her. I'm doing this because there has been a kerfuffle recently concerning making TKJ into an animated movie, principally in response to Donna Dicken's article “It's Time To Kill The Killing Joke” which got her... let's face the sad facts, exactly the reaction one expects from the internet these days.

Lots of people want to defend The Killing Joke. Okay, well and good but, just to clear, the following are not defences:

Barbara Gordon isn't sexually assaulted, you're reading things into it that aren't there!”

No, she isn't raped. At least, she isn't explicitly stated to have been. However, she is shot, stripped naked and then photographed nude and bleeding on the floor. This is assault with a clearly sexual component and whilst we can go back and forth on whether the Joker's goons rape her, that at least is explicit within the text. Whether it was seen that way by the writer, by the editor or even by the readership at the time (and the answer to all those is probably “no”) this is sexual assault.

But Jim Gordon gets abused, too.”

Yes. Yes, he does BUT he is the subject of the story: he has an arc, he gets resolution and victory at the end. He gets, naked in the rain after everything he's been through, to cleave to his moral code and demand that the Joker be brought in alive and charged in full accordance with the law. Barbara, meanwhile, is treated as a passive object in the story and gets none of those things. She gets shot and after that she is barely addressed by the story at all. We don't even see her reaction to the news she's lost the use of her legs, the only person told on panel that it's happened is Batman. So, yeah, Barbara's injury and disability is very much treated as something for Batman and Jim Gordon to react to, not for Barbara to engage with in any visible way.

Alan Moore is a genius and this is his fantastic creative vision!”

Erm... so, Alan Moore has been pretty clear that he doesn't really care for the whole Barbara scene anymore. He himself acknowledges that this is something he should have been held back from writing by his editor. There is definitely good stuff in TKJ but none of it needs naked, bleeding Barbara to function. The meat of the story is the stuff with Jim, Batman and the Joker in the abandoned funfair.

But this comic created Oracle, the great disability pride superhero, you can't want to undo that!”

Actually, this is one I was sort of caught up in until I read Dickens' article and re-read TKJ. It's been a few years since I last picked it up and I genuinely thought there was more set-up for Oracle (re: any) than there actually is.

However, let's be very, very clear: this is flat out untrue. Oracle is not Alan Moore's creation, she is Kim Yale and John Ostrander's creation and first appeared in Suicide Squad. Folding this story into continuity was a late-day decision, disabled Barbara was not considered an ongoing prospect going forward when this was written. No version of Barbara was, there were no plans for her future use at that time. And again, as with appreciating what Moore does with the central concept here, Oracle does not need naked Barbara to function, she just needs a gunshot wound.

But... but... Jason Todd!!!!!”

See my point about Jim Gordon's treatment in TKJ: Jason's death was the high point of a four-part story arc in which he had probably more agency than any sidekick had had prior to that point. Also, his death, unlike Barbara's assault here, was not sexualised.

If you object to this film then you want to ban the book and arghle-blargle free speech! Censorship! Oppression! Chips in gravy!”

Okay, this one is complicated and will actually take multiple paragraphs to tell you why you're wrong. Point one: I do not want to ban The Killing Joke. In a similar vein, I do not want to “ban” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Celestial Toymaker, The Goon Show or any number of Disney movies because of their problematic treatment of race. All those things, The Killing Joke included, exist and I firmly believe they must continue to exist. That their content was acceptable in their days is regrettable but we learn nothing from erasing them.

We only learn from discussing them. Huck Finn is part of the American Canon but it has issues of race in spite of the author's recorded (for his time) liberal views. The Celestial Toymaker is flat-out racist and a pretty crap story with it but it is a fantastic text for seeing what could be broadcast unquestioned in 1966 on BBC One (answer: sinophobic surrealism). Spike Milligan was a comic genius whose upbringing in colonial India led him to skewer Imperial ignorance but that didn't stop him demonstrating it with his Asian characters. Acknowledging these flaws doesn't stop us enjoying the parts that have aged well (not that there are many of those in Toymaker...) but just denying the problems with these things makes us look just plain ignorant.

This is all equally true of the TKJ's content. The Killing Joke is a historical document and it has a right to exist. The film, however, is yet unmade. In making it with the sexual assault scene intact, given there's a better than decent chance it'll be adapted scene-for-scene from the comic, validates the original content as PRESENTLY acceptable. I can look at a 1988 graphic novel, an 1884 novel, a 1960s TV serial or a 1950s radio comedy and accept that that was how people thought back then, however regrettably, because that's the march of history for you. Having to make those allowances for a 2015 animated feature is just too much to ask.

And gravy on chips is a heresy against all common decency.

But there are other pieces of media with sexual assault in them!”

Yes and I am not totally opposed to its portrayal as it can be both sensitively and usefully addressed in fiction. However, I do not believe that a DC animated feature is going to go into a deep, well-constructed narrative of assault survival when it can sell itself on Joker antics instead.

Well, no one said you have to watch it!”

No. No, they didn't, glad we agree. However, if anyone expects this to carry them the argument I shall bring in some medieval law: those who remain silence shall be presumed to agree. People used to vote like that: only the dissenting had to speak and anyone silent was assumed to be voting yay. These days we have abstention, which is a form of silent protest for those who don't feel strongly enough to actually have an opinion.

If I believe something is wrong, I will speak. It is a moral duty. I will not be seen to agree with something if I do not actually agree with it. It doesn't matter if it personally affects me or not, whether it be the content of a film, the passing of a law or the downright bizarre notion some people have that pineapple is in some way edible.

But this is what the Joker would do and any other decision betrays the character!”

No. I'm sorry, no. Fictional characters do not have volition of their own. The Joker does whatever his writer tells him to do and even if we did accept the idea that there is some essential core to the Joker that “makes” him act a certain way, I present you...
"Just once I wish Ledger or Hamill would draw the short straw!"
Do we think this guy would shoot a woman, strip her nude and take photos? When people talk about the Joker as if he were a coherent entity they tend to be speaking just for a preferred version of the character. I'm not saying The Killing Joke would be any better for having Cesar Romero and his painted-out moustache in it (though, honestly, what wouldn't be?) but when people talk about the Joker being a cruel sadist at heart it ignores the fact that Romero's version has as much right to be seen as “the” Joker as Alan Moore's or Frank Miller's or Heath Ledger's.

But this is the definitive origin of the Joker!”

Two points. Point one: look up the word “definitive” quickly because this is really not what it means. The Killing Joke itself acknowledges that the flashbacks might all be fiction, in fact that acknowledgement is one of the best lines in the whole damn thing. Point two: the origin, again, is not impacted by Barbara having more clothes on as she bleeds out or getting some moment of catharsis or victory later in the story.

Is that the answer, perhaps? Can the story be saved by intelligently addressing Barbara's plight in the story, by toning down the sexualised nature of her assault? Is it not just as shocking for a father to see his daughter bleeding on the floor however she's dressed? Is there no victory Barbara can be given to make this genuinely the origin of Oracle, not just the story other authors rebelled against to create Oracle?

After all, if the Joker must have a definitive story, wouldn't we all rather it be multiple choice?

I think it can be saved. I believe in my heart of hearts that there's a good story here, perhaps not the great story other people see but certainly a good one that has problems that could be ironed out. At the end of the day, though, I don't think that's what's going to happen. The Killing Joke movie will, like as not, be a straight warts-and-all adaptation because that is what the most vocal sections of fandom will demand: the full story with not a change made to their precious classic.

Could it be changed up a bit? I don't see why not, the comic is only about fifty pages so there's going to be some padding at least so why not some padding that serves a purpose? 


SallyP said...

Very well said and reasoned.

James Ashelford said...

Thanks, Sally. I admit this took me a while because I didn't want anything to end up ambiguous or accidentally offensive (intentionally offensive is fine, I'll stand by those bits against the sorts who would find it offensive).