Where is the line drawn?

TW: Sexual assault, violence

As I was thinking about what I would write my blog about, a clear topic rose up in my mind. One of the most impactful moments I have had while reading a graphic novel was when I read the Killing Joke. This was one of the first graphic novels I read during my prime interest in superheroes time. I’ve always been attracted to dark tales, especially in the fantastical way that superhero comics can present them. When I heard about the Killing Joke, I knew I had to read it. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s a general rundown: Batman tries to reach out to the Joker so they can come to terms. However, he realizes that the man he is talking to is not the Joker, but an actor. Joker has escaped and has started on a trail that will ruin Batman’s attempts to ever end their rivalry. The following events are harrowing and disturbing; Joker kidnaps Gordon after shooting sexually assaulting his daughter, Barbara. He attempts to drive Gordon mad by showing him images of Barbara, which he is almost successful with. I’ll leave the ending for you to find out about if you decide to read it, but be warned that it is a dark tale. Its darkness is akin to the darkness of Watchmen (which shares an author with the Killing Joke), but perhaps even darker. 

I want to go over the history of the graphic novel, but first I want to mention that DC made the comic into a short animation. You can watch it here. There is no sexual violence shown in the trailer (or really even in the book or animation; it’s more insinuation than anything, although I would still approach both with caution if you find these topics disturbing). 

In an article about the thirty year anniversary of the Killing Joke, the Guardian writes, “the story goes that Moore asked DC if they were OK with how he treated Barbara Gordon; editor Len Wein reportedly responded, ‘Yeah, OK, cripple the bitch.’ As Moore doesn’t speak about The Killing Joke (or any of his DC work) any more, and Wein died last year, it’s perhaps a piece of comics apocrypha we can analyse however we want.” If this quote didn’t make you feel uneasy, I’m not sure what would. It is clear that this comic mistreats one of the only women, leaving her assaulted and paralyzed at the end. Many readers find themselves polarized of either hating the novel or finding some worthiness in the gore. 

“I thought it was far too violent and sexualised a treatment for a simplistic comic book character like Batman and a regrettable misstep on my part.”

This quote is by Moore during a Q&A. It is clear that he regrets how the story portrays and treats Barbara. However, despite the novel originally being written as a stand alone, meant-for-adults-only story, DC incorporated it into the larger narrative, meaning Barbara’s traumatic experience became part of the bigger picture. Her ordeal became one of the biggest examples of women in refrigerators, actually.

While the story certainly did a lot of damage, some part of me still likes it. I don’t like how Barbara is treated, but I think that the narrative going on between Batman and the Joker is super interesting. It is a tough call to make because clearly women are worth more than pawns in men’s games, but the story is so interesting to me.

To read more on the story, I encourage you to take a look at the rest of the Guardian’s article here.

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