Writing What I Hate: The Killing Joke

A few things before we begin.

First, yes, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted an article. It’s been a hard, chaotic year and the blog is one of the things that fell by the wayside in that time. Luckily, I’m back and with fresh content.

Second, to preempt the comments, I don’t hate the 1988 Alan Moore graphic novel The Killing Joke. It has its problem, as I’ll discuss over the course of this entry, but I was all of five when this book hit the shelves and by the time I read it at twenty, the book was not only the definitive origin of my favorite villain, but also of Barbara Gordon as the Oracle. Yes, Barbara does not become Oracle in the actual book, but from the perspective of someone reading the book fifteen years and dozens of storylines after the fact, that’s how it felt.

No, this article is about the DC animated presentation of The Killing Joke.

Sigh. Look, I’m sure a lot of you already know the problems with this adaptation of the original graphic novel and the problems with said graphic novel. So I’ll keep the recap of both short.

The original Alan Moore book is often accused of misogyny because the character of Barbara Gordon wasn’t… a character. Oh, she had lines and appeared, but she was really only there to be shot and paralyzed as part of the Joker’s plot to prove to Batman that her father could become broken and deranged thanks to having the now-famous ‘one bad day’ that Joker alleges turned him into the Joker.

So essentially, she was shot and paralyzed to affect her father to prove something to someone else entirely. It had nothing to do with her as a character. In fact, when Alan Moore originally asked for permission to use Barbara in this way, he says that editor Len Wein came back with “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”

Yeah… if you thought DC’s unfortunate attitude toward women is a new development, it’s more accurate to say those days are certainly coming to a middle.

Which brings us to the animated adaptation.

Originally billed as another in a long line of generally successful and well-received DC animated projects, The Killing Joke was going to be the crown jewel of their animated Empire. They brought back fan favorite voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammil to reprise their roles from Batman: the Animated Series as Batman/Bruce Wayne and The Joker respectively. They also brought in Tara Strong, one of the actresses to portray Barbara Gordon in TAS. Not only that, but in a first for them, they got the project green-lit as an R-rated movie, meaning none of the visceral and deep imagery and concepts of the novel had to be cut or watered down for a PG-13 rating.

The excitement among the fanbase was amazing. So much so that DC made what turned out to be an unfortunate and fateful decision: they decided to give the movie a theatrical release. One problem: The Killing Joke is not a long book. DC Studios felt they could only get about sixty minutes of script out of the book while one needs at least ninety to get proper distribution for a film.

No problem though, DC announced that they were going to add thirty minutes to the film in the form of new character development for Barbara Gordon so that she’s an actual character this time around. Wait, actually there was a problem: they brought on Brian Azzaerello to gen up those thirty minutes.

Now… up until now I didn’t have any special dislike for this guy. He wrote a story where Harley Quinn was a mute whose sole job it was to rub up against Joker occasionally, but I didn’t even know about that until now. He was just an okay writer who sometimes crossed my pull list.

But like I said ‘until now’. Tasked with the job of developing the character of Barbara Gordon in Killing Joke and armed with the advantage over even Alan Moore of almost thirty more years of stories and characterization of the character, what Azzerello turned in seemed to say ‘you thought the original was sexist and disrespectful? Check this out!’.

Ignore the fact that Babs has sex with Batman in costume after baiting him into a fight. Yes, that happened and while stupid seems to be the fault of Bruce Timm, who has a fetish for that ship. I’m not even going to touch that here. There’s plenty of commentary on YouTube and elsewhere that can cover that.

Beyond that however, Azzerello made it so Barbara is pretty much in the superhero game because she has a crush on Batman. Not only that, but the case she and Bats are working on is turned ‘personal’ because the mob boss they’re after is constantly hitting on and objectifying her. Those aren’t my words either. Batman seriously tells Barbara not to go after his guy because he objectifies her. Yep. Batman gives a speech on objectification in a movie where he sex-fights Babs.

Oh, and Barbara is show to be just the shittiest crime fighter ever and ends up retiring partly because Bats didn’t call her after they slept with each other.

Then the rest of the actual Killing Joke story happens with Barbara forgotten entirely until it’s time to be shot, then forgotten again until the end where we do at least get to see her becoming Oracle.

When someone at a panel complained about this to Azzerello, he essentially challenged them to a fight and called them a pussy. Proving that he was the right person to choose to show respect to a female character.

This also caused another problem. See, all the Batgirl stuff aside from the Oracle epilogue was pretty much just stapled on to the front of the picture and starts with Batgirl directly telling the audience this isn’t what you expected to see.

So the audience gets a half-hour of Batgirl, then she disappears and they’re now supposed to switch over to the Joker story. But Batgirl is still in your head (and not in a good way), so it feels like Joker is now a bit player setting up for the dramatic tragedy to happen to Barbara and makes it look like Batman is angry because his lover was hurt.

It changed a powerful story about Joker’s origin and psychology and his duality with Batman into a lackluster story about Joker unintentionally paralyzing Batman’s lover who sucked at Batgirling. So it’s a disservice to Barbara and to the original story.

And that’s where I come in. Can this wreck be fixed while still doing better justice to Barbara than the original? We’ll see, because this is Writing What I Hate, where I do my best to do just that.

Unlike with Punisher were the issue was the character and the challenge was writing a good Punisher story, the issue here is a combination of the added material and the issue the material was allegedly added to deal with: fleshing out Barbara as a character and making her injury matter to her character. So what I’m doing here isn’t rewriting the Killing Joke so much as making notes as to where I would make changes to the original to reach the stated goals.

Let’s begin. Spoilers ahoy.

My most basic first move here would be to add something to the start where Batman talks to his supporting cast about his intentions to go to Arkham to discuss ending his feud with Joker with the Clown Prince of Crime himself.

The actual act is a big part of the story, largely because it is this story that makes Batman decide Joker can never be redeemed. Even the titular joke is an allusion to this. I would have Alfred guess what Bruce is planning to do and call in Dick Grayson the first Robin and Barbara to try to convince him not to do it.

Both respond based on what they’ve taken from their time and learning under Batman and their own philosophies developed over years of crime fighting.

Dick’s response would be along the lines of ‘are you crazy’ of course, but Barbara would be more analytical, not willing to pass judgment without all the data and openly wondering what made the Joker what he is today, which in turn gets Bruce to admit he’s been wondering this a long time and setting up the first flashbacks to Joker’s One Bad Day.

I will admit that this serves in part to change some of the meaning behind the book as having the Bat Family either trying to talk Batman out of following his sort of obsession (we have to remember that this is a 1988 story, written either during or before A Death In The Family where Joker kills Jason Todd and forcing Batman’s character almost irreversibly down a darker, path. Up to this point, Bats has been way more optimistic that his foes could be cured, seeing as most of them are genuinely mentally ill almost to the point of being obsessed.) shows exactly what one major difference is between Joker and Batman. Joker let his tragedy break him and he now has no one to pull him back from the edge. Batman uses his tragedy as motivation to keep other people from being broken and is held back from the brink by his friends and loved ones—the Bat Family.

In turn, it both characterizes Barbara as a much more analytic character than Dick and closer to Batman in his World’s Greatest Detective mode. Both of these characters are both literally and figuratively his legacy. So later, when Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara, we now have the feeling that this isn’t just an attack on Commissioner Gordon, but inadvertently on the Bat Legacy.

Batman’s subsequent capture (sorry people who think Bats killed Joker at the end, but nope. The light going out is not Joker’s life: the joke says the other guy had the light and was trying to use it to get the first guy to safety. Therefore the light going out is Batman giving up hope of redeeming him.) of him rather than breaking and killing him (and proving him right) is not not just on Gordon’s behalf, but also directly on Barbara’s as one of his own ‘children’.

You might have noticed I didn’t add much yet and you would be right. What people don’t understand is that proper characterization doesn’t really take a ton of time if you do it right. All we need to make Barbara a real character in The Killing Joke is actually involving her and her history.

However. We’ve now in 2016 and we all know Barbara becomes Oracle from this. Even DC seems to be coming around to understanding that Barbara didn’t just ‘settle’ on being Oracle because of her disability, she graduated to Oracle because her disability forced her to stretch her capabilities.

So like the animated movie, I would have an ending with her becoming Oracle—only a bit longer and more involved. Show Babs being distraught over the end of her hero career and loss of ability to walk, then show a montage of her both helping herself and having her family and Bat Family helping her recover as well over time.

The final scene is Barbara being called up in the middle of the night by Dick as Nightwing. He’s hot on the trail of a villain, but needs information. He asks her to use he computer skills and hacking knowledge to get it for him. She’s reluctant at first, then thinks of all the good she could do in doing so.

She pulls herself into her wheel chair, rolls over to her computer and boots up, the light glowing across her face—and then her face and the room fade, leaving the Oracle image just before the credits roll.

Yes, that’s still not a lot of Barbara but here’s a secret that both critics of the Killing Joke graphic novel and whoever green-lit the screen play for the animated movie: This isn’t Barbara’s story and that fact wasn’t the problem.

The problem was that Barbara is a long-time member of the Bat Family and she was reduced to merely being one more victim of the Joker, unimportant in a story that drastically changed her. All that’s really needed to fix that problem is to give her characterization and an actual purpose int he story. You can literally do that with one conversation, not a half hour of her sucking at relationships and being Batgirl.

Showing her recovery both adds to Joker’s story (showing how his actions affect Barbara and the whole extended Bat Family) while also showing how she recovers both under her own power and with support. Finally, we see how she’s inspired to be Oracle. Some might argue that she’s inspired by a man and that’s a bad thing, but you have to remember that Dick is the other half of the Bat Legacy. He’s a reflection and extension of her as a character, not just ‘a man in her life’.

Top the whole thing off with a trailer for a Bird of Prey animated series and we might even set DC back on track.

That’s my take on things. What do you think? Drop me a line on the new forum about how you feel about the Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon or even what thing I hate I should write next.

Until then, later guys.

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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