So I work at a bookstore. (Kind of a big one – the one in New York City that rhymes with “grand” if you’re the kind of person who tracks big bookstores, but that’s beside the point.) At the store we have tables laid out to highlight books: bestsellers, new, recommended, classics. Books on these tables are highly visible, even to the casual visitor, and the very fact of their being pulled out and put on display marks them: this work is exceptional.
Exposition over. With that explanation out of the way, let me get to the point: one of these books is Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.
Even those not familiar with comics may have heard of this one. For those who haven’t, a brief overview: the story follows the attempts of the Joker to turn the upright police commissioner Gordon against his primciples and drive him into insanity. Published in the 1980s, the comic was a success then and has continued to be a comics classic, held in company with Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Kingdom Come as comics writing at its finest. This is all very well and good, Elise, you may be saying, but what’s your point?
My point comes with one of the ways in which the Joker attempts to drive Gordon insane, which intersects with the image on the cover of the Joker holding a camera. While Barbara Gordon, daughter of Jim Gordon and retired Batgirl, is having a quiet evening at home, the Joker ambushes her, shoots her through the spine, and proceeds to photograph her (naked) as she writhes in pain. This assault is exploited less for the potential it offers Barbara (as a long-time, well-established figure in DC) than for the emotional impact it has on her father – making it a classic “fridging” of a female character. Furthermore, recent revelations of the original art for the pages (NSFW) show that the version published was actually toned down – as originally drawn, it makes the sexual aspects of the attack on Barbara more explicit.
And this is the comic we’ve chosen to represent the pinnacle of the form, to mark out as iconic, to present to new readers as “required reading”?
The title of this post comes from a notorious story about the publication of The Killing Joke. According to an interview with Alan Moore in 2006, when he asked DC if they had any problem with his crippling Barbara Gordon, editor Len Wein told him to “cripple the bitch.” Whenever I see someone pick up The Killing Joke, or buy it, or recommend it, that is the phrase I hear: cripple the bitch.
And yet. I shy away from expressing this opinion to comics fans – especially male comics fans – out of fear I will be told that I am missing the point, that I simply do not understand the artistic merit of the piece, or that I am focusing too much on one aspect of the story, or that it was a daring, edgy move to enact that kind of violence on Batgirl, an iconic character in her own right.
What I hear, though, is that female characters are sacrificeable for the sake of shock value, and that “artistic merit” is inseparable from horrific, sexualized violence.
Can’t we let that go?
You know what comic I wish could take the place of The Killing Joke? Birds of Prey #123-124, when Barbara Gordon, now Oracle – mastermind and puppetmaster of the superhero community – comes face to face with the Joker and tells him, “you took nothing from me.” She proceeds to fight him from her wheelchair, armed only with two escrima, and win, smashing the Joker’s famed smile – if only temporarily.
Now that’s iconic.
Further Reading: It’s time to kill ‘The Killing Joke’