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How The Killing Joke movie became even more controversial than the comic book

Batman: The Killing Joke.
Batman: The Killing Joke.
Warner Bros./DC Comics
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Spoiler alert: This post deals with the plot of Batman: The Killing Joke movie and comic book.

In 1988, writer Alan Moore — a hall of fame comic book creator — and artist Brian Bolland published The Killing Joke, one of the most iconic and controversial one-offs of all time. And for the first time in history, an animated movie based on the comic will be released this week.

Parts of The Killing Joke are fantastic.

The story is wrapped around a struggle between Batman and the Joker and the limits of man’s morality. The Joker has pushed, cranked, prodded, threatened, and assaulted (physically and psychologically) Batman to the point where there’s nothing holding him back from killing the Joker. The ending, in all of its ambiguity, doesn’t give a clear answer, sparking endless conversations since the day it was published.

Moore and Bolland’s tale also gave the Joker an origin story worth telling. The two flit and play on tenuous thresholds, darkness and comedy, delving into a man’s pain and his fatalistic insanity.

And even some of the title’s biggest critics would likely agree that Moore and Bolland’s book is stellar.

The greatest parts of the comic aren’t in question.

But plenty of parts aren’t as unquestionably great. And they’re why this movie’s release has been greeted with controversy.

The Killing Joke is incendiary. This movie adds gasoline to the fire.

In the comic, Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Police Commissioner James Gordon, is Batgirl. During a confrontation with the Joker, he shoots and paralyzes her. After committing that act, the Joker and his goons strip her naked; take pictures of her; and later on, force her father to look at the photos:

The Killing Joke. (DC)

It's gruesome sexual assault. As critics and Moore himself have said, the move felt vacant and inconsiderate — Barbara Gordon's life-changing ordeal was just a plot device to further Batman's story. What happened to Barbara is part of the "women in refrigerators" trope, where female heroes and love interests are maimed, depowered, or crippled in order to teach men lessons.

Barbara's paralysis was accepted as DC canon — while paralyzed she becomes the hero named Oracle — making her ordeal something that couldn't be forgotten.

The movie adds another layer to this.

There, Barbara’s gross sexual assault is still part of the story, but Barbara’s relationship with Bruce Wayne/Batman is changed to one of a sexual nature.

Instead of a father-daughter relationship, the two have a complicated sexual relationship that ends with Batman rejecting her. She becomes not just a friend but a spurned lover — and thus even more of a plot point to fuel a conflict between Batman and his arch-nemesis.

The Killing Joke’s screenwriter’s explanation and response to critics explains a lot about the screenwriter

In one version of Wonder Woman’s comic book history at DC Comics, her fellow Amazons would, every so often (like Coachella I guess), sexually assault some sailors so they could get pregnant, kill the sailors, and sell the male babies to the god Hephaestus for weapons. Brian Azzarello, the man who wrote it, is the screenwriter for The Killing Joke movie.

Azzarello’s run on Wonder Woman, the most iconic female character in DC Comics’ history, was criticized by some critics for its sexism and misogyny. But that story isn’t and shouldn’t be the be-all end-all crystallization defining Azzarello’s view on women.

His run, however, shows how he handled one treasured female character and her origin story. It also shows why he may have taken the roads he did in writing The Killing Joke movie. And his explanation for why he chose to tweak Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon’s relationship for the movie isn’t going to change the minds of Azzarello’s biggest critics.

"The thing about this is that it's controversial, so we added more controversy," Azzarello explained during a panel at Comic-Con. "I think she is stronger than the men in her life in this story. She controls the men in her life in this story."

That’s a fascinating way to think about The Killing Joke — its value is rooted in its controversial nature as opposed to its writing or its art. That to him it's more about the controversy it created than the story itself. It’s also a fascinating way to think about Barbara Gordon — sex makes her a powerful character.

Azzarello isn’t necessarily wrong in this. There are powerful stories of powerful women who are in control of their sexualities. But I don’t completely buy that’s what’s going on with Barbara. And Azzarello didn’t exactly provide a stirring defense.

In a report by the Guardian, Azzarello doubled down on his decision by demeaning a fan who disagreed with his characterization of Batgirl by using misogynistic language:

[W]riter Brian Azzarello called a fan a "pussy" after they said that Batgirl can only control the men in her life through sex rather than any real agency. The entire event was an unmitigated disaster, and it’s likely that The Killing Joke will continue to fall from esteem in the years to come.

Azzarello and director Sam Liu have every right to create their riff on this story, just like fans and critics have every right to agree or disagree with their creative decisions.

But being toxic to a fan, and using the word "pussy" to demean that fan, is only underlining Azzarello’s biggest critics’ reservations about his work.

The Killing Joke is part of a bigger debate dividing fandom

In recent weeks, the comic book community has seen fissures erupt over creative choices.

There was backlash when we found out that Captain America was revealed to be (or at least appeared to be) a Hydra agent. There was backlash when Marvel announced that Iron Man was going to be a black, teenage girl. Last week, a divisive fight opened up over a cover artist who quit because he couldn’t make Wonder Woman as sexy as he wanted her to be. Outrage and conspiracy theories even floated out there when critics didn’t agree with fans on Batman v Superman.

The Killing Joke fight, and fights like it, have an effect on the art and creators. It can push for better, more thoughtful representation and instill humanity in characters. It can also flatten pieces of art — making them too tidy and too dull to ever challenge us. We’re still figuring out the proper balance between criticism, consumerism, and creation.

To be clear, I don’t believe that fans who exhibit sexist, racist, misogynistic actions and words should be protected by the umbrella of fandom and geekery. No, what I’m writing about is the challenge of creating pieces of art in the face of the titanic response from those who consume it. How does that affect those who create art? It has to.

The comic books attached to the biggest fights are those that deal with identity. Comic books are integral and inspirational to their fans’ realities, and if you tweak them — no matter how you change the story — you’re changing the game for a reader.

This isn’t even the first time that The Killing Joke has resurfaced since publication. In 2015, artist Rafael Albuquerque created a cover for Batgirl no. 41 that riffed on the idea of The Killing Joke and the Joker assaulting Barbara. The debate ended with Albuquerque telling DC to nix his cover:

For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character's past that I was able to interpret artistically. But it has become clear, that for others, it touched a very important nerve. I respect these opinions and, despite whether the discussion is right or wrong, no opinion should be discredited.

My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art. For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled.

A lot of that fight is echoed in the recent controversy. How should Barbara be depicted? What is the line that supervillains should or shouldn’t cross? Is there a way to rewrite the story that gets at the Joker’s evilness in The Killing Joke without turning Barbara into a victim?

And what power do fans have over the art created for them?

The vast collection of superhero comic books is a space for both readers and creators to work stuff out. They are a way to talk about morality, empathy, goodness, and the complete lack of all three. Superhero comics have always been more about those who read and make them than the characters in them.

The Killing Joke isn’t any different. But maybe after 28 years, we’re finally asking ourselves what its popularity says about us.

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