Special Thanks to @tom_eaton for fact-checking and consulting!
This week, DC Comics and Warner Brothers Animation are releasing an animated movie version of “The Killing Joke,” based on the 1988 seminal Batman graphic novel. In doing so, the publishers are revisiting one of the darkest moments in the Bat-verse’s continuity–the point at which Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) is shot by the Joker, an event which left the character paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. But “The Killing Joke” is particularly sensitive territory for many fans, because it contains imagery that arguably implies that the Joker rapes Barbara.
And whether the original authors intended to make a sexual assault part of the story is only partially relevant–because the fact is, for a lot of fans, the rape is canon, and part of the experience they’ve had as readers. And Barbara’s eventual recovery, and her development into a new, wheelchair-bound superhero (The Oracle) over time has become a source of pride and strength for a lot of Batgirl fans.
All of which is to say: Making any big changes to “The Killing Joke” needed to be done with care–the story’s legacy is intense.
DC Made Insensitive Changes, Then Botched Their Fan Response
Now that the movie is out, with an additional 45 minutes featuring Batgirl in a story that never appeared in the original “Killing Joke,” it’s clear: DC blew it. The publisher retold one of their most controversial narratives, effectively retconning Batgirl’s origin story so it now hinges on a storyline of sexual disempowerment. The new version spends more than a half-hour showing how Batgirl is less effective as a hero because of her emotional and sexual interest in Batman, and ultimately reframes the ending, making Batman her protector.
And that was a dumb thing for them to do–but the missteps don’t end there. When fans spoke up, the producers made the whole situation worse. At San Diego Comic-Con 2016 last weekend, at the end of a lengthy panel celebrating the release of the movie, a fan dressed as Batgirl asked why the writers chose to add in a Batgirl story that was all about the men in her life. When the panelists couldn’t put a coherent answer together–the best they gave was a mansplain-y “it’s complicated”–a reporter from Bleeding Cool, Jeremy Konrad, shouted from the audience that Batgirl now was “using sex and pining for Bruce.”
In response, the movie’s writer, Brian Azzarello, became hostile and defensive, angry that Mr. Konrad was at that point walking away. He called Mr. Konrad a pussy.
(Let’s all take a deep breath and appreciate the gravity and irony of that particular response to an accusation of sexism.)
So there are two things to dissect here:
- Why and how the narrative changes made to “The Killing Joke” were shockingly insensitive to women’s issues, and…
- How DC’s responses to criticism (historic and present) show that they don’t think there’s a problem when it comes to women in their comics. (Spoiler alert: They’re really, really wrong.)
The New “Killing Joke” Changes
Here’s a quick rundown of what they added to Batgirl’s story in the animated “Killing Joke”:
- There’s a new gangster in town, Paris Franz. He’s a murderous mobster who becomes instantly sexually fixated on Batgirl.
- Paris and Batgirl tangle in an action sequence, but he gets away.
- Batman scolds Batgirl, telling her that (a) she’s “too close” to the case — I think this might be man-code for “you’re getting all emotiony about this” — and needs to back off, and (b) he wants her off the case, because he has more experience with insane criminals. This latter part is of course foreshadowing for Batman’s upcoming duel with The Joker, but nonetheless, it comes off as painfully condescending.
- Barbara Gordon confides in her gay friend–lisp, limp wrist, “honey” and all, just in case anyone in the audience was confused–that she’s involved with someone, sort of. A lot of time is spent on showing that she doesn’t know how she feels about Batman.
- Barbara decides to stay on the case, and Franz leaves traps for Batgirl, describing their relationship as a romance (at one point, after leaving a clue, he sneers, “I thought women loved scavenger hunts!”).
- Batman again scorns Batgirl for remaining involved, angrily stating that they’re not peers: He is in charge.
- In the heat of their argument, she kisses him. This leads to Batman and Batgirl having sex on a rooftop.
- Batman doesn’t call Batgirl after that. Barbara gets distressed about his post-Bat-sex behavior.
- When the original “Killing Joke” story begins, Batman still hasn’t spoken to Barbara since their rooftop tryst.
It’s important to note here that the Batman/Batgirl romance dynamic didn’t come out of nowhere: In “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker,” Bruce and Barbara did once share a romance, in a reality where the two of them are left behind as the two last members of the Bat-family. That development of their relationship is pretty different from the one in “The Killing Joke”; we see it progress over time, rather than the two of them having impulsive rooftop sex. “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker” was also directed by “Killing Joke” director Bruce Timm, so, for the sake of argument, I can see how in Timm’s mind, it’s a normal thing to have these two characters get together. Even though Batman is much older than Batgirl. Even though they work together. And even though she’s the daughter of the one cop who has always had his back.
I also give credit to Timm and company for trying to give Batgirl more screen time at all. Batgirl is a great character, and I can almost see how there’s an odd logic to the idea that, because “Killing Joke” originally acted as an origin story for Batgirl’s survivor arc, it makes sense to flesh out that origin story even further now. In their own strange way, maybe DC and Warner Brothers Animation were trying to cement “The Killing Joke” as a part of the character’s history of strength. Maybe.
But the root of the problem lies in how the audience sees Batman’s motivations when entering the final battle. In the finale of the print version of “The Killing Joke,” Barbara is used as a way to get her father, Commissioner Gordon, to go crazy and reject the criminal justice system altogether. What happens to her is tragic, but for The Joker is a means to an end. The Joker shows Commissioner Gordon multiple images of his daughter after the assault as a way to torture him. Batman then comes after The Joker to save Gordon — and here’s the important part — motivated by saving Commissioner Gordon and bringing Joker to justice. That’s it.
By adding the new 45 minutes of Batgirl’s backstory in “The Killing Joke,” when Batman tracks down The Joker, there’s an unavoidable revenge narrative that’s new to the story: Batman is now also coming after the guy who sexually assaulted and shot the last woman he slept with. Batman is now involved a new character arc, where he at first ignores Batgirl after they have sex, but then redeems himself by going after her attacker. Essentially, because we, the audience, spent the first 45 minutes investing in Barbara’s emotional confusion, the final 45 minutes are a conclusion to that: The story of Batgirl’s man problems is resolved by Batman coming through for her.
More than that, Barbara’s being assaulted and paralyzed become part of why Batman was right that she wasn’t ready for the Franz case. The implication is that when Batman told Batgirl she should leave the crazy criminals to him, this is why. He asked her to leave the dangerous criminals to the men crime fighters, she didn’t listen, and she ended up raped and paralyzed.
None of this was in the original graphic novel. These narrative changes are a problem.
“The Killing Joke” is a tough book to appreciate to begin with — I have trouble trying to explain to people why I respect a graphic novel that features a graphic sexual assault. When it was written, Batgirl’s eventual recovery and flourishing wasn’t planned, so it’s hard to even give credit to “The Killing Joke” for the eventual stories that came because of it. But the fact is, “The Killing Joke” did lead to a strong, disabled superhero that also happened to be a rape survivor. (Go look up anything by Gail Simone and Chuck Dixon. Their work on “Birds of Prey” brought us Barbara as a badass, and focused on her intelligence, determination, and strength.)
Now, we’re left with a version that, at best, leaves audiences with a Batgirl whose man issues get in the way of her crime-fighting competence, and at worst, creates a narrative wherein female superheroes should leave the tough battles to the men, for fear of rape.
And to avoid all of this, all DC and Warner Brothers Animation had to do was bring the original book to the screen without changes–even shortening the movie overall might have been a better decision. The entire endeavor would never have been this controversial if they had just left well enough alone. I would have welcomed having the conversation be around how having sexual assault as part of a character’s history can be both degrading and empowering to readers. There was enough controversy in the original to go around.
Instead, they developed a Batgirl who’s powerless without her sexuality — when she can’t convince Batman of her worth, she has sex with him. They created a version of “The Killing Joke” that requires Batman to step in and exact revenge on her attacker. None of this was necessary; there was no need to change a classic story so that it promotes antiquated ideas about women, value, sex, and white knights.
A Brief History of Ridiculously Bad Responses from DC
Before we get back to the Comic-Con Panel that devolved into name-calling, there are two events worth reviewing.
- Five years ago, at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con DC writers panel, a fan–dressed as Batgirl, no less–questioned Co-Publisher Dan DiDio about why they had recently gone from having 12% of their titles from women creators to only 1%. After an extremely defensive response, DiDio and the panelists responded that they didn’t come across as many talented female writers as they did male, and that was the industry’s fault, not theirs. Then, Grant Morrison, one of the industry’s most popular writers, joked that he looked great in a dress. (After being called out for being dismissive, Morrison then encouraged women in the audience to submit their work.)
- In March 2015, an artist previewed a variant cover of an upcoming issue of Batgirl, referencing the artwork and events of “The Killing Joke.” The artwork took the look and feel of the cover of the original, but went a step further by showing Batgirl in the midst of her trauma. When fans objected on Twitter, they were subject to harassment and death threats from trolls. As a result, the artist requested the cover not be printed; DC complied with the request. That last part is important — DC didn’t back off on their own, but at the request of the artist, who wasn’t comfortable with anyone getting death threats over his work.
These two incidents are worth making part of the new “Killing Joke” context, because they (a) show that DC is a boys’ club that doesn’t take women or women’s issues seriously, (b) prove that they absolutely should have known better than to antagonize their audience, and (c) go a long way towards showing what Batgirl and her “Killing Joke” history mean to people. One would hope that someone from DC’s PR team would have encouraged them to respond to any questions about privilege, gender, sexuality, or assault with care — to engage in a dialogue, and not a fight. But instead, the panelists got defensive. Bruce Timm argued that there has always been a romantic tone to the Batman/Batgirl relationship — sidestepping the question of why it needed to be in “The Killing Joke” — and then, of course, the entire thing devolved into a writer calling a fan a “pussy.”
It doesn’t seem like much has changed since 2011.
No, I Haven’t Forgotten About DC TV
I do give DC props for their support of women superheroes on TV. Between Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl, there are plenty of strong women who are smart and kick ass. And each of the female characters on these shows are given dialogue and scenarios that challenge the viewers. The shows have their flaws, but overall, DC’s approach to TV has been intelligent and fair.
So, Now What?
While DC has done a lot for their female characters on the small screen, the new animated movie and the publisher’s response to fan criticism make a few things clear: “The Killing Joke” is a raw nerve for fans, and the company still has work to do if they want to be seen as a supporter of gender equality and women’s issues, particularly on their home turf of comic book pages and the animated movies directly based on them.
As fans, it’s our responsibility to speak up when things like this happen, and to celebrate when positive changes happen.
As creators, I don’t know what DC should do next. But I think a good place to start would be to ask role-reversal questions when writing storylines: What would happen if an animated movie had 20 minutes of Bruce Wayne wondering why his last sexual partner didn’t call him after?
(Actually, I would pay to see that movie. But you get the idea.)