The Worst Thing DC Ever Did Was Publish THE KILLING JOKE

DC‘s bungling of the Batgirl #41 variant cover proves it once again.

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(UPDATED 4/15/16: I follow up the piece below with an explanation of why The Killing Joke animated feature’s “R” rating is nothing to celebrate. Click here.)

(UPDATED 7/24/16: For 13 JOKER STORIES Better Than THE KILLING JOKE, click here.)

You can argue it’s an Alan Moore masterpiece, with gorgeous Brian Bolland artwork, all you like, but the bottom line is that in the cold, harsh light of decades gone by, The Killing Joke remains the ugliest, most sadistic story in the Batman canon.

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Emphasis on the word “canon.”

Because DC and writers and artists galore have proved time and again that they are incapable or unwilling to yank Batgirl out from under that story’s dark shadow of sexual exploitation.

The latest example, of course, is the Rafael Albuquerque Joker Month variant cover for Batgirl #41 and its disturbing allusions to the nastiest chapter in the company’s history:

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This is repellent. And not in a “that’s so sick, it’s funny” sort of way. I’m a connoisseur of sick humor. This isn’t it.

(And for all those arguing that the death of Jason Todd was worse, you’re flat wrong. Jason got better, as it were, so that neuters the impact of that episode completely. And the Joker didn’t bother to take off his clothes, take pictures and then put them on giant screens to show her father — after having him stripped naked by demented dwarves.)

For me personally, there’s an inherent irony to all the Internet rage that surfaced when DC released the image on Friday: It’s that (spoiler alert), my pick for this week’s Batbook of the Week is Batgirl #40. And it’s not because it’s an excellent book that joyously celebrates the best parts of Barbara Gordon — which it is and does — it’s because of its marvelous Cliff Chiang variant that pays homage to Prince’s Purple Rain (more on that tomorrow).

In putting that piece together, I also asked Cliff, through DC — which I want to point out was very helpful — about his variant cover for Batgirl #39, because in my mind that image triumphantly reclaimed Batgirl‘s power over the brutality of The Killing Joke.

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Since I asked those questions under a separate context and before I even knew about the Albuquerque variant, however, it’d be unfair to run Chiang‘s comments here. So it’ll all be in tomorrow’s column.

Nevertheless, I expected his cover to be the final word on this ugliness.

I was obviously very, very wrong.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Argue the merits of how the New 52 was handled all you want. There was good and bad.

But once DC decided to take Barbara out of the wheelchair — a very controversial move at the time, grant you — they had a chance to either erase The Killing Joke from canon or they could have at least buried it. I thought with the wildly fun emergence of Batgirl of Burnside, they had done the latter. But then they go and rub our noses in it again.

Retcons are part of the comics-publishing game and I just wish there were an editor out there who had the courage to say, “This happened in a previous reality and it’s no longer valid in this world.”

And for DC to stick with that.

Hell, if they could do that for, oh, Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, or John Byrne’s The Man of Steel, or Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright, or Geoff Johns’ Superman: Secret Origin, or George Perez’s Wonder Woman, or any of a thousand other stories — like Superman‘s marriage to Lois Lane — then they could do it here.

Perhaps the greatest Batman story ever is no longer canon.

Perhaps the greatest Batman story ever is no longer canon.

But they won’t. Or won’t anytime soon.

And I’m sick of it.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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35 Comments

  1. One of the things I disliked when they took Barbra Gordon out of the wheelchair was that she was a perfect role model for those who are in a wheelchair for real. It showed some one who through a terrible tragedy could rise above it and do something with their lives. That they were not defined by the handicap but by what they do and how they do it.

    We talk about how we need diversity in comics all day but do we really have it? In the 60s and 70s we saw blacks characters being more than just background character or used or used just comic effect and the such. Now we have gays. lesbians and people of other ethnic backgrounds more than ever which is a good thing but we still have far to go. We have a blind superhero so what is wrong with a hero in a wheelchair?

    I understand why publishers retcon their characters but I think there are some that shouldn’t be changed for the sake of change. As much as I loved Batgirl I think Barbra Gordon really came into her own as a character when she no longer in the suit but became Oracle. I have to say I really miss Oracle.

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  2. DC basically does whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it and the fan base is expected to just suck it up and accept it. Why bother doing the whole “oh this is the new 52. This is the status quo now. Everything you knew before never happened. We don’t care if you hate it.” And then turn around and do a huge 2 month crossover event that centers around multiple realities that they pretend never existed. Whatever! And all of this because they want to shove down our throats what they pretend is what we actually want. “Oh well that’s what Marvels doing so we have to do it too.”

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    • I hated the new 52 they had an opportunity to make something awesome and they blew. Whatever sells I guess. We can only hope it goes back to “Normal”

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  3. If anything it’s a celebration of the Joker in the sense that it shows us just how nuts?or brilliant in his madness he actually is. Batman is dark. His enemies are dark. Shit happens. I think it’s a brilliant cover

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  4. Hey geniuses it was clearly put out that the new 52 joker would be risky when he cut his face off to show Batman he was insane.you all are just to wussy to accept.

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  5. I have never like “The Killing Joke”…when it came out, everyone ‘ohhh…ahhh…so gritty…” No, it’s pointlessly sadistic and indicative of what’s wrong in the Bat-verse in particular & DC in general. It needs to stop.

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  6. I never liked the Killing Joke. I thought I was the only one. I read it when was first published. Even though I loved the art, I remember thinking, ” Wow. I didn’t know Alan Moore could write something badI” It didn’t seem like his usual thoughtful writing, it merely seemed harsh. I believe I later read an interview where Moore himself wasn’t very happy with it. I never truly understood why it’s been held so high and as canon.

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    • It has been held up because of the strength of the character work in it. It showcases Commissioner Gordon’s commitment to the system in the face of abject horror. It also humanizes the Joker, making him sympathetic in the past while simultaneously nauseating the reader with the horror of the present. It shows how far he fell. Then it shows the similarities between Batman and the Joker in that they both had “one bad night” that changed them forever. Barbara Gordon and Commissioner Gordon disprove this theory and show that they are mental strong individuals, while Batman and the Joker are broken in similar, though opposite ways.

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      • To be fair, I haven’t read it since it first came out. I should amend my statement of ” Wow. I didn’t know Alan Moore could write something bad,” to ” Wow. I didn’t know Alan Moore could write something I didn’t enjoy.” Arguing what stories are entertaining is like arguing over humor or musical tastes. There are no definite answers. For me, the plot of having the Joker assault Batman’s friends so badly that he also goes insane feels like a story a high student would invent. Too easy. It didn’t take me anywhere truly inventive like Swamp Thing or the Watchmen from Moore at the time. Just my thought. It in no way invalidates your insights.

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  7. As far as The Killing Joke’s horrific brutalization of Barbara Gordon, Dan, your argument is essentially an argument against depicting sexual violence in any form whatsoever in any media. Your argument, taken to its logical conclusion, would have us never read about it, never discuss it, never know it exists. I think you can see why this would be a terrible social change. Is it horrific? Yes, but to object to its depiction based solely on the horror of the act is foolish. Are you condoning murder by not objecting to that or finding it to be as “ugly”? I understand that you find the work and violence in it to be disturbing, but as another commenter pointed out, we must look at what Barbara did AFTER this tragedy to truly judge its merits as a piece of canon. I personally think Barbara showed more strength as Oracle than she ever did as Batgirl. I think DC’s reversal of that was one of the weakest moves they’ve made. I realize that you are having difficulty seeing the forest for the trees, but try.

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    • Well thought out. I thoroughly disagree with your notion about the “logical conclusion” to my argument, but that’s fine. Debate like this is good. Keep it coming! And use your real name next time!

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      • Mr. Greenfield, in addition to comixscholar’s words which I agree with, I think you are all forgetting how sensitive much of society, including yourselves, has become.

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    • Ok, comixscholar, I’m now on the same page with you……………..I think it’s a mixture of our comfort level with literary depictions of brutaility & the real life that surrounds us…and (just a bit) of our frustrations of DC (and other companies” “adjusting” continuity….still not a tremendous Alan Moore fan, but such is life!

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  8. i think Killing Joke stands more as a “revered book” both due to the incredible art AND the fact that Moore pushed the envelope back then with the story. it was a truly shocking story, meant ONLY for adults, in a time when very little like that was done. but we now have hindsight, which i think isnt really fair to use with Killing Joke, because these days, Moore isnt as respected, DC wants to push Batgirl and fans love the character, and hey its like 30 years ago! like it or not, K.J. did what it was supposed to do: SELL COPIES! i personally think it should stay as canon, but what is canon anymore? there is no canon besides BASIC canon anymore! superman is from Krypton, Batman’s parents were murdered, Peter Parker was bitten by a spider, etc.etc. Killing Joke was one comic. not worth making a fuss over – times have changed and it looks different now, but when it came out it was awesome and it was a hit. period.

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  9. What is this SJW garbage? Has the author even read any recent Batman comics? There are way more sadistic story lines with the Joker than this. The worst thing 13th Dimension ever did was let Dan Greenfield publish tripe.

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    • I’m glad to see you have the courage of your convictions, Dangreenfieldfailsatjournalism — if that’s your real name. And you’re right, I myself am amazed at what 13th Dimension lets me get away with.

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  10. …even alan moore has gone on record saying he didn’t think much of KJ. it also wasn’t originally supposed to be in continuity, was it? bats actually “kills” joker at the end. off-panel, but still…
    the saddest part of the KJ/new52 thing is, the crippling, torture and sexualized humiliation remain canon, but the awesome hero she became as a result of surviving it – ORACLE – is no longer canon.

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  11. Bad things can happen to good people was the message of the Killing Joke – it is how you deal with them that matters.
    Yes, the story is sadistic but no more so then say The Silence of the Lambs. Once again Moore treats comics as a medium for adults – if the matrial is too grown up for you then read something else.
    The Joker is an evil serial killer and I am tired of having that sugar coated.

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  12. Yes, it’s horrible because life is all dildos and daffodils, so we shouldn’t portray the ugly side of life in a comic book….

    Grow up. If you want the character to expand, or move past it, that’s fine. Your article comes off as someone that appreciated 12 cent comics and was aghast when Miller and Moore changed things forever.

    Sorry, this isn’t 1960’s Batman. It’s dark, gritty, and the way it should be. DC failed plenty of times vs. Marvel for this very issue. Marvel set their Universe in our world, DC in an alternate reality. Marvel dealt with most real issues first, DC was all Good vs. Bad no Gray.

    Times change. Oh, an it wasn’t Sexual Exploitation. It was a plot device to get across how sadistic the Joker really is… A coming of age for a psychopath. It’s not supposed to be pretty.

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    • Oh, I love Frank Miller’s Batman. Made that point in the story. In fact, I called Year One probably the best Batman story ever. But thanks for reading!

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  13. THE KILLING JOKE is an absolute masterpiece.Whining hipsters.

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  14. What a load of nonsense this article is. Killing Joke IS a masterpiece, the art work is amazing and the story is fantastic as well. Just some people feel a need to complain about anything these days, if you don’t like it fine but don’t attack it simply out of a non intellectual hate and assert your bigoted views upon everyone else quietly sit in your minority of haters and allow those that have the ability to admire and respect a piece of work for what it is be…Some people really do want to see the world burn

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  15. Honestly it’s one of my favorite Batman stories. If you want Batman to be kitties and fluffy puppies go read the 50s/60s stuff. Otherwise Batman is supposed to be dark and gritty. Look at his origins….he killed people….with a gun.
    There was an entire issue, before The Killing Joke, where Batman had to identify his girlfriends severed head in a dumpster.

    Grow up and realize that bad things happen to good people, Batmans appeal is that he’s trying to push that darkness back by being part of it.

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    • Misplaced rage. I also make the point that Batman: Year One is probably the best Batman story ever. So feel free to disagree with my opinion but don’t misrepresent my point. I’ve read every important Batman story ever published and I read his titles to this day. In fact I highlight a new issue at this site every week, whether it might be written by Scott Snyder, Pete Tomasi, Manapul/Buccellato, etc., or even Batman ’66. So read this: https://13thdimension.com/five-twisted-joker-stories-better-than-the-killing-joke/. I do like puppies though. it’s Un-American not to.

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  16. Did Joker rape or molest Barbara Gordon? Moore leaves it to the reader’s imagination. Did Joker rape or molest Commissioner Gordon? Moore leaves it to the reader’s imagination. Did Batman kill Joker at the end of Killing Joke? No. That’s just Grant Morrison’s imagination at work.

    Killing Joke is a masterpiece not just because of the amazing Brian Bolland art and coloring, but it managed to make you feel sorry for the Joker and horrified by him at the same time, but it also brilliantly shows why Batman must not kill. In the words of Commissioner Gordon “I want him brought in and I want him brought in by the book. We have to show him. We have to show him that our way works.” If Batman kills, the Joker wins. Which is the tragedy of the Batman/Joker relationship. Their dance (as shown in the last panel) will go on forever.

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  17. I think the real problem is that DC is marketing this book to tweenage girls and in order for them to understand the reference in the image, they would then have to sell one of their darkest books to young girls. I don’t think that it was the right call, and I don’t think they should have had the regular cover on issue 39. If you are going to pull the book because of the story it references, then you have to pull them all, not just the scary ones. I find it funny that they allowed a cutsie homage get through at all, it still refernces the same gritty story, and if anything it trivializes it, making the exploitation of Barbara something that we can joke about. Now that Babs is a cutsie, selfie taking crime fighter, it’s OK, so long as the image is something that you would allow your daughter to hang in her bedroom. What’s worse; laughing and mocking the story or treating it in the manner it was created, as a serious, adult only tale?

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  18. i don’t get your point…. she’s a fictional character and stories that always treat the characters with respect due to the audience’s sensitivity or inclination to political correctness will KILL creativity and interesting stories. so… what’s the problem?

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  19. Hi, Dan–
    I bought the KJ for Bolland’s gorgeous artwork (even you must admit that cover is classic) but never read the story (no fan of Mr. Moore or his work). I obviously can’t comment on the old or new story, but the cover? What’s the problem–the cover or the tale inside? The cover’s just a variant so it’s not part of the regular run and presumably only bought by collectors who want it. There’s no violence being depicted on the cover–Batgirl is not bound, beaten or even bruised. Heck, we don’t even know what the red stuff is the Joker’s making the smile with–lipstick? Blood? Whose? I suppose it’s only as dark, demented or disturbing as the viewer’s imagination, and perhaps that is what made people upset and uncomfortable. (Mirrors have a way of doing that–I admit it.)

    Does the story bring up the KJ being canon? Because if it’s just the cover, that has nothing to do with something being canon or not, as we know from the hundreds (thousands?) of stories we’ve all read where the cover has nothing to do with the inside.

    I’m personally not a fan of the cover (I’ve just seen too many abused women on film, TV and news stories for my taste and don’t like seeing beautiful ladies crying, least of all one of my favorite superheroines–but I admit I’m biased). I would not purchase it, but as a fellow professional I can say it’s very well done and deserves to be seen by those who want to see it, no more or less than H.R. Giger’s, Liberatore’s or even Bosch’s work, which many find disturbing but is nonetheless skillfully executed.

    BTW, I do love Cliff’s cover for #39, so I agree with you there. If I were still buying new comics, I’d check it out for sure!

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  20. It was fascinating reading this, Dan, both your piece and the responses. My trouble with KJ has always been the title (the book obviously focuses on The Joker, yet he’s NOT the titular character?) and the fact that, plot-wise, there isn’t all that much to it. The Joker escapes, does some HORRIFIC things, The Batman tracks him down, and the two battle to the NON-LETHAL conclusion. (Grant Morrison is wrong. Period.) The intensity (“sadism,” or words to that effect) of the violence is what we should expect of The Joker, and there is no doubt that The Batman has seen these kinds of acts before, MANY times, whether perpetrated by Mr. J or others. Why should Barbara (and to a lesser extent, her father) be off limits to the whims of a mad man? Both Barbara and Jim survived this encounter with the psychotic monster, and came out far stronger. Light emerging from the deepest darkness.

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