Comic book stories change with our culture, but will The Killing Joke?

There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…

If you’re unfamiliar with The Killing Joke, it is the 1988 Batman story by Alan Moore where the Joker sets out to prove to Batman that the only thing that separates them is “one bad day”. Joker believes it was one bad day that pushed him over the edge and made him the monster we know him as and, to prove his point, he kidnaps Jim Gordon to give the commissioner his own bad day that will push him too far.

One Bad Day

The comic was, like much of Moore’s work of that time, at the forefront of the movement that brought adult themes, content and art to the medium most people associated with childhood and adolescence. To a modern audience, however, there is one part of the story that is problematic; it’s treatment of Barbara Gordon.

Already an established, popular character in the DC Universe by that time, Barbara is reduced in TKJ to a role that’s almost the perfect definition of Gail Simone’s term, ‘woman in a refrigerator’. Barbara is shot by Joker and, as she’s bleeding on the floor, stripped naked. After being sexually assaulted, the pictures taken of her during this trauma are shown to her father as a means of torturing him. This reduction of what is the only female character in the story to an object to be maimed and assaulted or the moving forward the narrative of the male protagonists (while it may not have seemed so out of place 27 years ago) is jarring with how we expect characters to be treated in contemporary fiction. The modern incarnation of Batgirl has absorbed and overcome this trauma in the New 52 retelling, When DC commissioned a variant cover for the series that depicted events of The Killing Joke modern audiences found it distasteful.

The Movie

In 2016, DC will release an animated movie of The Killing Joke. Their adaptation of another seminal 80’s Batman story, Frank Miller’s Year One, was pretty much a panel by panel adaptation of the source material. It’s not yet known if TKJ will take this same approach or if it will update the story; whether they will DC choose to stick faithfully to this original version or update it?

On the one hand, there’s a traditional comics audience who hold TKJ in high regard, and not without reason; it’s treatment of Barbara aside, it is a brilliant story. However, both DC and Marvel have built an industries over retelling the same stories over and over, adapting them in new ways to appeal to and reflect our ever changing culture. They modify their products to reflect cultural and, in direct correlation, market tastes.

Same Same. But New.

The New 52 was exactly this. They took stories that are an ingrained part of our modern mythology and reset the continuity so they could tell them afresh. The readership of comic books has changed, and DC wanted to change each of their lines to appeal to them.

They have created offshoot versions of the story to appeal to different markets (Young Justice, Batman: The Brave and the Bold are just two examples) and it’s understood by the audience there’s no continuity between these versions.

There is an old guard of traditional comic fans who feel The Killing Joke shouldn’t be changed, but what remains to be seen is whether this movie will retain the original’s treatment of Barbara, and it’s market will be those traditional fans, or whether they’ll update the story as they have with almost all of their others to meet the expectations of it’s current audience.


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