DC Daily Planet: Can You Kill the Killing Joke?

DC Daily Planet: Can You Kill the Killing Joke?

This week's DCDP is gonna be a little different. Let's talk about the Killing Joke. I doubt I need to do much of an introduction for it. It's arguably one of the most famous Batman stories of all time (for a lot of shitty reasons and some pretty valid ones too.) But just in case

This week’s DCDP is gonna be a little different.

Let’s talk about the Killing Joke.

I doubt I need to do much of an introduction for it. It’s arguably one of the most famous Batman stories of all time (for a lot of shitty reasons and some pretty valid ones too.) But just in case you need a refresher: the Killing Joke is the Alan Moore graphic novel released in 1988 featuring the horrific assault which led to the paralysis of Barbra Gordon by the Joker.

If you’ve consumed any Batman media at all in the past…oh, decade or so, you’ve probably seen echoes of the Killing Joke whether you really knew it or not. It, like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, was part of the late-80s effort to reinvent the Batman mythology in a “more adult” fashion after the character was nearly shelved for good by DC when popularity sharply declined.

Obviously the effort was successful, considering Batman’s status as major cultural icon is still very much intact. The Batman we know and love today very much owes his existence to stories like The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke.

Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

While the Dark Knight Returns was set in a very clearly established alternative timeline to “canonical” Gotham City, with Bruce having been retired, Ollie Queen having lost an arm, Superman being an agent of the government, etc. The Killing Joke was not. A careful reader could see the signs and make the argument, sure.  It features a Barbra Gordon as a retired superhero and librarian, caring for an aged Commissioner Gordon. It casually references out-of-continuity characters. But that’s really it. There’s not much else standing in the way of a reader deciding that The Killing Joke is an established part of an already pretty non-linear canonical timeline for all characters involved.

What’s more is that, given the fact that Barbra’s paralysis resulted in her becoming Oracle within main DC continuity less than a year after The Killing Joke was published, the intent for the story to be non-canonical is moot. It became canon. It became canon really, really fast.

So why does that matter?

This is where things begin to get complicated.

The Killing Joke‘s biggest contribution to the reinvention of Batman in the late 80s was violence against women. Full stop. That was the biggest initial takeaway from the book. However, The Killing Joke‘s legacy became the new origin story of one of the most beloved female heroes in the modern DCU: Barbra Gordon as Oracle.

Obviously, creating Oracle was not the intent of The Killing Joke. Alan Moore was not setting out to reinvent Barbra Gordon the way Miller reinvented our idea of Bruce with The Dark Knight Returns. Editor Len Wein said “cripple the bitch” not “let’s invent a way to talk about disability and heroism”.

But it happened. Despite of, or because of, these things happened. Regardless of the Killing Joke‘s place in the Batman canon.

So the question becomes this: Does a story’s place in continuity actually matter?

I don’t have a very good answer for my own question and I absolutely don’t think it’s an issue that can be boiled down into correct/incorrect terms. But hell if we’re not going to try, right?

I ask because this week has been buzzing with discussion about Batgirl 49 and a sequence of panels that may (or may not) have established The Killing Joke as an Inception style false memory, thus (potentially) removing it from canon. This was done with intentional ambiguity by the creative team of Fletcher, Stewart and Tarr and has sparked some pretty heated debate on both sides.


Is the retconing of the Killing Joke a good idea? Does taking away the story also diminish the positive consequences however unintentional? Does it even matter at all considering the New 52’s removal of Oracle to begin with?

Personally, I’m in the “it doesn’t matter” camp, which is strange for me. I’m a continuity freak, so it feels strange to say flat out that a story’s place in canon has no bearing on it’s validity. But I feel like if anything, the ambiguous “choose your own interpretation” retcon is ultimately a totally moot gesture.

Like the Dark Knight Returns, I don’t think the Killing Joke‘s legacy is something that is really beholden to continuity. Bleak as it sounds, I don’t think we can ever escape the image of the Joker in his Hawaiian shirt and camera snapping pictures of a prone and bleeding Barbra Gordon. I especially don’t think layering more ambiguity onto the story helps…well, anything, except for giving fans more ammunition to hurl in arguments.

At the end of the day in the New 52, Killing Joke or not, we’re still left with a plot that left Barbra Gordon paralyzed for a (suddenly) variable amount of time. How that plot gets built upon can change, sure, but the roots of the Killing Joke are too deep in the mythology for any amount of retconing to combat.

Who knows, though. Maybe I’m totally wrong. Maybe something in Rebirth will happen with Barbra that’s so earth shattering that the Killing Joke‘s legacy (somehow) will be finally be put down. The future is a mystery and I don’t want to call anything totally impossible.

But until that happens, if that happens, I’m very hesitant to dole out “thank yous” or celebrate.

Now, let’s end this post on a less totally bummed out note with a quick ICYMI:

The internet has decided that Batman vs Superman would be much better as a romantic comedy and I am very much included to agree.



Meg Downey

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