The Killing Joke Is a Bad Joke that Just Won’t R.I.P

Barbara Gordon as Batgirl in The Killing Joke 2016

The animated adaptation of the comic The Killing Joke was officially released on July 25th. So far, only a few WWAC contributors have seen it and all declined to review it. Instead we got together to discuss adaptation’s controversial addition of a sexual relationship between Barbara Gordon and Bruce Wayne, and our thoughts on the story’s continued popularity and place in the comics canon.

So…Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl has sex with Batman in the already controversial The Killing Joke. What do you think?

Claire Napier: Well, I’m laughing. But it’s an “at, not with” situation. Tragic piece of nerdery.

Amber Love: As most feminist critics on Twitter have already pointed out, enforcing the Batgirl/Batman relationship in the absolute worst Batgirl story ever only reduces her even more to “sexy lamp.” Would Bruce not care as much if they weren’t in sexual relationship? Even though other branches of the Batverse have indicated a relationship at some point, it seems uncomfortable to me and a bit of a diversion from what gave Barbara any agency and independence at all. If there’s an unfortunate element in one storyline, DC/WB doesn’t need to encourage it. You can ditch things that don’t work well. They had all the power to do that and chose to make TJK even more of a thing to avoid.

Jennie Law: Huh. Recent Batgirl stories really are hitting some low brown notes, aren’t they? In late 2014, we had the notorious Batgirl #37 transmisogyny incident. Now we have Batgirl being cool girlfriended before being fridged? Is it really that difficult to develop Batgirl as a character with agency? What in Cesar-Romero-trying-to-white-out-his- actual-mustache-with-mime-paint hell is this garbage?

Romona Williams:

Arrested Development gif

Clara Mae: Listen, I was attending SDCC and on a donut run with friends when this news broke. There are few things in the world that can ruin the experience of eating an oversized nutella donut and this is definitely one of them. We read through the news out loud and spent five minutes saying “Oh My God” in varying octaves.

This whole thing just comes off as poorly written fanfiction. It feels out of character for both. Barbara is not some wily vixen trying to get with Batman, and she’s definitely not someone who gossips with coworkers about a mysterious older man in her life. Bruce is very honorable and loyal to his inner circle. It’s his close friend’s and mentor’s daughter and the often love interest of his first adopted son; she is, for all intents and purposes, essentially his daughter, and has been portrayed as such the majority of the time. Bruce just wouldn’t pursue a relationship with her, period. The whole “heat of the moment” argument only applies if Bruce had already been looking at her a certain way, and I don’t think canon Bruce ever would. Having Batgirl/Batman be a thing in like two titles out of dozens more just doesn’t mean anything to me. Doing this weakens Barbara as a character and just makes Bruce look like a totally apathetic a-hole.

Emma Houxbois: I’m completely numb to this nonsense. I’ve been, you know, hearing the opening lyrics to Nicki Minaj’s “Only” in my head since the gif first crossed my timeline on Twitter. “Yo, I never fucked Wayne/I never fucked Drake/On my life, man, fuck’s sake.” Clearly Nicki saw it coming, and anyone who knew that Azzarello was on the writing team ought to have too. This is the guy who turned the Amazons into a rapist death cult in his Wonder Woman run, after all.

I don’t really think of this in the context of Barbara Gordon at all though, because this is such a low impact footnote of a footnote in the context of her publication history. No one’s going to remember this in six months unless it comes up in a listicle or someone at The Outhousers is looking to empty a whole drawer of knives onto Brian Azzarello. The only reason The Killing Joke has anything resembling a cachet is that it’s one of the only stories Alan Moore wrote for DC that he hasn’t pulled his name from out of anger over a cruddy film adaptation. It’s not even all that notable within Brian Bolland’s body of work.

My larger concern, really, is how it perpetuates rape culture. This is a story where Babs is suggested to have been sexually assaulted, which is particularly evident in Bolland’s early art showing her topless. So it’s particularly heinous to insert this sex scene involving a character who’s later assaulted like that, as it’s obviously a ploy to make it more about Bruce’s emotional arc. Which in turn has been the beginning of the feminist critique of the story since, like, Women in the Refrigerator went online. These guys wanted to make a woman’s pain as much about a man as they could, so they did. It is what it is.

They do things like this because they want you to be angry, scandalized, or whatever. The appropriate response is to just drop an anvil on them. Be blunt and unrepentant. You call these guys — Bruce Timm or Brian Azzarello or whoever else made money off this — misogynists and they’ll just lose their minds.

Desiree Rodriguez: Bruce Timm has been trying to make his ship, Bruce/Babs, happen since the 90s with Batman: The Animated Series and it followed all the way into Batman Beyond and even into the after show comics where Bruce and Babara did have a sexual relationship. Oh and Babs got pregnant with Bruce’s child. Oh but wait there’s more! Dick and Babs had finally entered a romantic relationship until Dick found out about them and he punched Bruce for sleeping with his girl! While Bruce was pretty unremorseful about the entire thing. But wait, there’s still more! Babs ends up losing the baby and no one ends up happy together because the entire storyline is contrived.

I’ve seen telenovelas with less contrived drama.

While I don’t believe the Bruce/Babs relationship is father/daughter — because unlike the other Batkids Babs had a good, stable homelife — their relationship has always been platonic. They are family in some sort of sense. Bruce is good friends with her father, Babs has always been a lot younger than him — even if she’s the oldest Batkid — and bringing in a sexual aspect given their overall history and dynamic screams creepy. How strange is it for a grown man, who’s known her since she was at least a teenager having worked with her father for years, seeing her grow into a young woman, only to end up sleeping with her when she’s of legal age?

Am I being overdramatic or is that basically what happened? This needless, and ultimately forgettable, addition to their — non-canon in the larger skim of things — history feels more like Timm’s fulfilling fantasy of Batman being the ultimate ladies man. Even young, beautiful redheads can’t resist him! It’s not his fault! Please, just write fanfic like the rest of us.

What did you think of the explanations for the scene at the SDCC 2016 panel?

Claire: They don’t interest me, and are pointless. Brian Azzarello called somebody a pussy during the creators’ panel, so I think we can rest assured that “reductive sexism” is a criticism that will go unread, not understood, by the Big Boys In Charge.

Amber: The news coverage indicated Bruce Timm explained the story was too short so they wanted to add more Batgirl screen time. More is not always better as this particular case seems to prove.

What added to the distaste of TKJ being presented was that the writer of the screen adaptation felt the need to be sexist on the panel. That doesn’t help your case when people are pointing out the misogyny of the story to begin with. I was appalled at the gender slur by Azzarello (I witnessed only from online). At first he seemed remorseful (Twitter: @brianazzarello  Jul 23 Y’know, there’s enough name calling in the world, so goddamn me for adding to it. I’m going back in my cave now, to chew on a bone. @brianazzarello 19h Look kids, I own what I say & write. Both good & bad. I have to, even when it’s hard to.) But then he victim-blames in a way by acting like the audience member deserved to be called names (‏@brianazzarello  18h Learning the heckler was a reporter for a website that is behind a narrative is troubling.) and that’s where my disappointment returned.

If he would’ve left off that one tweet, I would’ve been okay with him seeing the error of his ways and moving on; but alas, it looks like he feels a blogger is deserving of humiliation for daring to question the unsavory additional content of his script. I don’t care if a creator uses words like “pussy” on his own. I certainly have a filthy vocabulary. I care that he was up on a stage representing DC Comics and WB during a controversial discussion about sexism and female character portrayals.

His remark did absolutely nothing to disguise the Bat relationship as being more than something stunted male viewers want to drool over which has nothing to do with wanting to shine a light on the Barbara Gordon/Batgirl character.


Arrested Development gif

Clara: The use of the gendered slur on the panel was incredibly unprofessional and frankly indicative of the kind of toxic masculinity that DC is, however unintentionally or not, condoning. And the excuses they make very much sound like a bunch of professors meeting to compare notes about their novels featuring old men who fall for their hot misunderstood co-eds. I wouldn’t even need to guess that TKJ has an all male writers room. It shows.

Emma: I uh, don’t really know the details and I don’t care. I think Azzarello called someone a pussy? Which, like, honestly, is pretty beneath commenting on, but if he were a Real Man he’d have waded into the crowd and fought the guy like 50 Cent. If you’re going to enact a performance of masculinity with the fragility of spun sugar, you owe it to yourself and the world at large to take it to its furthest logical conclusion. You get these outlandish reactions from men in the industry all the time. Like Bill Willingham saying he wanted to machine gun Stephanie Brown fans, Neil Gaiman penning a jerkoff fantasy about a terrorist plot to kill him, or Patch Zircher tweeting that he would have decked Scott Allie if he were the one bitten last year and somehow it’s always women who are overreacting. It’s wild to me that these guys still have this much aggression left in the tank when they already have an entire industry to support the sublimation of their violent power fantasies.

The rationales just don’t matter. What’s on the screen speaks for itself and they can either own their choices or try to duck them. Anyone with rudimentary media literacy skills can see why it’s both poor writing and patently misogynistic. There’s nothing to be gained by listening to these guys bluster after getting called out. Any defense or whatever of this is just a flat out lie. They know what they did and why they did it.

Desiree: I don’t really understand why there isn’t a public relations department at Marvel or DC. Is there? There should be. At this point it feels as though even other week one of these big named male creators is either telling fans to drown in hobo piss, sending their followers after a comics journalist, or calling people pussies at panels. How utterly ridiculous and mind boggling is this sort of behavior. How lucky you have to be, to be able to behave this way and be 100% secure in your job.

Jamie Kingston:  It’s … *sigh* … the words of my revolted, disgusted reaction are all bottlenecking in my head so I can’t pick one to type. TKJ was already horrible. The Joker didn’t shoot her because he considered her a threat. Or because Batgirl was worth his enmity. He shot her…photographed her…and likely sexually assaulted her…to hurt the men in her life.  She was just part of the “one bad day” theory Joker was trying to prove true.

The fact that Barbara, the ultimate “strong woman who doesn’t need a man” who was only in bat-garb because it was a Gotham mainstay, and not because she was all starry-eyed teen heartthrob over Batman, begs Bruce for sex is repugnant.  That Bruce gives in with that whole mentor-student dynamic makes it even more nauseating.

That Dick ends up suffering man pain because of Barbara sleeping with Bruce makes it even worse. Was it even her choice or did Bruce just seduce her with his broody Batman-ness? I don’t know, and it’s just awful to give it too much thought!

I kind of want to hate watch it, but I also kind of don’t because Babs has been a fave of mine since childhood. It’s always cool to see familiar still images given life as animation but…they went the wrong way trying to pump more background into Batgirl’s presence. The completely wrong way.

Véronique Emma Houxbois

Véronique Emma Houxbois

Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman cartoonist and writer last spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She regularly pens Transmyscira for Comicosity and Crown on the Ground for London Graphic Novel Network.

4 thoughts on “The Killing Joke Is a Bad Joke that Just Won’t R.I.P

  1. Emma’s comment: If you’re going to enact a performance of masculinity with the fragility of spun sugar, you owe it to yourself and the world at large to take it to its furthest logical conclusion. made me laugh out loud!

  2. Why are people acting like this is news? The Bruce/Babs relationships was already revealed in the DCAU in Batman Beyond, this is simply elaborating on it.

Comments are closed.