Given my policy surrounding hype (in brief: I’m not interested in it beyond finding out what’s being done in the media that I enjoy following), I’ve spent the last weekend generally just skimming the headlines about what was announced at San Diego Comic-Con. News about TV shows generally won’t be relevant to me because I’m almost perpetually a full season behind whatever’s current, and most movies don’t even rate a rental until they’re either on Netflix or available for a dollar at my local video store. Essentially, SDCC is a weekend event that’s full of hype for things that won’t register as worth my time for at least a year.
Nonetheless, one thing that did catch my eye was the announcement that Bruce Timm (who’s the creative lead on DC’s animated movie division since he developed such a good reputation from his work on the animated cartoon series of the ’90s and early ’00s) would be working on an animated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman story “The Killing Joke.” This is big news because “The Killing Joke” is a seminal Joker story, and also the story which introduced to continuity the event that paralyzed Barbara Gordon from the waste down, ending her career as Batgirl. It’s a story that especially resonated with me (it was one of the first Batman comics that I ever read), and I still remember it fondly as a particularly good story, though I’ve always felt it presents Jim Gordon as more of a hero than Batman, whose portrayal seems to place him on even psychological footing with the Joker (the joke about the two inmates trying to escape prison on the beam of a flashlight has stuck with me as an image of two people trapped in their own insanity).
Of course, this comes with a caveat. A few months back I was talking with Rachael about the Joker (it was around the time the first cast photo of Jared Leto in the role came out) and I brought up “The Killing Joke” because it’s such a memorable story about the multiplicity of interpretations of the character, even in-universe, and Rachael challenged me on a comment about the story being a really great one. “That’s the one where Batgirl gets raped and maimed by the Joker, right?” I couldn’t deny that; “The Killing Joke” treats Barbara Gordon horribly and then discards her because the story’s more about its three male characters. Barbara’s essentially a prop that gets abused in order to instill feelings in Gordon and Batman, and that’s a seriously poor treatment of a character. It fails to treat Barbara’s rape as a central story issue, or even focus on Barbara’s struggles in the aftermath of the event. In a recent article I saw that discusses the way Doggett’s rapes are handled in Season 3 of Orange Is The New Black, there’s a pretty good checklist of questions that should be considered in deciding whether rape is an experience that should be explored in a given story. Here’s the relevant part for anyone who doesn’t want to click through:
My hope is that going forward we can have a Pennsatucky Test for rape scenes much like the Bechdel Test. Is the victim’s point-of-view shown? Does the scene have a purpose for existing for character, rather than plot, advancement? Is the emotional aftermath explored? As long as sexual assault continues to be a scourge of our society, TV shows ought to mine the subject; it’s important we keep the conversation going. Just take care of your characters. Don’t rape ’em and leave ’em. They deserve to have their trauma acknowledged. They deserve to have their stories told.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that “The Killing Joke” fails to do any of those things. My memory of the story is a little fuzzy (I’ve not read it in years), but I seem to recall that aside from the initial shooting, all of the torture happens off screen and we only learn about it after the fact through a series of photographs that the Joker shows to Gordon. We don’t get Barbara’s perspective, we don’t get to see how she handles the fallout, and it’s pretty obvious that this happens because of plot reasons.
Okay, so at this point you have to ask, why am I bringing all of this up in relation to an adaptation of the story? Well, it’s like this: DC’s decided that this, one of their most famous Batman stories, is good source material for an animated feature (and it needs to be noted that DC doesn’t shy away from taking on less child-friendly stories in their animated movies), and that source material also happens to be nearly thirty years old. Though we should have recognized the problems then, we do see them more easily in the mainstream now, and that means that this adaptation presents an opportunity to adjust the structure of the story. Alan Moore’s already disowned it (of course, he’s disowned much of his superhero work), so I don’t see why the studio should feel any obligation to faithfully recreate the source material, inclusive of all the problematic parts. This is still, at its core, a story about Jim Gordon, Batman, and the Joker, and I don’t think that Barbara Gordon needs to be involved in order to still explore the themes that the story is primarily about. The alternative to excising her would be expanding her role and giving more weight to her experience in the story, though considering how that intersects with the arcs of the other three characters, I worry that an expansion would at best come off as unnecessary, and at worst even more insensitive.
Of course, considering that Barbara’s trauma is something DC is still milking for drama in its other Batman properties (it happens in Arkham Knight too, because of course it does), I doubt this adaptation will be any better.