“Go ahead and cripple the bitch.”
Those were the words of then-DC executive editor Dick Giordano to editor Len Wein, who in turn relayed them to Alan Moore, writer of the seminal Batman/Joker tale Batman : The Killing Joke, and the subject of the order was Barbra Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl. Moore had originally planned for he and Brian Bolland’s one-off story to be something of an “Elseworlds”-style tale (before there was such a thing), set apart from standard DC continuity and positing both a potential origin of The Joker (draped over a skeletal framework that dated all the way back to the Clown Prince of Crime’s first appearance ) and a potential conclusion to comics’ most famous feud — one that would ultimately be left to the reader to discern for themselves, but that strongly hinted that Batman flat-out snaps at the end and kills his most troublesome and famous adversary. What could possibly drive Batman to this extreme? Well, The Joker was going to murder Batgirl.
But as the script pages starting arriving at the DC offices, editorial got the strong feeling — correctly, as it turned out — that they had not just a hit on their hands, but a bona fide comic book blockbuster. A story that would be hotly debated for years, if not decades, to come, and sell in the millions of copies. Moore’s idea may have been to do his ultimate take on the Batman/Joker relationship, but his bosses wanted to morph it into the ultimate take on the Batman/Joker relationship — and so they decided to play it coy when it came to the question of whether or not this would be an “official” DC Universe story. They figured that they wanted The Killing Joke to be able to be woven into regular Bat-continuity if fan reaction proved to be as strong as they suspected it could be. And you can’t kill Batgirl in a comic that they might decide to shoehorn into the established Batman mythos. Or can you?
Apparently there was some heated deliberation on this question, and in the end, a calculated compromise was reached — they wouldn’t kill her, but they would cripple her. That way, their asses were covered no matter what happened — if fans howled in outrage after reading the book they’d simply say it was a “non-continuity story” after all, but if fans loved it, then Barbara Gordon in a wheelchair would be the new status quo.
We all know what happened next — the book sold out multiple printings, was re-issued in any number of new formats (each more expensive than the last), and the story went down in history as, in the minds of most, the single-greatest Batman/Joker tale ever told, while Barbra Gordon, for her part, was eventually afforded the opportunity to have a long and prosperous “second act” as Oracle, a super-hacker who provided key “mission intel” to various and sundry DC super-heroes from her hidden computerized command center, also becoming something of an icon for disability rights advocates along the way (so much so, in fact, that many readers were downright outraged when she regained her ability to walk thanks to an experimental spinal cord surgery and re-assumed the mantle of Batgirl as part of DC’s “New 52” relaunch).
It’s worth remembering, though, that this fan-favorite character — this strong representation of disabled empowerment and even feminist empowerment — was once viewed so cavalierly by her corporate owners that they told the most talented and celebrated writer to ever work for them that they wanted him to “go ahead and cripple the bitch.” The Killing Joke would prove to be Moore’s last original work for DC. Gee, I wonder why?
I bring all this up in relation to the new animated version of Batman : The Killing Joke from WB Animation (a project that, looking back, I’m surprised didn’t happen well before 2016) because, hey, we like to think that we’ve moved on from the dreary misogynist mindset of the late 1980s, right? Dick Girodano has passed away. Len Wein is a mostly-retired occasional freelancer. A whole new gang is in charge at DC. And yet, if anything, Barbara Gordon is treated even worse in this film (which I purchased digitally, but is also available on Blu-ray and DVD — and may even be playing a theater in your area, depending on where you live) than she was in the comic.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand why they had to pad out the runtime of this one — for all the years DC has spent insisting that The Killing Joke is a “graphic novel,” 46 pages of story and art is anything but. Shit, the old Annuals of days gone by gave you more bang for your buck at 80 pages or so. But the way in which they “extended” the story here — well, leave it to Brian Azzarello to fuck that up royally.
Remember when this guy was good? Well, the writer who gave us 100 Bullets seems very far removed indeed from the writer who’s currently doing Dark Knight III : The Master Race, the screenplay for this monstrosity, and a tie-in comic for a beer company currently being published by Image, but once upon a time he was really on top of his game. His run on Hellblazer, in fact, was so superb that none other than Alan Moore broke with his long-standing policy of not endorsing any DC product in order to provide a glowing “pull-quote” for a trade paperback collection of the Azzarello-penned Constantine stories.
And good old Brian has been “thanking” him by pissing in his face ever since, first with his participation in the debacle that was Before Watchmen, and now with this. How do you do Barbra Gordon even worse than she’s already been done? You tack on a pointless extended “prelude” where she and Batman, more or less out of the clear blue and despite their obvious age difference, have sex on a rooftop and he doesn’t call her back — then you cripple her.
Yes, friends, not content with merely putting a bullet through Barbara’s spine, she’s now a jilted lover, as well. And Batman is a massive douche.
All of which undercuts what is otherwise a very strong production. Animation living legend Bruce Timm is back onboard as executive producer for this one (although the actual nuts-and-bolts work is still being farmed out to a Korean animation studio that pays its workers something like 90 cents an hour), and as such the film has the depth, quality, and texture we’ve come to expect from projects bearing his imprimatur. Veteran WB director Sam Liu guides the proceedings with his usual steady hand. The voice cast is every Batman fan’s dream with Kevin Conroy back under the cowl in the lead, Mark Hamill reprising his role as The Joker, Tara Strong as Batgirl, and the great Ray Wise (“one chance out between two worlds — fire, walk with me!!!!!!!!”) breathing more life than ever into a tested-to-his-limits-and-then-some Commissioner Jim Gordon. On a purely technical level, then, this flick is a marvel to behold.
And, ya know, once all that offensive-beyond-words new material is out of the way, this is a very faithful adaptation of Moore and Bolland’s work. In fact, it’s a note-for-note cribbing. The problem is that, given the greater context of what has now come before, scenes that packed an emotional wallop in the original printed work like Batman’s visit to Barbara in the hospital after she’s been shot by The Joker now have so much troubling subtext surrounding them that one scarcely knows where to begin when pondering the question of “Dear God, what were they thinking?”
It’s all such a shame,really. DC had the chance to do something very rare indeed here : actually unite all of fandom behind a quality adaptation of a beloved story while addressing its inherent problems head-on. Instead, they’ve magnified them tenfold. And a lot of people who did a lot of great work did it in service of a product that is, at its core, indefensible.
Barbra Gordon deserved better, absolutely. But so did Alan Moore. And Brian Bolland. And Sam Liu. And Bruce Timm. And Kevin Conroy. And Mark Hamill. And Tara Strong. And Ray Wise. And so many others who voiced, drew, animated, produced, or otherwise poured their hearts into this film.
And so, dear reader, do you. Ugly warts and all, Batman : The Killing Joke in its original printed interation is still very much worth your time to read if you haven’t — and to read again if you have. The film, unfortunately, is best ignored — and if it’s too late for you to do that, maybe just look at it like I’ve chosen to : as an “Elseworlds”-type story that never “really” happened at all. How fucking ironic is that?