***The following post is the text of a talk that I gave at the college where I work. This lecture was part of a series celebrating Banned Books Week.***
Welcome and Introduction
Thank you for coming. I want to preface this by saying that in this talk I’m going to discuss topics and show you images that some people might find disturbing or offensive. Many people have the mistaken impression that comic books are primarily for kids, and they’re often shocked to find that some comics deal with very mature themes. My topic for today certainly does.
The book that I’m going to discuss is a comic book called Batman: The Killing Joke, and its author, Alan Moore, is no stranger to banned books. Moore is most famous for writing a graphic novel called Watchmen, which has been banned more than once. Other books by Moore have been challenged or banned, as well.
Moore’s influence on comics can’t be overestimated. Watchmen, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, marked a dark turn in comics. Many people argue that those two books began a period in comics history when creators took a more mature view of the world than their predecessors did. (I think that argument gets overstated, but it does have some merit.) Three decades later, we still can’t move past Watchmen. It’s still very popular, very influential, and it’s currently undergoing a kind of revival at DC Comics.
So Watchmen might seem like the more obvious book to discuss because it has been challenged and banned more often and because it’s probably more well-known, but I’ve decided to discuss The Killing Joke for a few reasons:
- I think that people tend to think of censorship and book-banning as phenomena of the political right, but objections to The Killing Joke highlight the fact that it isn’t just conservatives, religious people, and right-wingers who have censorious instincts.
- Objections to The Killing Joke have extended beyond the original book to adaptations and homages, as well, including the banning of a comic book cover that was inspired by The Killing Joke, and I think that those controversies can tell us a lot about where we are as a society.
- As my colleague Mr. Kraus pointed out at his talk on Monday, censorship isn’t just a matter of the government or some other institution officially banning a book. These days, censorship often takes forms that are more difficult to spot and more difficult to oppose.
So what I hope to do today is to highlight the instinct that we all have to shut down speech that offends our sensibilities. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of thought are in danger right now, and I think that the various controversies surrounding The Killing Joke can help us to think about those issues.
But before I discuss the controversy surrounding the book and the challenges that it has received, I’ll give you a brief summary:
Batman: The Killing Joke tells a fairly simple (and very disturbing) story.
The Joker, who is Batman’s most well-known opponent, escapes from Arkham Asylum and goes to the apartment of Barbara Gordon (AKA Batgirl), who is the daughter of police commissioner Jim Gordon. When the Joker arrives, Gordon and Barbara are about to have dinner. The doorbell rings, and when Barbara answers the door, the Joker shoots her in the stomach, shattering her spine but not killing her.
The Joker has his men drag Gordon away, and the Clown Prince stays behind, strips off Barbara’s clothes, and photographs her. Many readers assume that he also rapes her, but I think that this is unlikely (for a reason that I’ll explain in just a second).
Later, the Joker takes Gordon to an abandoned carnival, where his men strip Gordon naked and put him through mental and emotional torture. The Joker forces the commissioner to look at the photos that he took of Barbara, hoping to drive Gordon insane. The photos are obscured so that they’re not too explicit, but it’s clear that Barbara is naked and in tremendous pain. It’s a very hard scene to look at. But the reason that I think that it’s very unlikely that the Joker rapes her is that if he had, you’d think that he would want to torture Gordon with it, and he doesn’t. At any rate, like the Joker of Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight, this Joker’s goal is to prove that everyone is just one bad day from insanity and brutality.
In the end, Gordon survives the emotional trauma; Barbara also survives and eventually becomes a wheelchair-bound hero called Oracle (much later her paralysis is retconned, and she becomes Batgirl again); and Batman catches the Joker. But even though the forces of law and justice prevail, it’s hard for the reader to finish this book unscathed. The Killing Joke is deeply unsettling in a way that most superhero comics aren’t.
Challenges and Controversy
So it is no surprise that The Killing Joke, like some of Moore’s other books, has received a number of challenges. According to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the first challenge against The Killing Joke happened in Nebraska in 2013. A patron of the Columbus, Nebraska public library asked for the book to be removed from the shelf, claiming that the book “advocates rape.” In spite of this very serious charge, however, the library’s review board voted unanimously to keep the The Killing Joke on the shelf.
But in the last few years, there have been more significant challenges against The Killing Joke having to do with adaptations of the book. Recently, DC animation released a film version that received a fair amount of criticism from people who charged the movie with misogyny.
Ironically, these charges were brought against filmmakers who were deliberately trying to temper the supposed misogyny of the original novel. As they were preparing their adaptation of the film, they realized that the original book treats Barbara Gordon pretty badly. You could argue that Barbara exists in the book only as a plot device, that she’s there to be the source of Jim Gordon’s suffering. This is a trope in comics that has been called the Women In Refrigerators Phenomenon (named after an incident in a Green Lantern story in which a male character finds his girlfriend dead and stuffed into a refrigerator).
Feminists and progressives rightly argue that it’s a problem when female characters exist and get brutalized solely so that male characters can have an emotional trauma to motivate them. So the filmmakers set out to make up for the original book’s political sins by adding a section to the story that deals primarily with Barbara as Batgirl. The problem is that in their efforts to humanize Barbara, the filmmakers ended up depicting her as emotionally frail, and in one very odd and uncomfortable scene, Batgirl compulsively has sex with Batman on a rooftop. Now, the scene isn’t explicit or pornographic; that’s not why it’s uncomfortable. The problem is two-fold: first, it’s out-of-character for both Batman and Batgirl to do this; second, it seems to imply that a woman isn’t really free or strong unless she’s having promiscuous and spontaneous sex.
Predictably, the Twitterverse went bonkers over the movie’s treatment of Barbara. Instead of making her a flesh and blood human being (which is what they say they wanted to do), the filmmakers succeeded in making The Killing Joke more misogynistic in the eyes of many people, and I think that the criticism was justified.
So the film received a backlash from both critics and fans, and a screening of the movie at New York Comic Con resulted in a rather ugly verbal clash between writer Brian Azzarello and fans who were upset about the depiction of Barbara.
But the controversy over the film is nothing compared to the controversy that erupted over this image. What you see here is a variant cover for Batgirl #41, which is obviously inspired by The Killing Joke.
Variant covers are common in the comics industry. Each issue has a “regular” or standard cover, but publishers will have guest artists produce variant covers that often cost more than the standard cover, and sometimes issues with variant covers become collectible items. When DC previewed the variant cover for Batgirl #41 in 2015, Twitter and other social media platforms exploded with controversy, and if you look at the image you should be able to understand why.
Even without the specter of The Killing Joke hanging in the background, this cover is unsettling. The image of any woman in such a vulnerable position is difficult to look at, especially when you take into account just how horrific a villain the Joker can be. But I think that this is made worse by the fact that the woman in question is Batgirl. Barbara is very important to people who care about female characters in comics, so seeing her terrified and vulnerable bothered a lot of fans.
Comics creator G. Willow Wilson summed up this point in a Tweet responding to the cover:
All this is made worse by the fact that the image deliberately evokes the bodily trauma, sexual assault, and possible rape that Barbara suffers in The Killing Joke. The image is unsettling in its own right, and it’s downright disturbing because of the way in which it conjures up the thought of what happens to Barbara at the hands of the Joker.
The controversy got so bad that the artist apologized for offending people and recommended that DC pull the cover.
Does The Book Have Merit?
This is probably a controversial statement to make, but sometimes books are challenged for understandable reasons. I don’t think that any book should be banned in a free society, but some books are worth reading, and some aren’t. Some help us become freer and wiser, and some do violence to those ends. Some help us better understand our world, and some obscure our vision. And some books are simply not appropriate for young audiences. (There’s no way I would let any of my children read The Killing Joke until they’re much older.)
So one question that we might ask about The Killing Joke is whether or not it has anything of real value to offer us. It’s most vocal critics would argue that because of its treatment of Barbara, The Killing Joke is simply a bad book. But while I sympathize with people who object to the victimization of Barbara, I still believe that The Killing Joke has things to say to us––things that might be worth hearing.
First, one could argue that Barbara isn’t merely a Woman In The Refrigerator. Yes, she is a victim, but the trauma that she suffers in Moore’s book lays the groundwork for the next chapter in her story, which is her time as the hero Oracle. She doesn’t remain a victim, and one might argue that she is a truly powerful character because of her refusal to give up in the face of paralysis.
Second, The Killing Joke ends up being a meditation on the modernist and postmodernist strains of thought in the twentieth century. The Batman myth is the story of a man who, faced with the collapse of meaning, refuses to succumb to despair. If I may risk being pompous and make a literary comparison, he is a comic book version of T.S. Eliot (before his conversion to Christianity), who heroically stands against what he sees as life’s meaninglessness and tries to construct meaning out of the ruins of western culture. As Batman says in a recent movie, “Life only makes sense if you force it to.”
And if Batman is a modernist shaking his fist against the darkness, The Joker is the nihilistic postmodernist. His ultimate goal in the book is to prove that life is utterly absurd, and that we ought to wallow in that absurdity. Morality, truth, value––these things are utterly meaningless to the Clown Prince of Crime, and he won’t stop until he tears down what he sees as the facade of reality that people build around themselves. As he tells Gordon, “Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random, and pointless, one in eight of them crack up.”
But in the midst of all this, there is Jim Gordon, who I would argue is the real hero of The Killing Joke. In spite of everything that the Joker has put him and his daughter through, he remains defiant. He has not been driven to madness. And when Batman frees him, Gordon refuses to despair. It would be easy for him to want revenge, to torture and kill the Joker––but Gordon is still the police commissioner. And rather than give in to the Joker’s efforts to tear down his reality, he perseveres, he survives, and he continues to believe in the value of law, order, and justice. Some people would argue that he’s just deluding himself (certainly the Joker would), but only people who don’t know Jim Gordon.
What Do We Say About All This?
One thing that we ought to note is that The Killing Joke has never been officially “banned” in the sense that some authority or institution made it impossible or difficult for people to read it. The movie has never been banned. And even though DC decided not to print the controversial cover, you can easily find it online and even buy poster versions of it on eBay.
But the controversy around The Killing Joke raises some important issues and questions related to censorship.
First, you can shut down people’s ideas and speech without banning their books. Sexism and misogyny are some of the worst sins possible in our culture, and if you can attach one of those labels to someone and make it stick, you can stop him or her from being heard. As our culture becomes more politically polarized, I think that we ought to be careful about how we use labels to damn certain ideas and certain forms of speech. Labels tend to shut down not only other people’s speech, but also our own thinking. I don’t even have to consider the merits of an idea if it has already been labeled as “dangerous” or “extreme” or “hateful.”
Second, I think that we ought to be very careful when we talk about works of art “advocating” some horrible crime or idea. If someone is going to say that The Killing Joke “advocates rape,” we might as well say that To Kill A Mockingbird advocates racism or that Schindler’s List advocates genocide. Moore clearly wants us to look at what happens to Barbara with absolute horror, not with approval or admiration.
Third, I believe that that some ideas are actually bad, that people often say things that are reprehensible. I also believe that the best way to respond to bad ideas is with good ideas, not with censorship. But we ought to be careful that in responding to bad ideas with our good ideas, we don’t prevent the bad ideas from being uttered. Maybe DC was right for pulling the disturbing Batgirl cover (I am personally very uncomfortable with it), but I worry about the precedent that has been set. DC is a business first and foremost, so they have a right to publish or not publish whatever they want. But should they shut down every book or illustration that offends people or makes them uncomfortable?
And fourth, I say that we ought to be careful about how we deal with bad ideas because it’s clear that many of us really want to shut other people up. People from both sides of the political divide want to shut down ideas and forms of expression that they don’t like. We all seem to have forgotten that the first amendment was meant to protect the speech that we hate, not the speech that we agree with.
Across the country, conservative speakers are getting shut down by riots and violence—this in the very places that should be the first line of defense against censorship. And I’m not only talking about people like Milo Yiannopolis or Ann Coulter, people who seem hell-bent on being offensive; I’m talking about scholars whose views are considered and thoughtful––even if we ultimately decide that they’re mistaken in their conclusions.
Meanwhile, certain politicians believe that it’s their job to censor people who don’t show adequate patriotism or respect for national symbols.
This is a big problem, a problem that affects the entire political spectrum, a problem that is putting our identity as a culture to the test. But I’m not convinced that most people realize just how much of a problem it is.
In the end, you might decide that The Killing Joke is a bad book, or just a book that you can’t make yourself read because it’s too horrifying. But I hope that the various controversies around it will help us all to think carefully about censorship in all its forms––whether it’s trying to get a book banned from a public library, using Twitter to bully an artist or a writer, or simply labeling a book immoral because what it says makes us uncomfortable.
Thank you for your time.