Yesterday, DC announced that the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke would be adapted to animation, and that they were bringing back much of the original cast of Batman: The Animated Series to do so, including Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. One might expect fan reaction to be hugely enthusiastic, but instead DC came in for some criticism, thanks to how perception of the graphic novel has shifted over time.
Written by Alan Moore with art by Brian Bolland and released in 1988, The Killing Joke is an exploration of the Joker’s broken mind, and his possible origin. The Joker, it turns out, believes that the difference between sanity and insanity boils down to having just one bad day. He attempts to prove it by, among other things, severely injuring Barbara Gordon, stripping her (at the least), and forcing her father to look at photos in an effort to break Gordon’s mind. Batman wins the day, but only just, and the book ends with Batman and the Joker having a belly-laugh over a bad joke, waiting for the police to find them.
At the time, the book was an enormous hit, winning an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Novel and turning up on the New York Times Bestseller list two decades after it came out. It’s widely considered one of the best Joker stories ever told, and it’s been enormously influential on DC’s Batman work since. Barbara Gordon, with the use of a wheelchair, became the superhacker and data broker Oracle and arguably became even more popular than she was as Batgirl, and Moore’s approach to the Joker, giving him more dimension and even a degree of sympathy, has marked every take on the character since.
However, the novel’s reputation has somewhat declined over time thanks to its treatment of Barbara. Critics have argued that Barbara is nothing more than a tool to justify the plot, a classic example of the “women in refrigerators” trope. As these criticisms have emerged, Alan Moore, in particular, distanced himself from the book more and more strongly with each passing year, to the point of claiming Gordon’s injury was a decision he shouldn’t have been allowed to make in 2006. The growing questions about the book’s tone towards Gordon crystallized last year, when DC attempted to create a variant cover referring to the graphic novel. It was met with outcry and quickly canceled at the request of the artist.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that an adaptation of The Killing Joke must be a panel-for-panel adaptation of the story. In fact, it seems unlikely; Batgirl is currently one of DC’s most popular books, and one of the key anchors of a new toy line, DC Super Hero Girls. In DC’s current continuity, Batgirl’s paralysis only lasts a few years and she’s largely moved on from what happened, protecting Gotham’s hipster neighborhood of Burnside. DC may have an opportunity here to more fully bring Barbara Gordon into the story. That said, any adaptation needs to balance the original work with the perspective of those adapting it; the whole reason to adapt this book is because of the insight it offers into the Joker’s mind. DC has a tricky balance to strike with The Killing Joke, but it’s a potentially rewarding one, as well.