In case you haven”t heard, DC Comics and Bruce Timm are teaming up to animate a classic Batman story. Mark Hamill is even supposed to be on board to reprise the voice of the Joker. There”s just one problem. The story in question is Alan Moore”s “The Killing Joke.”
It is the Batman comic heard round the world. Perhaps no other individual graphic novel has reverberated through the BatVerse like Moore”s 1988 one-shot. Sure, Batman pummeling Superman in “The Dark Knight Returns” is well-known. Yes, “Batman: Year One” sets up the universe. But neither of those tales have left a lasting controversy in their wake or sent an untold number of potential fans – mostly women – fleeing from comic books.
“The Killing Joke” is ostensibly the story of Joker”s origin. Or one of Joker”s origins. Perhaps Joker”s most popular origin. The set up is thus: a failed stand-up comedian and struggling family man, the Joker agrees to help some goons by leading them through his former place of work in return for cash: ACE Chemicals. Things go wrong, Batman shows up, all the goons die, and He-Who-Will-Be-Joker escapes Batman by jumping into a vat of chemicals and being washed through the pipes to the outside.
Thus the Joker was born.
Cut to current events. The Joker wants to prove any man is only “one bad day” away from becoming like him. He chooses Commissioner Gordon as his guinea pig and Barbara Gordon/Batgirl as the catalyst. The Joker”s goons enter Gordon”s apartment, shoot Batgirl through the spine, and strip her naked to take pictures to use to drive her father insane. While the main question of “The Killing Joke” is whether or not Batman kills his nemesis in the end, the other question much speculated about is whether or not the Joker or his goons raped Batgirl.
But the focus whether penetration was involved is beside the point. Barbara Gordon was sexually assaulted and left for dead. Her pain and her naked body was used to shock and titillate the reader, to drive home how deranged the Joker really was without giving Batgirl a chance to fight back or even have a shred of agency.
At the time, no one at DC seemed concerned about the treatment of Barbara Gordon in “The Killing Joke.” Alan Moore has even gone on record to say someone should have pumped the brakes. From an interview with Wizard Magazine in 2006:
I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon – who was Batgirl at the time – and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project…[He] said, 'Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.' It was probably one of the areas where they should”ve reined me in, but they didn”t.