One Bad Day: Breaking Bad, The Killing Joke & Something or Other about Mark Millar

Posted by Charles Reece, October 2, 2013 09:48am | Post a Comment

As if you don't know, that there is Jesse Pinkham from Breaking Bad having one very fucked up day (in the episode "Granite State"). He's just witnessed his ex-girlfriend, Andrea, get knocked off by Todd, whom Jesse has appositely summed up as "that dead-eyed Opie piece of shit." Todd belongs to criminal clan of ratio-instrumentalist racist rednecks and he's the least emotional of the bunch when it comes to taking care of business. He shot a child witness last season without flinching, now terrorizes Skyler by threatening to kill her baby girl Holly should anything come out to the cops about Lydia (Todd's crush and criminal business partner), followed by murdering Andrea to prove a point. The point being that Jesse better keep cooking meth for Lydia and the rednecks or he'll kill Andrea's boy, Brock, just as easily as he did his mother. Contrary to the cannibalistic hillbilly savages that Hollywood tends to depict the under-employed and -privileged white Southerner as, Uncle Jack's family are real cold motherfuckers. Everything is about profit and risk assessment. They are the smartest criminals in the the entire five season run of the show. And they're probably the most evil, too, for that same reason.

Andrea's murder is the most heinous of all in a story that has featured many, many murders. Why? Because of its iniquity: she was killed because of what it would mean to Jesse, not because -- as was the case in killing Hank or even the boy witness last season -- she had anything on Todd's family or business associates. In terms of the criminal ratiocination that makes up the show's diegesis, her death was the most unfair. Hank was actively going against the criminals, so chose to put his life at risk. And the boy on a bike, at least potentially, had knowledge that might've been actively used against Walt, Todd and the others. Andrea had nothing on which to ever actively go against the rednecks. Instead, she was killed as pure means to an end of which she had absolutely no knowledge or ability (potential or actual) to alter as a free agent -- that end being the continuance of Uncle Jack's family business. Her death was pure collateral damage, in other words. Hank went out with honor, accepting his fate as a result of trying to live as a moral agent, Andrea's life was simply used by others.

Writer-director Peter Gould effectively portrays the emptiness of Andrea's murder by pulling away from it, making it small to the viewer:

She is a supporting character, of course, so what we feel for her is based on how she was depicted in previous episodes (entirely sympathetic, I'd say) and what she means to a main character, or how she's reflected in that character. This isn't her storyline, but Jesse's, so the degree to which we feel anything about her murder will ultimately rest on how much we identify with him. Although Gould pulls the camera back, making her death appear meaningless in the overall scheme of things, by stopping at Jesse's vantage point, the viewer is now aligned with his perspective, reminding us that Andrea's death isn't so meaningless after all. This is good, solid filmmaking.

That scene made me think of a more notorious shooting of a supporting character for the purpose of dramatically affecting the main character -- the Joker's crippling of Barbara "Batgirl" Gordon in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke. (The book's been in the geek news because of Grant Morrison's recently spouted theory on the ending -- i.e., 'killing joke' refers to Batman's killing the Joker.) As the Joker explicitly states, the reason behind his shooting her through the spine, disrobing her and taking pictures of his crime is "to prove a point" to Batman and, by implication, the reader. Like Uncle Jack's use of Andrea's death, Barbara's crippling has little to do with the Joker's relation to her, but what it might mean to his actual nemesis, Batman. Clearly more insane than the rednecks, the Joker's intent is to mentally destroy Jim Gordon (Barbara's father) by torturing him, both physically (beating him up, stripping him naked and putting him a cage on display to the Joker's band of freaks and loonies) and mentally (by not only shooting his daughter, but forcing him to look at pictures of her bloody, naked body). This is supposed to prove to Batman that everyone's choices in life are arbitrary, dependent on the vicissitudes of the day. Because of one bad day, Batman dresses up as a bat just like the Joker gave up on making any sense of the world, either legally or rationally. If the chief representative of the law can be driven to the brink, then our laws are shown to rest on an abyss, or structured around a big gaping existential hole.

Despite the fact that Chief Gordon doesn't go nuts and insists that the vigilante known as Batman bring in the Joker "by the book" (yeah, sure), the story still concludes that these two arch-nemeses are sides of the same psychological coin. And even though Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises was a more fully realized exploration of this theme (using Harvey Dent as the lawman who breaks down), the comic said it first and said something more than most Batman stories up to that time. Moore, however, would eventually not think so:

But at the end of the day, Watchmen was something to do with power, V for Vendetta was about fascism and anarchy, The Killing Joke was just about Batman and the Joker -- and Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they're just two comic book characters.

Regardless of how much one agrees with this thematic assessment, Moore and Bolland crammed about as much dramatic heft into a Batman one-shot as is probably humanly possible. Moore fills the book with allusions to the history of the character, letting that evoke an emotional density to the character arcs via whatever memories the reader might possess from having read the comics for years and years. And Bolland is particularly skillful in rendering Barbara's mutilation. If her maiming has no resonance in and of itself, that's largely because she was a fairly empty character to begin with and the reader doesn't care about the character of Jim Gordon. The one page depicting her loving relation with her dad before the Joker shows up is probably more characterization than she'd previously received in her entire existence. Bolland makes the shooting about as dramatic and empathic as one could reasonably expect, using a technique that's fairly similar to the Breaking Bad example:

He doesn't pull back as much as Gould does his camera, but Bolland starts off with a perspective that places the reader near the Joker, as if you're one of his gang, then pivots around during the shooting to place you with Jim. This keeps with the two-sided theme of order and chaos, something like: our vigilante fantasies are equally dependent on fantasizing about doing evil as doing good (otherwise, without this desire for evil or chaos, we'd just read comics about pacifists hanging out in a utopian park where everyone minds their own business). And, just like Andrea, Barbara is being used as a means, merely to prove a point the main character. And, just like Todd's action, the shooting is supposed to be chillingly evil.

Going back to at least 1999, in the medieval days of the internet, there's been the "women in refrigerators" interpretation of this scene that takes it as offensive, rather than another example of a supporting character being used to support the main character's narrative. It can be safely claimed that males outnumber females in filling main character roles (in comics, film and TV). That's structurally sexist and, indeed, problematic -- particularly when it comes to doing dastardly things to side characters to effect changes in the lead character. As comics started included more realistic examples of violence to demonstrate just how evil villains are, this resulted in female characters being more likely brutally stuffed in the fridge to see how a male character would react than vice versa. Gail Simone is cautious enough in that link to insist that she's talking about a trend, i.e., the structural level, not about individual titles that may or may not have dealt dramatically responsible with a female character's death or maiming. But, in other places, she threw caution to the wind:

There's no question that Alan Moore (in one of his worst stories ever--I love the guy, but the hatred of women in Killing Joke is palpable) meant to imply a rape-like scenario. It's rape without the sex, in other words.

Love Alan Moore. He's a genius. But this book is exploitive and cruel and is the very definition of a Woman in Refrigerator scenario; the long-running female character in question, Babs, is put through the grinder in the most vouyeristic and (ostensibly) tittilating fashion possible, and is then pretty much forgotten by all involved. She's not the story, the outrage of Batman and Gordon is ten times as important as the act itself.

That's pretty much the phrase's standardization as an ideological cudgel -- used to bash, whack-a-mole style, any instance of a female supporting character who experiences violence. Once applied to a particular comic (as in the list Simone and pals made), the misogynistic reading becomes fairly widespread. Before having reread The Killing Joke, I had come to believe Batgirl was actually raped. And it was just this year that some concerned citizen filed an official request that The Killing Joke be removed from a Columbus, Nebraska library for "advocating rape and violence." A like-minded opinion of the book can be heard from Jeffrey A. Brown who called it an example of “inherent misogyny of the male-dominated comic book industry.” (ibid.) The library's board members showed more sense and a keener eye for reading text than either the censorious patron or the academic, denying the request by noting that there is no rape in the comic.

This is trickle down slander. Although he doesn't use the word, Osvaldo Oyola's recent queer reading of the book uses an inferred homosexual bond between Batman and the Joker to reinforce the misogynistic interpretation of l'affaire Batgirl. While not explicitly committing to the Joker raping Barbara (since Moore no where mentions it), there is to him, like to Simone, a "suggestion that she’s raped" that later in the essay becomes "likely": "Even the most contentious scene in the graphic novel, the brutal shooting of Barbara Gordon, leading to her disrobing, (likely) rape and photographing, is attended to in silence." It is this scene that is "part of what makes The Killing Joke flawed" and he's clear enough that his offense at the "brutal treatment of a beloved female character" is largely dependent on this supposed implication (insertion) of rape.

It's not the brutal shooting that's cited as being so troubling, but, "[t]he sexualization of the violence against her [that] serves to give the scene just the kind of morbid appeal that plagues a lot of contemporary comics." The "plague" I take to mean something along the lines of women in refrigerators (recall Simone's accusations of "voyeuristic" and "titillation fashion"). The misogyny is to be inferred from the enjoyment the implicitly male readers are taking not from reading what they consider to be a well told Batman story, but in the enjoyment of seeing Barbara gets crippled and, even worse, raped after being crippled. This is an specially uncharitable reading of the fans of this book, not to mention a simplistic take on how narrative identification works in a story, as it simply assumes that no one is being dramatically affected by Barbara's ordeal as a supporting character (despite her being a "beloved female character"). In other words, this imagined reader doesn't feel for her in a way that places him in the perspective of Jim Gordon, but is instead sadistically enjoying it all through Joker's eyes. (He would also have to ignore the way Bolland drew the scene with the shift in perspective.) Moore is not giving Batgirl the respect she deserves in the interest of strengthening the homosexual fantasy of a patriarchal comic book boys club:

Like an especially twisted reference to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men (1985), this is a love triangle, with Barbara playing the proxy for the desire between the “rival suitors.” Sedgwick writes, “in any male-dominated society, there is a special relationship between male homosocial (including homosexual) desire and the structures maintaining and transmitting patriarchal power. . . this special relationship may take the form of ideological homophobia, ideological homosexuality, or some highly conflicted but intensively structured combination of the two." Thus, the maiming and violating of Barbara Gordon is not about her at all, but about the Joker’s desire for Batman. She is the proxy through which this desire is expressed as it literally serves to summon Batman to attend to him so they may take up their “highly conflicted, but intensively structured” relationship.

What belies this reading is how it completely ignores Bolland's actual drawing of a triangle configuration with a supporting character in the middle of the Joker and Batman. Barbara is only shown in between her dad and the Joker (after she gets shot), but Jim is literally placed in a cage between the two just before they begin to fight:

Is Jim serving as a proxy for the Joker's desire? Well, yes, the desire to prove a point to Batman, but not necessarily any desire for Batman. Then again, the queer reading is pretty much irrefutable since anything can be read that way. When you have a society with an overrepresentation of men in most of its halls of power, then it's quite obviously the case that power relationships will be "homosocial." Making the destruction of Barbara the center of the Joker-Batman struggle artificially reinforces the queer reading by portraying it as misogynistic (boys being boys by taking pleasure in destroying girls). Oyola only brings up Jim's traumatization only to dismisses it as homophobia: "The image of the Commissioner stripped naked and made to wear a studded leather bondage collar does a lot to equate madness and queerness run rampant." (This is to assuage the queer reading of any anxiety towards possibly blaming homosexuality for the misogyny, because the book's also homophobic.) This assumes that bondage is prominently associated with queerness. Very dubious, given the many sites and magazines that are clearly aimed at the sexually straight. For example, the most commercially popular bondage model, Dita Von Teese, hardly seems aimed at gay guys. And, from what I could find, the vast majority of BDSM practitioners do appear to be heterosexual. So, just to get this straight: taking pictures of a crippled Batgirl is "egregious," "brutal," of a "morbid appeal" and "part of what makes The Killing Joke flawed," but keeping the Commish naked and chained, beating him, and psychologically torturing him for days is merely homophobia if someone sees that as evil?

Ignoring or dismissing Jim's treatment is pretty common among the book's critics. Focusing on his trauma, though, dispels the whiff of misogyny -- the women in refrigerators reading -- by making it two men fighting over another man. The showdown's about what Jim represents to Batman and the Joker. His torture is what's being used to make a point to Batman. I don't see how Moore could've appeased the naysayers without turning the book into a story about Batgirl. How else would you break Jim if not through his daughter -- at least, that would parallel what Joker and Batman went through? It was the death of family that lead to both Bruce Wayne's and the Joker's breaking points. So it makes thematic sense that Barbara would be used to dismantle Jim's psyche. Does anyone condemn the comic for promoting patricide because of the "shallow" use of Bruce Wayne's parents? Who were they as people besides giving Gotham their son? 

Few, if any, seem equally offended at the treatment of this other much beloved character. Like Jesse, Jim isn't just shot and left alone, but is imprisoned and tortured with the intent to psychologically break him down, to fundamentally alter who is for the rest of what is sure to be a miserable existence with no end in sight. If anyone is suggestively raped here, with or without the sex, it's Jim. Consider this explanation, from Feminist Praxis, for why rape is worse than murder:

people tend to think that a rapist doesn’t take your life away, but they do. they took away my ability to trust, reason or think clearly without wondering what a person’s intent is. rapists took away a life filled with hope and wonder and instead replaced it with a life filled with regret and uncontrollable anxiety. am i supposed to feel “lucky” that they left me alive? because what kind of life is it where i have to second guess the people around me? 

rape is worse than murder because rape survivors live to tell the tale of the morning, day or night their life was taken away from them. we survived what sociologists warned us about. we don’t give a shit about your statistics or why murder really is a hell of a lot worse. because if we were dead we wouldn’t have to live through rape culture. if we were dead we wouldn’t have to relive every time someone says something that blames us. if we were dead we wouldn’t have to survive through more sexual assaults and abusive relationships than we needed.

I've read and heard this kind of view enough to assume it's fairly common, and in terms of fiction, it's widespread enough to be listed as a TV trope. He might not have succeeded, but the feelings expressed here were what the Joker intended for Jim. Why, then, if Barbara's treatment is closer to murder and Jim's is closer to rape, are the "women in refrigerator" readings always going on about the former while neglecting the latter?

In a recent dustup over a comment made by comicscribe Mark Millar (creator of Kick-Ass), the "women in refrigerator" crowd took him to task for using rape as just another sign of a villain's true evilness. He said:

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” [...] “I don't really think it matters. It's the same as, like, a decapitation. It's just a horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy.”

To which Kristy Puchko responded that: (1) rape wasn't a taboo topic, (2) people don't blame the decapitated victim or deny that the beheading ever took place or regularly fear beheading in their everyday lives and, relatedly, (3) rape is statistically more common than beheading. She then goes on to explain how Millar is simply expressing the attitude that underlies the "women in refrigerator" treatment. 

These are fairly confused counter-arguments, it seems, since: (1) If rape isn't more taboo, isn't special, then why is its use more exceptional than a beheading to use in fiction? (2) It's kind of hard to deny that a guy's missing his head, but why is deniability a sign that something is more evil anyway? (For example, a perfectly planned murder isn't more evil than a clumsy one where the murderer is more easily caught.) and (3) Getting in an argument on the street is more common than a beheading, too, but a villain who's willing to slice off your head would still be considered more evil than one who only shouts at you in mean way. Nevertheless, I believe what Puchko is trying to get at is that she believes rape should have a special status in fiction, not insousciantly used to depict villainy like robbing a bank or whatever, and it's just too realistically evil to ever be used in a superhero story, that robbing a bank or whatever should be as villainous as a villain gets (cf. "there’s plenty of ways to show a villain is a bad guy -- robbing banks, killing sidekicks, kidnapping love interests and dangling them over bridges"). 

Based on the particularly nasty rape and murder of a woman in Delhi, Michael Sandel took his BBC program, The Public Philosopher, to Jaipur to discuss whether rape is worse than other violent crime. The commentary from women there is interesting since so many related rape's special status to patriarchy, namely that it contaminates the purity that women are supposed to have (this view seems to be shared by those who felt it should have a special status and those who didn't). This analysis would also go along with why Jim Gordon's "suggested" or "likely" rape is largely ignored. There's something more dastardly about causing violence to women, because they need to be protected. This is why people like Millar use violence against women to show a particularly villainous villain. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be more violent and to have violence done to them (most superheroes are male, so who cares if they beat on each other). The life of men is less valued, because of patriarchal sexist assumptions that men themselves often hold. David Benatar, in The Second Sexism, gives many examples of how this assumption plays out: men are the only ones conscripted for combat roles in war (even in the cases where women are conscripted into the military), during major acts of genocide in the 20th century, men were the ones who were first slaughtered (because it "loosened" up the soldiers to begin killing women and children), men are even more likely to be doubted when it comes to sexual violation than women, and the classic "women and children first" when fleeing the sinking Titanic. Thus, if anything, it's not a patriarchal hatred of women that results in whatever trend one could call "women in refrigerators," but a sexist, condescending over-protection of women that makes such violence have such an impact in fiction.

Alan Moore and Brian Bolland have gotten tarred with the problems of a trend that occurred in the wake of their work (the generic darkening of superheroes that Moore himself holds in contempt). Nowadays, Kick-Ass' "realism" is just one among many styles which creators can use. Their treatment of the Joker was new back in 1988, it did make him seem particularly menacing and dangerous based on what he was willing to do to both of the Gordons, because the readers cared about those characters to some degree. And readers cared because of how the characters related to Batman, just like Andrea's death was particularly effective because of our primary identification with Jesse. This is type of situation is one of the main purposes of side characters (cf. SL Huang's excellent essay on why "fridging" is a valuable narrative device). Maybe it doesn't work for many, but is that because the book asks you take pleasure in Barbara Gordon's treatment, or because there's not enough to the characters themselves (Batman included) to support emotions and thoughts that properly attend to such a realistically rendered ordeal?

Relevant Tags

Alan Moore (2), Breaking Bad (9), The Killing Joke (1), Mark Millar (2)