Should DC Comics Completely Retcon The Killing Joke?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Salutations, my self-adhesive envelopes. Sorry “Postal Apocalypse” is a day late; I’d explain why, but I, uh... swore an oath to a wizard. Or something. Look, it’s been a long week. A long week that ends with answers: How Marvel could have connected its movies and TV series way better! Who’s worse at time travel than the Flash! And I’m forced to say something nice about The Phantom Menace!


A Poor Joke


Dear Postman of the Apocalypse,

This last weekend a fellow comic book fan and I had a heated dispute over the Killing Joke. He proclaimed it as one of the best stories ever told and I criticized it for its deep flaws - most egregiously the dismal treatment of Barbara Gordon. As a long time fan of Oracle and the role she would later play in Birds of Prey and the greater DC universe I do not take issue with Barbara being paralyzed by the Joker but rather how it was done.

As I recall there was even an issue of Booster Gold where he went back in time over and over trying to prevent this tragedy only to be told that it was essentially time-locked.

Since DC has been so generous with rewriting large swaths of its continuity over the years - why has this one storyline never been altered?


It’s never officially been retconned because The Killing Joke is one of the most popular and continually best-selling DC graphic novels of all time. It is probably the best known in continuity DC story of all time, even more than Crisis on Infinite Earths. It is, arguably, just too big to be retconned without a huge group of people—bigger than your average group of irate comics fans—freaking out about delegitimizing a “masterpiece.”

It can, however, be unofficially retconned, which is what happened when DC brought back Barbara Gordon as Batgirl in the New 52. Now she’s still been paralyzed (and brutalized) by the Joker, but she, uh, got better. The Killing Joke is mainly a Batman/Joker story, but nothing lasting happened in it… for them. Barbara was the only one changed (and purely as motivation to make Batman extra mad at Joker that one specific time, which is why it was so bad). The New 52 changed her back to Batgirl, meaning DC has effectively swept The Killing Joke under the rug for the character, while still selling thousands of copies of the comic.


There’s another problem with wiping The Killing Joke out of existence, although I’m not sure DC is self-aware enough to realize the issue: Doing so would wipe Oracle out of existence (as opposed to just leaving her in the past, as per the current status quo). Barbara’s time as Oracle was beloved, and rightly so; by returning to fight the hell out of crime despite her injuries, she reclaimed her life from the Joker’s attack, and became a powerful representation of surviving abuse, and seizing power and agency despite the horrible things she endured. Barbara never gave up, and because one of DC’s most effective and useful heroes regardless of her physical limitations. About 99 percent of superheroes can punch people. Oracle took care of just about anything else.

Oracle was a hero in a unique, important way that resonated even more powerfully because of her origins as Batgirl. There’s a reason there was a fan outcry when the New 52 put Barbara back in the cowl. It’s not because people didn’t love the character, it’s because they loved her as Oracle. Making Barbara Batgirl probably made sense from a business and brand recognition aspect, but DC lost something very special in the process.


Which is why DC shouldn’t retcon it. The Killing Joke made a gross, horrible narrative decision (made in a less aware time), but various writers and artists—especially Kim Yale and John Ostrander, who created her Oracle persona, and later Gail Simone—used that trauma to do and make something very special. Retconning it so that Barbara was hit by a bus would ultimately take away from her struggle, journey, and triumph. This legacy is key. As for what instigated it, all DC needs to do is not celebrate The Killing Joke as if it didn’t have one of the most problematic scenes in comics. It’s really that simple.


Everyone Stop Calling It “The Incident”

Mr. Marvel CU Fan:

Dear Mr. Postman,

Let’s suppose someone at Marvel Studios used Dr. Doom’s time machine to bring you back to our present as an “independent nerd culture consultant.” Your remit is two-fold: 1. Offer fresh ideas on ways of telling super-hero origin stories to general audiences (e.g. Avoiding the “Dr. Strange” problem); 2. Offer advice on better tying together of the movies and TV series. What would be your advice?


1) If we can agree that Marvel had a pretty good run up through introducing the Guardians of the Galaxy—and I bet we can—then the two problem areas are Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. Without getting into the diversity issue, and focusing solely on doing their origin stories better and more interestingly, the answer is shockingly obvious—put them in other movies.

Honestly, Spider-Man and Black Panther’s appearances in Captain America: Civil War were perfect. It introduced both of them into the MCU quickly and efficiently, and in Spidey’s case, it didn’t interfere with the larger story at all, while Black Panther’s introduction organically became part of the story. Adding new characters in this way gives them a boost from the bigger, more established characters, and putting them in other heroes’ stories keeps the origins trim and exciting.


I would introduce Ant-Man in an Iron Man movie—Pym technology is a gimme of a connection; Tony could buy it and Scott could still steal it—while Doctor Strange makes sense for Thor, given his need to protect to Earth from threats from other planes (Marvel gods more-or-less being aliens notwithstanding). And Captain Marvel can make her debut in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, because of the Kree connection. Boom. Done.

2) Honestly, you can’t really connect the Marvel movies and TV series too much, because the people who watch the TV series are still only a fraction of the people who see the movies. Getting the TV shows into the movies is a lot tougher, although for Agents of SHIELD it isn’t so bad—having Fitz, Skye, Simmons, et al. being part of the Nick Fury’s SHIELD team who help evacuate Sokovia in Age of Ultron—unnamed and unheralded—would have worked fine. For the other way around, I would just use Marvel’s vast profits to get one of the Avengers to show up for an episode per season. That’s all it would take.


The Netflix shows are tougher, because the characters are more… obtrusive. Well, you could easily bring in Jessica Jones and/or Luke Cage for an episode or guest-arc, because you have the time and space to get the audience up to speed, but you can’t have Daredevil fighting aliens in the first Avengers movie without explaining who he is, why he has superpowers, and why the Avengers aren;t trying to recruit him. I think the best way to do it would be to introduce one of the Netflix characters in the movies and then give them a show, which would help tie all the Netflix shows to the movies.

You wouldn’t want to spend an entire movie watching one of Netflix’s lower-key, downer heroes hijack one of Marvel’s films, though, so I’d try to keep them to an opening act battle, sort of like the Avengers fighting Baron von Strucker in the beginning of Age of Ultron, or Cap fighting Crossbones in Civil War. You’ll note those are both villains. I’d have Spider-Man battle the Punisher in the opening act of his movie—a classic match-up—get distracted by the film’s main villain, web the Punisher and leave him to fight the main villain, and when it’s over discover the Punisher has somehow escaped. Note: This is not an especially good move for the movies, but hey, it’s the job I was hired and sent back in time for.



Fowl Stall

JV Garcia:

Hello Postman,

Do you have any news about the development of Artemis Fowl as a movie? I thoroughly enjoyed the series and have a few of the graphic novels so I I have good visuals on how great it would look like in live action, or even as an animated series, a la Marvel/DC.

Last I heard, Disney had the rights but is it all “Hell, we got Marvel and Star Wars, we don’t need another John Carter on our lineup”?


There’s been little word since 2015 when Disney announced Kenneth Branagh was going to direct it, but this past November author Eoin Colfer confirmed in a self-made video where he answered Q&As that included the movie. Colfer said he’s been told the movie is still coming from Branagh after he’s done with his remake of Murder on the Orient Express, which is due out this November. Chances are by this point his work on Orient Express is mostly done, and he’s doing pre-production on his next film, whatever it may be.

But as far as has been announced, the only other upcoming movie that seems to currently be on Branagh’s docket is Artemis Fowl. Furthermore, to all appearances he has a good relationship with Disney, as Cinderella made a solid profit. And last but not least, unlike some directors—cough del Toro cough—Branagh’s track record on actually making the projects he’s signed on for is pretty solid.


Once Orient Express arrives, I would suspect we’ll start hearing something about the Artemis Fowl movie; however, if it turns out Branagh is working on or gets attached to another movie before we that, I think we can safely presume Artemis Fowl has been put on the shelf for the time being. Oh, also? Disney announced the movie in 2013... a year after John Carter bombed. Obviously it’s not worried that a teenage criminal who hangs out with fairies will have the same problem as a Civil War soldier trapped on a planet full of underdressed red and green people.


Time Enough for Flubs

Tired TV Time Traveler:

Dear Mr. Postman,

The recent season of “Legends of Tomorrow” concluded with dinosaurs in present-day Los Angeles. This was a result of the Legends screwing around with the timestream. Does this disastrous result mean it’s time to stop busting The Flash’s nuts for bringing about Flashpoint? Or should I get used to screaming “Don’t do it” at the TV screen every time a DC Berlanti-verse character talks about altering the timestream.


I’m shocked to be saying it, but the Legends of Tomorrow may actually be worse at time travel than Barry Allen, which is exacerbated by the fact that keeping the timeline safe is their only job. But I don’t think that we should let Barry off the hook. You don’t give a murderer a gold star just because he killed less people than a serial killer.

Plus, Barry’s the one who rewrote the timeline and created Flashpoint just so he could spend some more time with his mom and dad, which may be understandable but is completely, totally selfish. White Canary and Atom and Vixen and the rest are trying to prevent the timeline from being altered. They are goddamn terrible at it, but at least their intentions are good.


This is where I remind you that at one point on this past season of Legends of Tomorrow, Heat Wave did the introduction for the show and literally said that yes, the Legends are indeed massively shitty at their jobs:

This show is good, you guys.

If He Says the F-Word Murder His Family

Chris D.:

Oh Postman, My Postman,

Upon watching the end of Iron Fist where Claire says “eff” as opposed to “fuck” a theory I had seems all but confirmed: Marvel Netflix isn’t allowed to say the f-word. Do you think this is the case and if so, why?

Between seeing Wilson Fisk literally break a man’s head to bits with a car door and most of the characters participating in the definition of the f-word, it seems a little awkward that the writers would have to tiptoe around the use of mature language. Jeph Loeb, now the head of Marvel TV, in his introduction to the first volume of Alias kicked it off with a couple paragraphs on using the word “fuck” and how the MAX titles could use it non-gluttonously but artfully and it’s funny to me that these same people haven’t taken a similar approach in regard to their MA-rated Netflix programming.

Marvel heads also must know that they share much of their audience with Fox, who have (even in some of their PG-13 films) been more liberal with their vocabulary so it’s not like this is untouched ground and while I don’t think this diminishes quality from these shows, I’m curious as to how and why such decisions are made. Could you please share some insight on the matter?


Because America is totally fine showing graphic, horrific violence, and yet is appalled by bad language and nudity. PG-13 movies have more gun violence than R movies, but is only allowed to say “fuck” once and never as a verb meaning sex—go back and watch those X-Men movies and you’ll see. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead can show the graphic death of anyone, including children, and say “shit,” but it can’t say “fuck” at all.

Even when there are no restrictions—Netflix could air graphic pornography if it wanted to, it’s an independent pay service (and to be fair the few sex scenes in the Marvel Netflix shows are may not include nudity but are not exactly subtle)—the general populace is also fine with graphic violence, but somehow scandalized by bad language or the sight of a female nipple. If too much of the first or a single one of the second appeared in a Marvel show? Starring a superhero? A thing children like, even if the shows themselves are clearly not intended for children and are plainly labeled as such? It would be the end of the world, and neither Marvel nor Netflix needs that.


It is, in a word, fucked. (This answer has been rated R, as I said fuck three times. Er, four.)


The Phantom Pain


Having just gotten into an internet fight (and we know how well those turn out), I’m looking for an objective opinion here: Is The Phantom Menace all that bad?

Now, I’m not defending it as a misunderstood classic or anything. It is indeed the weakest of the original six and clearly has 16 years of directorial rust coming off the hull, but my contention is that the Internet Hive Mind hate has drowned out any strengths the movie has. For example, the soundtrack is solid, the costume and art direction is beautiful, the action is pretty good, and while he might have problems as a people director, I will defend Lucas to my grave as an outstanding visual storyteller.

As art is subjective - so turning to you, Postman of the Future, to justify my beliefs is folly - but am I wrong? Or is the truth somewhere in between?


If you enjoy it, more power to you. I think objectively we can say that Phantom Menace has some serious flaws, more than in the original trilogy, but I will concede it is not wholly without merit. The podrace remains genuinely exciting to watch, even if it would be improved by Anakin not being a 10-year-old moron who says “whee” unironically and doesn’t know what an angel is. And the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul fight is still badass, especially with John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” playing… even if Maul’s had virtually no screentime before it and Obi-Wan, like all padawans, is inexplicably forced to have a rat-tail.

It has its good points. You are not wrong there. And, if you saw it at a young age, you have nostalgia goggles, which help keep that shine on something you loved as a youth, which affects all of us.


But I’m not going to say it also hasn’t earned its criticism, especially as one of the many Star Wars fans who watched The Phantom Menace repeated times trying desperately to convince myself I actually liked it. If nothing else, though, you may rest secure in the knowledge that it is at least marginally better than Attack of the Clones.

Have a question about a movie, TV show, comic, or their various industries? Want advice on how to deal with anything nerd-related? Have a “what if” scenario that needs settling? Email your friendly post-apocalyptic fake mailman here!