Batgirl and the Legacy of The Killing Joke

Welcome friends, I know it’s been a while, but I’m back to discuss Batman: The Killing Joke. You know, the “seminal” Batman story in which

SPOILERS

The Joker paralyzes Barbara Gordon by shooting her, and then takes pictures of her naked, brutalized body to taunt her dad, Commissioner James Gordon, whom The Joker was also torturing. The Joker did this to prove that all it takes is “One Bad Day” to drive an average citizen insane. Yep, that’s right, the Batgirl character was fridged just to further her father’s storyline and make a villain “more complex.”

To give things their proper context, you should understand the environment in which the initial book came to be. We’re talking post-Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Post-Alan Moore’s Watchmen. This is the start of the “comics have to be grim, gritty, and violent as hell” era, in which seemingly every character had some time as an angry, be-pouched anti-hero. It was a dark time (pun fully intended). Seeing The Joker commit graphic and gratuitous acts of violence gave fans a nerd boner like you wouldn’t believe.

To hear Alan Moore tell it, the story was never intended to be in continuity, but when DC execs and creators saw how popular it was becoming, the decision was made to bring it into the main continuity, thereby leaving Barbara without functional legs. Barbara was initially kinda left in limbo, but that didn’t last long, because, lets be real, what’s not to like about Barbara Gordon?! She’s got an amazing intellect, an eidetic memory, leadership skills, and stealth…so much more than just functioning legs. About a year later, writer John Ostrander and DC editor Kim Yale took some of the already existing characteristics of Batgirl and emphasized them to reintroduce her as Oracle, tech goddess of the DCU, for whom there were no computers she couldn’t crack, no information out of her reach.

badass oracle

Now let me be clear, the character of Oracle lead to some amazing stories. Her skills and talents earned her a place alongside the rest of the Justice League. Her role as the brains and driving force behind Birds of Prey was perfect. She defended herself on the regular, physically or otherwise, and became an empowering character for both women and/or fans with their own physical impairments.

That being said, her character was still grounded in trauma. Brutal trauma at that. While the original graphic novel was focused on the shooting and torture (horrific enough already), retellings and adaptations into other media pushed the story further and further, the most egregious example being the latest Batman video game, Arkham Knight. A very similar shooting occurs, after which you’re subjected to 30 seconds of Barbara crying and suffering, before seemingly committing suicide and being once again fridged for most of the game.

This whole concept of assaulting, maiming, or killing female characters as a device to move a male character’s story along, or to show just how brutal a villain can be, is such a tired trope and cliche. Portraying women as props is harmful to women; really to society as a whole, and we should expect better from the media we consume. There are myriad ways to show how evil The Joker is without resorting to (implied) sexual assault. His brain and charm are what make The Joker The Joker. (Well, that, and being certifiably insane.)He charmed a psychiatrist into giving up her job and life to become his sidekick/love interest. He’s conned countless people into being his underlings. He’s pushed Batman to the edge just because he could. He’s good at getting inside people’s heads.

Anyway, back to my main point here, Babs was able to overcome her injury and find her place in the DCU pantheon. Life was good. Jump ahead to 2011 and New 52, DC’s line wide reboot of continuity. It was decided that, rather than being permanently paralyzed, she’d now have recovered/rebuilt herself after 3 years, and would be able to walk.

When I first heard that Oracle would essentially be retconned away, I had some definite mixed feelings. Here DC was getting rid of a paraplegic character, one of very few to begin with, and as I said above, some stunning Oracle stories, but I still gave it a chance. I mean, they brought back Gail Simone to write it, and she wrote the literal BOOK(s) on Barbara Gordon. I’ll admit to being excited about seeing her back as Batgirl. While there have been others take up that Mantle, I will always have a soft spot for Babs in the role (due in no small part to my absolute love of the 1966 live action show).

Sadly, Barbara continued to be haunted by the events of The Killing Joke. She would flashback to different parts of the attack, and given the seeming push in other media to imply that sexual assault was part of the Joker’s misdeeds, the flashbacks took on a skeevieness that lingered, as well as stirring up some anger at seeing such a multidimensional character being solely defined by abuse and assault. As the issues of the comic went on, it became less of a factor, but with DC adapting/releasing the story in every medium possible, The Killing Joke was never far from fans’ minds.

New Batgirl

Courtesy of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr, Barbara received another slight reboot/reset in October 2014, to much critical success. Babs was back in college, and a bit more on her own than in the past. She had roommates, and was dependent on thrift stores for her various costume pieces. The costume in particular has resonated with artists, fans, and cosplayers, even causing Dr. Marten boots to completely sell out of Batgirl’s now signature bright yellow boots. The book just felt more “fun” than before, and did its best to connect with fans in the same way Marvel’s Squirrel Girl, Captain Marvel, and Ms. Marvel titles had.

All of that brings us to now and Batgirl #49. It’s revealed in this issue that antagonist The Fugue implanted memories in Barbara’s mind. We’re also shown a panel clearly showing the events of The Killing Joke as part of these fake memories. Considering the stance DC has taken about TKJ in the past this was both huge and unexpected. I know the creative team really pushed for this retcon, and I for one am ECSTATIC that it was allowed. Doing this means Batgirl isn’t solely defined by thinly veiled sexual assault now, which is a hell of a thing. We can only hope this remains the case post DC’s recently announced Rebirth event, which appears to be yet another reboot.

And look, I’m the first to admit an outright hatred of TKJ. Legit. HATRED. If not for the story itself, which even Moore himself has admitted is weak, than for the diehard comics readers who hold it up as a shining example of what comics can and should be. This is the story that lead to my hatred of The Joker as a character, because SO. MANY. WRITERS. just riff on this version of him, or at least use it as the starting point for their “edgy” version of the Joker. It’s why we ended up with the New 52 Joker cutting off, then later stapling back on, his FACE. Shock value is used to cover a lack of imagination or originality.

Add to that fanbros who try and emulate The Joker. You need look no further than the not insignificant number of people who cosplay as The Joker and then use that as an excuse to be horrible human beings, in the name of nihilism, or whatever the latest excuse is that makes them feel cool and edgy. Maybe, you can understand my exasperation with the character a bit more. Comics are so much more than EVIL BAD GUY commits DESPICABLE ACT against HERO and or HERO’S LOVED ONES. There are so many more interesting ways to show how evil a character is without resorting to fridging or sexual assault just for the sake of moving the plot along. It’s lazy writing, and we shouldn’t be rewarding that.

Now that I’ve rambled a bit, I’ll leave you with this: I may have problems with DC and how certain characters are treated, coughManofSteelcoughBatmanvSupermancough but they occasionally get things right. The Killing Joke was never intended to be canon, and they’ve finally taken a step toward fixing their previous mistake. 

Author: Chris Novus

(Semi)retired supervillain working to make the future weird. AGI apologist. Comics & science fiction scholar.

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