Oct 9, 2020
How The Killing Joke ruined Batgirl
Alan Moore’s iconic graphic novel The Killing Joke is probably his most controversial work to date, and that’s saying something. It’s a great read, with some fantastic artwork that continues to influence and inspire the Batman franchise to this day. But along with the praise, over the years it’s attracted quite a bit of criticism from many sources (including its own author) for its callous maiming of the character of Barbara Gordon. The Killing Joke is one of comics’ most famous examples of “women in refrigerators”, a decade before the term was even coined.
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The subject of The Killing Joke has again been raised recently by a controversial variant cover for Batgirl #41, which features the Joker menacing a petrified looking Batgirl while smearing a smile of what is presumably blood on her face. It was created, without the input or consent of the actual comic’s creative team, mind you, to help celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Joker’s first published appearance in 1940’s Batman #1.
The cover drew immediate criticism, spawning the twitter hashtag #CHANGETHECOVER, and as of now, DC has officially pulled it, and will not be including it as one of the final published covers of the comic. Beyond the misogynistic undertones it conveys, the cover just plain doesn’t fit with the tone of the comic itself, which has been leaning in a much more fun, lighthearted direction under its new creative team, who all protested the cover immediately. Unfortunately, this wasn’t in time to stop a small army of angry readers online from making the cover’s cancellation their new pet cause, raising it up as a martyr to “self-censorship”.
I shouldn’t even have to explain this, but “self-censorship” is an oxymoron and doesn’t exist. You cannot, by definition, censor yourself, as censorship is something imposed on you by an outside party (such as, but not always, the government). A privately-owned company commissioning a work of art and then choosing not to sell it is called self-control.
On its own, the cover may seem relatively harmless. There’s certainly nothing wrong with celebrating the character of the Joker. He’s arguably the most popular character DC has right now, even more so than Batman. And the fact that they chose to reference The Killing Joke isn’t surprising—it’s probably the most famous Joker story ever written. However, while it may seem harmless out of context, in context, it comes across as rather disturbing.
When Alan Moore first made the decision to have the Joker cripple and sexually humiliate Barbara Gordon, DC was rather alarmingly unconcerned about it. You’d think they would be hesitant to take a character who was mainly known for being the colorful, fun sidekick created for the ‘60s TV show and do something that dark and mean-spirited to her. Instead, Moore’s editor Len Wein famously responded, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.” Moore has made no secret of his regret over ever writing the scene and wishing in retrospect that they had said no.
Fortunately, the character of Barbara Gordon did not end with The Killing Joke. Despite being paralyzed from the waist down, she returned to crime-fighting under the identity of “Oracle”, a secretive master hacker who provides tech support and intel to other heroes in the DC universe. In this capacity, she became a popular and important hero in her own right, free from Batman’s shadow, and even formed and led her own superhero team, the Birds of Prey.
Barbara continued on as Oracle for a few decades. Then came the New 52. When DC decided to reboot their entire universe of characters, they decided to make Barbara Gordon into Batgirl once more, bringing her back to her more iconic roots. That’s not a bad idea in theory. I enjoy the young, spunky, purple-suited Batgirl just as much as I like her as mysterious, badass Oracle.
However, they made a horrible miscalculation when they elected to keep The Killing Joke as part of her new continuity. She still got shot, molested, and possibly raped by the Joker; she just wasn’t crippled afterwards, and continued being Batgirl.
It’s understandable that DC wouldn’t want to write one of their most popular stories out of continuity (even though they had no problem writing out Alan Moore’s actual best DC story, “For the Man Who Has Everything”, thirty years ago during Crisis on Infinite Earths). However, keeping Killing Joke in continuity while removing Barbara’s rebirth as Oracle* trivializes the entire event as a part of her character. The idea that she could just bounce back like it never happened, without being profoundly changed by the experience, is at best childish and simpleminded.
[*By the way, I read somewhere that her history as Oracle is still supposed to be in continuity, but since she’s essentially back to square one regardless of what came in between, it hardly matters.]
That’s not to say Barbara isn’t still affected by The Killing Joke; quite the opposite. I only read the first few issues, but in those stories, New 52 Batgirl couldn’t stop talking about how not-over-it she was. Barbara was constantly suffering from PTSD, cowering at anything that even reminded her of the Joker. It’s a rather infantilizing step back from the Barbara who remade herself stronger than ever as Oracle.
Plus, on a personal note, the major appeal of Barbara as Batgirl, to me, was that she was the only Batman sidekick that wasn’t defined or motivated by some past tragedy. She became Batgirl because she wanted to, not because some random criminal killed her parents. Now she’s just as messed up as the rest of them.
By continually focusing on the lowest point in Barbara’s history, DC is refusing to let her move on, forever keeping her the scared little victim. They’re defining her by The Killing Joke, and The Killing Joke isn’t even her story. She has almost no dialogue in that comic, and her only role is to be maimed and degraded in order to traumatize her father, Commissioner Gordon.
Likewise, this cover is also not about Batgirl, not really, despite being a cover for her comic. It’s intended to be a celebration of the Joker. And choosing such a horrifying image as a celebration is in incredibly poor taste. It comes across as a glorification of Batgirl’s humiliation and degradation. It’s not like they couldn’t have given her a more empowering or even fun Joker-themed cover: The variant cover for Action Comics features Superman threatening the Clown Prince of Crime with heat vision. The Catwoman cover shows a Catwoman-branded giant boxing glove punching the Joker out. Even the covers that do show the Joker seemingly triumphant don’t show the heroes in such a infantilized, compromising position.
Defenders of the Batgirl variant cover are quick to point out that Batgirl is far from the Joker’s only famous victim, and there are plenty of times comics show male heroes in moments of defeat or weakness. This is true, but it’s almost never done this way. Male heroes, even in defeat, are almost always drawn to still look defiant and “cool”, keeping their dignity intact. You’d never see the same image with Batman in Batgirl’s place, with that same teary-eyed look of childlike horror. Case in point: the image below, with the Joker and Batgirl replaced by Doomsday and Superman:
This parody drawing by comic artist Ray Dillon perfectly illustrates the comics industry’s double standard. Male heroes are never allowed to seem this weak. The same image with a male hero instead of a female hero becomes laughably comical. Even if it weren’t, it still wouldn’t have the same impact, because The Death of Superman was nothing like The Killing Joke. Superman wasn’t fridged in one scene halfway through to further some other character’s story, and he wasn’t humiliated or violated. He was the central character, and he went out it a bloody blaze of glory, and took his assailant with him to the grave.
For a better example, let’s look at the Joker’s other most famous victim: Jason Todd, the second Robin. Famously beaten to death with a crowbar by the Joker in the storyline A Death in the Family, Jason eventually returned from the dead. Despite having arguably more reason than Barbara to fear the Joker and experience PTSD over his encounter, there mysteriously seems to be little in the way of art or storylines to that effect. Nothing comparable to this variant cover featuring Jason Todd with the Joker exists, that I’ve seen.
Jason Todd’s post-resurrection stories haven’t been about fear: they’ve been about anger. Jason’s been out for revenge ever since he rose from the dead. His stories are all about how badass and vengeful he is now. He doesn’t cower in fear every time someone pulls out a crowbar—he turned around and beat the Joker half to death with a crowbar. (Not that I want to see Batgirl shoot the Joker through the spine, but at least it’d be better than having her live in constant fear.)
And even putting that aside, Jason didn’t get nearly the short end of the stick in A Death in the Family that Barbara did in The Killing Joke. Once again, Death in the Family was Jason’s story. He had agency, and his actions drove the plot. Even in his final moments, he had more control than Barbara did, with his last act being throwing his body in the way of an explosion in a futile attempt to save his mom.
Showing a female character as scared or victimized doesn’t have to be a bad thing. For example, there’s one comic book all about a woman being brutalized by the Joker that I absolutely love and would have no problem with DC revisiting: Paul Dini’s Mad Love. Why? Because Mad Love is 100% Harley Quinn’s story. She drives the plot, she has the arc. And her victimization isn’t just there for its own sake, or for the sake of Batman or the Joker; it informs her character and the story and it teaches something. That’s the difference between the Joker defenestrating Harley and crippling Barbara. One is all about the victim, while the other is all about the victimizer.