June is Joker month over at DC Comics and in celebration, every comic will have a variant that shows him in all of his clownish glory. This is all to the good for most people, but one particular cover has proved to be controversial. The facts are somewhat in dispute, as usual, but essentially there was an online protest and the creative team disavowed the variant cover, with DC eventually deciding to scrap the whole thing in favor of an alternate.
It’s very tempting to lump this into the typical narrative of “Social Justice Warriors against Misogynist Meanies,” but the subject is actually more complicated than that. For one thing, both the artist in question and the normal creative team agreed with the move. More importantly, I really think that we need to get Batgirl past The Killing Joke, which was really bad for the character, regardless of her gender. It is one of the all time best comics of the 1980s grim Batman, and it’s one I’ll never forget. However, 20 years later I think we need to move on, and here is why:
1. Batgirl Should Be an A-Lister in Her Own Right
Batgirl has been around for almost fifty years. My introduction to her was in the original TV Batman `66, where she added a bit of needed variety to reruns that could be a little stale after years of watching them. She drove a motorcycle instead of a Batmobile, and had her own theme song that was actually weirder than “nanananana BATMAN.” I will admit I had a pretty sizeable crush on her in the day, too. I watched Batman `66 a long time before I read comics. That was more of a teenage thing, when I had some disposable income and reliable transportation to a comic store.
In the early ’90s, it was pretty hard to find Batgirl. She’d been forcibly retired due to being shot in The Killing Joke. That happened back in 1988 ,when Batman comics were still basically prequels to the Dark Knight Returns, so it was to an extent par for the course. Batgirl was paralyzed and Robin was dead. It took eight years, but Batgirl, now known as Oracle after helping the Suicide Squad and Batman during the intervening years, finally a had a new title called Birds of Prey [Note: an earlier version of this article skipped the in-between steps, and we have updated for clarity]. This was a great series. A bit tragic, but at the same time it was cool to see a character who actually had to deal with a real world problem like paralysis, yet could still kick ass with the power of her brain. Oracle even made it into the JLA eventually, where she was a cool presence who once coordinated the entire world in helping defending the Earth against an evil sun.
2. Other Superheroes Return to Status Quo
It didn’t take Batman 20 years to recover from this.
The dream and the nightmare of comics is that everything you ever read will one day be retconned back to the basics by some editor who grew up reading the stuff that came before. Bucky and Jason Todd used to be the exceptions, but these days they run around like they never died in the first place. Hell, an alternate Gwen Stacy with superpowers is apparently catching on these days, so maybe after the big Marvel crossover she won’t have ever died either.
I guess we still have Uncle Ben, at least. Barbara Gordon, though, was paralyzed for over twenty years. That’s a long time, in comics or the real world. It was justified to an extent by making Batgirl into Oracle, but there’s really no evidence that was the intention at the time. In fact, most agree that Barbara was intended for nothing more than the trash heap at the time if not for the intervention of some comic creators that also seem to have watched Batman `66, such as Paul Dini. The point is that this was some pretty harsh treatment for a hero who had been around for quite some time and had better name recognition than a lot of other characters.
3. She Totally Got Jobbed, Man.
The iconic moment
Jobbing is a wrestling term that refers to a wrestler taking a fall to make another wrestler look better. It’s commonly seen in comic books as a way to make a new hero look good or for the crossover baddie of the year to look like he really can threaten the whole universe. It generally doesn’t stick very well, and it’s a good bet that the baddie who beat up Superman one year is getting slapped around by Blue Beetle four years later. This phenomenon really irritates the fanboy in me, as I like to think of the writers actually knowing and caring who can beat up who instead of just pulling it out of their collective asses.
The Killing Joke is probably the ultimate job. Barbara walks into a room in civvies and gets shot by the Joker out of nowhere. Of course, Barbara has fought the Joker multiple times over the years and has had dozens of guns pulled on her. This time she just looks surprised and gets shot. Is it fair? Sure, for a normal person, but Batgirl’s a goddamn superhero and should probably have options beyond just getting blasted like a normal person. Even if she were shot, I would expect some grimacing and heroic bleeding before a recovery in a few issues. Paralyzed for twenty years? Where did that come from?
4. She Was the Only Casualty
To Plot Immunity!
If you were to ask the Joker, The Killing Joke is about Commissioner Gordon and Batman. Barbara is literally collateral damage. His intention is to drive Batman and/or Gordon totally nuts by showing them the Worst Day Ever. It’s a little out of nowhere to have the Joker suddenly play Emperor Palpatine, but he’s a pretty random guy so I guess you can’t complain too much about the lack of a logical motivation. It’s also an idea with resonance that translates well to other properties. The Arkham Asylum video game and Dark Knight movie both use the same theme, arguably in a more refined but clearly inspired way.
It seems to be an utter failure, though. Batman goes back to being himself, as does Gordon. This is presented as a victory for the side of Good, which I guess it sort of is, but it still rubs me the wrong way. If The Killing Joke is this all-important story, why don’t we see Batman or Gordon showing the impact of it? After a while, they seem to forget about it, unless Barbara is mentioned. The focus of the story was on them, but it seems like it has retrospectively become a Barbara story instead of a Batman story. This is inaccurate and the mindset that results in the cover in question. Why should Batgirl be tied back to a story she is only in a few panels of, and not even as her heroic identity?
5. Creepy Sex Stuff
I’ll just leave this here.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A man is kidnapped by circus freaks wearing bondage gear who strip him naked, yanking off his pants and underwear as he begs them to stop. They put a leather collar around his neck and drag him around with a leash, forcing him to crawl on his belly and applying a cattle prod when he isn’t compliant. Crawling all over him, they drag him into room where he is forced to look at pictures of his daughter, also stripped naked. After this he is put in a cage and left there, naked and leashed.
So is Commissioner Gordon kidnapped by Joker here or someone from 120 Days of Sodom? I guess technically he’s never raped, although it’s pretty close and no one’s sure if it happened to Barbara. Regardless of that particular nuance, the fact is that Joker is significantly more squicky than usual thanks to his sudden usage of BDSM tropes and aims to humiliate people by stripping them naked. It’s not the worse thing I’ve ever seen, and it gives the story more punch. Still, it’s certainly a strange divergence for the Joker and something that maybe doesn’t need to be forever enshrined as part of Batgirl’s history, as it was pretty gratuitous even back in the day.
6. It Started a Never-Ending Escalation with Joker
A Joker-fied Superman because reasons.
In the current comics, we have Batman: Endgame. This features the Joker managing to infect Superman with some kind of Joker poison that makes him turn into an evil version of himself. He flies around destroying everything until Batman shows up to fight him in a mecha suit. I actually enjoyed this story arc, but it shows a problem with the modern Joker wherein whenever he does anything it has to be this super-huge and over the top thing that always is crazier than the last scheme. For a while ,Joker lost his face and now it looks like he’s some sort of devil or immortal, taking over the entire city of Gotham, appearing to have lived there since the city was founded.
To me this illustrates a problem with the Joker. His plans have to be so over-the-top and grandiose that they start to get really weird and ridiculous after a while. You lose the archenemy/two sides of the same coin approach between him and Batman because he effectively has the power levels of Superman when it comes to speed and planning. He becomes effectively a walking WMD, which makes you wonder how he’s still alive. In any semi-rational world, he would have been murdered a long time ago. He also has no real motivation. His motivation is just doing something really awesome to sell comic books. Who cares?
7. The new Creative Team Has Been Moving on
A Batgirl for the Millennial Generation
I have been reading the new Batgirl, and even though I don’t think I’m really the target audience, I’ve been enjoying it. Barbara seems like a super computer whiz who also fights crime and drives a motorcycle. She has a new costume and a new art style that are a lot of fun as well. I don’t really see how this is improved by dragging up the worst night of her life over and over again. I think maybe she can just be rebooted like everyone else in the New 52. Why can’t we just let Barbara be a superhero?
The new comic is also younger-reader friendly. It is one of the few I can recommend to my 13 year-old daughter, knowing that it will have a character that she will identify with and a tone that isn’t super-grim and weird, i.e. the exact opposite of the cover in question. As I said before, I enjoyed Birds of Prey, so I understand that grim can be good, but I don’t think it has to be an all-the-time thing. The Killing Joke was almost twenty years back, and it was preceded by The Dark Knight Returns and Death In the Family in the grim years of Batman. Although the dark Gotham is a great Gotham, I think we can tell some new stories now about new things.
8. It’s Just the Wrong Approach
He was better a few issues later.
When I look at the cover in question, it doesn’t trigger me. It doesn’t enrage me or make me want to post it on Tumblr. Hell, I even like it to some extent. The picture itself is well done, and for all that I’ve been slagging on The Killing Joke it’s still one of the greatest comics of all time. However, when I look at Barbara’s part in this event and the aftermath, it’s clear to me that it was just a cheap trick on DC’s part. The birth and rise of Oracle were a good result of this bad decision, but constantly calling back to it permanently makes Batgirl into a victim who might as well be named Hostage Girl.
This compares very poorly to basically any other superhero. One that comes to mind is Dick Grayson. Back in the really ancient days, Dick, Barbara and Batman were out patrolling the streets. When DIck was beaten half to death by the Crime Syndicate, instead of eating through a straw for the rest of his life, he bounced back to become a spy in his new series. Why? Because comics, that’s why. Same thing for Batman’s paralysis. He shrugged it off in a year or so. Like her compatriots, Barbara deserves a chance to bounce back once and for all, to stop perpetually being Joker’s #1 Victim because of a book from the ’80s that wasn’t even about her. I think that’s just common sense, and the creative team agrees with me, so why is this a controversy?