Spoiler warning for Batgirl #49.
Crisis alert! A popular character has been shot and now their fanbase is unhappy, what do we do next?
This was the conundrum DC Comics faced in 1988, fresh after the release of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, a comic where Barbara Gordon was shot (and sexually assaulted in some vague way) by the Joker. Barbara was paralyzed from the waist down and was no longer able to be the high flying, acrobatic Batgirl. Fans of the character were obviously not thrilled, and the folks at DC had a decision to make as to how they were going to proceed.
First off, let me say, that objectively, The Killing Joke is a good comic. It’s a good Batman comic, it’s a good Joker comic, it does a good job expressing one interpretation of the relationship between Batman and the Joker (and to a lesser extent, Commissioner Gordon). It is also a problematic comic, because it was one example in a long line of situations where female characters were either injured, assaulted, or killed off in the name of causing emotional pain to further a male character’s arc. Batgirl was arguably the most prominent female character to experience this, which made DC’s response at the time all the more critical.
They had a couple options. With the media of comics as it is, a series of stories about the same characters being told by different people, it is an inevitability that comics need to find solutions to perceived problems within stories. Most responses can be boiled down to two particular methods: Write Around, or Undo.
Because comics’ rely so heavily upon continuity, Writing Around a problem is typically the most common response. A character dies and audiences show they want that character back? The response is typically to resurrect them in some way. The death still happened, but we still get to play with that character again, and sometimes we even use their brush with death to tell more unique stories about them. This is typically how it goes, and the first time DC tried to fix the problem with The Killing Joke, this was the option they chose.
It’s here that we should point out that it wasn’t really DC as a company that was trying to fix this problem. In fact, The Killing Joke wasn’t originally intended to have major repercussions in the DC Universe, but when Moore asked for permission to cripple Barbara Gordon, editor Len Wein glibly consented. DC showed little interest in doing anything about Barbara Gordon after the story, so when Kim Yale and John Ostrander picked up the character and decided to run with her, they were more or less acting on their own. Says Ostrander, “My late wife, Kimberly Yale, and I were not crazy about how Barbara was treated in The Killing Joke. Since the Batman office had no further plans for her at the time, we got permission to use Barbara in Suicide Squad.” As a character in the Suicide Squad, Barbara was developed by Yale and Ostrander into the wheelchair bound super hacker Oracle, putting her once more on the superhero front. Oracle would go on to be an immensely popular character, forming major partnerships with Batman, the Justice League, and eventually founding and headlining her own team comic, the Birds of Prey. She has frequently been cited as being stronger as Oracle than she ever was or could be as Batgirl.
This made it somewhat odd that 22 years later, DC would once more attempt to go back and fix the problem. As part of the 2011 line wide reboot the New 52, Barbara Gordon was made to walk again. The approach this time was similarly a Write Around for the issues presented in The Killing Joke; they established that about three years after the comic, Barbara underwent an experimental procedure to implant a microchip in her spine that allowed her the use of her legs again. The decision was met with decidedly mixed results.
Many fans of Barbara Gordon took issue with The Killing Joke’s use of Gordon as a plot device in a story about Batman, the Joker, and Commissioner Gordon; that her sexual assault and mutilation were done in the name of advancing Batman’s story, not hers. While the decision to let this happen had never set particularly well with fans of hers, the events after the story that put Barbara back on the map in a way she never had been before, and her transformation into Oracle were widely accepted and beloved. It also gave Barbara a path into the hearts of a new demographic: the differently abled. Batgirl might have been one of the less common representatives of women in comics, but Oracle was one of the even rarer representatives of disabled persons serving as superheroes (rarer still, a superhero with a disability who did not have superpowers that negated their disability). For DC to undo Oracle, to take that representation away, and yet still maintain that the Joker’s attack on Barbara was canon (and in fact, for them to double down on how important that attack was and how much they reminded the audience of it), was not just a baffling decision, it was quite possibly the most insulting way they could try to resolve the issue.
And that leads us to today. The current Batgirl creative team of Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher, and Babs Tarr have decided to return to this ongoing issue and resolve it in their own way, and for once, that solution is to Undo. When undoing a problem in comics, writers have a number of options. Reboots, time travel, magic, and even the occasional deal with the devil can make it so a story simply never happened, and the unwanted effects of that story just disappear. In Batgirl’s case, the writers chose a mind altering supervillain who was revealed to have implanted false memories in Barbara’s brain. As Barbara expelled the false memories, several images of her life are shown, including sequences from The Killing Joke.
Now, it’s worth noting here that the creative team for Batgirl have stressed that this is not an official erasure of the story, it is meant to be ambiguous, to be decided by each individual reader. “One of the things we intended for this issue was for it to be read in several ways, depending on your own interpretation and/or preference. I believe that an individual’s subjective interpretation of a work of art can matter as much as the artist’s intent,” says Cameron Stewart, “This is, I think, an unusual concept for the superhero genre, where material is often strictly deemed canonical or “real,” or not. There’s no right, and no wrong, way to read that page.” Considering The Killing Joke still has its fans, the writers took the diplomatic way of implying that the story may not have happened.
And here’s the deal with The Killing Joke in our day and age: there isn’t really a good reason for it to be considered canon anymore, anyway. I said earlier that it is a good expression of one interpretation of the relationship between Batman and the Joker, but there are still many, many other interpretations of how those characters relate to one another. While Moore and Bolland’s version might have strongly influenced the next 20 years of comics and how Batman and the Joker were treated by many of the writers and stories in that time, it will always be a constantly updating relationship, one that had more or less taken a completely different turn in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman run in the New 52. If the single most impressive part of The Killing Joke is the relationship it explores between its hero and villain, it’s worth noting that that interpretation is no longer the currently prominent understanding, and it hasn’t been in a while. The other major result of the comic was the creation of Oracle, and that was something DC undid at the start of the New 52. Independent of its quality as a comic and its problem with the treatment of female characters, The Killing Joke kind of doesn’t have a place in the current continuity anymore, so Stewart and Fletcher’s decision to (imply) erase it really isn’t that big of a deal. It’s also not really the most satisfying solution to the problem.
DC’s recent reactions to the paralyzing of Barbara as a perceived problem operate on a single, fatal flaw: the idea that the paralysis was the problem. Barbara being shot by the Joker, Barbara being sexually assaulted by the Joker, were not inherently the problem with the story; the problem was the fact that it wasn’t her story. The problem was the fact that the character of Barbara was being attacked and traumatized as a means of advancing Batman’s story (and the Joker’s story, and Commissioner Gordon’s story; really, everyone’s story but hers). Her story was simply expected to end, and Batgirl as a character was simply expected to stop being a part of comics. DC had been attempting this for a while.
The Bronze Age of comics saw DC trying to shed its perception of goofiness (perhaps best illustrated by the Adam West Batman show, for the sake of which Barbara Gordon was originally created), and in many cases that meant slowly shedding characters that weren’t considered mature enough to continue. Batwoman and her partner, Bat-Girl, would retire, Ace the Bat-Hound would be seen less and less, and in 1973, Barbara Gordon unmasked herself to her father and successfully ran for Congress. As awesome as Congresswoman Batgirl is, the result was Batgirl’s backup stories in Batman comics being replaced by backup stories for Jason Bard, and appearances of Batgirl in action being dropped way, way down. Even though her history survived DC’s 1985 reboot Crisis on Infinite Earths, in 1988 she was officially retired as Batgirl in Barbara Kessel’s Batgirl Special No. 1. The Killing Joke would run later that same year, but by that point DC had already demonstrated their intent to remove Barbara from the superhero picture entirely. The problem wasn’t just The Killing Joke and its attack on Barbara, it was in DC’s desire to wave away a popular female character, and many other female characters at the time, like Batwoman, who was retired and then murdered by the League of Assassins (editor Dennis O’Neil said in an interview, “We already had Batgirl, we didn’t need Batwoman”), and Supergirl, who was killed in action in Crisis on Infinite Earths.
This is what made Yale and Ostrander’s solution in the pages of Suicide Squad the best answer to this problem to date. They didn’t attempt to remedy the crippling of a popular character, but instead addressed the real issue: the lack of respect that that character, and most female characters, and by extension female audiences were receiving. Their solution was to give Barbara the respect she deserved. They didn’t gloss over what had happened to her, but instead recontextualized it. With the creation of Oracle and the chronicling of her response to her injury and subsequent disability, they put all the focus squarely on Barbara Gordon and how she was dealing. The Killing Joke was no longer just a Batman story, it was an origin story for a brand new superhero, whether it was intended to be or not.
Comics will always have problems. Sometimes those problems are boring story arcs, sometimes those problems are the unnecessary deaths of characters that are instantly regretted by writers and audiences alike, and sometimes those problems are the systemic devaluing of groups of characters (and the audience demographics they represent). But as long as comics have problems, creative teams will always have opportunities to find interesting, unique ways of solving these problems. It would be wise to remember that the best solutions don’t always come from simply erasing problematic events or stories, but to root out the source of the problems and use them as springboards into brave new waters.