The Redemption of Batgirl: When “The Killing Joke” Stopped Being Funny
On March 13th, DC Comics released a preview of 25 Joker-themed variant covers for their June books to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the character. Included in those covers was a variant cover for Batgirl #41 by artist Rafael Albuquerque.
Within hours of the Batgirl cover being released, critics were rallying around the hashtag #ChangeTheCover. As the pressure to change the cover gathered steam, the inevitable backlash from fans who liked the cover started up, leading to — I am not making this up — death threats towards people who were critical of the cover.
Three days after the cover was unveiled, Albuquerque issued a statement that he was requesting that DC cancel the cover and DC complied.
So why was this cover so controversial?
On the surface level, critics argued that the cover portrays Batgirl as a victim. She is paralyzed with fear. A tear is welling in her eye. It denies Batgirl her sense of agency. Ms. Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson summed up the feelings of many fans.
Batgirl is not a hero on that cover. She's a victim. She's terrified. She's being physically restrained. It looks like a snuff film.
— G. Willow Wilson (@GWillowWilson) March 17, 2015
But although the cover is problematic on its own, many viewers were even more upset at the story that it referenced: The Killing Joke.
The Killing Joke
The Killing Joke is a 1988 graphic novel written by industry legend Alan Moore and drawn by British illustrator Brian Bolland. Although flawed, it is widely considered one of the greatest Joker stories ever told.
But as great as the story is at exploring the origins of the Joker and exploring the twisted relationship he has with Batman, there is one character that was almost unbelievably slighted by the plot: Barbara Gordon a.k.a. Batgirl.
In The Killing Joke, the Joker is convinced that all it takes is “one really bad day” to drive anyone crazy He attempts to prove his point by shooting Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, Barbara, in the spine — paralyzing her — then takes nude photos of her bloodied and writhing in pain, and displays them to Commissioner Gordon in an attempt to drive him insane with grief. Although it is not explicitly stated in the text, many fans assume that Barbara was raped as well.
Barbara Gordon was Batgirl at the time, yet she was summarily dispatched by the Joker with a single shot to the spine in a way that would be hard to imagine happening to a male hero. It is a classic example of the “Women In Refrigerators” syndrome — where a female character is murdered, raped or otherwise brutalized just to provide cheap motivation to the male characters.
In interview with Wizard magazine, even Moore admitted that crippling Batgirl in such a cavalier fashion was likely a mistake. “I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon – who was Batgirl at the time – and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project … [He] said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.’ It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.”
I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project … [He] said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.’
After The Killing Joke, writer Kim Yale discussed how distasteful she found the treatment of Barbara Gordon with her husband, fellow comic writer John Ostrander. Together Yale and Ostrander decided to redeem the character.
They played up Barbara’s computer skills, near photographic memory and genius-level intellect to reinvent Barbara as “Oracle,” a wheelchair-bound computer hacker who fed important intelligence to the secret government superteam, the Suicide Squad — a book Ostrander was writing at the time. Oracle was eventually revealed as Barbara Gordon and she was officially offered a place on the team in Suicide Squad #48.
In the following years, Oracle made guest appearances across the DC universe, acting as an information broker and computer consultant for law enforcement and superheroes alike. Eventually she formed and ran her own superhero team Birds of Prey.
A Lasting Wound
In 2011, DC comics “rebooted” their entire universe in an event called “The New 52.” Billed as a way to erase years of complex continuity and give their heroes a “fresh start.” To that end, Barbara Gordon was Batgirl once again.
But while most heroes were given a completely clean slate, one event from Batgirl’s past was kept: she was shot, paralyzed and sexually assaulted by the Joker. The books opens after Barbara receives experimental surgery and regains the use of her legs, and restarts her crime-fighting career.
Writer Gail Simone started the New 52 run of Batgirl, by initially showing Barbara suffering from the aftereffects of The Killing Joke. “[Barbara is] one of the smartest and toughest women in comics … One thing the book is truly about, is that the after-effects of something like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or other trauma-related syndromes, can strike even very smart, very intellectually tough people, even soldiers and cops.”
Batgirl eventually overcomes her fears in a dramatic confrontation with the Joker where she exacts a measure of revenge, and puts The Killing Joke completely behind her.
The Batgirl of Burnside
After Simone’s run on Batgirl ended, DC decided to go in yet another direction with the character, and created “The Batgirl of Burnside.” This version of the character was more youthful and far less grim. Designed to attract a younger, female audience — the book had Barbara move to the hip and trendy Burnside suburb of Gotham and re-enter college.
It’s basically an all-ages book designed to be light and fun; and to provide an entry point for new readers — particularly new female readers. Putting a cover referencing a 27-year-old sexual assault of Barbara Gordon on the cover of the current Batgirl, makes zero sense.
Back to the Cover
Superheroes are injured or killed all the time. Spider-Man lost his “Spidey Sense” after a gas attack by the Green Goblin. Batman had his spine broken by Bane. Superman was killed by Doomsday. The difference between these male heroes and Batgirl: After short periods of time, the male heroes all got better. Barbara Gordon remained a paraplegic for 23 years.
More importantly, those moments of defeat do not define the character. Batman does not have nightmares about Bane. Superman is not paralyzed by fear when he encounters Doomsday again. But the editors and writers at DC have historically made Barbara carry the scars of her victimization at the hands of the Joker in a way that male heroes do not.
Which brings us back to the variant cover that caused all the strife on the Internet. Rafael Albuquerque, the artist who created the controversial cover, was asked to create a cover referencing Batgirl, the Joker and The Killing Joke by the marketing department at DC. As a point of fact, they rejected his first proposal because it was “not disturbing enough.”
The current creative team on the book had no idea that this cover was in the works. When they saw it, they did not want it. After talking to them, Albuquerque agreed that it was in poor taste and did not match the content of the book.
Does that mean that we can “no longer show female heroes in danger,” as some supporters of the cover are claiming? No. It does not. We show female heroes in danger all the time. It simply means we should not show them as passive victims
Here’s the cover to the superlative Gotham Central by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark. Here we see the Batman villain Two-Face holding a gun to the head of Detective Renee Montoya and caressing her in a creepy manner. It’s an almost perfect duplicate of the variant Batgirl cover that had people so upset.
So what is the difference? Unlike Batgirl, Montoya is not paralyzed with fear. On the contrary, she looks pissed. There is no doubt that at the first opportunity, she is going to kick Two-Face’s ass. She is not a powerless victim, but a temporarily down hero, looking for an opportunity for revenge.
One anonymous Internet poster suggested that the Batgirl variant could be fixed by simply changing the expression on Barbara’s face.
If you want a good Batgirl cover referencing the Joker, you need to look no further than last week’s Batgirl: Endgame, also drawn by Rafael Albuquerque . The Joker’s smile is hinted at by a smear of blood across Batgirl’s face — but instead of looking beaten, she looks tough and ready to continue the fight.
Same artist. Same hero. Same villain. Different feel.
Rafael Albuquerque was not “censored” by Internet critics who asked for a different cover. In fact by that metric, DC “censored” his initial artistic vision by rejecting it and asking for a “darker” version of the Batgirl interacting with the Joker.
Albuquerque was commissioned to do a cover by the marketing team without the input of the current creators of Batgirl. The cover he produced referenced a problematic story from Batgirl’s past that would confuse and alienate her current, younger readership.
After listening to the criticism of the cover from fans and the creators of the book, Albuquerque had second thoughts. But what really appeared to bring bring the issue to a head were the death threats that supporters of his cover started issuing to critics. Their anger was so disproportionate to any perceived wrong that Albuquerque and DC had almost no choice but to nip it in the bud.
In essence, the people issuing death threats to silence critics of the cover, ensured that DC and the artist would pull it. They Internet bullies did it to themselves.
While this cover might make sense for a collection of great Joker stories, it makes no sense as the cover of a book celebrating Batgirl. And it appears that the most vocal critics of this decision are people who do not read the current run of Batgirl. They are not the audience or the target demographic, yet they are upset that their viewpoint is not being catered to.
The very crowd that bristled at the notion that they were all sweaty nerds with socialization problems who live in their parents basements and who clamored for mainstream society to read comics and evaluate them as a legitimate artform now has to live with the consequence that they are no longer the only voice that comic book publishers listen to.
For the record, that’s actually a good thing. Comics will be better and stronger as a result.
And just to leave on a positive note, last week’s Batgirl “Purple Rain” variant cover by Cliff Chiang was absolutely brilliant.