The Killing Joke is touted as the “Definitive Joker Story,” and while it is certainly one of his darkest and most memorable chapters, it’s Barbara Gordon that is ultimately defined by the story. We’ve already talked about the disparity in consequences between the actual protagonists of the story, Batman and Jim Gordon, and its collateral damage, Barbara, but I feel as though it’s worth exploring this lesser known prologue to truly understand the scope of transformation this female character experienced during this time. In the 1988 Batgirl Special, also known as “The Last Batgirl Story,” Barbara Gordon is given a single comic issue to reach the conclusion that she no longer needs or desires to be Batgirl. The sad irony of her shedding her vigilantism only to be paralyzed by a known villain in her next appearance is unfortunate and unfair, so it goes; however, the foundation of her final story is made important by the woman who penned it.
In the early 1980s, a fan letter lamented the shallow depictions of female characters in DC comics and suggested that they hire female writers or artists to expand on said characters. Editor Dick Giordano casually, and perhaps innocently, replied in the editorial section of a comic that hiring women wouldn’t make a difference. He later received a ten page response from reader Barbara Randall (later Barbara Kesel) who countered his assumptions that women writers were unnecessary. Giordano responded to Kesel with a job offer, and Kesel went on to pen various Batgirl stories, including some mini adventures in Detective Comics, a Secret Origins installment, the Batgirl Special, and later, the wonderfully subversive Elseworlds Finest: Supergirl and Batgirl.
Prior to the New 52, Barbara Gordon didn’t have an ongoing title as Batgirl outside of various one-shots and limited series. Because she was more of a minor character, one of the goals Giordano asked of Kesel when it came time to pen the Batgirl Special was to make readers “give a hoot” about Barbara getting her spine shot out by the Joker in the upcoming The Killing Joke. Squeezing in an ample amount of character development, justifying Barbara’s decision to ditch her cape and cowl, and establishing a cohesive story arc in a single issue was a tall order; the comic ends up uneven and frustrating. Despite this hit and miss result, there are notable feminist themes and experimentation on Kesel’s part that make me wish she had been granted an entire series, though she knocks it out of the park later with her stint in Elseworlds.
The plot of the Batgirl Special is immensely complicated and darkly ironic. Barbara has been struggling for more than a year with the memory of being shot by a misogynistic villain called Cormorant (which, being from Florida, makes me want to picture this, but he actually looks like this). Barbara explains that when Cormorant nearly killed her, he took away her innocence, and the fact that she literally uses the word “innocence” makes the metaphor of him violating her with bullets pretty clear. The trauma of being shot by this villain comes flooding back when a man’s body with a knife in its back and a hat that looks eerily like Cormorant’s turns up in the library where she works. She immediately assumes that this is the work of her attempted killer and puts her detective skills to work to find him. Once Batgirl starts sniffing around some recent illegal activities, however, a crime boss decides she’s a liability that needs to be dealt with and hires a man that seems perfect for the job: Cormorant.
Unfortunately, Barbara was completely wrong in her assumptions about the body in the library. The man’s actual killer is a vigilante called Slash, who, in her one and only comic book appearance, enacts vengeance upon men who have committed acts of violence against women without consequence. We first meet Slash as she puts her arm around a man on a crowded sidewalk and stabs him, making him walk along with her while she twists a knife in his gut and explains she just killed him because of the wrongs he had done against women. She’s in a trench coat, and it’s not until she ducks into an alley and disrobes that she’s actually revealed to be a woman. Slash is flashy and heavy-handed in her message to the media and men. She leaves notes explaining that she doesn’t want to kill, but it’s a necessity, because if no one else will do it, “then I must. I am justice. I am the hand that delivers womankind from fear with a single slash.” Slash could have remained a more peripheral character were it not for yet another plot twist in which Cormorant’s battered wife hires her to kill her husband, bringing Slash and Batgirl to Cormorant’s doorstep at the same time.
In the midst of these tangled plotlines, Barbara is starting to wonder if she even wants to be Batgirl anymore. This is brought on by her childhood friend, Marcy, who was introduced in Kesel’s Secret Origins #20, showing up at Barbara’s apartment and berating her for endangering her life as a vigilante. While I believe Marcy was meant to be a voice of reason, she comes off as patronizing as she lectures Barbara and puts doubts in her head about her own lifestyle choices. Marcy’s points are insufferably justified later when every cry for help on Gotham streets is answered by another caped hero before Batgirl can get to the scene. Then, when Batgirl attempts to protect a man believed to be Slash’s next target, she is stabbed by the vengeful vigilante and falls off a roof while trying to give chase. Barbara officially gives up and dramatically flops at Marcy’s feet yelling “I quit!” and deciding to retire Batgirl as soon as she deals with Cormorant.
I take issue with this explanation for Barbara quitting Batgirl, not just because of the type of character I believe her to be, but because of the character Kesel herself established in the Secret Origins story. As children, Barbara and Marcy loved costumed heroes and spent hours coming up with female counterparts, including “Batgirl,” for the men they admired. Inspired by her police Commissioner father and Batman, not only does she take up the mantle she invented as a child, she graduates college as a teenager and serves a term in Congress. Let that sink in. Barbara was so remarkably intelligent and driven to fix the world around her that she became a Congresswoman when she was barely twenty years old, and yet she let’s her friend convince her that she’s not needed on the streets of Gotham. It’s a forced plotline that seems to exist only to wrap up her story before she’s paralyzed, and it’s a characterization that only looks worse when contrasted with the vigilante Slash.
In the Batgirl Special’s denouement, Slash and Batgirl show up at Cormorant’s house, Slash to kill him and Batgirl to take him to the police. The three of them get into an almost hilarious juggling act of a fight where Slash tries to kill Cormorant, while Cormorant tries to kill Batgirl, and Batgirl tries to stop both of them while dealing with the fact that, due to her no-kill code, she has to protect her attacker from a woman who wants to protect her. Batgirl finally has a moment where she’s so tired of being afraid of Cormorant that’s she’s able to fight him hand to hand, but she’s powerless when he pulls a gun on her and is only spared when Slash shoots him in the head before passing out from a blow dealt by the very person she saved. Barbara decides this is a job, perhaps not well done, but at least done, as cops wheel away an unconscious Slash. She returns home to show Marcy that she’s taken off her costume for the last time, and the comic ends with an unsettling ad for The Killing Joke.
While I can’t speak for the author, Slash feels more like the character Kesel truly wanted to write. Slash is never unmasked, so she remains (to this day, actually) a very striking symbol that emerged in comics during a time that the industry didn’t necessarily take into consideration their female readership. She gives off the same fuck-the-patriarchy vibe that satisfies my noncompliant hunger currently quelled by Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet (disclaimer: I do not believe you should murder people in order to fuck the patriarchy). However, Slash creates a bit of a problem in this particular story, because she’s the one who ultimately stops the villain and saves Batgirl. Barbara is as passive a character in her own final issue as she is in TKJ, and while she’s written more as a person, her actions are contradictory when you consider Kesel’s other work.
I’d like to think that’s it’s from the ashes of Slash and this particular characterization of Barbara Gordon that we get my favorite version of Batgirl in Barbara Kesel’s Elseworlds Finest: Supergirl and Batgirl. In this universe, it’s Barbara Gordon’s parents and not Bruce Wayne’s who are gunned down by Joe Chill when Jim Gordon steps in to save the Waynes in the alley behind the theater. The Wayne family adopts Barbara, and she uses their resources to become a gritty Batgirl who refuses to work with another costumed hero, even to the point of banning the Justice Society from her city. The reason I love this version of Batgirl is because she isn’t an inferior female counterpart and she’s isn’t defined by a man; she’s the original and only protector of Gotham. Her strength comes through even in her costume design which, for the 90s, is actually very streamlined, although she couldn’t escape some pointy metal shoulder armor; her cowl even covers her hair, further muting her defining feminine qualities and making her look as dark and powerful as Batman. Because Bruce never dealt with the trauma of losing his parents, he becomes the goofy playboy he always pretended to be in canon mythology. He also becomes Barbara’s Alfred and the two carry on a refreshing platonic friendship and respect for one another.
The Elseworlds Batgirl isn’t gendered or typical in any way, and the fact that this is a version of Barbara Gordon dreamed up by Barbara Kesel feels like a win after the problematic Batgirl Special. Despite the uneven portrayal of the character immediately prior to TKJ, I appreciate that Kesel often chose to write Barbara at a computer utilizing complicated digital resources. These hyper intelligent and tech-savvy traits may have informed the character for her later incarnation as Oracle, and it is for that reason that I hold dear Kesel’s work at this time in comics. Kesel even gets a shot at writing Oracle in the Hawk & Dove series she wrote with her then husband, Karl. In issue 24, Barbara, now in a wheelchair, asks Hawk and Dove to help her take down a villain that Kesel introduced in her first Batgirl adventures in the back of Detective Comics #518-519. It’s a victory lap for a woman with an incredibly unique start in comics.
While I remain a fan of The Killing Joke, I understand why so many readers find it troublesome for Barbara Gordon. It victimizes a female character and completely alters her entire life in a comic that really has nothing to do with her. It’s brutal and unjust due to the fact that it was an attempt to push the boundaries of Batman’s most sadistic villain, and the consequences stick because it’s a story that the DC universe treats as canon. The current run of Batgirl under Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr is vibrant and empowering and written with a younger audience in mind, but it’s also simply one chapter in a hundred featuring yet another incarnation of Batgirl. Barbara Gordon’s evolution post-TKJ has been incredibly dynamic and meaningful for so many readers, and it’s empowering to realize that this is due in part to the themes put in place by an early female writer who was charged with the task of making people care about a woman being victimized for the sake of someone else’s plotline.