Batgirl, The Killing Joke and Criticism

Batgirl #14. Written by Gail Simone. Art by Ed Benes and Daniel Sampere. DC Comics. Batgirl. Barbara Gordon. 2012.

People much smarter than I have explained again and again why The Killing Joke‘s treatment of Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl is terrible. Sue from DC Women Kicking Ass has written a great piece about it. It’s a story that has nothing to do with her as an active character. She’s used as a tool to hurt the men in her life (her father, James Gordon, and Batman) by getting shot by the Joker which results in her paralysis from the waist down as well as being sexually abused (via sexual torture at best, sexual assualt at worst). This particular scene had been revisited as a flashback again and again and again before Gail Simone turned it into a moment where Barbara was finally in control. In issue #14 of the New 52 Batgirl, Barbara Gordon confronted her trauma and got to reshape it in a way that gave her agency over it.

Barbara is and has always been a survivor. And it was only last year that she finally got an opportunity to tackle her fear head on. So you can understand why this June variant angers a lot of people (myself included):

Batgirl Variant June Cover. 2015. DC Comics. Art by Rafael Abuquerque.

Yes, we’re back here again. It seems like DC refuses to let her move on from this event and is hellbent on having it define her. The tears in her eyes and sheer terror on her face are paired up with a Joker taken right out of The Killing Joke and it freaks me the fuck out. Not only does it give fresh power to a story that dehumanized Barbara as a tragic prop piece, but it also sends the message that no matter how powerful and kickass a heroine Batgirl is, she’ll always be “crippled” by this.

This is undermining what you’ve been doing with the character since the New 52 started, DC.

Alas, I’m just being a Fredric Wertham according to this tweet by an illustrator under the employ of DC Comics. Dismissal of these critiques as nothing more than censorship is ridiculous and inaccurate! Censorship is examining media with the purpose of supressing it if deemed immoral, political, etc. When people like myself comment on a piece of media, that act is a fundamental part of the engagement that all media is subjected to. That’s how we consume it.

We critics are not supressing the cover. We’re explaining why the cover is harmful in the context of a publisher trying to bring in and retain female readers. We’re explaining why this cover will alienate many readers. We are well within our rights to call for a change, just like DC Comics is well within its rights to ignore us, because that’s how it works.

That’s not censorship. That’s journalism.

In the last few days, criticism has been met with accusations of CENSORSHIP and BULLYING on Twitter lately. It astounds me that the people who take issue with dissenting voices are the same ones who would be taken aback if their opinions and criticisms were thrown into the wind like an old plastic bag down a deserted street. Disregarding issues people have of an image or topic as nothing more than “call out culture,” “bullying,” and “angry internet mobs,” is reductive, condescending, and, quiet frankly, insulting to someone who has to constantly point out racism, islamophobia or sexism in her daily life.

There are vile human beings on the internet, just like in life. How about we parse out legitimate criticism from the vitrol. If you’re too lazy to do that, then that’s probably why you were called out in the first place.

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Ardo Omer

Ardo Omer

Former WWAC editor. Current curmudgeon and Batman's personal assistant. Icon art by Diana Sim.

12 thoughts on “Batgirl, The Killing Joke and Criticism

  1. I understand some of your point. But labeling Barbra as a set-piece used to hurt the men in her life dehumanizes her. Seeing it as an event that happens to a character, who then grows to overcome it, first by becoming a freaking genius supporting Batman and the Birds of Prey, and then becoming a crime fighting heroine again does not dehumanize her. It is an event in Barbra’s life. A traumatic one, and a terrible one, but one that happens to her by a horrific and psychotic character. It’s not there to define her as an object, it is there to set up character development.

    In that case the events in Death of the Family would dehumanize the entire Bat-family in order to set something up for Batman. In reality it is something that a terrible character (the Joker) puts in place as part of his character development and it affects all the characters involved.

    You are causing her to be defined by this event by labeling her as an object rather than seeing her character development from the event. It is an important, memorable and iconic event in comic book history. Let the artists and DC pay tribute to that.

    1. But that’s how Barbara is framed in The Killing Joke. The story was not about her, or her feelings, she had no story in The Killing Joke. She was a set piece, a plot device.

      Now Oracle, and her transformation as it were into the character, was about her. The entire Oracle arc was about her, her regaining her agency that was stolen (or rather ignored) in The Killing Joke and finding recovery. The arc of Oracle can be traced back to The Killing Joke, but I wouldn’t say that’s her origin. Because The Killing Joke only serves to reduce her to an object to be tortured. What followed was writers trying to give her back her agency as a character, but The Killing Joke wasn’t a setup for that.

      Similar to how Death in the Family wasn’t a setup for Jason becoming the Red Hood. You could say DitF is his Red Hood origin story, but it’s not really. Because that wasn’t the story’s intention. DitF was a story about inability to replace Dick as Robin due to his own street kid origins, and how his apparent failure as a Robin was really a failure on Batman’s part. But it was never meant to setup Jason becoming the Red Hood in that it wasn’t the stories intention for Jason to come back years later and become the character he did.

      Same with The Killing Joke. It wasn’t the intention of the story for Babs to become Oracle, or Batgirl in N52. The intention was to use her as a means to emotionally torture Gordon and further test Batman.

      Now there are ways to invert the story so that Babs has agency again, but placing her on a cover where she’s cowering isn’t it. A simple reversal where she’s looking angry, or ready to fight back, as she would have after her recovery (which is where her character is at currently recovery and what she’s best known for by most of her fans). The cover and criticism of DC is based in the fact it keeps reducing her to a victim — not a hero. In The Killing Joke that’s all she was, a victim, an object, and homages like the cover reduce her back to that because they’re not showcasing her in any positive light. She’s scared, she’s broken, she’s being reduced to her part in The Killing Joke which was her being an object.

      They can still pay homages to the story because I do believe The Killing Joke is a great story, one of Batman’s best, but this isn’t the way to go about it. I’ve seen fan edits that tweak the cover just a bit by making her looking ready to fight the Joker, defend herself, or wiping away the smear of bloody Joker smile from her face that do the job of paying homage without reducing her to a victim much better than the cover at hand. Pay the homage yes I can see that, but don’t do so in a way that reduces Babs to a victim once more, instead show her growth, her recovery, who she is now as a character — not the object she was presented as in The Killing Joke.

      1. I’m interested in how you could mention Jason Todd and not bring up the parallels to own he was victimized. We never call Jason a prop and a set piece to be used to hurt Batman.
        And my biggest thing is SO WHAT! So what that the story went the way it did. Technically, if Gordon had a son (as popular as Barbara) that son would have been the victim in this scenario. So many traumatic things happen to all these male and female characters. It happens that way to show add realism into these fantastic stories that the hero will not always win and will not always be dominant. Sometimes they will be tested.
        This cover is circumstantial because Batgirl and Joker’s specific relationship is defined by the events of that story so the cover actually makes perfect sense.
        I’m sure the cover for any Red Hood book would have featured a crowbar (or a Red Hood) somewhere.

        It almost seems that the only way for this whole issue to be satisfied is if no female character ever gets victimized from now on. Men are fair game I guess. But shouldn’t things be equal?

        1. But things aren’t equal. You’re coming from a place where the world treats men and women equally but that’s a world I’m unfamiliar with since it doesn’t exist. SHOULD things be equal? Yes. ARE things equal? No. You’re working with a pie that’s 100% while I’m working with a pie that’s 25%. I can’t come at this from a SHOULD because the ACTUALLY is what affects me everyday. Female characters don’t get treated the same as their male counterparts do and if you take the time to listen and looking into the issue before inserting yourself and experiences into a situation that isn’t about Y.O.U. then you’ll never see that. I love flawed women who are pushed because it means three dimensional. I don’t like it when female characters so overly violated and punished in a way that you don’t see with male characters. I don’t like it when female characters have things happen TO them that they aren’t actively participating. ACTIVE. The should is what I strive for when I write pieces like this. So yeah. Let’s go with “Men are fair game” because the game was rigged to make shit easy for them.

          1. Ok what the hell was all that? I am not coming from some fantasy world where things are equal at all because hello, I don’t live in that world either.
            But the fact that men and women are victimized in comic books (stories in general) but there is only outrage (false inflated or real) when it happens to female characters is very real.
            And you talk about this real unfair world that you live in you should understand this world isn’t nice so yes fucked up shit will happen to people in these stories.
            That cover is perfectly fine and I find all this fake controversy over the top. There are real examples of sexism out there and this is not one of them.
            I am not some soulless monster who is indifferent to the plight of women and specifically the events of the Killing Joke. I’m just able to accept it as the narrative. And (because I’m sure you’re a psychologist) that does not mean I accept or condone violence against women. I just don’t object to it potentially happening in stories. Because the opposite where we handle women with kid gloves and only treat them like you think it should be would be ridiculous. There are countless stories where bad shit happens to good people MALE and FEMALE. That’s just how it is.
            The fact that this cover ‘freaks you the fuck out’, while I have to respect your opinion, that’s just waay to much energy to give this cover.
            And to all the people that are up in arms about what happened to Barbara way back when, because she was a ‘prop’ or a ‘tool’ used to hurt the men in her life why are you pissed? THAT’S FINE!!!! Yes! she absolutely was used to hurt her father. That’s the narrative of the freakin story!!! Just like Jason Todd was beaten to death so that it would hurt Batman. And just like all the other stories (that I can’t name because the world’s isn’t fair) where the reverse happens because it certainly has in female led comics I’ve read.
            Have we never seen a story where someone used a loved one to hurt another? We’re dealing with villains here. Villains that do terrible things to hurt their target. Now we can argue that women are used in this way more than men but it still does go both ways.

            And I guess the solution is, instead of making a big deal over a cover that wasn’t created with any malice, not even unintentionally, we should campaign for more men to be used as tools and props. Right?

            What is the solution?

        2. Search “Jason Todd” in our archives and you’ll find something to answer your qualms.

    2. I’ll just say that The Killing Joke didn’t create Oracle. It created a circumstance for Oracle to exist. Big difference. The creative team behind the Barbara Gordon becoming Oracle storyline were unhappy in how Barbara was treated in The Killing Joke so they gave the character power after she was stripped of it and they did so wonderfully. It’s like saying we should be happy a bad thing happened because a good thing came out of it. The bad thing still sucks and the good thing was created by people who didn’t want to support the bad. So if we’re going around giving credit for Oracle, it won’t be to Alan Moore but to Kim Yale and John Ostrander.

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