If there’s one constant over the last ten years of Batgirl stories, it’s DC revisiting the time that Joker paralyzed Barbara Gordon. In 2011, when the New 52 launched, it did so with Barbara back behind the cowl as Batgirl, something that hadn’t been seen since 1988 in Batgirl Special #1. The Killing Joke hit the stands only a week after that special, and Barbara’s life was irreversibly changed. Despite resetting their timeline, DC felt the need to keep this trauma a part of Barbara’s character, meaning that in a very brief tenure, she’d gone from Batgirl to Oracle and now back to Batgirl with a magical cure. For the third time since 2011, Batgirl #47 revisits her horrific night with the Joker, but is it better or worse than those other stories?
Andworld Design (letters), Jean-Francois Beaulieu (cover), Jordie Bellaire (colors), Giuseppe Camuncoli (cover), Cecil Castellucci (story), Robbi Rodriguez (art), Cam Smith (cover)
July 21, 2020
Before we dig into this one, let’s review what’s come before. There have been two previous times in current continuity that Barbara has had to relive the trauma visited upon her by the Joker. The first of these was during the “Death of the Family” event in the Batfamily books in 2012. This was a Joker-driven event where he was revisiting trauma on all members of the Batfamily, but there’s something more specific to the way he hurt Barbara. There’s cruelty, malice and misogyny baked into what he did to her and baked into the works of Alan Moore overall.
This was something that Gail Simone had to tackle in the main Batgirl title, from issues #14-16. In those issues, Batgirl first had to tackle her stress about the attack and then had to confront Joker himself. In the end, she fails to take down the Joker. Because it was a Batman event, of course, it had to come down to Batman to take him out. The result is a good story about working past trauma, but not a great Batgirl story overall because while she has agency in getting over the gunshot, she has none in the climax of the arc.
The next time we revisit the gunshot and the paralysis it’s in 2018 in Mairghread Scott’s “Art of the Crime.” This arc didn’t revolve around the Joker, which in turn gave Barbara more agency in the story. Instead, this arc revolved around her miracle cure breaking, leaving her to confront her paralysis all over again by having to relive it. I wound up disliking this arc, because it ties up her ability in magical machinery that can just short out at a writer’s whim to add drama to the story. It’s stupid, it’s trope-y, and it delegitimizes the character.
So there’s the first two. I’d be remiss not to briefly talk about the cover that set the internet on fire (and with good reason). In June 2015, DC did a series of Joker variant covers to celebrate his 75th anniversary. The problem was that when Rafael Albuquerque drew the Batgirl cover, he put Babs in yet another victimized position, and had the Joker dressed in the same outfit he was wearing when he shot her years prior. It elicited such a negative reaction that DC eventually pulled the cover, though other readers screamed about censorship.
Which brings us to this time around. Batgirl #47 is another tie-in to another Joker-centric Bat-family event. As one of the first books of “Joker War”, Cecil Castellucci and Robbi Rodriguez get to help set the stage for the event. This event hinges on Joker having rooted out all of Batman’s secrets, having stolen all of Bruce Wayne’s assets, and gaining a seemingly insurmountable upper hand.
Knowing Batman’s secrets, he’s able to pay Barbara a house call. And while the beginning of the fight goes her way, she quickly sees how deep the family is in it this time, when he pulls out a device that shorts out her magical implant. Turns out it’s a Wayne device, meant to control her implant if needed. So with it, he can make Barbara do whatever he wants, and while an exceedingly creepy concept, thankfully there’s a woman writer at the helm of this story, and nothing utterly terrible comes of it.
At the end of the issue, as Joker is trying to crack the last puzzle of Batman’s life, Barbara gets the upper hand on him by destroying her own implant to remove his control and give herself some agency back, and then impaling him with a chunk of rebar. The issue ends with both of them in pools of blood unable to move, but in the end, Babs was able to gain control of the situation and come out on top.
Now, this is just the beginning of the event, so we know Joker can’t be down and out, and we know it will be Bruce that eventually takes him down like always, but we’re left in a better situation here than we were in the previous stories. This is the last arc of this Batgirl series, and while not perfect, Batgirl #47 was better than previous attempts at telling a story like this. But can this be the last time we revisit The Killing Joke? Please?