Batgirl: DC’s Real Killing Joke

Tom is with us today to talk about Batgirl, The Killing Joke, and how seemingly disrespectful editorial mandate can be to established quality lore.


Comics are not a medi­um where the terms “sta­tus quo” or “log­ic” ap­ply. In fact, one thing fans keep in mind is that this is a medi­um where real change is rare and of­ten un­done at the drop of a hat. Any change can, and will, be un­done with time. Don’t be­lieve me? Go ahead and Google how many times Jean Grey has died and come back to life. Marvel just threw their hands over their heads and said “Ah, fuck it, she’s got a pri­mal force of life and cre­ation in her” to hand-wave it all away.

Now, with that rule es­tab­lished, there are a very few ex­cep­tions. Sometimes, char­ac­ter changes are un­done, but some­times, they so fun­da­men­tal­ly al­ter the char­ac­ter that the im­pact is kept around. Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon was one of those char­ac­ters for a very long time.

Way back in 1988, one of the industry’s best and most con­tro­ver­sial writ­ers changed Batgirl in such a way that it ac­tu­al­ly made the char­ac­ter be­come more mean­ing­ful than ever. It was the one-shot “The Killing Joke” that made Batgirl be­come more than Batman’s fe­male side­kick. With one pan­el, Alan Moore turned Batgirl into some­thing more. (Note: User just­cailen on Reddit helped point out that it was Kim Yale and John Ostrander that brought The Oracle to life as a char­ac­ter af­ter Barbara was shot.) A sin­gle gun­shot from the Joker took Barbara’s abil­i­ty to walk, as well as leav­ing per­ma­nent psy­cho­log­i­cal scars.  I’m not even go­ing to touch the rape im­pli­ca­tions you see float­ing about.  Needless to say, Joker did some rather scary and messed up shit.

DC hit some­thing there that I re­al­ly don’t think they re­al­ized at the time. A promi­nent su­per­hero was now par­a­lyzed from the waist down. Instead of re­tir­ing the char­ac­ter, DC in­stead went a new route: A dis­abled su­per­hero. Confined to a wheel­chair, Batgirl be­came Oracle, the in­for­ma­tion cen­ter of not just Batman’s op­er­a­tions, but her own and even those of the en­tire god­damned Justice League.

Let me tell you, be­ing dis­abled, that was DC’s best move with the char­ac­ter. Aside from char­ac­ters with men­tal dis­abil­i­ty (who are of­ten psy­chot­ic vil­lains, I might add), there aren’t many dis­abled peo­ple putting on the tights. Oracle changed that, and proved that in spite of such prob­lems, there’s still more worth to a per­son. It takes a lot to be the info cen­ter for a good chunk of the planet’s su­per­heroes. Yet Barbara did it all, even form­ing and lead­ing her own team, the Birds of Prey, who had their own tit­u­lar com­ic for a good while.

There was hope, that no mat­ter how bro­ken our minds and bod­ies might be, that we can still find a place in the world.  When you’re bro­ken and fucked up, that lit­tle bit of hope is a dan­ger­ous god­damn thing.  The kind of thing that can move moun­tains like the Hulk, or just give you the strength to deal with the day to day.

From the re­ac­tions over the years, I wasn’t alone in how I saw Batgirl. In fact, I have a friend who is dis­abled as well, and one of the big things that con­nect­ed us was a mu­tu­al love of Birds of Prey, and Barbara Gordon in par­tic­u­lar. Barbara was a hero for the rest of us, who don’t al­ways have all our work­ing parts anymore.

As I said, in comics change is tem­po­rary. Sadly, Barbara Gordon fell vic­tim not to the Joker’s bul­let, but to the dark gods of ed­i­to­r­i­al man­date.  Apparently, noth­ing is good enough to just be left the alone, right?

Hand-waving 23 en­tire years of char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment for some (most­ly off-panel) bull­shit, DC took a dis­abled icon and just put her right back into the shad­ow of the Bat. After some ex­per­i­men­tal surgery and heavy re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion that would have tak­en years of real-time (yet only took a short mini-series), Oracle was un­made into Batgirl, again.

What this felt like can only be de­fined by one word: Betrayal. DC be­trayed the peo­ple who came to see Barbara as their hero. The peo­ple who, like Barbara her­self, had to strug­gle with dis­abil­i­ty. That con­nec­tion was hand-waved away. Let’s not even touch the fact that The Killing Joke is one of DC’s most well-known comics, and un­do­ing the ef­fects of such a mas­ter­ful piece of sto­ry­telling is near­ly a crime in and of itself.

At sev­er­al points in the 23 years Barbara spent in a wheel­chair, DC had said they want­ed her to re­main an icon to the dis­abled com­mu­ni­ty. Since she was pop­u­lar with an under-represented de­mo­graph­ic, they wouldn’t just “cure” Barbara. That is the re­al­i­ty at the core of this is­sue. No one can hand-wave and make an­oth­er per­son “whole” again. It cer­tain­ly didn’t work for Christopher Reeve, and he was fuck­ing Superman!

We learn to be­come whole in spite of what has been done to us. We don’t need to be society’s idea of what con­sti­tutes “nor­mal”. Yet DC felt the need to take the hero we want­ed and de­served, and pushed her right back in the shad­ow of Bruce Wayne. All for flag­ging sales.

It’s four years that Barbara has been walk­ing, again. Not only do I feel like I no longer have a hero that rep­re­sents me, my friends, and the life I have to lead; I feel like an “out­sider” whose hob­by has hyp­o­crit­i­cal­ly said that the dis­abled out­siders aren’t worth hav­ing a hero.

At least we still have Professor Xavier, right?

What, he’s dead, right now?

Fucking Cyclops.

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I’m that crazy guy that writes things and hosts the Graded PointFive comics podcast.

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