Let’s Stop Giving The Killing Joke More Credit Than It Deserves

Batgirl and Oracle (1)

Content warnings for references to sexual trauma (assault and torture) in the text and in linked posts, ableism, a brief mention of fandom racism (specifically antiblackness towards Luke Fox) and a mention of transmisogyny in Batgirl #37. There are no images from The Killing Joke (comic or animated film) or the Joker in the body of this post.


I reject the idea that “The Killing Joke” is necessary in order to have Barbara become Oracle.

I also reject the idea that the Joker “created” Oracle.

Disability representation is incredibly important, that’s why DC’s retcon of Barbara’s many years as Oracle struck a blow to many disabled comic book readers. I won’t fight against that. I also won’t pretend that the Batgirl of Burnside series didn’t have its own problems (such as the ableist cure-all that carried over from Gail Simone’s run and problems that were unique to the run such as the transmisogyny in issue #37).

But what I will fight against is the way that DC comics and its fanbase won’t let go of The Killing Joke and how they insist on tying it to Oracle as a symbol or moment of empowerment when it really isn’t.

If you’re honestly a fan of Barbara Gordon, you wouldn’t uphold The Killing Joke as THE story that shapes her origins as Oracle. The Killing Joke is, as many other people have pointed out, a story that centers on sexualizing (and sexualized) violence against a female character specifically because it will hurt her father.

It’s not about Oracle.

It’s not about empowerment.

It’s about the Joker hurting Barbara in horrific and humiliating ways because a male creator thought it would be interesting to put into play and a la Mark Millar , it would serve to make the Joker more frightening (because the “best” way to make a villain’s evil unambiguous is to make him a rapist). The comic is about revenge and violence and fridging all directed towards a powerful, but retired female hero who could be broken.

If DC really had initially cared about empowering women with disabilities who used wheelchairs and dealt with paralysis, they wouldn’t have brought The Killing Joke into canon.

If they’d been interested in providing positive representation to wheelchair users, they would have provided Barbara with a backstory where her injuries were caused by an accident or another criminal or where her disability comes as a result of a health issue. (Note that such things are easy enough to do, by the way. Barbara could have been in a car accident while on a case or she could have been born with muscular dystrophy – two things that could explain her use of a wheelchair without connecting it to her trauma.)

If DC cared, the company wouldn’t have turned violence against her – violence with a hefty implication of sexual assault thrown into the mix – into a cash cow.

And they would stop bringing it up every time Barbara is reintroduced or her current comic book gets a new arc.

When I read the first issue of the new Rebirth Birds of Prey series on Wednesday, I’ll admit that I was expecting to be annoyed. I haven’t been comfortable with how the writers talked about Helena Bertinelli or Barbara Gordon, and after the hot mess of Grayson #20 and what it manages to reinforce about whiteness, I wasn’t in the mood to play.

So when I opened the book and got yet another “Barbara was Batgirl until the Joker shot her” montage for no reason, I was annoyed. Especially because the previous Batgirl team made an effort to try and shove that canon out of the picture.

Barbara didn’t (and does not) need the Joker or The Killing Joke so that she can become Oracle and I hate that the opposite mentality is what DC and its fanbase clings to.

It is a comic that is explicitly about removing power and agency from Barbara in order to make the men in her life feel things. It’s a comic that doesn’t even really give Barbara a chance to handle what’s going on because it’s all about male reactions to her trauma. It’s the epitome of the “women in refrigerators” trope and it doesn’t even count that Barbara later went on to be Oracle, because that was not Alan Moore’s intent.

It’s not about Barbara and it sure as hell isn’t about Oracle.

It never has been.

It will never be what Moore intended and all of the comic revisionist history in the world can’t change that.

He went into The Killing Joke with the intent to make the Joker’s mythos more horrifying. He didn’t intend to give Barbara any power. In fact, Moore saw Barbara’s disability as a way to take power and agency from her.

Never forget that Barbara isn’t even a main character in her own horror show. That’s what Moore created for his last Batman story and what DC and its fans laud as “the greatest JOKER story ever told” every couple of years when they reissue the comic and critics raise their voices about the comic for how it portrays violence against women.

I don’t like The Killing Joke, but I recognize that many people see it as a work that was innovative and terrifying when it was first published almost thirty years ago. However, recognizing its worth then and the harm that constantly inserting it into Barbara’s narrative does now are two different things.

I strongly believe that DC needs to take steps to minimize the harm that The Killing Joke does and what their uncritical stance on the current use of the comic to appease old fans and draw clicks – from re-releasing the original comic every couple of years and basking in the controversy, to greenlighting a variant cover like Rafael Albuquerque designed for the Batgirl of Burnside issue released during “Joker Month”, to the new R-rated animated film based on The Killing Joke (that apparently doesn’t even mention Barbara by name on the back cover copy and introduces a sexual element to Bruce and Barbara’s relationship specifically so that one more man will be sucked into the manpain hour rather than giving Barbara any serious characterization) – says about comics’ relationship with rape culture and violence against women.

So what can DC do with The Killing Joke so that comic history isn’t erased and misogynistic violence doesn’t get pushed aside to make room for manpain?

First, if DC is so very attached to the idea of the Joker being responsible for Barbara being in a wheelchair, they need to work on doing it in a way that doesn’t immediately alienate new readers and female readers.

A lot of new (and young) female readers come to the comics by way of all ages media like Young Justice or DC Superhero Girls. These same readers –people who tend to gravitate towards books like the Burnside Batgirl run and Steve Orlando’s upcoming Supergirl run – don’t know how to handle DC’s constant references to what is, quite clearly, unresolved trauma trotted out whenever Barbara is (re)introduced in the comics.

So take that out.

If you want to tout The Killing Joke as a totally fantastic Joker story, that’s on you. But let’s shift it to the side. Let’s move it out of canon, DC. There are approximately eleventy billion universes in DC’s multiverse and most of them have no impact on the main canon. Put The Killing Joke into one of those universes.

Next, the sexual (and sexualized) element to the torture that Barbara goes through isn’t necessary. Straight up.

Say no to rape culture and, if you must continue to hold The Killing Joke in the current canon, make it explicit that the sexualized elements didn’t happen. Retcon the hell out of that shit because it is alienating and upsetting on multiple levels. (An aside – when I googled The Killing Joke and clicked on the image tab, two of the top focused searches were for “rape” and “Barbara stripped”. Because you know… that’s what’s so important about this comic, right?)

And lastly, give Barbara actual closure.

Make her trauma about her rather than about her father or the Joker or Booster-freaking-Gold. Make the Joker a footnote in her story rather than a serious point. I liked what the Burnside crew did with issue #49 where they presented a canon that hinted at them erasing The Killing Joke from Barbara’s backstory.

Let’s do that again.

(Hell, there are currently three Jokers running around in Gotham thanks to Rebirth. I’m fine with something horrific and permanent happening to at least one of them. Especially if it grants Barbara some much needed closure.)

Frankie Charles

Frankie Charles, the woman who could be Oracle.

Now, I wish that we had the role back as a positive form of representation.

If Barbara can’t be Oracle anymore because of ableist editorial mandates, Frankie Charles is free and totally capable of taking over the position (and okay, I’m always going to go hard for Black female characters in comics — especially a character like Frankie who is bisexual and disabled and who has a clearly intersectional identity).

But constantly connecting Barbara’s disability and her resulting career as Oracle to her assault (an assault that literally didn’t need to be brought into canon and that doesn’t need to be repeated on end and rendered in loving detail every time we need to talk about who Barbara Gordon is) isn’t a good thing.

You can have one without the other.

Barbara healing and hurting and making a decision to do what she can to save the world on her own terms as Oracle is empowering. To think that Barbara would choose a different path to post-Batgirl Oracle-hood if not for the Joker’s actions shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the character’s motivations and actions in her history.

If the element of “crime and punishment” is needed to push Barbara into becoming Oracle, here are two sample backstories that can be used to have Barbara Gordon as a disabled wheelchair user and as Oracle:

  • Barbara was Batgirl. After a rescue-gone-wrong that injured her spine, she meets Frankie Charles in physical therapy. Together, the two tech-savvy ladies set up the ORACLE Agency as a way to take superheroics into their own hands and handle tech-based crimes on the UNTERNET (a la Red Robin).
  • Barbara has a degenerative disease that causes her willing retirement as Batgirl. After a conversation with Diana/Wonder Woman when the woman stops by to ask for help with something, the idea of Oracle sets up in her mind and she puts that into play while connecting with other female heroes to form the Birds of Prey.

See?

It’s not that difficult to do.

Now, I want to end this by talking a bit about how a lot of many newer fans’ refusal to accept critique of The Killing Joke is tied into an intense but misguided belief that the Burnside arc of Batgirl is somehow more harmful to Barbara Gordon than the former comic.

I get that everyone hates the Burnside series because Barbara takes selfies and dates a guy that happens to be both NOT DICK GRAYSON and Black (and please, don’t try to tell me that fandom isn’t like this, I have seen firsthand what the majority of fandom cares about and it’s not the ableism or the transmisogyny in that one issue).

I get disliking a comic and pushing it aside. I literally have pretended that Jason Todd hasn’t been in a comic since he was brought back to life because I haven’t liked most of the men who’ve written him or their take on his characterization.

I freaking get it.

But what I’m seeing, this self-congratulatory “Burnside’s retcons are gone and The Killing Joke is back” from everyone including feminist fangirls who swear up and down that they are all about protecting survivors, is bullshit.

And on tumblr at least, the people talking up The Killing Joke as Oracle’s oh so empowering origin are some of the same people who willfully inserted absolutely imagined sexual assault into Grayson as evidence that he needed to be protected from his own canon.

When a woman is assaulted in a comic – and the company that greenlit it constantly uses that assault to sell books and DVDs – it’s apparently not a problem. But when Dick Grayson interacts with a woman that isn’t Barbara, we’ve got to pull out the torches to protect him.

Okay, I’m going to lay it out for y’all: there is nothing feminist about The Killing Joke.

There is nothing empowering about watching a woman suffer over and over and over because DC and assorted fans can’t stop jerking it to the narrative that Barbara was meant to suffer at the Joker’s hands. (I’m talking about how DC refuses to entertain a change that would permanently remove the Joker from even the outskirts of Barbara’s narrative and how I can list like three different stories that forced the “well it had to happen to make her Oracle” bullshit down our throats.)

It doesn’t matter if you like the comic. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s well done. It doesn’t matter if you (somehow) gleaned a feminist reading of a book that basically contains a large amount of torture porn in print. Hell, it doesn’t even matter if you personally found it empowering (though I shudder to wonder at what exactly you found so empowering about the comic…)

It’s time the comics industry and its fans stopped trying to pretend that this story is about Barbara in any capacity beyond dehumanizing her and objectifying her for the sake of her father’s pain.

The comic is about the Joker hurting her as a means of getting to and breaking her father to prove that anyone is capable of becoming like him. It’s about causing a man emotional and mental pain via his only daughter’s graphic torture and assault. It’s about manpain and morals and Barbara not getting any fucking closure because the story’s not about her.

If I, a “mere” fan fiction writer can make it so that Barbara’s disability in my fiction isn’t a symptom of toxic masculinity, rape culture, and boredom… Well, what excuse does DC have for what they keep doing to Barbara in the name of canon and continuity ?

Oracle Injustice

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About Zina

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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One Response to Let’s Stop Giving The Killing Joke More Credit Than It Deserves

  1. Pingback: Serious Stitch Stuff | Stitch's Media Mix

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