Earth-37, the alternate earth that serves as the setting for Batman: Thrillkiller, was one of my favorite worlds in the DC Universe despite the fact that the actual story and art are… problems.
Back when I first read the miniseries, I think it hooked me with narration boxes that see our masked heroes juxtaposed against the transitional period that this Elseworlds tale exists in:
We tend to define our lives by the decades – the gay nineties, the roaring twenties, the depression thirties. The calendar reads 1961 – but it’s a time of transition. It’s not the fifties anymore – the decade of Ike, of McCarthyism, of Jack Kerouac – and it’s certainly not the nineteen sixties of the sexual revolution, of the war in Vietnam, of turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Like the rest of the USA, Gotham was jumping with a giddy optimism – no one could guess at the dark days that lay ahead.
This first set of narration boxes is set against a backdrop of Gotham City, Batgirl and Robin at the top in shadow and the city they’re attempting to protect at the bottom. There’s something about watching comics try to establish a sense of realism and historical context in their works that just… entertains me. The next few pages establish the historical context of this Elseworlds — JFK is president, Elvis was discharged from the army, and the Beatles weren’t yet a thing. It’s a set of pages that immediately and successfully establish realism and a connection to the time period and it works.
Thrillkiller is a genre mishmash with elements of noir fiction, your sort of typical superhero story, and some air of the 1950s morality movie in the style of Reefer Madness. Which could be awesome except…
Dan Brereton’s art attempts to be glossy and glamorous even at its darkest parts, and while it’s not terrible… Barbara is frequently done in a too-sexy pin-up style that doesn’t match the setting (her midriff-baring costume is beyond anachronistic for the early Sixties) and Brereton has such a serious same-face problem considering that Robin and Bruce are six years apart but look like they could be twins.
The writer for this book, by the way, is Howard Chaykin, who y’all probably know for his totally transmisogynistic and violent work on The Divided States of Hysteria. This book was written 20 years before that series, but I still think it’s important to acknowledge that the writer is well… a huge part of what makes this work one of my “Problematic Faves”.
What else makes Batman: Thrillkiller a problematic fave?
Where do I start…
Ever since reading DC Bombshells, my brain likes to try and compare it to Thrillkiller if only for the fact that Batgirl exists independently of Batman here too, preceding him by ages. For much of the collected version of Thrillkiller, there is no Batman.
However, the two stories couldn’t be more different with “daddy issues” – Barbara’s distrust of paternal figures and the way that she blames him for her mother’s death — her literally fueling her Mission. It’s far cry from the female empowerment narrative present in Bombshells considering how Batgirl in Thrillkiller is constantly put into relation with the (predominantly white) men around her (her dad, Bruce, Richard). Like she’s a teenage boy’s wet dream in terms of her costume design and general drawn disposition and then the majority of her character arc centers… men.
Barbara Gordon, a relatively disgraced heiress who found her mother’s body in a bat-shaped pool of blood when she was a little girl, has become Batgirl and lives in the remains of Wayne Manor. She has much of her backstory in common with Bruce Wayne when it comes to her training routine and the “traveling around the world to learn martial arts and acrobatics” thing. Her much younger boy-toy, an alternate version of Dick Grayson named Richard Graustarks, has become Robin.
That last bit… the Richard Graustarks thing… is a bigger problem than I thought when I first read it.
When Dick confronts Jim Gordon over the other man’s dislike of him and how it plays out in his relationship with his own daughter, Jim Gordon straight up goes, “I certainly hoped my daughter could’ve found someone better for her than a two-bit grifting teenaged gigolo”.
There’s a scene in the Batcave where, when Dick says that Bruce Wayne is “too old” for Barbara, she responds by telling him that Bruce is only two years older than her… and that she’s four years older than him.
Guess how old Dick is in Thrillkiller…
A year before, Barbara showed up at the circus his family has worked with for years on her quest to learn all the things and promptly fell in “lust at first sight” with Richard. He was… sixteen. AND he ran away from his home in the circus to be with her.
And he dies because of her.
Which is… bullshit.
(In the interest of full disclosure: I’ve written fan fiction about this mini. I’ve written alternate takes on the book where Richard is in his early twenties because well… the first time I read this, I thought he was 19 and then I set my work two years after the end of the mini. If I ever write fan fiction about this mini again – doubtful as I am no longer in the DC fandom – it will be with those ages.)
I guess my beef with this is that the Barbara/Richard relationship is basically fantasy wish fulfillment for teenage boys and it’s creepy… and canon. It’s canon that Barbara, who is definitely an adult at twenty, looked at a sixteen year old Dick Grayson and went… “yummy”.
That’s… more than a little bit creepy.
And it’s entirely a comic dudebro fantasy that plays right into the way we talk about rape culture and how teenage boys are frequently assaulted by adult women and told that it’s normal and natural. Dick has become ostracized from his friends and family at the circus because an older woman showed sexual interest in him and he ran away from his family to be with her and like… it’s all presented as well… not a big deal. The people who have a problem with Barbara shacking up with someone too young to vote or buy a beer are presented as in the wrong.
They’re behind the times
But Barbara is dating a seventeen year old.
I don’t expect a lot out of comics from the Nineties, but this is straight up sleazy when it comes right down to it.
Up next, there’s the fact that Batman: Thrillkiller also provides us with a queer female Joker.
Which should be great but well… It’s not.
Usually, I love queer alternate versions of the things I read.
Part of why I love The Authority is because of Midnighter and Apollo’s position as queer alternate universe versions of the Batman/Superman archetypes. The series is a hot fascist mess, but I’ll always be grateful for how it introduced those characters so that they’d eventually get reinvented as well… not that.
This version of the Joker, Bianca Steeplechase is a queer woman on the page. We know this because of her relationship with… a teenage version of Harley Quinn (named Hayley Fitzpatrick) who shows up in the next part of the volume that focuses on Batgirl and Batman a year later.
When your only queer character is a villain of the Joker’s caliber and she’s also dating someone who probably isn’t old enough to vote… That’s a problem.
Batman: Thrillkiller is 100% nerd boner wish fulfillment. It goes hand in hand with some of the worst offerings that the 90s had to offer when it came to superhero comics and doesn’t even have truly good art to make up for the fact that everything else about it is messy as hell.
It was one of my first experiences with one of DC’s Elseworlds (the actual first was Red Rain and all the vampire!Bruce stories) so it’s got a fond-ish space in my heart, but seriously it’s got problems. It’s all over the place in genre (like it’s not a noir work but it keeps trying to borrow from that genre), the art is muddy except when it’s trying to be like “look at these ladies’ boobs” about Selina, Barbara, and Bianca, sucks about portraying sex workers, and like… could’ve used a serious overhaul when it came to the romantic relationships.
In hindsight… I’m not sure that this is really a fave beyond the setting.
How about that?