Batgirl: DC’s Real Killing Joke

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.