After Amanda Waller returned to the leadership of the Suicide Squad, DC wasn’t sure what to do with Barbara Gordon. She was great helping out with Azrael, plus she pitched in during Knightfall. But, was the Distinguished Competition just going to leave her to languish in Birds of Prey? If released today, Birds of Prey would be getting insane praise for being a female-powered comic that passes the Bechdel Test with every issue. But, DC saw the potential in Oracle, and she started to branch out into the JLA ongoing series under the helm of Grant Morrison, Mark Waid and an assortment of other writers. Still, something lingered from the old days.
While Gordon had evolved into a new role, fans still associated her with Batgirl. You had older female fans remembering Yvonne Craig and her campy appeal. Then, you had the next tier fans remembering her besting Batman and beginning a romance with Dick Grayson. Finally, you had an entire generation of fans that just remember Barbara Gordon lying on a floor, naked, and bleeding to death. The Joker standing over her taking pictures like a sadistic tourist straight out of the pits of Hell. They would spend years growing and taking to social media. The Killing Joke is the greatest Joker story. It’s a shame what happened to Batgirl, but they had to raise the stakes.
Well, if the stakes were raised so damn high, why did the Joker have to kill Jason Todd the following year? The Killing Joke and Jason Todd’s death represent the worst in editorial decisions during that period of comics history. In the pursuit of being seen as mature, character assassination took place to fit a grander narrative.
Thankfully, Barbara Gordon was able to bounce back. A lot of that was due to the aggressive use of Ostrander, Yale, O’ Neil and Dixon. Denny O’ Neil and Chuck Dixon took the reins to help make Oracle the center of the Bat Family. While other writers used Gordon, it was Dixon who worked Birds of Prey around her, making her the supporting character for Batman throughout the 90s and early 00s.
Serving as the network hub for Batman throughout the 90s until 2011 allowed Oracle to overpower the mainstream opinion of Babs. Generations of male and female readers grew up with a strong woman who overcame past misfortunes to become an indispensable Batman ally. From the animated series to the Arkham games, there are scores of fans that accept if you’re going to have Batman, you have to have Barbara Gordon/Oracle. Still, it would be cool to have Batgirl back. Yeah, we had Cassandra Cain, Stephanie Brown, and Misfit try to step into the role, but it’s just not the same. Faster than a revamp that no one asked to happen, DC offers up the New 52.
While the New 52 relaunch irritated some fans with its return of Batgirl, it was handled with a deft hand. Gail Simone spent most of Birds of Prey honing Oracle into her modern supercomputer information broker self. When the chance arrived to revamp Batgirl’s past, Simone moved past the permanence of Barbara’s paralysis. In the New 52, Barbara was only paralyzed for three years after the Joker shot her. Barbara still has issues with PTSD and the fear of further injury, but she works past it as Batgirl. Naturally, fandom went insane, and efforts began to gradually adapt Barbara back into something fans could accept.
This is a very peculiar week for Batgirl and her place in DC Comics history. Most DC fans knew it was coming for some time, but it spurred a gallery of thoughts that lead to this massive undertaking. While fandom is quick to awe over Jared Leto’s Joker or finally getting an adaptation of The Killing Joke, the woman that helped spur on the modern Joker fascination deserves some attention. The recent changes to Barbara have seemingly been made to help undercut the subtle grossness of the Joker’s early post-Crisis actions, but the stories remain. What should be pondered is what happens when the Joker’s victims don’t stay down?
When Oracle/Batgirl/Barbara Gordon finally got her revenge on The Joker, it was well worth the wait. They had brush-ups before that point, but nothing quite like the showdown from near the end of Birds of Prey. The Birds were on active missions, which left Barbara alone at the base. Disguised as a cop, The Joker snuck in and decided to finish Barbara off. What the Joker didn’t know was how connected Barbara had become since he shot her. Miss Gordon knew the Joker was coming and welcomed it. Babs wanted her revenge.
Some academics have written papers wondering why Batman, Batgirl or any member of the Batman family didn’t murder Joker for what happened to Barbara, Jason Todd, Sarah Essen or any other one of Mr. J’s victims. What could push Batman or his allies too far? After all, we saw Batman pull a gun on a villain near the end of Infinite Crisis. Batman had seen his work and friends being broken and beaten. When faced with the possible death of Nightwing, Batman snapped and then had to take a year off to recuperate.
As DC tries to pull out of its Grimdark era, there’s something to be learned about everything that Barbara Gordon has faced for the last 28 years. Gordon didn’t die; that’s now how crimes like what the Joker committed worked. In fact, Barbara being in the apartment with her father was incidental. Her appearance gave Joker fuel to give Commissioner Gordon his very bad day.
Reading the original text of The Killing Joke, Barbara is treated as an accessory to break the Batman and her father. After Bullock reveals the naked photos and the missing status of Gordon, Barbara disappears from the story. It would be months before she would reappear in a Batman comic.
Batman famously won’t kill his enemies or use firearms. All of his allies and family have had this line of thought instilled into them. The reluctance to kill frames the minds of young adult Batman followers, as their adoptive father figure teaches them moral crime fighting. So, when Barbara Gordon gets the chance to kill The Joker, she can’t do it. But, she is willing to steal his identity and the few anchors to normalcy he has left in the world. After all, how do you defeat the insane? You remove the few things they still hold precious in this world.
By taking away the Joker’s smile, Barbara managed to inflict a mirrored version of her loss, but on her terms. She didn’t kill the Joker, thus violating her father and Batman’s ways. But, Barbara finally made The Joker a victim. The Joker is rarely portrayed as a victim in all of comicdom. The loss of identity by someone who the Joker has written off is ultimately a better joke than the one he tried to tell back in 1988. No matter what the Joker did, he couldn’t break Barbara. She became stronger and found the means to make him feel as helpless as she did on that cold apartment floor.
If you wish to keep reading about Batgirl’s latest adventures, you can find her in the pages of two new DC Rebirth books. Batgirl is on sale right now. The Batgirl and The Birds of Prey ongoing series starts on August 17th. For those with a taste for the classics, pick up Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told.