She Can Fly: This Joke isn’t Funny

The Killing Joke has never not been surrounded by controversy. The almost 30 year old graphic novel by infamous author Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland attempted to portray the Joker as a sympathetic character, a man who had one bad day, but, in foil to Batman, it took him over the edge to insanity. Of course, the Joker’s backstory isn’t what made The Killing Joke the buzzword that it has been since its publication in 1988; the crippling, sexualization, and (possibly) implied rape of Batgirl.

But, in the nature of the comics industry, the stand-alone comic was considered a huge success, winning an Eisner, often being referred to as “the greatest Batman story ever told,” and being one of the few comics (of a certain age) that has never gone out of print.

In the original, the physical and sexual violence towards Babs was meant as a motivation for her father, James Gordon; it was the Joker’s tool to break him as a man, and the supposed illustration of Gordon’s moral superiority over both Batman and the Joker. However, in retrospect, Moore denounced the story as “[not] very interesting,” and later directly blamed DC editorial for poor decisions, including what happened to Batgirl, in a 2006 interview with Wizard magazine:

I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon – who was Batgirl at the time – and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project … [He] said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.’ It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.

So when DC announced in 2015 that they would be producing (what ultimately turned out to be an R-rated) animated feature of The Killing Joke, reaction was mixed. Fans of the original, and of Bruce Timm-produced DC features, were ecstatic, while others were skeptical, considering the subject matter.

Immediately prior to the release of the film, right around the time of San Diego Comic-Con 2016, leaks began to slip out.

First there was a bordering on explicit sex scene between Batgirl and Batman.

This decision was apparently made because the filmmakers felt they needed to have the audience become move invested and Batgirl, and create a “deeper emotional tie” between her and Batman. Instead of a mentoring or student-teacher relationship, instead of a coworker relationship, or a friendship, or even a familial relationship, Batgirl becomes, at best, a sexual object to ultimately motivate the male characters. “It’s her decision to engage in this relationship,” the creators state. However, Batgirl was canonically, and is likely, between 16 and 19 in The Killing Joke, so the sexual nature of her relationship with Batman becomes one of Batman abusing his age, status, and power over her, even unintentionally (also, Batgirl is a fictional character with no actual agency beyond what the writers write her doing). Brian Azzarello even later stated, “The thing about this is that it’s controversial, so we added more controversy.”

At Comic-Con, it was revealed that, after the sex scene, Batman spurns Batgirl, and the film leaves her to pine alone before being shot, kidnapped, and…well, you probably know the story.

Fans at Comic-Con reacted negatively in The Killing Joke film panel, including Bleeding Cool’s Jeremy Konrad shouting his response to the panel saying that Babs was written as a strong female character in the movie (“Yeah, by using sex and then pining for Bruce.”). Brian Azzarello responded in a way that really emphasizes his feelings on the presentation of female characters and fan reaction: “Wanna say that again? Pussy?”

Finally, it was recently revealed that the implicit nature of the Joker’s possible rape of Barbara Gordon is made much less implied, with a scene where a prostitute says the Joker has sex with prostitutes every time he breaks out of Arkham Asylum, but that he did not come visit her after his most recent breakout, saying “maybe he found himself another girl.”

Bruce Timm attempted to refute the assertion that Batgirl is raped by the Joker in an interview with Vulture, saying:

I don’t think that [he raped her], actually. I did not think of it as supporting that. If I had, I probably would have changed the line. I never, ever thought that he actually raped her. Even in my first read of the comic, I never thought that. It just seemed like he shot her and then took her clothes off and took pictures of her to freak out her dad. I never thought that it was anything more than that.

Here’s the thing: Whether he [raped her] or not, it’s still sexual violence. It’s still a horrible thing. So in my own head, I was already self-censoring the moment. Maybe just to make it a little more easier to get through. But it’s still a very horrible, horrible thing.

Honestly, all these snippets of information about The Killing Joke, which was just released digitally, makes me feel like we’re just living through this scene from BoJack Horseman:

Screenwriter Brian Azzarello and co-producers Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm are, at their core, three white guys writing a story about the destruction of a woman; a.k.a. something they have no singular, personal experience with.

That’s what The Killing Joke is at its core: the destruction of a young woman, barely in her prime, and the defacing of her body, her spirit, and her self-identity. It also uses this destruction purely to motivate male characters. Barbara is given no happy ending, no moral resolution.

The Killing Joke did not create Oracle, Oracle came over a year later, and only at the hands of editor and writer Kim Yale and her husband, fellow writer, John Ostrander. Kim Yale was notably disgusted by the treatment of the character Barbara Gordon, and ultimately made it her mission to prevent the character from listing in obscurity by turning her into an even more powerful hero, despite, and also because of, her disability.

I don’t own The Killing Joke–book, film, or memorabilia–and I never will. I won’t see The Killing Joke, and I never was going to, but with the treatment of Batgirl as a secondary character, taking the backseat to the men, in what could have been the story of her power, personal strength, and moral superiority over the Joker, I am verbally denouncing the film. And I’m not alone.

Don’t give The Killing Joke your time. It’s not worth it.

She Can Fly: Forever the First

Captain Marvel, 2018. Wonder Woman, 2017. Elektra, 2005. Catwoman, 2004. Tank Girl, 1995. Supergirl, 1984. Secrets of Isis, 1975-1976. Wonder Woman, 1975-1979. But before all of those women (and many others), there was Batgirl, played by the marvelous Yvonne Craig, who died this week at the age of 78.

Yvonne Craig is a pioneer. One of the first women to play a superheroine on screen, Craig’s Batgirl, who appeared in the last season of the cult classic 1960’s Batman television series, was a far cry from the damsels in distress of superhero-media-past. Instead of helplessly hoping for heroes to save her, Craig’s Barbara Gordon took matters into her own hands; donning cape and cowl to defeat villains just as handily on her own as with Batman and Robin.

Though some posited that the introduction of Batgirl was a desperate attempt by ABC to increase the show’s poor ratings, the character also subverted a number of traditional expectations, as Craig did herself. A trained dancer, the youngest member of her ballet company before she went into film; she did all her own stunts, and played a number of smart, strong, and unusual female characters, including assassins, femme fatals, and a very memorable Orion slave girl, Marta, in classic episode of Star Trek, whose aim was to kill Captain Kirk. She inspired young women and empowered them, being one of the first to prove that women could kick just as much butt as men.

Tripping (or, perhaps, dancing) into acting by accident, she started out as a romantic lead in a variety of films, costarring with a number of popular actors, from Patrick Wayne to Elvis Presley. Then, the opportunity to play Batgirl in a Batman short appeared, and Yvonne Craig was eager to seize the opportunity. In the short, smart librarian Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner Gordon, reveals she has a secret of her own: she has created a Batcave of her very own, and uses it to become her secret, heroic identity Batgirl. In the short, she ultimately defeats the Killer Moth and his henchmen alongside Batman and Robin before leaving them to ponder the mystery of their new cape cohort.

This short, which is sometimes erroneously considered a pilot for a Batgirl tv series, is actually what helped Batman get the funding for its third, and final, season with ABC–although the show is now a cult classic, it was in constant danger of cancellation from the first season. Craig’s Batgirl appeared in all 26 episode of the season and remained enigmatic to the dynamic duo, with only the stalwart butler Alfred aware of her true identity as sweet, strong-minded Babs.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Craig said in an interview with CNN earlier in 2015. “The crew liked one another, the cast liked one another. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it’s a joy to go to work every day. I got to work with people that I would never have the chance to work with. We had Ethel Merman, I would never have met Milton Berle, I got to work with him, and he was a delight.”

Craig had also stated multiple times that she felt a close kinship with the character of Barbara Gordon, and even expressed displeasure in interviews about DC’s 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, which included the abuse and paralyzation of Babara at the hands of the Joker.

Creators and fans alike cite seeing Yvonne Craig as Batgirl as an inspiration; “my first real life hero,” Batgirl and Birds of Prey writer Gail Simone said of Craig.

Yvonne Craig wasn’t just an on-screen hero. Off-screen she supported women’s rights, wage equality, and healthcare such as mammograms for women who couldn’t afford them. She even wore the Batgirl costume one last time for a 1972 PSA about equal rights for women:

Craig passed away after a two year long battle with breast cancer, and is survived by her husband, her two sisters, and two nephews. Her family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the cancer research and treatment center, the Angeles Clinic Foundation.
Although Yvonne Craig has passed on, her legacy will forever be remember by budding superheroines everywhere. She is an icon, and her voice, her strength, and her energy will be sorely missed.


She Can Fly: Batgirl Stepping Out of The Shadows

MTV broke the news late last week that Batgirl is getting a new creative team, along with a new home. Cameron Stewart and Brenden tumblr_mkx98s25CE1qbeawdo1_1280Fletcher (Batman, Inc. and Wednesday Comics, respectively) will take over writing duties, with popular Tumblr artist Babs Tarr (known for amazing art like the Bosozoku Sailor Scouts) taking on illustration, as well as redesigning the character. While their storyline will pick up at issue #35 instead of rebooting, this new creative team adds an interesting chapter to the history of the New 52‘s Batgirl.

The book, which has existed since the conception of the New 52 in 2011, stars Barbara Gordon, returning to her role as Batgirl, being significantly de-aged in addition to no longer being the disabled hero Oracle. This isn’t the first time DC has tried to assign a new creative team to the title, but I think this creative team will be much better received.

Gail Simone’s temporary departure from Batgirl about six months ago caused a massive outcry. Simone, one of three women creators who was initially included on the New 52 roster, was one of DC’s biggest and most verbal supporters. She encouraged fans to buy and read Batgirl after Babs regained her ability to use her legs, and continued to support DC even after she had been fired, albeit briefly.

Since she was rehired, Simone has been allowed to experiment with new books at DC, likely due to a change in her contract with them, and was a driving force behind DC’s failed Occupy Wallstreet-inspired team book, the Movement (paired with the equally failed Green Team, which featured the work of all aged superstars Franco and Art Baltazar).

batgirl_promo_poster2Simone’s ventures outside of canonical characters at DC have often not been very successful. The Movement garnered online celebration for its inclusive cast of characters, like the wheelchair-bound Vengeance Moth and a number of women of color, but sales-wise the book fell flat. Even though it outlasted the Green Team (by 4 issues, likely because of the rabid fan support of Simone), the Movement barely made a difference in the landscape of DC Comics.

But, with Simone on a new project “to be announced soon”, new creative teams on titles like Batgirl, and new titles for beloved characters like Dick Grayson, it looks like DC is making an effort to reinvigorate their brand once again.

Batgirl’s new creative team is significant because it distances itself so completely from what could be considered the “in-house” style at DC (which is to say Jim Lee style art with grim&gritty story lines). Batgirl follows in the recent footsteps of Marvel, in a way. The company has been known to hire popular webcomic and indie artists to work on titles aimed at a more youthful or female audience.

The new design of Batgirl is a stellar one, moving away from the traditional proportions of comic book women, and creating a younger, fresher looking Babs who is hip and resourceful. “Barbara is forced to make a new costume for herself when her old one becomes unavailable. The new one is something she’s able to make herself, shopping at the various boutique and vintage stores in Burnside. It also reflects her youth and style. Unlike Batman or Batwoman, she no longer needs to stay in the shadows, and in fact learns to embrace the spotlight,” says Stewart in an interview with MTV.

Batgirl-Model-Sheet-724x1024Beyond that, the team makes it clear that Babs is journeying away from the shadows Gotham and into a spotlight of her own. “[After all the things that have happened to her, Babs] wants the opportunity to have some fun and live the life of a young, single girl in the city, so she packs up and moves to Burnside, the cool, trendy borough of Gotham, to focus on grad school.”

Much like the direction Jimmy Palimotti and Amanda Conner took with Harley Quinn, the book will have a lighter tone that co-exists outside of the rest of the DC Universe, and that’s a smart move to draw more readers in general, especially new readers who aren’t familiar with what is or isn’t part of New 52 continuity.

This book, paired with the upcoming Gotham Academy, bodes well for representation. Putting women and characters of color front and center is something DC has been trying to do since the beginning of the New 52. It’s also inspiring to see a brand new female artist being brought into such a big project at DC. We can only hope that Batgirl, Gotham Academy, and other upcoming new titles will prove more successful (and with better content) than the pile of canceled books that lay in their wake.


She Can Fly is a featured article at the Acts of Geek Network. Exploring pop culture, comics and games from a geek girls perspective.