Because for all its high-minded thoughts about justice and revenge and the human capacity to survive immense horrors, The Killing Joke still views the most humane character in the Bat mythos as cannon fodder. And such a cynical mindset makes readers focus on the wrong things inside the tale itself. Case in point: a lot has been said in recent months about Batman potentially killing the Joker at the end of the story -- giving context to the title, The Killing Joke. I can understand Grant Morrison's need to structurally justify the story's violence with claims that author Alan Moore was not only investigating the hero and villain's relationship, he was finishing it; he was taking Batman over the edge. Certainly, this hypothesis blew the minds of avid readers within the industry, people such as filmmaker Kevin Smith and comics legend Mark Waid. But I couldn't get invested in that reading for two reasons. One: the artwork and dialogue in the last pages of the book are subtle to the point of obfuscation; if Moore and artist Brian Bolland wanted us to understand a murder had been committed, and Batman had lost his mind and war on crime simultaneously (which, admittedly, is a pretty powerful ending), then they should have given us the clues we needed to finish the image in our minds. The script itself doesn't offer much in the way of context, either. Two: the relentless, continuing picking-apart of the hero and villain's relationship, while the point of the story, only serves to diminish examination of the tale's terrible treatment of its lone female figure, which yesterday, was revealed to be worse than previously thought.
I speak, of course, about Barbara Gordon, and her paralyzing at the hands of the Joker. Yes, Alan Moore wrote a story about the Clown Prince of Crime psychologically torturing Batman and his colleague Commissioner Jim Gordon, but the way he chose to frame this torture through the physical violation and shooting of Barbara Gordon, then Batgirl, is the big set-piece of the story. And it serves no purpose to change Barbara herself; the incident exists only to give stakes to Batman's run towards insanity. Which folks admire as strong storytelling even today, even if I've heard Alan Moore himself regrets the tale, even after Brian Bolland has revealed, along with a comics researcher, that Barbara was initially supposed to be photographed fully naked, blood gushing from her lower regions in as pornographically violent a shot as I can think of. But I ask -- what is psychologically complex about destroying a woman so that men can prove themselves able to endure witnessing it? (Or, in the case of Morrison's take, what is complex about watching a man avenge a woman's unnecessary destruction?)
Sure, in the final printing, DC Comics toned down the violence and nudity on the page where Jim Gordon views a group of photographs, taken by the Joker, showing how much pain his daughter is in. Kudos to them, I guess? But there's still that nagging, well-known story that editor Len Wein gave Moore the okay to "cripple the bitch." Discovering that Barbara's torment was initially drawn to titillate as well as horrify only gives the lie to this story, and proves how little Moore and Bolland cared about her, beyond her use as a plot device.
Some might tell me this revelation about Barbara's nude shot is irrelevant now, as it was never published in the first place. To them I say, it's all the more relevant today, because it visually demonstrates the hugely problematic treatment of women in comics history, inside one of its most-purchased stories. If women are to stop being victims in narratives, then books like this need to be seen for the flawed creations they are; they shouldn't be championed as innovative in all aspects, if they are simplistic in major ways.
Her speech (pictured above) is so powerful because it recognizes her agency, her ability to build her life -- whereas The Killing Joke left her for dead, helpless and alone. I loved Oracle my entire childhood, and well into my adulthood; she showed readers there were many ways to be a hero, and not every hero had to jump around on rooftops to accomplish good works. The only reason I shy away from New 52 depictions of Batgirl now are because DC feels it necessary to remind readers over and over again how seminal her torture at the hands of the Joker was; I prefer to believe Barbara's best moments came after that heinous narrative choice. I believe her best moments came when she did good works, while disabled, maybe because of her disability, all under her own steam.
Bruce Wayne: The Road Home -- Oracle #1: Shane Davis & Barbara Ciadro, Cover Artists.
Birds of Prey vol. 1, #8: Chuck Dixon, Writer; Greg Land, Penciller; Drew Geraci, Inker; Gloria Vasquez, Colorist; Albert DeGuzman, Letterer.