Since posting my thoughts on DC Comics controversial Batgirl variant cover and The Killing Joke (TKJ), I've had more than a handful of people speak with me directly to share their opposing views or to respectfully debate the issue, which is terrific, because subjects like this should be discussed, and I'm happy to converse with people when it's respectful.
I emphasize that everyone who took time to share their thoughts with me was very cool and nice about it, because I cannot help but wonder if that would be the case if it were a woman who wrote what I did, but I digress.
Anyway, I was asked on Twitter a variation of the same question/arguments I've received several times defending the way Barbara Gordon was treated in TKJ:
...what if the story SHOULD be a problem?
To paraphrase, since the Joker is supposed to be an all-time great villain, wouldn't he do atrocious things like his actions in TKJ?
The problem I have with that argument is TKJ isn’t about Barbara Gordon. She’s made a victim in service of a plot that focuses on the characterization of three men. Her suffering is merely a plot motivator for them to duke it out.
Ultimately, the point of TKJ isn’t to illustrate how villainous the Joker, although it’s certainly demonstrated, but to show how morally superior Batman and Gordon are. It certainly isn't about this act of violence either, because it doesn't spend any time exploring Barbara as a character. Barbara’s suffering is literally objectified in Polaroids to service a male character’s story arc. At the end of the story Batman and Gordon are defined as being strong and heroic, while Barbara is defined as being a cripple.
My good friend John Lewis ( @ozmodiargh ) had this to say about Barbara's treatment in The Killing Joke and this news story as a whole:
The cover is a fine piece of art, and The Killing Joke is a fine story, insofar as it illuminates the character of Batman or the Joker or Jim Gordon. But it says nothing about Barbara Gordon. She's an object, a (female) vehicle used to explore/explain the important male characters. Her depiction lacks dignity and humanity.
And The Killing Joke is one in a long tradition of stories, in comics and other media, where women are murdered, mangled, raped, or ridiculed for the purpose of developing the male protagonist/antagonist. Isn't that exactly the sort of thing that the "Women in Refrigerators" site was all about?
So yeah, sure, the Joker brutalizing Batgirl is a legitimate narrative beat, but surely we could do better than that. Nowadays it feels cheap, crass, and insensitive. And like you argue, maybe it was always that way. If I recall correctly, even Alan Moore regretted his decision to cripple and humiliate Barbara Gordon -- but I don't think he much liked any of The Killing Joke, in the end.
Which isn't to say anything about how completely tone-deaf the cover is given the current Batgirl comic, which has gone to great lengths to establish Batgirl as a strong, resourceful, positive role model for female (and male!) fans.
For me, that's about as tidy as it gets. I'm grateful for John Lewis for contributing his thoughts!
Outside of the problematic cover and the book it echeos, there's the supposed concern of artistic censorship and creative restriction being raised. To be clear, I'm not arguing that bad things cannot happen to characters in fiction, and I am not saying that rape and other touchy subjects cannot be used in fiction (it's not like I have any authority in that area anyway). However, as a trope, I think creators can and should offer audiences more than the victimized heroine. To argue that "rape happens" and "villains gotta be villainous", the people against this cover are well aware sexual violence happens in the real world, and they're telling the world they don't want their noses rubbed in it in their escapist fantasy.
To summarize, The Killing Joke is a landmark Batman story that's fine to go back and enjoy whenever you want. No one is retroactively wagging their fingers at anyone for enjoying that book. There's many examples of pop culture whose parts are now distasteful in our modern age. I was surprised at how aggressively insensitive and misogynist The Monster Squad is, which was an acceptable form of entertainment at the time and is still beloved by those who haven't seen it in five years. I had difficulty reading To Live And Let Die because of subtle racism in Ian Fleming's writing, which was also acceptable when it was published and for a long time after.
Given enough time though, we grow as people and our sensibilities change, and the entrainment we consume should embrace those changes. It's also important learn and understand that those things we now find distasteful but were acceptable at the time, well, they were probably never acceptable to the groups of people they marginalized. We live in an age now where people are able to make their voices heard.
As a newly minted contributor to mainstream comics, and just as a human being, I now see it's important to hear those voices and show sensitivity to their views, even when I disagree.