Friday, August 31, 2007

Barbara Gordon and The Killing Joke: A Clarification

A comment on my post "When is it Gratuitous?" prompted a reply I feel deserves a more public answer than just another comment.

First, the comment that prompted this post:
"Alan Moore didn't revitalise Babs Gordon. John Ostrander did in SUICIDE SQUAD.

When Moore wrote THE KILLING JOKE he felt that Barbara Gordon was expendable and obviously the editor agreed. It was John Ostrander who brought her back from comics limbo."
In going to answer the comment, I found a linkback to this post on Stars and Garters. It says:
"Yeah, it was "after the fact", all right. Years after the fact.

Let's clear something up right now:

Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke" did not help revitalize Barbara Gordon.

Suicide Squad did."

"Moore, and apparently the Bat-editorship at the time, thought Batgirl was disposable enough to end her career permanently.
"Suicide Squad" writers John Ostrander and the late Kim Yale, on the other hand, thought Barbara Gordon was salvageable enough to re-invent her. They deserve credit for inspiring what's happened since (Birds of Prey).
Not "The Killing Joke"."
Now, what I said:
"Aside from crippling a sidekick to a character, Batman, who already had Robin, The Killing Joke helped revitalize Barbara Gordon as she transformed herself into Oracle and went from sidekick/guest star to Major Player. She can literally appear in any story in continuity. She has her own book with her own team. Rather than be the helpless female, Babs fought back."
In no way do I see what I posted to be inconsistent with the facts of how it occurred. I was discussing a character and her development in the context of everything that's happened to her since that story. I never read The Suicide Squad and actually, until about 3 days ago, didn't even know that's when Babs became Oracle, which is why I was vague about when that happened, simply saying "as she transformed herself into Oracle." To me, she was Oracle in Birds of Prey and a few years ago, I found The Killing Joke and read it so I could find out how she got crippled. When I wrote the post, I knew she didn't become Oracle in The Killing Joke. And all of that happened while I was boycotting comics following Kara Supergirl's death in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Yes, I was that upset.

I was not discussing the writer of The Killing Joke or any other writer. I was discussing the character, from the benefit of hindsight. Same as many years ago, when I went back and analyzed Ollie Queen to explain how he could go from socially unaware, rich playboy to the do-gooder he became in Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams had their reasons for doing what they did, but that didn't mean it made sense in the larger context. So, psych major that I was, I went through it all and analyzed Ollie, the character, so it made sense to me. Apparently, it made sense to other people because it got published in a semi-pro magazine. Published as in, I got paid for that piece of writing, my only paid writing credit so far.

It is and remains my contention that The Killing Joke helped revitalize Babs as Oracle despite what the intent was. See, writers' intent isn't really relevant except as an "extra" of the sort that gets added onto DVD releases of TV shows and movies. Intent is an interesting side story. As has been discussed previously elsewhere, and maybe here, but I forget, not intending to insult someone who's insulted anyway, doesn't make that offense less real to the person feeling it. If it's just one person who feels the offense, then it's likely to be that person. If it's 99 of 100 who feel it, then it's likely to be what's on the page/screen. In either case, the intent is a footnote to the person's reaction.

I've had writers tell me they didn't have something in mind when they wrote a book, only to have readers tell them what it's really about, and often, the readers will disagree. Never mind what the author wanted to say, if anything other than tell a fun tale.

Do Ray Bradbury's comments that readers and critics have misunderstood his classic anti-censorship novel Fahrenheit 451 make readers suddenly change their view of it? According to Bradbury, the book is about this:
"Bradbury, a man living in the creative and industrial center of reality TV and one-hour dramas, says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature."
Bradbury, and any writer, is certainly entitled to his opinion and his intent, but that book will remain an example of how censorship can become extreme. His intent will never change how most readers will interpret it. Because, once a writer releases his or her words into the wild, those words become open to interpretation by others. Writers who don't want to give up complete control of their writing shouldn't seek publication. As an aspiring novelist trying to ready her first manuscript for the submission process, I understand this.

Back to The Killing Joke. Perhaps my interpretation of the events is influenced by hindsight and my view of The Killing Joke might be different if I'd read it in real time, with all the years between that and Babs becoming Oracle in The Suicide Squad. But I'll never know if that would be so. I can only look back at it all in its entirety, see where Babs was and where she was at the start of Birds of Prey (and I came into that about 10 issues into the series and had to find the trades).

If she wasn't crippled there would have been no reason for Babs, from a character standpoint, to reinvent herself as Oracle, unless another major event occurred in its place. From a writer's standpoint, there would probably have been no reason to give her the role of Oracle if she hadn't been crippled and unable to be Batgirl anymore, thanks to The Killing Joke. Like it or not, Moore provided the impetus or the inspiration for that. So yes, Ostrander and Yale deserve the credit (I hadn't known who had been responsible for that) for making Babs Oracle. But The Killing Joke gave them the reason. And as Batgirl, Babs was stuck as a secondary sidekick in the Batman family, and stuck with the "girl" part of her name. For whatever reason, even a bad one by many people's figuring, being crippled freed Babs to become something more, something better, someone who could be Batman's equal.

And as a character, Babs progressed from Batgirl to a crippled woman who needed a new purpose and reinvented herself as Oracle. As a writer, I'm not always so concerned about the writer. I'm concerned about the character, about making and keeping it plausible. About being able to look at characters independent of their creators. Do they stand on their own? Could they really exist? Would readers be able to embrace them as real and believe in them?

From the moment I first watched Man from UNCLE in 1964 and started playacting UNCLE with a friend, the characters of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were more than the words the writers gave Robert Vaughn and David McCallum and more than the actors speaking those words. I believed in Napoleon and Illya. They became as real to me as my favorite comic book characters. Through scores of writers and interpretations, the best characters maintain a core that keeps them consistent and real. I had to look hard to find that core in Ollie Queen, but I did, which is why I'm so enjoying the new Green Arrow Year One series which is filling in the gaps so perfectly. And it's why I and my friends wrote fan fiction. Because we saw things we wanted to do with the characters, put our own spin on them, fill in the gaps, yet maintain the core of what they were that made us love them.

I didn't have to look hard to find the core in Barbara Gordon.


  1. I feel your pain. It does get a bit tiresome when certain individuals jump down your throat and start attributing things to you that didn't say, and didn't MEAN to say.

    I just got shrieked at recently when I said that I thought it was a shame that they were going to kill off all of Kirby's New Gods, and then went on to mention that Knockout had just been killed. I had people telling me that Knockout WASN'T created by Kirby, and how dare I say that she was. I didn't say that she was, but I suppose that's neither here nor there.

    I've never read "Killing Joke" and don't plan to any time soon, because it sounds pretty gross. But I do love Oracle and Birds of Prey, and like you, I didn't know all the stuff in Suidide Squad.

    Guys, you don't have to have read EVERY single book out there, to like a character you know.


  2. Hi, Sally,
    I really have to wonder about the reading comprehension of some folks these days.

    The Killing Joke was an excellent book, IMO, but not for the squeamish. I think Babs got off easy. She was shot. Jim Gordon was the one tormented and tortured. The story was about him and yeah, Babs was just a means to an end, not because she was Batgirl, but because she was Jim's daughter. That's how I saw it.

    As for the New Gods thing, I saw that and don't get the fuss, either. It's like saying Bob Kane's Batman, then mentioning Spoiler's death. Or even Jason Todd's.

    I guess it's the gestalt, the linking things together due to proximity, or simply the leaps of logic people take because they read more into what's on the page. Everyone does it, so complaining when someone else does it is IMO silly. ;)

    Meanwhile, I'm reading Green Lantern, but not Green Lantern Corps or the Sinestro Corps title and I'm enjoying the storyline just fine with only the GL chapters. Yes, you really don't have to read everything to enjoy what you do read.

  3. The key word being ENJOY.

  4. Exactly. If you're not enjoying them, why are you reading them?! ;)

  5. Initial reaction#1: I got LINKED! Sweet! (I only set up "Stars and Garters" less than 4 months ago.)

    Didn't mean to come off like I was jumping down your throat. I tried to reserve any harsh language for Moore & the Bat-editors. Truth be told, the opinion you expressed re: Oracle is one I've seen online for years from other bloggers and message board posters, and I only linked yours because a)it was the most recent I'd read, b)it was easiest to link, and c)sometimes I'm a lazy guy.

    If I came off as attacking, it's only because I felt strongly about this topic. Here's why the topic stuck in my craw so much:

    Suppose there's a kid named Gordon. Every time Gordon goes to school, he gets hassled by a bully named Alan. Sometimes the bully beats up Gordon and/or takes his lunch money. Gordon's parents, John and Kim, notices Gordon frequently coming home from school with new bruises and asks him what's going on. When Gordon explains, John and Kim, who happen to be ex-Navy Seals, train Gordon in hand-to-hand combat. Gordon uses his newfound skill to defend himself against the bully next time they meet. The bully does not hassle Gordon again, nor does anyone else who witnessed the fight. Gordon comes out as a stronger, more confident person.

    But who deserves credit for this evolution? Gordon deserves some, of course. His ex-Navy Seal dad deserves a lion's share, too. But I don't feel the bully does, because Gordon grew IN SPITE OF the bully, not because of him.

    We can agree to disagree on this, though.

  6. The power of referrer links and trackbacks!

    What bothered me was not the point you made, notintheface, but that you seemed to misunderstand and therefore, misrepresent my post. I wasn't giving credit, nor was I condemning any of the creative people behind the comics. What I was doing was discussing the character. I was attempting to show, regardless of who wrote what, that The Killing Joke provided an emotional impetus to the character of Babs Gordon and yes, on a creative level, provided the impetus for someone (now I know who, but when I first encountered Babs in the wheelchair, I had no clue when it happened and when she became Oracle) to show her development into Oracle.

    I think of characters and have thought of them since my childhood as individual, separate entities from their creators, moreso when they are written by many people over many years, as with comic book characters.

    My interest is is finding a way for the characters, regardless of their writers, to make sense on an internal level. So, my point, my opinion, my perspective stands. The Killing Joke was the emotional trauma that led Babs to reinvent herself as Oracle.

    I write. I've been writing fiction regularly for 27 years. Fanfic for the first 15, including a couple of pieces with Roy Harper, and then original spy fiction and science fiction. I self-publish the spy stuff and hope to pro publish the sf someday.

    I have a character I've written from his age of 15 to his current age of 30, taking me 22 years of writing time. I don't claim to own him. He lives with me. I feel as if I raised him. And I discuss him as if he was real. I'm under no delusions that I didn't create him, but emotionally, he's been separate from me for the last 20 of those years. I can't tell him what to do. He tells me!

    That's how I approach writing and character development. ;)

  7. I understand, Shelly. It's kind of like a "Did Joe Chill help create Batman?" question. From a fiction writer's perspective (I'm not one), I can see where you're coming from. Not 100% in agreement, but I see your thinking on this.

  8. Well, notintheface (great name, there, btw!), it's not just a fan writer's perspective that I have. I also write my own original fiction and I feel the same way about it. And about books I read. My feeling is good characters can and should be able to stand on their own.

    And it's my psych major's perspective. I want to find the plausibility in a character's psyche, not just in one story, but across all of them. In a way, that's how I've dealt with a lot of retconning, trying to find a way for the editor-dictated change to make sense from a character's perspective.

    And the fact that I don't think I actually said the things you lumped me into. ;)

  9. Fair enuff. I may have lumped you in erroneously for what others said. I've been wrong before.

    And by "fiction writer", I meant to encompass ALL fiction, from ALL mediums, published or not (Gail Simone is a fiction writer, Stephen King is a fiction writer, Nick Hornby is a fiction writer, etc.).

  10. Fair 'nuff, indeed. :)

    If you'd said I'd claimed Moore had created Oracle or some such, and I had said that, then I would have welcomed the correction. I have missed a lot. Not reading DC comics for 10 years (not counting the 6 years I continued to slog through an increasing vapid, silly Titans til I couldn't stand it anymore), I did miss a lot of important stuff.

  11. Hope you don't mind me jumping in at this late date.

    It is different to read Killing Joke years after the fact instead of at the time.

    I did read the comic back then, being a very very old geek, and although I loved the Brian Bolland artwork and the (possible) origin of the Joker, Barbara's crippling and heavily implied sexual molestation struck me as particularly ugly.

    It was really another example of an "expendable" character being sacrificed to provide additional motivation for the lead character.

    Then, Babs just disappeared.

    When John Ostrander and Kim Yale brought Oracle back in the Suicide Squad - an EXCELLENT series by the way, I hope you get a chance to read it someday - it did turn an ugly moment in DC history into a triumph for Barbara Gordon - one cemented by the next creator to further develop Oracle, Chuck Dixon and ultimately Gail Simone.

    I understand how you relate to the characters more as individuals rather than figures manipulated by writers and artists. You're not alone in comics fandom, and being a writer yourself with interests in psych probably cements that deal.

    But, I guess it's always worked differently from me. I grew up in the Marvel era where STAN LEE presented everything and DC proclaimed THE KING IS HERE. As a writer myself, who earned a living most of his life on the journalistic side of the aisle, I can't help but look behind the curtain and see who's pushing which buttons.

    So, in a longwinded manner, yes the Killing Joke from a fictional standpoint did establish a ground zero for Babs to reinvent himself.

    But, from a different standpoint, it was also a pretty gruesome example of DC editorial's disregard for a character I always considered pretty cool - just like the pre-Crisis Kara.

  12. Hi, Fortress keeper, I'm glad you jumped in. :)

    I don't think reading The Killing Joke at the time or years after changes the content. The violence inflicted upon Babs is still there and yes, it's gruesome. But I don't have a problem with that. I've read plenty of stories, even in comics, where the male character is brutalized. Yes, there's an imbalance, but violence is part of life and the reason in this story, as I saw it, was to get at Jim. If he'd had a son instead of a daughter, I suppose it would have been the son who was shot, and if they'd had the guts to do it, castrated. Now that would've been something! ;)

  13. I still maintain that Alan Moore gets off the hook because he didn't intend for TKJ to be in continuity. Editorial gets my spleen for the whole thing.
    First they tell Moore that it's okay to "cripple the bitch". Then they put Babs's paralysis in continuity, while ignoring the fact that Bats threw the Joker into oncoming traffic on the last page.

  14. Hi, Alexa,

    The out of continuity for KJ was something I only recently learned, which I wouldn't have thought, given I read it after knowing Babs was Oracle.

    Either way, I have no problem with it or Moore, or even the editor or whoever made the call to cripple her.

    It's a longtime practice to take boring or failed or less than exciting characters and make them interesting before killing or maiming them. That happened with Kara Supergirl in Crisis on Infinite Earths. and I've seen it happen on dozens of TV shows. Even I'm guilty of it, though as often, I just kill the boring "girlfriend."

    My only issue is that I doubt if Jim had had a son instead of a daughter, that he would have been hurt this seriously with the photos and all, when that would have been fair, given the story. Given I've written male rape scenes, I don't have a problem with dishing out the violence equally. ;)