It Came from the 1990s: Black Canary “New Wings”

A couple of years ago I sent a friend request to writer Sarah Byam on Facebook.  I had enjoyed Byam’s work in comic books in the early 1990s.  Having seen this blog, Byam asked me if I was interested in discussing her work on it.  I agreed, and she mailed me several books she had worked on.  Among these was the four issue Black Canary miniseries she wrote that DC Comics published in late 1991.  I read these back when they came out, but since then I sold off a lot of my collection.  So it was nice to once again have them.

Soon after Byam sent me those books life sort of got in the way.  I had to move into a new apartment, and find a new job, and so on.  Byam’s package ended up at the bottom of one of the countless boxes of stuff that I threw together during the move, and only recently did I finally dig it out.  So here, at last, is my retrospective on that Black Canary miniseries.

Black Canary miniseries 1 cover

Written by Byam, the Black Canary miniseries has Trevor Von Eeden contributing pencil layouts, with the finished artwork by Dick Giordano.  Lettering is by Steve Haynie, and coloring by Julia Lacquement.

“New Wings” was, according to the text piece by editor Mike Gold in issue #1, the very first solo series to star Black Canary.  This was in spite of the fact that the character had been around, in one form or another, since 1947.  Serving as a longtime member of both the Justice Society and Justice League, the Black Canary also had a lengthy association with Green Arrow, cast variously as his girlfriend, partner and sidekick.  Nevertheless, it took 44 years for Dinah Laurel Lance to finally receive how own book.

Decades are an artificial construct, and truthfully there is very rarely a sharp delineation to separate them.  That’s certainly true of the 1980s and 1990s, with the end of the former and the beginning of the later serving as a period of gradual transition.

This miniseries certainly straddles the two periods.  In one respect it is very much rooted in the mid to late 1980s of DC Comics, which saw both the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, with its revisions to long-term continuity, and the one-two punch of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, which motivated a shift towards “grim & gritty” street-level characters.

It’s also very much of the early 1990s, when the comic book market was experiencing a huge boom, resulting in both DC and Marvel flooding the market with new books.  As a result of those market conditions, the Black Canary miniseries got the green light, something that might not have occurred a few years earlier.

The 1987 miniseries Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell had revamped Oliver Queen as a traditional archer, an urban vigilante based in Seattle, WA.  That story had also seen Dinah Lance brutally tortured, causing her to lose her “Canary Cry” sonic scream.

Although taking away Dinah’s superpower was undoubtedly an attempt to more realistically ground her alongside Green Arrow, in retrospect it is also an example of the “Women in Refrigerators” phenomenon, in female characters being reduced to helpless victims.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 10

The “New Wings” miniseries has Byam picking up those threads.  Dinah is still recovering from the trauma of being victimized, and of losing her powers.  She has also growing tired of constantly being in the shadow of the headstrong, arrogant Green Arrow, of playing the role of responsible adult to Ollie’s hotheaded thrill-seeker.  Angrily tossing the accounting ledger at Ollie’s head, Dinah at last asserts herself.  She informs him that it’s his turn to figure out how to pay the rent & bills, while she goes off to the mountains of Washington State in an attempt to find herself and regain her inner peace.

Visiting her “Auntie Wren” at the Quinault Indian Reservation, Dinah is introduced to Gan Nguyen, a reporter, radio talk show host, and social activist.  Gan’s activities fighting against Seattle’s drug dealers have made him very unpopular with certain powerful people.  On the trip back to the city Dinah is forced to change into her Black Canary identity to save him from a pair of racist assassins.

“New Wings” is, in certain ways, a very prescient piece of writing.  The drug operation that Dinah and Gan are pitted against is run by rich, powerful men with connections to both politics and private industry who utilize the people from poor rural communities to do the dirty, dangerous work.  The center of the cocaine distribution network is the town of Sandbar, which Byam describes thus…

“Sandbar is one of those quaint little seaside towns, too sleepy even for tourists to bother with. A little too ‘Mayberry’ for some, it’s a good place to raise your kids. A safe place.

“In Sandbar, people love the Fourth of July, and the old men press up their uniforms every Veterans Day.

“How does a town like that go bad? Stagnate? Lose its sense of purpose?

“Traditions of protecting freedom, of sacrificing, son after son, becomes traditions of protecting property, sacrificing truth after truth…

“Because the only thing more terrifying than the enemy… is change.”

Sandbar sounds very much like one of those Red State communities that in the last few years have wholeheartedly embraced Donald Trump.  Their economy is in ruins, devastated by trickle-down economics and corporations shipping jobs overseas.  Yet instead of recognizing who is actually exploiting them, they are all too easily distracted by the racist dog-whistles that scapegoat minorities, immigrants and non-Christians as the causes of all their problems.

Byam was clearly observant enough to perceive this burgeoning phenomenon way back in 1991, in the years immediately before the GOP, the Koch Brothers and Fox News would commence to enthusiastically fuel the fires of racism, xenophobia and paranoia among white rural communities over the next two decades, eventually bringing about the rise of the Tea Party and Trump.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 24

There are a couple of reasons why I have now finally got around to spotlighting this Black Canary miniseries.  One is the emergence of the hatemongering “Comicsgate” trolls in the last couple of years, angry white male fanboys who claim that diversity is destroying comic books, who want to return to the time when the industry was supposedly apolitical.  There is innumerable evidence to disprove their lies.  This miniseries, published in 1991, is certainly one example of how very wrong they are.

“New Wings” features a female character, Black Canary.  It introduces a Vietnamese American supporting character, Gan Nguyen.  It is written by a woman, Sarah Byam.  It is penciled by a black man, the Guyanese-born Trevor Von Eeden.  It is an extremely political story, tackling complex issues of racism, economic injustice, drug dealing, gun control and political corruption.  It raises some difficult, uncomfortable questions.

The other reason is the 2018 midterm elections.  This week over one hundred female candidates were elected to Congress.  This is important. It has been less than one hundred years since women finally gained the right to vote nationwide, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. And, as the last few years have vividly demonstrated, there is still so much work to be done in safeguarding equal rights, in making sure that they aren’t stripped away, in protecting women from once again being reduced to second-class citizens. We need to recognize that the struggle against sexism & misogyny, as well as all other forms of injustice, is ongoing.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 18

In additionally to being very well written and thought-provoking, the artwork on “New Wings” is exceptional.  The collaboration between Trevor Von Eeden and Dick Giordano is extremely effective.

Von Eeden’s layouts are dynamic, superbly telling the story, both in the action sequences and the quieter conversational scenes.  The finished artwork by veteran artist Dick Giordano is beautiful, with his characteristic slick, polished work on display.

“New Wings” did well enough that an ongoing Black Canary series was commissioned.  Byam and Von Eeden returned, with Bob Smith coming onboard as inker.  Byam continued to write stories that addressed political & social issues.  She was one of those writers in the medium who very much helped my teenage self begin to broaden his perspective, to consider the intricacies of the world and the people who inhabit it.  Regrettably the ongoing Black Canary title only lasted 12 issues, but the majority of them were very well-done.

It would be another few years before Black Canary would once again gain the spotlight.  In late 1995 she was paired up with Barbara Gordon / Oracle in the Birds of Prey special, which soon led to the long-running, very well-regarded series co-starring the two characters.

Black Canary miniseries 2 pg 19 and 20

Both the Black Canary miniseries and ongoing were my introduction to the work of Trevor Von Eeden.  I instantly became a fan of his art.  I was immediately struck by both his stunningly beautiful depictions of the title character, as well as his amazing layouts & storytelling.

It’s very much worth noting that Von Eeden has been vocal about the fact that he never felt any real affinity for the character of Black Canary.  I say this because it definitely speaks to both his talent and his professionalism that he nevertheless did superb work on the series.

One other note: Whoever designed the series logo did a great job.  It looks amazing.

It’s unfortunate that “New Wings” and the subsequent twelve issue series have never been collected in a trade paperback.  However, it should be easy enough to find these in the back issue bins, or for sale online.  They are well worth tracking down.

Hopefully in the future I can offer a detailed look at the 1993 series, as well as some of Sarah Byam’s other works.  Cross your fingers!

Look out! Here comes Spider-Gwen!

A few months ago Marvel Comics published the epic “Spider-Verse” crossover masterminded by writer Dan Slott, which featured appearances by pretty much every single alternate reality version of Spider-Man ever conceived, as well as introducing numerous new incarnations.  The breakout star of “Spider-Verse” was Gwen Stacy as a new Spider-Woman, who fans took to calling “Spider-Gwen.”

Making her debut in Edge of Spider-Verse #2, this parallel universe revision of Gwen Stacy / Spider-Woman was quickly given an ongoing title once “Spider-Verse” wrapped up.  Spider-Gwen #1 hit the shelves a mere five months after Edge of Spider-Verse #2, and so far is selling at a brisk pace.

Spider-Gwen 1 cover

I think there is a very basic reason why Spider-Gwen is such a success, and it ties in with the history of the original version of the character.  Gwen Stacy first appeared in 1965 in Amazing Spider-Man #31 by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee.  Gwen was originally something of a haughty ice queen.  After Ditko departed the series, Lee and new penciler John Romita gradually transformed Gwen into a warmer, caring figure.  She became involved in a long-term relationship with Peter Parker.  All these years later many long-time readers regard Gwen as Spider-Man’s first true love.

Fast forward to 1973 and the tragic events of Amazing Spider-Man #121.  In a story by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane & John Romita,  Gwen Stacy was brutally murdered by Spider-Man’s arch-enemy the Green Goblin, thrown from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge.  In hindsight, Gwen’s death is probably the first prominent example of what two decades later would be referred to by Gail Simone as “women in refrigerators” syndrome.

Ever since then the character of Gwen Stacy has been defined primarily by her death, by the fact that she was killed by Norman Osborn in order to make Spider-Man suffer.  A version of Gwen introduced in Ultimate Spider-Man was eventually murdered by Carnage.  Gwen appeared in the two recent Amazing Spider-Man movies, played by actress Emma Stone.  And, yep, at the end of the second one, she gets killed by the Green Goblin.  No matter what reality Gwen popped up in she seemed to have a target painted on her back, and fans were left holding their breaths waiting for someone to inevitably pull the trigger.

So by introducing an alternate reality version of Gwen Stacy who is Spider-Woman, this horrible trend is finally turned completely around.  Instead of being a victim, Gwen is now a hero.

Of course, it’s not just the concept but the execution.  As I understand it, Slott initially thought up the idea of giving a parallel universe version of Gwen the spider-powers.  The actual development of the character fell to writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez, the latter of whom designed Spider-Woman’s distinctive costume.

Edge of Spider-Verse 2 pg 2 & 3 Spider-Gwen origin

I have to admit, when I first read Spider-Gwen #1-4 I was a bit lost.  I felt like I had come in on the second act.  So I went and finally purchased Edge of Spider-Verse #2, now on its fifth printing (I told you the character was hot).  Reading that and then re-reading those issues of Spider-Gwen, things did make more sense.

Admittedly the story in Edge of Spider-Verse #2 drops the readers right into the middle of things.  I imagine that when Latour wrote it he didn’t have any idea that Spider-Woman would be an instant hit.  So he set out to give readers a crash course on Gwen’s origin via a quick two-page flashback before showing us what she was up to, and then ending the issue with a hook leading into the rest of the “Spider-Verse” crossover.

In the Spider-Gwen reality of Earth-65 it was Gwen Stacy and not Peter Parker who got bit by a radioactive spider and gained super-powers.  Much like Peter did waaaay back in Amazing Fantasy #15, Gwen adopted a costumed identity in order to seek fame & fortune.

Peter, who was as much of a socially awkward nerd in this reality as he was on “mainstream” Earth-616, became a huge fan of Spider-Woman.  Tired of being bullied by his high school classmates, Peter decided he also wanted to be famous.  He developed what appeared to be a serum similar to the one that turned Curt Connors into the Lizard.  Transforming into a monster, Peter fought Spider-Woman, and during the battle was fatally wounded.  The dying Peter told Spider-Woman “I just… just… wanted to be special… like you.”  This left Gwen completely devastated, as she and Peter had been close friends.

The J. Jonah Jameson of this world, who much like his 616 counterpart never met a spider-themed vigilante who he didn’t hate, immediately began blaming Spider-Woman for Peter’s death.  His editorials in The Daily Bugle convinced the general public and the NYPD that Spider-Woman is a criminal.

In a crowning piece of irony, Jameson is the one who declares “Spider-Woman and those like her must learn that with their great power comes an even greater responsibility!”  It is an admonishment that Gwen takes to heart.  She sets aside her frivolous goals and vows to use her powers to help others, even if most people believe her to be a murderer.

Edge of Spider-Verse 2 pg 18

Gwen’s task is made all the more difficult by the fact that the police officer leading the manhunt for her is none other than her father, Captain George Stacy.  This ends up placing Stacy in the crosshairs of the Kingpin, who has his own plans for Spider-Woman.  An assassin is dispatched to murder the police captain.  Spider-Woman saves her father’s life, but Stacy immediately turns around and tries to arrest her.  This forces Gwen to unmask, much to her father’s shock.  She attempts to explain her actions to her father:

“You’re a good cop, Dad. You put on that badge and carry that gun because you know if you don’t, someone who shouldn’t will.

“When I put this mask on, I only did it because it freed me from responsibility. I thought I was special. And Peter Parker died because he tried to follow my example. I have to take responsibility for that. To make his death mean something.

“This mask is my badge now. If I don’t define what it means, monsters like this will. This is where I’m needed most.”

I’m glad that Latour got the reveal of Gwen’s identity to her father out of the way early on.  He avoided having the clichéd set-up of an authority figure on a misguided mission to hunt down a misunderstood vigilante, not knowing that their target is a loved one.  That type of thing has been played out too many times in the past.

The Spider-Gwen series is very much concerned with Gwen’s efforts to make things right.  Beneath the flippant attitude and corny quips of Spider-Woman, she is in turmoil, still haunted by feelings of guilt over Peter’s death.  Her relationship with her father is severely strained, as she has forced him to choose between his responsibilities as a parent and his duty as a police officer.  She is very much the novice crime-fighter, making a number of serious mistakes.  Gwen also struggles to balance her two identities, to find a way to be both an ordinary teen and a super-hero.  Her friendships with the members of the band the Mary Janes is on the skids since she keeps flaking out on them due to her activities as Spider-Woman.

It’s interesting how similar yet how different the Spider-Gwen universe is from the “regular” Marvel universe.  The Kingpin and the Vulture are much like their 616 selves.  Matt Murdock is not Daredevil but he is still blind and possesses heightened senses.  However in this reality he works as the Kingpin’s lawyer and is totally corrupt.  Frank Castle is also a regular fixture, not as the Punisher, but as a member of the NYPD, albeit one who is nearly as ruthless as his vigilante counterpart.  Castle’s idea of “interrogating” a suspect is to beat him within an inch of his life.

Spider-Gwen 2 pg 3

Despite the often somber tone, Latour features a lot of humor in his stories.  Spider-Woman draws the Vulture out of hiding by spray painting insulting graffiti all about the city such as “Your nest is a hot mess” and “Death from a butt.”  In the second issue, after sustaining a concussion during her battle with the Vulture, Gwen begins hallucinating that her one-time ally Spider-Ham is following her around making smartass comments.

I did feel that these issues went by a bit too quickly.  At $3.99 each, it would be nice if they were somewhat more substantial reads.  But that’s hardly a complaint that I would direct solely at Latour.  It seems endemic of a good portion of the comic book biz: the more expensive single issues become, the shorter the time it takes to read them, or so it seems.

The artwork by Rodriguez on Spider-Gwen is amazing.  He gives this series a unique look and atmosphere.  Rodriguez’s illustration of the action sequences is dynamic, with extremely effective layouts & storytelling.  Likewise, he does solid work with the quieter character moments, as in issue #4 when May Parker talks to Gwen about what happened to Peter, and about her feelings concerning Spider-Woman.

Spider-Gwen 3 pg 10

Rico Renzi’s coloring on these issues certainly stands out.  He utilizes unusual, distinctive hues to create a palpable sense of atmosphere.  Renzi’s coloring very much complements Rodriguez’s artwork.

The design sense that Rodriguez demonstrates on his covers for Spider-Gwen is striking.  He creates very eye-catching, abstract compositions on each of them.

As with so many other comic books nowadays, Spider-Gwen is being released with numerous variant covers by a number of different artists.  For issue #4 I decided to mix things up a bit and buy one of those, the regularly-priced variant by Mark Brooks.  His portrait of Spider-Woman hanging out on the side of the George Washington Bridge is done a much more photo-realistic style than Rodriguez’s work.  I’ve recently seen Brooks’ work on a number of covers for Marvel titles.  He’s done quality work on these.

Spider-Gwen 4 variant cover

While I was somewhat undecided after reading the first couple of issues of Spider-Gwen, the next two hooked my interest.  For the time being I think I’ll keep following this book and see where Latour & Rodriguez are going.

At the very least, with all the action taking place on “Earth-65” I hopefully won’t have to worry about Spider-Woman getting tied up in all the Secret Wars shenanigans currently occupying most of Marvel’s publishing line.  Ideally Gwen will be given the time to feature in several stories in her own reality, to stand on her own two feet, before once again crossing over into other realities.

Having said that, if and when Spider-Gwen does pay a visit to Earth-616, hopefully we will get to see her toss Norman Osborn off a bridge!

Batman: The Killing Joke – a reappraisal

The recent controversy over artist Rafael Albuquerque’s proposed variant cover for Batgirl #41 (you can read all about it on Comic Book Resources) has prompted me to take another look at the story that inspired it.

Batman: The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland and colored by John Higgins.  It was originally released by DC Comics in early 1988.  To say that it was a sales success would be an understatement; by the time I purchased a copy of it two years later it was already on its sixth printing.

Batman The Killing Joke cover

For a long time I considered The Killing Joke to be one of the all-time greatest Batman stories ever told.  Along with Year One, I must have read it at least a dozen times when I was in high school.

It’s been a few years, though, since I last looked at The Killing Joke.  Yesterday I pulled my copy off the bookshelf and read it again, hoping to approach it with a fresh eye.  In certain respects I found it to still be amazing; in other respects previously minor flaws suddenly seemed much more apparent to me.

I still think the basic concept is great.  The Joker recalls his (possible) origin, when he was an average guy who was futilely attempting a career as a stand-up comedian, a depressed mope who felt like a failure to his pregnant wife.  Desperate to provide for his family, he agreed to help a pair of crooks rob the playing card company next to the chemical plant where he used to be employed.  Then, in the space of 24 hours, everything in his life catastrophically falls apart.  And at the end of the day he is transformed forevermore into Batman’s insane arch-nemesis.

The Joker becomes obsessed with the idea that “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”  He embarks on a scheme to drive Commissioner James Gordon crazy by completely destroying his life in order to prove his point, and not just to himself, but also to Batman, who he is convinced must have also had “one bad day” that resulted in him becoming an obsessed costumed vigilante.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 7

Moore’s scripting on The Killing Joke is fantastic.  His dialogue for the Joker is brilliantly twisted, humorous in the sickest way possible.  I absolutely love the first scene with the Joker where he is somberly reflecting on how the out-of-business carnival he wishes to purchase is a decrepit, hazardous wreck, only to turn around and, grinning ear-to-ear, announce “I’m crazy for it.”

Moore also writes Batman especially well.  He is a brooding, driven figure, yet also an introspective one.  Beneath his obsession with stopping the Joker is a concern that the two of them are locked in a spiral of self-destruction, and that sooner or later one or the other will inevitably end up dead.  Despairingly he asks “How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?”

The Killing Joke shows that Batman and the Joker are mirror images of one another, both very much alike and complete opposites.  A young Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered in front of him and dedicated the rest of his life to restoring order to his existence, to doing everything in his power to protect other innocents and punish criminals.  Likewise, something happened to the Joker and his life totally collapsed.  Unlike Batman, though, the Joker’s response to this was to descend into insanity, and to actively work to drag the entire world down with him, to tear down society, to perpetuate utter chaos.

Of course, Moore then sweeps aside the Joker’s argument by having Jim Gordon emerge intact from the hell he has been subjected to.  Yes, thanks to the Joker this has probably been the absolute worst day of Gordon’s entire life.  But the Commissioner is still very much in possession of his sanity.  When Batman heads into the carnival funhouse to capture the Joker, Gordon gives him firm instructions…

“I want him brought in… and I want him brought in by the book!  By the book, you hear?  We have to show him! We have to show him our way works!”

Much as Frank Miller did in Year One, Moore demonstrates in The Killing Joke that, in his own way, Gordon is just as strong, perhaps even stronger, than Batman.  Gordon is the one who doesn’t take refuge behind a mask to operate outside the law.  Instead, Gordon is the one who chooses to remain part of a corrupt, flawed system and attempts to fix it from within.  And he doesn’t retreat from life, but works to maintain family & friendships in the face of the horrors that Gotham City continually throws in his face.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 38

The artwork by Brian Bolland on The Killing Joke is astonishing.  It is exquisitely detailed.  Bolland’s layouts and storytelling are incredibly dramatic.  He does superb work telling the story, transitioning from one scene to another.

Bolland is an incredible artist, but he is also not an especially fast one.  He is very meticulous, and so usually works as a cover artist, or drawing short stories for anthology books.  The Killing Joke is one of the longest stories Bolland ever drew outside of the Judge Dredd serials he worked on in 2000 AD and the Camelot 3000 miniseries he penciled.  As I understand it, Bolland spent some amount of time completing The Killing Joke.  It really appears that the time & energy he put into it were worth it, because the finished artwork is stunning.

The coloring by John Higgins is also extremely effective.  It definitely plays a key role in establishing the mood & atmosphere of this story.

So, having explained what I think is amazing about The Killing Joke, what is it that does not work for me?  To put it bluntly and simply, I really am not happy with the treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl.

I don’t know what the exact behind-the-scenes circumstances were at DC Comics’ editorial in the mid-1980s.  Apparently post-Crisis either no one wanted to use the character of Batgirl, or there was an active directive to write her out of the Batman books.  So when Moore came along with his dramatic plans for Barbara he was given the green light with no resistance from editorial.

A specific, key component of the Joker’s plan to drive Gordon insane is through torturing his daughter Barbara.  Specifically, the Joker shoots Barbara in the spine, crippling her from the waist down.  Apparently the Joker intended to inflict precisely that damage on her, because he immediately begins making tasteless jokes about it.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 15

After the Joker’s goons drag Gordon away, the Joker undresses the gravely-wounded Barbara and takes photos of her.  Later on, when Gordon is his prisoner at the carnival, the Joker forces him to view numerous blown-up photographs of the naked, humiliated Barbara.

As a teenager reading The Killing Joke, what happened to Barbara annoyed me.  At that time I was just upset that she had been placed in a wheelchair and could no longer be Batgirl.  It seemed like a waste of a character and an unfortunate thing to do to a hero who had been around since the 1960s.

Looking at The Killing Joke now, though, I am much more unsettled by Moore’s treatment of Barbara.  The scene in the funhouse with the photos of her is genuinely disturbing.

This is probably going to be the most inappropriate analogy possible, but this reminds me of Tom & Jerry.  When I was five years old I loved the Tom & Jerry cartoon.  I watched it on TV every single day.  I could not get enough of Tom & Jerry.  Then, inevitably, I got older, and I my interests changed.  Then about two decades later when I was in my mid-20s I started seeing reruns of Tom & Jerry on Cartoon Network, and I was surprised at how incredibly violent they were.  I could not believe that I had watched these as a little kid and not come away warped by them… hmmm, then again, maybe I did.

Well, I’ve had that same sort of experience with The Killing Joke.  Re-reading it in 2015 at the age of 38, aspects of it that flew under my radar as a teenager now leap out at me as appalling.

In the past I have heard some people describe what the Joker did to Barbara as “rape.”  I was one of those people who argued that nothing sexual actually happened.  The thing is, though, looking at it again now it is definitely a form of sexual assault.  The Joker shoots Barbara, takes off her clothes and photographs her while she is completely helpless.  That must have been an incredibly horrifying, humiliating experience.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 26

In hindsight, this falls into the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon that Gail Simone documented early in her career, wherein a villain kills or tortures a female character solely to make a male hero suffer.  That is definitely the case here.  The Joker doesn’t even know that Barbara is Batgirl.  He cripples and sexually humiliates her because he wants to drive Commissioner Gordon insane.  And the Joker is only doing that in order to prove a point to Batman, which makes the torture that Barbara experienced even more indirectly related to the protagonist.

I really cannot help but wonder if The Killing Joke could have worked better if Moore had approached it differently, if he had not done what he did to Barbara.  At the very least, Moore could have just had Barbara wounded by the Joker and left the door open for her recovery and return to the role of Batgirl so that she could once again be a hero instead of a victim.

Credit where credit is due: writers John Ostrander & Kim Yale, who were upset at Barbara Gordon’s treatment in The Killing Joke, successfully revamped her into the computer hacker & information broker Oracle in the pages of Suicide Squad.  Oracle soon became a key member of Batman’s supporting cast.  In the Birds of Prey series first Chuck Dixon and then Gail Simone herself did great work with Barbara / Oracle.

When Barbara finally regained her ability to walk and resumed the identity of Batgirl in the New 52, Simone was again there to chronicle her adventures.  So fortunately, despite what happened to Barbara in The Killing Joke, other writers were able to make her an interesting, viable character again.

Suicide Squad 49 cover Oracle

Another aspect of The Killing Joke that I am not happy with is that it helped begin the escalation of the Joker into an unstoppable mass murderer.  It became a case of “Can you top this?”  The Killing Joke saw the Joker cripple Batgirl and try to drive Gordon insane.  Shortly after, in “A Death in the Family,” the Joker brutally murdered Jason Todd / Robin and attempted to poison the United Nations General Assembly at the behest of the Ayatollah Khomeini… no, really, that actually happened!  Since then there have been stories where the Joker mutilates newborn babies, runs over innocent people, attempts to blow up Gotham with a nuclear bomb and murders Jim Gordon’s wife Sarah, just to name a few atrocities.  It’s all culminated with the Joker cutting off his own face just to show us how evil and insane he is.

This is why I am generally not a fan of the Joker.  Yes, for most of his history the character has been a murderer.  But before the late 1980s the Joker wasn’t an indiscriminate killer.  His crimes, however horrible, were motivated by a certain sick humor and bizarre rationales.  Hell, even in The Killing Joke he isn’t going around murdering people left & right.  He kills one person, the owner of the carnival.  That’s it.  Despite that, Moore’s depiction of the Joker is one of the most frightening ever.

But again, this is yet another example of subsequent writers looking at the success & innovations of Moore’s work in the 1980s and totally taking the wrong lessons away.  Just as they did with Watchmen, later Batman writers looked at The Killing Joke and said “Let’s make the Joker and all of Batman’s other enemies completely insane and violent and have them murder lots of people! Grim & gritty is cool!”

Batman The Animated Series Joker

That’s probably why my favorite version of the Joker is actually from Batman: The Animated Series.  Because the audience for that series was all ages, the Joker could not be seen killing anyone.  That required the writers to actually be creative and come up with other ways in which to make the character scary.  Unlike in the comic books, The Animated Series couldn’t simply rely on mindless carnage to show us the Joker was insane and evil.

Besides, Mark Hamill was brilliant at voicing the Joker.  His portray of the character was perfect.  Even though The Killing Joke was published four years before The Animated Series made its debut, re-reading Alan Moore’s dialogue for the Joker, I can totally “hear” Hamill’s voice in my head.

Summing it all up, Batman: The Killing Joke is a good story with superb artwork.  However, there are nevertheless aspects of the writing that are undeniably problematic.  While I still like The Killing Joke, it definitely has some real flaws, especially its treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon.