Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke continues to be one of the most polarizing Batman stories because of the brutal way it fundamentally altered the trajectory of Barbara Gordon’s life. Though Babs went on to recover from the Joker’s vicious assault and continued to act as one of Gotham’s more powerful protectors, The Killing Joke was something of a dark spot in her mythos because of the way that the story presented her more as an object of others’ desire rather than her own person.
The fact that The Killing Joke remains one of DC’s better selling titles makes the idea of the publisher ever retconning the story seem far from likely. But just in time for DC’s Joker War event, the creative team behind the ongoing Batgirl series found just the right opportunity to bring the Joker and Barbara back together for a little reunion of sorts. The events of The Killing Joke might not be keeping Barbara up at night anymore, but the memory of what happened never really left her. Babs has certainly moved on, but that’s not to say that she hasn’t been preparing herself for the time when she’d have to take the clown on again because he, like she, is an obsessive creature of habit.
Batgirl #47, from writer Cecil Castellucci, artist Robbi Rodriguez, and colorist Jordie Bellaire, works best when you understand the larger goings-on in Gotham as of late that have been building up to the Joker’s war against Batman. After taking over Wayne Enterprises and exposing Batman’s connections with the GCPD, the Joker and his crew (through the clever use of proxies) manage to put the Dark Knight in the sort of dire situation every member of his rogues gallery has always dreamed of. Without access to his vast wealth, Bruce Wayne basically can’t exist in Gotham without making a target of himself. This is part of what leads to Bruce assuming his Batman identity full time, as the Joker’s masked goons do everything to break into his various Batcaves in order to gain control of his tech and sensitive information.
But rather than leading the Batcave raids himself (he leaves that duty to his new right hand woman, Punchline), the Joker instead makes his way to Burnside with a plan to get the drop on Barbara Gordon. After returning to her apartment from a date, Barbara settles into an evening of winding down with a glass of wine as she catches up on the day’s news and the newest details of what’s happening to Wayne’s assets. But as Barbara muses about what it is that keeps her fighting as Batgirl to protect her city, her years of detective work unconsciously kick in and she begins to realize that her things are ever so slightly out of place, alerting her to someone else’s presence in the room.
The calm, assured confidence of Barbara’s analytical mind that comes through in Castelucci’s script is paired with a sense of creeping dread that comes from Bellaire and Rodriguez’s almost void-like illustrations that are accented with the subtlest hints about the Joker’s presence on the panel. Batgirl #47 makes no pretense of hiding that it’s clearly channeling the same sort of narrative and stylistic energies as The Killing Joke, but here, Barbara’s completely in control of the situation—right up until she hurls a glass in the dark, damn near smashing it into the Joker’s mug.
After getting in more than a few good solid hits on the Joker, the criminal turns the tables by whipping out a small remote, pressing a button, and deactivating the implant in Barbara’s spine that restored her ability to walk—a situation she was certain she’d safeguarded herself from.
The Joker assumes Barbara’s shock at losing feeling in her legs again would be the sort of psychologically traumatic event that would immediately cause her to panic and give into whatever sort of sick demands he might make of her. But as the Joker begins to soliloquize in an attempt to break Barbara down even more, the analytical side of her mind takes over and she steels herself to start putting together a plan of action—because legs or not, she’s far from helpless so long as she’s thinking.
Regardless of what exactly it is that the Joker wants with her, years of fighting the Joker has taught Barbara that—mad genius thought he may be—his love for Batman is something that puts him at something of a disadvantage, because he can’t exactly bring himself to do away with the Bat the way he so desperately wants to. The Joker and Batman’s relationship is complicated and multifaceted, sure, but Barbara understands that it only takes but so much to put the Joker at unease by using the idea of his nemesis against him—to gain control over him. Things come to a head when Barbara more or less explains this to the Joker outright, and then begins to cackle in his face in a way that he truly finds unsettling.
When the Joker reveals that his remote can apparently manipulate Barbara’s body to move against her will, it seems very much like she might actually be courting death. But in a rather twisted turn of events, she ends up having the last laugh when she uses a sharp pipe to stab herself in the back, fully disabling the implant and Joker’s hold on her, and then hurling that same pipe into the Joker’s spine, seemingly paralyzing him.
Gruesome as Barbara’s fight with the Joker ends up being, it speaks to how the healing from trauma that she did following his most famous attack on her wasn’t just about mending her spine. Barbara grew from that moment to become a stronger, more resilient tactician capable of surviving another encounter like the Joker’s assault and emerging from it victorious. The only problem now is that she’s stuck on her roof with the Joker, and it’s not clear who, if anyone, is going to come to make sure that he stays put.
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