Barbara’s not on the sideline this time.
1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke is widely regarded as one of the most influential Batman stories of all time, and perhaps even as the definitive Joker story. Despite its praise, Alan Moore and Brian Bollard’s one-off story has also been the subject of decades of criticism by feminists outside and within the industry who view Barbara Gordon’s treatment within The Killing Joke as a plain example of comics’ violent and sexist view towards women.
In the story, the Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon, not because she’s Batgirl, but as a means to psychologically torture and traumatize Commissioner Gordon in order to prove a point to Batman. This is problematic, as The Killing Joke is not a story about an act of bravery or sacrifice by Batgirl. It’s a story about the conflict between Joker and Batman, and one where Barbara Gordon is shot, paralyzed, stripped, and photographed for reasons entirely unrelated to her actions. Joker doesn’t even know about Barbara’s affiliation with Batman – only that her torture will devastate her captive father.
The controversy was reignited in March of 2015 after a variant cover of the latest re-imagining of Batgirl depicted a clearly petrified Barbara being held at gunpoint by The Joker, who’s dressed in the same attire he wore during Barbara’s attack. It was to some readers a reminder Barbara’s worst night, and to others an eye opener into the character’s long and violent history.
With this in mind, it’s clear why Barbara Gordon’s leading role in Batman: Arkham Knight’s “A Matter of Family” DLC story is so important.
The game’s add-on introduces the player to a world inspired by the setting and events of The Killing Joke. In a prequel set a handful of years before Knight, The Joker has kidnapped Commissioner Gordon and holds him in captive in a carnival Joker acquired through less than legal methods. But events don’t transpire entirely as they did in Moore’s original story: In “A Matter of Family,” Batman is nowhere to be seen – it’s Batgirl who comes to save the Commissioner.
Barbara enters Joker’s carnival without the aid of Batman to rescue her father. She’s joined by Tim Drake, who at the time is new to the Robin mantle. Sure, Robin tags along here, but Babs is calling the shots on this operation; the Boy Wonder assists Batgirl, but it’s her own plans, computer skills, and personal motivation that get them through the night.
Since 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum players have known that Barbara Gordon does at one point become paralyzed at the hands of the Joker in this universe, but this is not that night. “A Matter of Family” is a victory for Barbara, and an important one at that. Throughout the game she breaks away from sexist tropes that many argue plague both the comic and video game world by demonstrating the same combat skill that Batman and Robin boast, possessing more competent intellect and computer skills than even the Dark Knight himself, and taking command of the rescue mission, all despite her gender.
“A Matter of Family” can’t fully make amends for the way Babs and many other female characters were treated in the eighties and beyond, but it does well to give her a tasty bit of revenge.
At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, DC announced that a Killing Joke animated adaptation was in the works, and in a way, they’re only asking for trouble. Diehard fans of the original will be outraged if the stories violence is at all censored or modified, and critics of the original comic will be just as vocal if nothing changes. When the film arrives we may very well see another wave of criticism from newcomers, but for the moment “Batgirl: A Matter of Family” delivers a small victory for female superheroes.