The Joker War comes spinning out of Batman and into the pages of Batgirl this month as Barbara Gordon comes face to face with Joker once again.
I’m having trouble figuring out how to properly start this review. It attempts to be a ‘response’ to The Killing Joke, unfortunately, I don’t feel it was handled very well at all. In my opinion Castellucci hasn’t yet managed to capture Barbara as a character, especially when dealing with core aspects of her history. Her Oracle arc was a misfire, and the thought of her tackling Barbara’s relationship with Joker was not something I was looking forward to.
The story picks up directly after the last, with Barbara home from her date with Jason Bard. The first three pages feature a lurking figure following her around her apartment while she changes, eats, does some yoga, and relaxes. Reading it, I was creeped out, especially since the solicit and cover give away the identity of the stalker as the Joker. In addition to being creepy, it brings up my first problem with the set up for this book, which is the fact that I don’t see someone as perceptive as Barbara completely missing the fact that she’s being followed around her apartment by a psychopath for a long period of time. It doesn’t make sense for someone so capable, especially when he’s close enough we see his face in reflections and eyes behind her. That however, is the least of this book’s problems.
When she finally notices something is wrong, Barbara is quick to act. She manages to hit Joker over the head with a bottle and punch him in the face before she’s incapacitated by a small yellow remote he has. In one move he strips her of her ability to walk and takes this book from creepy to what I can only describe as gross. Joker monologues through Barbara’s fury, lets her get another punch in, and then promptly uses his controller to literally puppet her body, forcing her to sit, and then walk up a flight of stairs to the roof when she’s pushed him to anger. All the while Barbara is trying to figure out what he wants and how to get out of this.
The art only adds to the creepiness. through the story Joker is very casual with Barbara, leaning over her, putting an arm around her shoulders on the couch, and even going so far as almost embracing her just before he threatens to toss her off a roof. It’s so very unsettling and makes what’s going on ten times worse.
I can’t even begin to describe how in poor taste all this is. For Barbara this is the second time she’s faced the Joker. The Joker who shot and paralyzed her, as well as took naked photos of her, injured and bleeding, to send to Jim Gordon. To write a story where he once again overpowers her, and strips her of her control over her body and agency is the exact opposite of how this topic should be treated. Yes, Barbara gets a few punches in, and yes she verbally holds her own against the Joker, but none of that makes up for how gross it is to have put her in that position again at all.
The book attempts to make it into an empowering story, by having Barbara declare things like “You don’t get to say my name” and spend the whole time fighting him, however a lot of the energy is drained from that simply by the fact that she’s rendered physically powerless a few pages in. It really only succeeds in undermining all of Barbara’s healing and growth by ripping it away from her. Not only that, but putting her through the same trauma she has faced before and forcing her to physically mutilate her body in an attempt to escape –as she does at one point– is just wrong. It is a complete misfire in attempting to address a loss of agency story.
If Castellucci was really trying to give Barbara a chance to take back what Joker took from her it should not have been done by making her helpless, or at the mercy of her attacker again. Instead, she should have been truly empowered. The story could have let her retain what she’s fought so hard to gain, and then had her rise above the taunts and jeers through a physical fight. Let her take back everything by standing tall as the opposite of what he tried to make her into. Anything else is an insult to the character, her recovery, and the fans who look up to her for pushing beyond the abuse and assault he put her through.
Even stepping back from how offensive the idea itself is, there are large parts of the story itself that do not really work. I’ve already mentioned that Barbara should have noticed someone in her apartment, but other aspects of the story just don’t fly. Take for instance the fact that she says nothing can hack her implant, yet Joker magically has a tool to do just that by matching it’s “frequency”. This is ridiculous, who declares they don’t want something to be hacked and then allows a remote control to be made that would let someone do just that? Why is that laying around Wayne Enterprises, and how on Earth did Joker find out the frequencies matched? It’s too easy and obviously a tool created specifically for this incident.
Secondly, the whole reason Joker shows up is for the codes to Batman’s micro-caves, which he’s busy trying to break into as a part of his plan to take over the city. He ends up settling for Barbara telling him that they’re locked under a series of riddles. My question is why? Riddles are the Riddler’s thing, not Joker’s. If he’s come all the way out to meet Barbara, I don’t think he’d accept “figure it out yourself” as a proper answer, no matter that Barbara is using it to stall for time. But he does, and spends time bantering with her about how he’s smart enough to crack an unbreakable code.
The ending again attempts to empower Barbara by giving her an opportunity to take control over her body back, but not in a way that would actually give her control back or have her come out on top.
To prevent Joker from further dragging her along with him, Barbara digs a loose pipe into her back, breaking the implant that gives her back her ability to walk.
Castellucci writes this as a triumphant scene, where she’s no longer allowing him to control her, but again it falls flat. How am I supposed to accept that this returns her agency? The implant is what gave her back her ability to walk, it was the final nail in the coffin against everything Joker did to her. Instead of having Barbara outsmart Joker and get the remote back, she destroys the thing that gave her ability to walk back and let her return to being Batgirl. There is nothing powerful or symbolic about this move to get away from him, in fact it feels much like a last desperate act to save herself.
The only reason I can see this being chosen as Barbara’s move is to return her to her role as Oracle. The book has been officially cancelled with issue 50, and Death Metal is setting the stage for many things to change. I wouldn’t be surprised if editorial took this as their chance to reset her and select a new Batgirl moving forward if the book is re-launched. If we do get Oracle back, I hate that this is how it was done.
The only redeeming quality I can find about this is the art. Robbi Rodriguez is on pencils with Jordie Bellaire on color, and I have to admit the book is gorgeous. Creepy, and totally unsettling, but gorgeous. They capture the feeling of terror and horror really well, particularly in the moment Barbara realizes she’s lost feeling in her legs again. There’s a full two pages that visually display the buzzing panic Barbara is feeling through overly saturated colors, and pink polaroid pictures of Joker’s smile that fill the pages and scatter, giving the whole thing a feeling of chaos even as it references back to the worst day of her life.
- You’re collecting everything tied to Joker War
- Even then, I’d say skip it
- I don’t recommend this, not if you’re a fan of Barbara
If it’s not clear, I did not enjoy Batgirl. Having Joker strip Barbara Gordon of her agency and ability to walk, then parade around her, puppet her, and eventually drive her to hurt herself to escape him is the exact opposite of what I feel a proper response to TKJ would be. Even outside of it being a response, its attempts at giving Barbara a chance to take back control over her body from Joker miss the mark, and make the reader so uncomfortable that any meaning is lost. While the art and colors are stunning, this book is in such poor taste, any redeeming qualities about the story are hard to appreciate.
DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.