TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual assault, sexual violence
My sister asked me the other day what the most influential moments of my life have been thus far. I told her the positive ones; the days my siblings came into my life, the day I first watched an episode of Teen Titans, the day I was accepted into Americorps. These are the days I try to focus on, the positives in my life, the things that I know for certain changed me for the better. There are influential days that are less cut and dry. The day I first read Identity Crisis and cried in the shower for the better part of an hour. The day I read The Killing Joke and stayed under my covers for almost an entire day. Everyday when someone who wasn’t named Sue Dibny or Barbara Gordon told me their story. I try not to define myself by the bad days. I think that’s why I identify so much with Barbara Gordon. She refuses to be defined by her worst day.
When I was eighteen, I experienced a sexual assault at the hands of someone I trusted. The words to describe my experience did not come until a year later when the first of many friends opened up about her own similar experience.
When I first heard, before ever I read the comic, that the events of The Killing Joke had been retconned (or at least murky canonically), I was elated. Traumatic experiences are just that, and I don’t think there’s a single survivor who hasn’t wished their trauma never occurred.
But the more I thought about it, the more uneasy I began to feel. Studies show that traumatic experiences can mess with the way people remember events. To make the event go away, through a super villain literally rewriting Barbara’s memories, seems entirely too real. Entirely too personal. I remember staring at a ceiling and wondering if my mind was playing tricks on me, willing the bruises to be imaginary, willing the event to be a misunderstanding. To me, it feels disrespectful to simply go POOF! (Maybe) It’s gone! It was your imagination! It never happened!
I thought about the first friend who opened up to me about her rape. And the next one. And the next one. I stopped counting once the stories overtook my birthdays.
Would they have opened up to me if what happened to me never happened? Would all of us still think we were alone if we hadn’t talked about it to the now fierce collective of women with Amazonian strength and resolve?
I don’t think everything happens for a reason. There are things in this world that are brutal and wrong and senseless. In DC Comics, the events of the Killing Joke are so horrendous, they literally broke the universe. Booster Gold went back in time over and over again to try to stop it. Zatanna had a premonition of something bad happening to Barbara, but without specifics, she couldn’t stop it.
If I had the chance to have someone go inside my head and POOF! Make the rape magically go away, make it like it never happened…I don’t know if I would anymore.
The therapy. The insomnia. The panic attacks. The dread I feel when there’s even a possibility of seeing him. The guilt of not reporting. It’s awful. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
But like it or not, it’s changed me. I think it’s made me a stronger person. Because I survived that, I know without question I can survive anything.
I’m projecting, I know. But what Barbara Gordon went through is by all definitions a sexual crime. She was shot, stripped, and photographed as she bled out. DC editor Len Wein said “Yeah, okay, cripple the b****.” The original art was more sensationalized, more sexual. The original art suggests that Joker did more than shoot, strip, and photograph. Her agency was taken. Her mobility. Her ability to fight back.
DC had absolutely no plans for Barbara Gordon after The Killing Joke. Donna Dickens of Hitfix’s Harpy told the site Fusion “[T]he idea that “The Killing Joke” set up Barbara to become the Oracle is, quite frankly, bullshit,” Dickens told Fusion. “At the time the comic was released, DC had no plans to do anything with Batgirl; it wasn’t until Kim Yale fished her out of the discard pile that Oracle became a character. Oracle is a wonderful character but her existence is in spite of Killing Joke, not because of it.”
In spite of The Killing Joke, in spite of Joker, Barbara made something new and beautiful out of her trauma. Physical limitations only pushed her harder to surpass said limitations. She became DC Comic’s highest profile disabled/access and functional need’s hero. Her work as Oracle lead her to a fierce family of women who would literally fight for her (and often did).
So how do I feel about The Killing Joke potential retcon? Conflicted. I believe that the graphic novel is a deeply misogynistic book that showcased how disposable DC Comics wrongly believed female characters to be. It shouldn’t have been published in the first place. Partly by accident, but mostly due to the work of dedicated creators like Kim Yale and Gail Simone, that horrible event transformed into something good.
I wish I could ask Babs what she thinks about this. I wish I could ask her a lot of things. She isn’t a real, solid, human being though. There are, however, millions of trauma survivors out there in the world, and the way we tell these stories in fiction directly impacts the way their non-fiction accounts are told and received.