DC's 'Killing Joke' Gets Critique from Batgirl and Harley Quinn
[This story contains spoilers for Heroes in Crisis No. 4]
With its fourth issue, DC Entertainment’s Heroes in Crisis shifts from murder mystery to metatextual criticism of an earlier — famous — story in DC comic book lore, and the stories that followed. The key to the change? The arrival in the series of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl.
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Fittingly, perhaps, Batgirl's arrival in the series in Wednesday's issue is a flashback of sorts: She's introduced in a one-page scene from the Sanctuary files, the series' fictional conceit in which characters discuss their trauma to the camera, ostensibly in total secrecy. (Both of those ideas are contradicted in Heroes in Crisis No. 4; not only do readers see Black Canary walk away instead of confessing her weaknesses, but the climax of the issue sees the existence of superhero trauma center Sanctuary revealed to the world, thanks to leaked recordings of the heroes' testimony.)
The mostly silent page is a feint, opening with Batgirl stripping off before it's revealed that she's merely pulling up her top to reveal the entrance and exit wounds from the shot fired by the Joker in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke; a shot that temporarily paralyzed her and put her Batgirl career on hold. "There. And there," is the only dialogue on the page, as she displays her wounds.
From there, the issue cuts to the contemporary Batgirl, confronting Harley Quinn — the prime suspect in the aforementioned murder mystery, in which multiple heroes were found dead outside Sanctuary. What's notable about the ensuing scene is that it isn't a fight between the superhero and supervillain, despite Harley's best attempts. Instead, Batgirl talks her down, offering what could be read as coded references to the attitude toward female characters from (mostly male) fandom.
"How long is it going to be before Batman does what I did?" she asks, referring to deducing where Quinn was hiding out. "He'll take you and he'll judge you. He'll see you. The same way he sees me. As pitiful, broken. Just another… product of his failure to capture the stupid Joker. Another scared, scarred girl on his conscience. And he'll make assumptions about you. What you can and can't do. Who you are. What you did."
She continues, "We can … We can figure it out together. Without … people who think they know us not knowing us."
The gambit is successful; Harley surrenders, and agrees to work with Batgirl to solve the mystery of the Sanctuary massacre. But, beyond the scene's importance in terms of plot, it has a specific meaning for the outlook of Heroes in Crisis — and arguably, the DC Universe as a whole — moving forward; it humanizes the side characters who often get used as disposable figures to be tortured and discarded once they've inspired the hero into action, and criticizes those heroes, and more importantly a portion of the readers, who view such plot twists as acceptable, or even entertaining.
In doing so, it fits with another theme of the issue, and of Heroes in Crisis as a whole: That the iconic heroes — Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, DC's most iconic heroes — are as fallible and flawed as anyone. The reveal of Sanctuary's existence is something that Batman refuses to accept, because it means his planning wasn't airtight; Wonder Woman's frustration over the stymied murder investigation leads her to destroy parts of the Batcave in anger, and Superman's desire to be fair to everyone pushes him into inaction and uncertainty.
Coming after both Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in theaters and DC's successful 2016 Rebirth relaunch — both of which took pains to rebuild a mythology around the characters, albeit in very different fashions — Heroes in Crisis continues an attempt by writer Tom King to merge the myth and the man, and present a more rounded version of the familiar icons.
To date, the series has been a hit for DC; whether or not this approach will be reflected in DC's movie output in coming years will be interesting to see. If nothing else, the emphasis on Batgirl and Harley Quinn, coming ahead of both characters being given big-screen projects of their own, would appear to be a curious coincidence.
Heroes in Crisis No. 4 is available in comic book stores and digitally now.
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