The Killing Joke, published in 1988, was anything but a joke. In this graphic novel, The Joker is set out to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, so he decides to go for the Commissioner's daughter (Barbara Gordon, also known as Batgirl). It's a classic story: one man wants to intimidate or attack another man, so he finds a woman that is important to the other man's life and he hurts her. In this story, Barbara Gordon is used as a mere plot device. The Joker shows up at Gordon's house and he shoots her. The bullet damages her spine, paralyzing one of the world's most important female superheroes from the waist down.
Writer Alan Moore's decision to paralyze Barbara Gordon upset Batgirl fans (rightly so!). Bitch addressed Moore's decision to "cripple that bitch" (yes, that's what he said), and pointed out that The Killing Joke further perpetuated the "women in refrigerators" trope so often used in comics.
While the decision to paralyze Barbara Gordon was certainly a misogynistic one, the way that her character develops after the shooting speaks to the transformative power of information and technology... and librarians! Last week we looked at Barbara Gordon's character prior to The Killing Joke. Her role as a librarian disguised her alter ego as Batgirl; reasserting the stereotype of librarians as meek and the opposite of badass. But this all changes after The Killing Joke. Thanks to a few writers who decided to make the best of what had happened to Gordon, Gordon's character decides to embrace her identity as a skilled librarian. She becomes Oracle, a computer hacker who discovers that access to information is a pretty phenomenal superpower.
In this page from Oracle -- Year One: Born of Hope, Gordon climbs out of the depression that followed her paralysis: "I was tired of being a victim. I had skills and abilities long before I became Batgirl. It was time to make them work for me again. It was time to stop being afraid." She then goes on to say, "One thing I knew how to do was research and, thanks to my modem, I could tap into databases worldwide. I discovered I had an affinity for computer hacking, and I started to make some money," and "I got into the internet before the general public really knew what it was. And I discovered a world there."
Given Gordon's history as a savvy librarian, it makes sense that she would be tapped into the wonders of the Internet before the general public. This comic poses Gordon at the forefront of the information age—and her ability to access information is seen as liberating and powerful. Gordon becomes a utilized librarian. She turns into the go-to person for the "good guys", providing information to Batman as well as law enforcement agents looking for villains. She finds that she doesn't need to be able bodied in order to fight the good fight; her skills as a librarian manifest themselves into crime fighting tools. I'm also a big fan of the way her laptop becomes her weapon of choice, appearing with her throughout the comics as a way of illustrating her intelligence and access to information.
Barbara Gordon later stars in Birds of Prey, a comic that casts an all-female superhero team led by Oracle, who continued to harness her power as a computer hacker. Gail Simone, who happens to be responsible for coining the term "women in refrigerators," played an instrumental role in developing the characters in Birds of Prey. Simone, who scripted the comic for several years, once said, "The characters don't apologize for being asskickers, nor for being smart, nor for being sexy, nor for being sexual, for that matter."
In the 60s, Barbara Gordon masked her Batgirl identity behind her traditionally feminine career as a librarian. But with the birth of Oracle, she reinvents what it means to be a librarian. She will not be pigeonholed as the stereotypical harmless librarian behind the reference desk, but will instead carry her laptop onto the streets, where she will prove that those who are capable of accessing information are important to the fight.