Detective Comics No. 168, Batgirl and The Killing Joke

April 14, 2024|In General

Up first this time out is a straightforward recolouring of the cover by Lew Sayre Schwartz and George Roussos for Detective Comics No. 168, February 1951. It featured the story “The Man Behind the Red Hood” which revealed the origin of the Joker. This story also served as source material for Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke published in 1988.

I originally read the story as a reprint in Batman No. 213, notable for a new version of Robin’s origin as the lead story.

Without a scan of the original art, I found a superb re-creation by Chris Kohler to use.

Colour and packaging by me.

Detective Comics 168 published by DC Comics

As published.

Detective Comics 168 cover illustration by Lew Sayre Schwartz and George Roussos with a re-creation by Chris Kohler

Cover re-creation by Chris Kohler.

Comic book production art by Scott Dutton

Art made production ready.

Comic book colouring by Scott Dutton

New colour version.

Comic book design and packaging by Scott Dutton

Re-created trade dress added.


Batgirl was created to fill a need the mid-60s Batman TV show had. They needed a new gimmick for the third season, and a female version of the Caped Crusader it was. Actress Yvonne Craig did a great job as Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner James Gordon. A librarian by day, she donned her cowl as Batgirl by night.

It wasn’t long before she made her debut appearance in Detective Comics, her first home, in No. 359, January 1967. Designed by Carmine Infantino, she was certainly a step up from the 1950s version.

Batgirl Infantino Model Sheet

Original Batgirl headshot model sheet by Carmine Infatino. Scan from Heritage Auctions.

After a great origin tale in “The Million-Dollar Debut of Batgirl,” editorial direction of the day was to treat girls as not welcome in the big boys’ clubhouse. A particularly-insulting tale was “Batgirl’s Costume Cut-Ups” from No. 371. On the cover Batgirl can’t help Batman fend off a gang of criminals because she’s more concerned about a run in her tights.

But by the end of the 60s, Barbara graduated from librarian to congresswoman and the tone of the tales was respectable.

After Detective Comics, Batgirl’s second home was Batman Family in the mid to late 70s. Sometimes teamed with college-going Dick Grayson there was an exploration of how they might be as a couple. The stories ranged from mediocre to good, and the art on her stories was often flat and uninspired.

When Batman Family was cancelled its content was folded into Detective Comics to save the latter from cancellation. Batgirl’s feature continued until Detective downsized from the Dollar Comic format back to regular size.

A gallery of Batgirl’s covers through the Silver and Bronze ages. They forgot her on DC Special No. 3. Her original black and blue costume always impressed. I found her lighter grey suit less effective.


By the end of the Bronze Age, there wasn’t a lot of energy or editorial will behind the female characters at DC.

Wonder Woman had had her own book since the Golden Age, but it wasn’t something a lot of people wanted to work on. Artists had to be assigned to it. The Earth-2 ‘Batgirl’ The Huntress was its back-up and was more popular than the lead feature.

Supergirl had been around since the early Silver Age and had her own feature in Adventure Comics until the early 1970s. Her own title followed and did not last long. Paul Kupperberg and Carmine Infantino were doing a Supergirl book in the time leading up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, but it wouldn’t last.

And as noted above, Batgirl was on the shelf.

There’s been a lot said about Crisis on Infinite Earths, though those words now have a good layer of the dust of the past on them. I’ll keep my opinion brief. I thought then, and still believe today, that it was a mean-spirited thing to do. Killing characters, destroying worlds, and the beginning of the endless universe reboots every few years when sales flag. It was a kick in the face to those of us who just wanted to read the stories. It was the beginning of a catering to the darker side of fandom.

Supergirl was removed from the DC Universe due to the then-current DC policy that Superman should be the only Kryptonian. Later she was brought back.

Wonder Woman was rebooted by Greg Potter and George Pérez and was done exceedingly well.

But with Batgirl, we’d have to wait until The Killing Joke.

Alan Moore wrote the script and he wanted to up the consequences of Joker’s actions, to show that he was truly vile. And he came up with the idea of the recently-retired Barbara ‘Batgirl’ Gordon being shot. And crippled. He thought he’d run it past DC to see if that would be approved.

In a 2006 interview with Wizard magazine, Moore was also critical about his decision to cripple Barbara Gordon: “I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon – who was Batgirl at the time – and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project… [He] said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.’ It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.”

Source: Wikipedia

When I read my copy of The Killing Joke, I was appalled that they had done this. After Crisis’ wholesale destruction, it was just another kick in the crotch for readers who thought that the positive DC Universe was worth believing in. I still believe it to be one of the most misogynistic editorial decisions ever made in super-hero comics.

The darkness in DC Comics that was ushered in by Crisis and championed in The Dark Knight and The Killing Joke was eagerly lapped up by fans happy to see the handcuffs taken off the old ultra-violence. Many thought comics were growing up, but instead of maturity we got a pandering to the fans’ darker impulses that would last through the 90s.

Red Hood Whats So Funny

A charity auction piece by Brian Bolland from the United Kingdom Comic Art Convention (UKCAC) 1987, pre-dating the publication of Batman: The Killing Joke. Colour by me.


This is where the heavy lifting of visual storytelling is done. As an experienced writer, Alan Moore knew what to describe and in how much detail to give Brian Bolland enough room to choose one aspect over another. While writing like this still allows for grey areas in thinking, when it comes to committing visuals to the page, everything must be laid down in black & white. All ambiguity disappears. It’s interesting to note the choices Bolland made when unable to show everything that Moore wanted.

Killing Joke Pencils 1


We are now behind Barbara as she opens the door wide, so that we are looking over her shoulder and can see the back of her head as she opens the door.

Standing on the other side of the threshold is the Joker. He can be dressed however you please (since he had to have a camera later in the scene perhaps some loud and ghastly tourist gear would look appropriate, with a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts and the camera slung round the neck. If that doesn’t look any good then dress him how you please and feel free to put the camera somewhere else.

But the most immediately noticeable thing about him is that he is holding a Magnum revolver and that he is smiling. His blanched face is hideous, with the blood red lips pressed together in a terrible smile. The eyes are wrinkled and reptilian and staring.

Actually, there should be two large and burly thug henchmen standing somewhere behind the Joker, but it isn’t important that we see them here. If we do they should only be grey shapes, leaving the Joker himself as the visual focus of the picture. With his lethal smile and his equally lethal gun.

No dialogue.


Now we have an uncomfortably tight close up of the gun in the Joker’s hand, so that we are looking right up its ugly, gleaming barrel. The gun is a heavy calibre pistol, quite possible a Magnum.

No dialogue.


Now a very tight reaction shot of Barbara’s face. She stares out of the panel at us, and also presumably at the off-panel Joker, with a look of stunned and speechless surprise. She hasn’t even had time to look frightened yet. Just blank and incredulous.

No dialogue.

Killing Joke Pencils 2


Full figure shot. The Joker, still smiling, fires the gun. The bullet passes through Barbara’s stomach, knocking her backwards as it does so, and emerges through the small of her back in a spray of blood and bone. Her face convulses into an agonised screech, eyes screwed tight shut and lips peeled back from her gums, as she starts to stumble over backwards in painful slow motion. One of her shoes comes off as the shot knocks her back, almost doubling her up completely with the impact so that one of her legs shoots out and the shoe is kicked loosed. The Joker’s smile is steady and unblinking. Other than pulling the trigger, he hasn’t moved.

No dialogue.


Still in a full figure shot, Barbara stumbles spastically and nervelessly backwards into the living room, toppling so that she’s at an extremely acute angle with the floor and is just about to smash down upon the glass coffee table. In the background, Gordon stiffens with shock in his chair, gripping the arms. He is still holding the scissors but the scrapbook lies forgotten in his lap as his eyes widen to the spectacle of his suddenly bloody daughter careening back through the room with a trail of blood droplets from her stomach wound still hanging in the air in her wake as she stumbles backwards, to emphasise the effect of slow motion that I’m after here.

No dialogue.

Killing Joke Pencils 3


Now we show the cataclysmic moment of impact between Barbara and the coffee table. The table shatters under Barbara’s weight as she crashes down upon it, writhing and clutching without effect towards her back, her face still a mask of agony as the shards of smashed glass coffee table fly up in the air all about her. Since this is probably shown from the same angle as our last picture, we can see Gordon in the same position in the background. He is just using his hands upon the chair to push himself up out of the chair, his eyes starting to bulge in amazed horror and disbelief as he tries to take in what is happening. This entire page takes place in about two seconds.

No dialogue.


Now we are slightly above and behind Gordon, locking down over his shoulder at the smashed figure of his daughter writhing and clutching at herself amidst the smashed ruins of the coffee table, blood all over her dress and her eyes almost rolled back as she struggles against the pain to retain consciousness. Gordon, from what little we can see of his face, looks completely stunned and shocked.

No dialogue.

Killing Joke pencils by Brian Bolland


Killing Joke original art by Brian Bolland

Original art scan from Heritage Auctions.

Before & After : Drag the divider back and forth to compare John Higgins’ colouring to Brian Bolland’s.

There’s been a fair bit of talk about the two different colour versions of The Killing Joke. John Higgins took inspiration from comics of the 1940s and 50s and amped it up with subjective, emotive symbology. Bolland had a much different opinion of it when he saw it in print, and he got to redo it for the Deluxe edition some years later. His vision was to be much more objective overall, with a sepia treatment for the flashbacks to the Joker’s origin.

At the time, I thought Higgins’ colouring captured the intensity of the story quite well. In more-recent readings I react to it as overbearing. Seeing Bolland’s version years later, I found that all the drama had been drained out of it. However, Bolland’s sepia treatment of the flashbacks of the Joker’s origin are brilliant because of the small red touches. It’s a subtle and superb way to indicate emotion and importance while saying this was a different time in the character’s life.

If Higgins was consistently oversaturated and Bolland anæmically bland in their colour schemes, it’s because both forgot or ignored the design principle of contrast. In storytelling there are quiet moments and exciting moments, happy and sad, comedic and dramatic, and so on. By failing to differentiate colour palettes in scenes, both colour versions come across as an artist’s ideology rather than cues for audience reaction. In typography you use italics or bold to make words stand out. But if you put all the words in italic, no single word can stand out.

My own version below – as you might expect – incorporates some emotional subjectivity contrasted with everyday objectivity. Plus I like my highlights a bit sharper and hotter as in film noir. That to me says drama.

Comic book colouring by Scott Dutton

New colour version.


I have an enduring fondness for the Batgirl character, even if I thought she should have assumed the Batwoman mantle decades ago. Just as Kara should be Superwoman by now.

The new, darker DC in the later 80s eliminated that idea. While Batgirl was crippled and Supergirl dead, Potter and Pérez’s Wonder Woman was the vanguard in de-ifantilising DC’s women super-heroes. The application of treating women as adult women at the publisher was uneven for decades to follow.

As ever, it comes down to editorial imperative and the people who make the comics. In Barbara Gordon’s case, after a two-year absence she was revealed by writer John Ostrander and penciller Luke McDonnell in Suicide Squad to be Oracle – a research and intelligence operative heroes and agents could draw upon. It was a smart re-imagining of Gordon drawing upon her original librarian background and a rescuing of a character many missed.

Going along with that idea, I heard expressed that Batgirl had never been anything more than a derivative, mediocre character, and that Oracle was something better because it had made Barbara unique.

I agree and disagree with that sentiment. Yes, Batgirl was created to back up her addition to the Batman TV show, and she had been written poorly at times. Especially during her early years. Later, when she was a congresswoman, things improved but she was never more than a second-tier character. For my thought, it seems DC never had the editorial will pre-Crisis to take her seriously. Other female characters received equally careless treatment.

Suicide Squad 38 page 11 art by Luke McDonnell and Geof Isherwood

Suicide Squad v1 No. 38, February 1990, page 11. Art by Luke McDonnell and Geof Isherwood. The crippled Barbara Gordon is revealed to be Oracle.

We would have to wait decades for Barbara to regain her legs during the New 52 relaunch of the DC line of books. By this time, the Batbooks had spawned more and more costumed supporting cast to support the Batman franchise, one of the few DC has that will continue to support more books being added to it. Today, even an adult Barbara Gordon is not the only one to carry the Batgirl mantle anymore.

Batwoman forever.