Recently, this variant cover of Batgirl #41 by Rafael Albuquerque has been making waves on the internet, and it’s clear why at first glance. Even without understanding the deeper meaning behind the imagery, it’s easy to understand why so many feel this cover is misogynistic. This is a chilling piece of artwork, and something everyone agrees on is the fact that it was exceptionally well drawn. On a surface level, this is a creepy picture of the Joker victimizing Batgirl, but to those who have read the seminal Alan Moore graphic novel, The Killing Joke, the imagery carries a decidedly darker tone. For those that don’t know, during the events of The Killing Joke, the Joker approaches the Gordon household, rings the doorbell, and when Barbara Gordon (Batgirl’s secret identity) answers the door, he shoots her through the spine (an act that paralyzes her and nearly ends her crime fighting career). Afterwards, he has his men capture her father, the police commissioner Jim Gordon. In a plot to drive Jim insane, the Joker strips a bleeding Barbara, snaps pictures of her naked body, and leaves her to die on his way to show those same pictures to her father (who is also to be stripped and degraded in a horrific sequence of events); all while wearing that tonally inappropriate tourist outfit he is sporting in that cover. It is one of the most striking and horrific moments in comic book history, and it is what the artwork above is harkening back to.
As a fan of the Joker’s character, the problems with this weren’t apparent to me at first. In my view, the cover wasn’t misogynistic, but rather a piece that paid tribute to the most significant encounter these to characters ever had. It was supremely well drawn and is easily the most striking and memorable Joker-themed variant cover that was shown. It’s also referencing what is without a doubt one of the greatest graphic novel’s ever written and what is essentially the definitive Joker story. While the treatment of Barbara as a mere tool in a larger game against male characters can be construed as sexist, the story itself and what it leads to is fascinating. It offers the most comprehensive look into the psyche of the most significant comic book villain of all time, and for that it can never be diminished. That said though, the decision to end the career of Batgirl was only allowed to come to pass as a result of obvious sexism. When Alan Moore asked permission from the editors to do what he did to Batgirl for the purposes of his story, his editor literally told him to “cripple the bitch”. In doing that, Batgirl’s defining moment in comic book history is as a victim. While several other heroes have had triumphant moments as their crowning achievements, Batgirl being crippled and subsequently sexually exploited by the Joker is her “big moment” in comics. It’s what she will always be remembered first as: a victim.
Even after the universal reboot of the New 52 at DC, Batgirl still can never escape the shadow of what took place in The Killing Joke, so for this cover to show up as a chilling reminder of her lowest moment can be upsetting for some people. The question of “would they ever do this to a male hero” also comes up too in this case, because I doubt they’d ever have Batman or any of the past Robins shedding tears over what is occurring to them. Looking helpless sure, but to be so spiritually broken that they are reduced to tears? Somehow I doubt it. On the other hand, I don’t feel as though this comes from a place of sexism, but more from a place of history… a history that was only ever allowed to happen in the first place because of sexism. This would never happen to Wonder Woman today, or any of the other female heroes in comics, but it’s happening to Batgirl because of what her biggest contribution to the DC world unfortunately amounts to.
As big a Joker fan as I am, I totally understand why some people are so offended by this cover. Batgirl’s character right now shouldn’t be defined by her relationship with the Joker anymore, this image here only serves as an ugly reminder of that. While it’s a great piece of heart, I can’t say I agree with the decision to have it as a variant of a Batgirl cover. Something showing her looking less… defeated may have been more appropriate. To be physically broken is one thing, but to look so completely mentally shattered is a bit much. While I never agreed with DC’s decision to make her walk again, wasn’t the point of making Barbara Gordon a vigilante again to move past that? Creepy and striking images like that one have their place, and a homage to The Killing Joke is fine, but lets try not to humiliate Babs in her own series in the process.
Quote of the Day:
“Here’s to Crime.”
– The Joker, Batman: The Killing Joke