[Note: The following was written prior to the announcement of the Batgirl #41 Variant cover being rescinded.]
The Killing Joke is first and foremost, a Joker story. It is secondarily, a Batman story. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland created a book that sought to examine the relationship between these two indelible mirror-imaged characters and the inevitability of that relationship’s outcome. Despite that, this particular work has also gone on to define the character of Barbara Gordon for 27 years and that is, to turn a phrase, some whack shit.
Every time DC has a chance to have Barbara move on and allow her to forge her own identity (countless Crisis’s and reboots and solo runs) they drop the ball and return to defining her as the ultimate victim. And maybe you haven’t read The Killing Joke in a while or maybe you read it at a time when you couldn’t fully understand everything that was happening in it or from the perspective of someone who isn’t as sensitized to its depictions, but here’s the deal: the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, strips her naked and photographs her. That’s the whole deal with that book’s cover, you guys. Stronger, further assault could be interpreted from the work, but at the very least this particular sequence of events is 100% evident right on the page. It is a violation of the highest order. So, it’s problematic within the work itself, sure, but it can lead to a civilized and academic dissection of the work at least. The story itself was never meant to be in continuity and hell, Alan Moore himself has said “I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting.” This can lead us into a conversation into authorial intent, which would be a digression from the main point here: The Killing Joke was entered into DC continuity proper and has sadly been an inescapable part of Barbara’s character for nearly three decades when it need not be. Let The Killing Joke exist on its own twisted little island by itself and let Barbara Gordon and her fans (especially her new fans) allow her to forge her own identity as something other than the perennial victim.
So let’s talk about this new Batgirl #41 variant for just a little bit. For starters, if you don’t see that cover as anything other than “the Joker being the Joker” then okay, fine. But do not dismiss anyone else who interprets it as being something far disturbing and hurtful. Given the loaded context of that image, the fact that these two characters are the perpetrator of a sexual assault and his victim, to say that someone is “overreacting” is beyond insulting. If you want to go ahead and be the person telling an actual victim of assault who sees something horrifyingly familiar or triggering in that image, knock yourself out at being a garbage person. That cover is a picture of Batgirl, our heroine and one who recently went through a very refreshing redesign to appeal to a larger more diverse audience, looking absolutely frozen in terror at the hands of her abuser. She is again, bound forever to Moore and Bolland’s work and is made to be powerless and completely devoid of agency. I’ll call bullshit on anyone saying that if it was Robin on that cover that no one would say a word because a) it’s not a robin on that cover and b) this is the only cover that even remotely puts the hero into that position of violation. This is the only one. Look, I love Rafael Albuquerque’s art and I think this particular image is well rendered and obviously, hugely impactful. It just so happens to also be a very short-sighted decision on editorial or marketing’s part. The fact that no one who saw this image before approving it for printing thought that perhaps, just maybe, it sends the wrong message is ridiculously troubling. DC, guys, The Killing Joke was published by your company. You do remember what happens in it right? At best this was a lapse of judgement and at worst it was an obliviousness that gets to the root of what is wrong with those in charge of current Big Two comics.
The Joker is a tremendously fascinating character. I love the Joker, I do. One of my favorite things was what Morrison did with him in his Batman run wherein he defined the character as having a super-sanity to explain his myriad personality depictions in over six decades of existence. However, if you’re one of those folks who borderline worship the Joker as the avatar for chaos or the personification of anarchy, I’d tell you this: Grow the fuck up. That concept is fine to some degree (Nolan and Ledger set a high bar), but it’s about as mature as most “mature titles” are. Namely, not very. There’s nothing particular mature or adult to me about taking characters that were created to entertain children and injecting them with gratuitous violence, rape and language for nothing more than to convince stunted adolescents that what they like is suddenly validated. There are lots of mature titles that handle these subjects very well, they just don’t typically advertise their “explicit warning” quite so prominently.
Allowing your love for the character, particularly as the agent of chaos persona, to blind you to the idea that this new Batgirl cover could even be interpreted as something other than “crazy evil guy being evil because comics” is gross. “I don’t see it that way, so that means everyone else is overreacting” is a garbage mindset. Don’t do that. If someone else says something is hurtful, even if you don’t understand why, then shut up and listen instead of shouting back. Go back and look at The Killing Joke again, specifically (warning for link to potentially disturbing images) this page. And then consider the fact that it almost looked like this. That’s right, Bolland had to tone down the art because it was originally a step too far. Now think long and hard if you really find it so hard to believe that the character in those pictures, with agony and fear and humiliation and hate in her eyes and face, was made into a victim for the sake of another character’s story. And how this has been shackled to her character for years when there’s been a plethora of opportunity to finally put it past her. Let The Killing Joke die already and let Barbara Gordon live.