DC announced a deluge of Joker-themed variant covers that will be across a range of their titles in June. There’s the usual mix of styles, themes and tone that you’d expect (You can see them all on Newsarama). Some are wonderfully playful, like the Gotham Academy cover that harks back to a more old school, Animated Series version of Joker. And then there’s the already becoming infamous Batgirl cover by Rafael Albuquerque. You can find it in the gallery I’ve linked to, but I won’t post it here as some people find it disturbing, off-putting or just outright offensive. Plus, at the time of writing, it was released exclusively to Comic Book Resources and DC haven’t yet made it publicly available.
It’s wonderfully executed, which is in part what makes it so powerful, and references the incident where Barbara Gordon was shot and crippled by The Joker. It shows a clearly terrified Batgirl with a Joker smile drawn across her face in blood. Joker, dressed as he was in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke when he shot her, is stood behind her. He’s holding his fingers in a gun shape against her head and, in his other hand, is casually holding a real gun. What makes the image so disturbing is the level of sadism and imminent violence it implies.
In almost all the other Joker variant covers, however, there’s an element of humor if a hero is portrayed as the Joker’s victim. On the Superman cover, for example, we see Supes looking angry after Joker’s fake flower has squirted acid into the Man of Steel’s face. In the Batgirl cover, however, all power is completely stripped away from Barbara. We know what will happen to her and are being invited to consider the violence about to take place; adding a level of voyeurism to make us further uncomfortable.
Joker’s desire is almost always to upend the status quo; he wants to pull the world from beneath a person and show them everything they believe is false. His goal isn’t necessarily to maim or kill (though he may do those things) but to reveal the sea of chaos and madness beneath our veneer of civilization. This was the premise of The Killing Joke; Joker wanted to prove there was no real difference between himself and Batman and the only thing that separated them from civilians was one bad day. To try and prove this h kidnaps Jim Gordon and tries to drive him mad. In Moore’s comic Barbara is shot, stripped naked and then photographed as she bleeds on the floor. These photos are then used to torment her father. She is a tool in Joker’s plan, not his intended target.
This is exactly why this cover is so unsettling. It isolates that moment, stripping Batgirl of any meaning she has as either a hero or as a person, and reduces her to being purely a victim. This is not a true representation of Barbara Gordon any more than it’s a true representation of anyone who finds themselves a victim of violence. The cover is so disturbing because it so perfectly depicts that single (though not defining) moment in Barbara’s life where she was rendered completely powerless. Where she had everything stripped away from her.
If you’re going to draw a Joker-themed Batgirl cover, then those few pages in The Killing Joke are going to be one of the things you consider; it’s the most prominent moment between the two characters, after all. People’s reactions to it have been so strong, however, because the media isn’t exactly short on depictions of women as the subject of violence.
Barbara Gordon is a character who’s strongly identified with by survivors of trauma and this return to the moment where she’s identified solely as victim can be troubling. Because of the history of the characters as we know it outside of this image, it carries the implication that a trauma is a defining event in someone’s life, and that’s a mindset trauma survivors are continually trying to break.