I like Rafael Albuquerque’s art. American Vampire? Wow. But this latest variant cover of his, for Batgirl #41 in June, is a disappointing misstep.
Sure, it’s a haunting, provocative cover. The simple composition of the black background and purple motif throw Joker and Batgirl into sharp relief, even while shielding Joker’s eyes and making him look even more sinister. He’s got a finger gun to Barbara’s face, not a real gun, but it’s still terrifying.
But shift your focus to Barbara herself, and the sinister tone becomes downright uncomfortable and upsetting.
Batgirl is a character of incredible popularity–one who I’d argue is one of the most well-known lady heroes in the world, in terms of name recognition. She’s also a badass who holds her own against the dudes of the Batfamily, whether in the New 52 or any other time in her 50 over years of history.
So that tear running down her cheek, those eyes widened with unmistakeable fear, that cower in her stance as the Joker holds her in his clutches? YIKES. It’s a troubling message to be sending out about a hero that women (and others!) young and old look up to.
Am I saying that lady characters should be exempt from pain and suffering? No. But look–can you imagine them ever doing a cover like this with Batman or Superman? Or any other male hero?
None of the other Joker variant covers we’ve seen even remotely have this vibe, though it’s entirely possible this will change once we see the full spectrum of covers. If that’s the case, I’ll update this post. But I would be highly surprised indeed to see Red Robin weeping on the Teen Titans variant cover.
In any case, it’s entirely possible to juxtapose lady heroes against villains without stripping their agency.
For example, Craig Rosseau’s variant for Gotham Academy #7 is also creepy and sinister, but without any rape-y vibes that scream “I enabled the brutual sexual assault of this woman and I’m proud of it :D”.
Brian Bolland’s variant for Wonder Woman #41 sees Diana dancing with the Joker. Her expression and body language are wary; she is clearly on alert. Joker’s got a bomb that looks set to go off any second, but crucially, you get the sense that Wonder Woman and Joker are on equal footing in this scenario. That is to say: who owns the power in this situation? Both of them.
Who owns the power in Albuquerque’s Batgirl variant? Joker.
(Interestingly, Bolland was the artist on Batman: The Killing Joke, the comic story by written Alan Moore that is being referenced in the BG variant.)
Heck, Dave Johnson’s variant for Grayson #9 doesn’t even feature the book’s main character, Dick Grayson, even though it also has a simple, haunting composition that elegantly references both Spyral and Dick’s circus roots.
Meanwhile, Karl Kerschl took a humorous route with his Superman cover. Admittedly, such an approach might have been tricky with Batgirl, given the history there, but Joker messing up one of Burnside’s pretentious hipster coffee joints while Batgirl tries to stop him would still have been less tunnel-visioned than what we actually got.
Because Barbara’s brutal assault and trauma in Killing Joke was never, ever about her. It was about causing man-pain to Jim Gordon and Batman, and to further their emotional journeys in that story.
Indeed, a more powerful direction to take with the Batgirl variant would have been a subversion of the fridging narrative: Barbara punching out the Joker, or otherwise getting one-up on him. That would have been an evocative way to address the Killing Joke story-line, while keeping Barbara the hero of her own book.
As it is, however, this just feels like a disrespectful way to treat one of DC’s premiere “B-list” capes.