So this happened:
This comic cover, planned as a variant for Batgirl #41, tossed a firecracker into Twitter’s salad of tweets, prompting accusations of supporting rape culture, robbing a powerful female character of agency, and misapplication of lipstick on the Joker’s part. Enter #changethecover. Amid the outrage, artist Rafael Albuquerque decided to shelve the image, prompting a backlash dedicated to showing the world a picture that few would’ve seen on a shelf in normal circumstances.
But that’s not the backlash I want to discuss. My opinion on the image doesn’t count for much because I’m not reading Batgirl (or any ongoing comics, since I focus on trades) and the real debate is whether this image is right for the series, not whether it’s a good image. And it is a good image: when’s the last time you were legitimately creeped out by this- gasp– intentionally creepy character? My guess is 2008. Albuquerque wanted to strike a nerve, and he sledgehammered it. But just because I find the most famous scene in Deliverance gut-churning and emotionally devastating, doesn’t mean I want to see it in an Indiana Jones movie. Context matters, and I simply don’t have enough on Batgirl to comment further.
What I do have context on is The Killing Joke, the 1988 Alan Moore comic that the image du jour alludes to. And the backlash that intrigues me regards this influential story. Some say it’s overrated and it uses Batgirl as a plot device and that even Alan Moore says it’s about as hot as refrigerated pork, and so on. I read The Killing Joke long after it turned heads, but also after the world agreed that Moore’s genius was eclipsed only by his sheer bug-eyed lunacy. Is the story any good? And how about that Batgirl, alias Barbara Gordon?
Let’s start by defining plot device: anything whose primary purpose is to drive the pot forward. I’m going by Wikipedia and TV Tropes definition here. You’ve seen this with magical objects (The One Ring, The Ark of the Covenant) or with people sometimes (the two arrestees in My Cousin Vinny). When people refer to a plot device, it usually means that said element functions primarily for the plot instead of character or theme. MacGuffins remain perfect examples of this. It doesn’t matter that the Philosopher’s Stone turns objects into gold or grants immortal life, what matters is that Voldemort wants it and we can’t have that, now can we. Doesn’t even matter so much if Voldemort wants to rule the Wizarding World or make a killing at Cash4Gold with it, because he’s not the center of the story. Harry is.
In light of this definition, I can’t honestly say Barbara Gordon acts as more than a plot device here. Oh, she has character- she’s concerned for and fussy over her father’s well being- but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum, paralyses Barbara, takes pictures of her naked, and uses all this to try and drive her father Jim Gordon insane. The most traumatic event in her life, and the meat of the story derives from how it affects her father (to be fair, there is a scene in the hospital that addresses her feelings about this insanity). Jim’s character matters because Batman and Joker battle for his sanity. Batman’s character, that big blank slate in black, matters because he needs to decide how to handle the Joker. And the Joker’s the blood-red star in all this. But Barbara? Replace her with the Maltese Falcon, and all that we need to change is how big of an old movie buff Lieutenant Gordon is. The personality of the only woman of note in the story doesn’t affect the plot by one drop of ink. I see where that ties knots in people’s hair.
But it’s not enough to ruin the comic for me. One, because I saw the future: wheelchaired Barbara becomes Oracle, a kickass character that diversifies the DC hero roster and becomes even smarter than Batsy himself. That’s not apparent in this story, because it’s not a story about Barbara. This is a story about the Joker: his possible past, his mindful and twisted present, his uncertain or perhaps-too-certain future. And, on the whole, his story’s a good one. The Clown Prince of Crime muses on the nature of man and normality in ways we’ve come to expect, but only in a Joker-saturated world. A saying I’m fond of; “I don’t see what the big deal is about Hamlet, it’s just one famous quotation after another,”; applies here. Not only did this story raise the emotional and philosophical stakes in the eternal comic conflict of the Batman universe, it delivered stunning imagery and a conclusion that’s not afraid to let the reader think to boot. Batgirls’ not treated well both in and out of the plot, but she’s not the focus. One of my first full-length “novels” tried to rend fully fleshed out characters and arcs from even the most minor background players, and it ended up a bloated and thick mess. I can forgive dropping a side story if the main story stays strong.
And that, in the end, is why it’s a good idea to drop the variant cover. The Joker already had his time in the cover and focus of every other Batman story for the past 75 years. It’s a problem with many narratives, comic book ones especially- they’re villain-driven. Villain acts, hero react. Batgirl’s covers should reflect Batgirl, not a 27-year-old story that’s not even really about Batgirl. I’d love to see that cover on a reprint of The Killing Joke, because that story should be reprinted every now and then. But keep the Joker-mania in his own stories so we can talk about the actual heroes now and again.