Thursday, 26 March 2015

Killing the Cover, What a Joke: Batgirl, Misogyny, and Everything DC's Readers Are Scared Of

By now most if not all of us have read at least one of the articles addressing Rafael Albequerque's recent Batgirl variant cover, which paid homage to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's 1988 one-shot The Killing Joke. We've read the artist's statement, and we've read DC's statement. We've perused the Twitter rants and familiarized ourselves with reader outrage about a multitude of things: the scared look on the heroine's face; her position of vulnerability; her position of vulnerability in relation to a man in power. It's been noted that this was put on a cover, the quintessentially unavoidable part of a comic, the bit you can't "opt out" of when you're browsing the shelves. I only recently started reading into this matter, a little late to the party, but the arguments I encounter most often are these: the readers don't want to see their heroine in this situation; they want to see her win a battle against a villain; the cover doesn't suit the intentions of the current Batgirl title; and the cover references dark events in the character's pre-New 52 origins, bringing readers back to a problematic story that they shouldn't have to wrestle with.

Damn right it does. What part of "villain" are we not understanding?

The Killing Joke is a brilliant story. It is also absolutely, fundamentally, a problematic story. For those of you who haven't read it, a brief synopsis: this is the tale of Oracle's origin, in which Barbara Gordon is attacked at home by the Joker, who shoots her through the spine and strips her, leaving her naked and paralyzed on the floor while he takes he later uses to psychologically torment her father, Jim. It's a classic example within the comics canon of a woman being victimized simply to provide a point of pathos for a male hero. Barbara suffers greatly, and is left paralyzed for life, but her ordeal is inconsequential to the story; the focus is on Jim as he bears witness to his daughter's trauma. People are upset because this story bothers them. It should. It needs to bother us; we need to to be bothered by it; it is brilliant because it bothers us.

Stories that don't bother us are not worth writing

But people don't look back at the Lord of the Rings and gripe about Sauron's unconscionable actions. We don't threaten to boycott Indiana Jones if it doesn't stop portraying the cruelty of Nazis on the big screen. We all accept Nazis as evil, the "bad guys", and Tolkien was writing long before the era of Dexter and Hannibal. There's something else at work here. Has a cultural paradigm where we celebrate the villain led to us asking for villains whose actions we can condone? Because that's what the people opposing this cover are asking for: a Joker who is socially conscious, a homicidal, anarchist psychopath who won't oppress women. I figure what we're admitting when we demand this cover be pulled is that we're looking for villains who won't remind us of the problems inherent in our own culture. Aliens are alright. Fascists are fine. Crazy magical forces of evil are good to go. Heaven forbid we be confronted by a villain who embodies misogyny, though; that's way too close to home, let alone a villain who we understand is acting out that oppression because he is batshit insane.

Except that's the meaning of villainy. The bad guys should be exactly that: everything wrong with the world. Everything wrong with us. They should make us squirm. They should be a problem for us.

The cover is also, by nature, a cover; it's not doing its job unless it's in your face. I can't help you there; that's visual culture for you. But we live in a world of trigger warnings now, and that means it's becoming ever harder to talk about these things because once someone plays the Trigger Warning card, you can't speak out against them without coming across as the insensitive asshole at the table. We've built ourselves a fortress of insecurity, a honeycomb of carefully shored-up padded rooms where we can be kept far away from the things that cause cognitive dissonance, that force us to come to terms with whatever it is we've suppressed, in order to convince ourselves that everything's gonna be alright, that we're good people.

Look at this cover and tell me everything's gonna be alright.

Look at this cover and tell me the heroine would be better off if she never had to confront this shit. I wish I could have you look me in the eye and tell me you want a Batgirl who confronts violent, terrifying misogyny (the reality of this world we live in) with a carefree smile on her face. That shit is grim. Now, there's the perfectly valid argument that this cover is tonally disjointed from the rest of the Batgirl title so far. I haven't been reading it, but from what I have seen of Batgirl floating around the internet I would say that's an accurate statement. It will be interesting to see what's actually under that cover when the issue is released; if the cover accurately represents the story within, the younger crowd of readers who have been attracted to this heroine may be in for a shock. There will undoubtedly be fallout. Fans may feel betrayed, and the hard truth is this: you have no right to feel betrayed. DC Comics doesn't owe you a thing, even if they should (I'm an idealist; I think every storyteller and artist ought to be beholden to and mindful of his/her audience, to a degree. Rafael Albuquerque has been a brilliant example of this in his concern for his fans' response to the art, taking it upon himself to enter into discussion with the editors and have the art retracted). But they don't; that's the nature of the industry. This isn't some Kickstarter campaign where your donation entitles you to a reward; it's the publishing branch of a much larger company, owned by another company, owned in turn by the world's third-largest entertainment conglomerate. Any debt of gratitude you feel DC comics owes you for reading their material is illusory and sadly misplaced.

So, any backlash against this cover can't really be about enacting corporate change. The outraged parties got lucky this time around; they appealed to an artist inclined to take their pleas to heart, but I think what he managed to give them was their comfort. What I hear in the bulk of these arguments is a desire to get back to a utopian period in the history of superhero comics, but this cover undermines that mission. It was a time when heroes never lost their battles, when the bad guys weren't too upsetting, when a reader could open a comic and be sure that they wouldn't be confronted by anything that challenged them, made them squirm a little, made them doubt that law enforcement personnel were anything less that paragons of virtue or that the government was anything other than wholeheartedly devoted to the greater good. It was a time when comics built up hope in a reader, wrapped them a blanket of comforting narrative tropes and banality and let them know that everything would be okay. That is the kind of comics scene which this cover works against, and it must be pulled from the shelves and made an example of so that we can return to the golden era of...

The Comics Code.

Maybe you've heard of it? That asinine piece of legislature in the mid-1950s that gutted the mainstream industry, tying the hands of creators and forbidding them to write anything other than moralizing propaganda that fostered children's blind trust in the ethical authority of the state. I can't seem to shift my perspective on this cover to allow myself to see it as anything short of foreboding.

Alright, let's wrap this up. I want to address a couple of other internet articles here quickly. Bleeding Cool posted a great interview with Albuquerque in which the artist makes his position and his motivation for pulling the cover quite clear. He's eloquent and smart about it, which is refreshing. I can't say I agree with all of what he says, namely that, "A series aimed at the teenage female audience should not have a cover like this." Oh? Is it going to be too much for them to see one of their heroes confronted by the same oppressive, violent garbage they're going to have to deal with from men for the rest of their lives? That'd be terrible, wouldn't it? Can't have that.

I'm writing this largely in response to a pair of excellent blog posts by Adam Gorham. Adam wrote the first one in response to the cover debacle, and upon reading it I pitched some raw ideas at him on Twitter, to which he responded with the second post. I'm gonna pull a couple quotes from that second post, but you should go read both of them; they're short, and worth it. Adam, responding to my "what if the story should be a problem?" argument, says,
"The problem I have with that argument is TKJ isn’t about Barbara Gordon. She’s made a victim in service of a plot that focuses on the characterization of three men. Her suffering is merely a plot motivator for them to duke it out." 
He goes on to quote another fellow, John Lewis, who says much the same thing and caps it off with the observation,
"Which isn't to say anything about how completely tone-deaf the cover is given the current Batgirl comic, which has gone to great lengths to establish Batgirl as a strong, resourceful, positive role model for female (and male!) fans." 
I've chewed on that for a while, so let me spit it out and say: what better way to show what a heroine like Barbara Gordon is worth and how far the industry has come than to reprise the horrors of The Killing Joke and have Batgirl emerge victorious through her own suffering. That's the story I hope to see under that cover. I'm not holding my breath or anything, but it'd be nice for a change, wouldn't it? To not pull any punches, to have the Joker enter the scene as vile and demeaning as ever, and to have this strong, resourceful role-model for the up-and-coming generation of modern women stand up to that violation, defeat it, and emerge the stronger for it. Hiding from the cover is not the answer; facing down our demons is.


  1. This beautifully written. You have done justice to your craft, Sir.

    As a woman who has lived through abuse, I am not shocked at the cover nor at the story line in 'The Killing Joke'. I am, as always, livid at the people who take such things and use them to fund their own ridiculous opinionated crusades. Villains are not nice, villains do not think nice and villains are there to make us hate them. Sunshine worlds with edible flowers and chocolate streams don't help people deal with the harsh situations they can find themselves in.

    Yet give a girl a role model who can live through hell and stand tall with her head held high, that...that I can relate and respect. Yes, Batgirl is a now a tween thing and those girls are all excited about her because she's hip and cool but is she just like those Disney Channel kids who are perfectly awesome and grow up to be Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan?

    I will share this. I will love this. I am glad you wrote this!

  2. Hey little dude,

    I so appreciate the passion you have for your craft. It is inspiring!

    I agree with your central thesis that the story should be a problem.

    But the medium must match the audience. For example, I am okay with my preschooler learning about "good guys and bad guys" from his LEGO, a medium in which the cops do not carry guns, only handcuffs. I hope no one would argue with my decision not to show him the movie Training Day at this time.

    My point is that there is a line and it and can be crossed. It is our (parents, media, society in general) responsibility to maintain that line wherever it appropriately lies for non-adult audiences. I'm not saying the line can't be moved - it should be moved in order to promote maturity, but deliberately and carefully. I'm also not talking about the suppression of the idea (censorship), just the modulation of its delivery (discretion). So when he says, "A series aimed at the teenage female audience should not have a cover like this," he may be right. Even if he isn't, good on him for recognizing his responsibility to be a gatekeeper for those who don't (or shouldn't) have the experience to make their own judgment.

    Love you, kid!