THAT Batgirl Cover – Why It’s A Problem
Yes. THAT Batgirl cover. On Friday 13th March, DC released the images for their upcoming Joker variants — this included a cover for the ongoing Batgirl series, Batgirl #41.
Online chaos ensued. Some called for the cover to be retracted, others opposing that idea called it ‘censorship’ and offered death threats to those using the hashtag #changethecover. The creative team were questioned endlessly with both reasonable, and absurd accusations.
Check out the cover in question below:
It’s certainly a problematic cover, but lets examine why. First, we need a little backstory.
The Killing Joke
1988 saw the release of Alan Moore’s iconic Batman story, The Killing Joke. It’s a book known for its unparalleled darkness, difficult themes, and is all round, a genuinely harrowing read. It sees Batman take on the Joker in one of his most definitive origin stories, but it also gives us the (remarkably disturbing) origin of Oracle — Barbara Gordon, previously Batgirl. Moore’s take on the Bat-fam, sees Barbara viciously shot through the spine by the Joker, before being stripped naked and photographed (the photos are then later used to torment her father, Commissioner Jim Gordon.) It’s heavily implied that she’s also raped, although this is up for discussion amongst the fanbase — Moore himself has since stated she was not raped, but a large volume of fans (including every single customer I’ve spoken to in my store,) read it as precisely that. Not a very empowering origin story (especially when compared to the vengeful response to Batman’s own parents dying.) Regardless, Moore himself has denounced the book as “one of the worst things I’ve ever written”, and although it has its place in Batman’s history, it is undoubtedly outdated in its treatment of its only female character.
With the above information in mind, you might be able to see why such a cover is inappropriate. Plenty of people wading into the debate are unaware of Barbara’s rocky past, and specifically just how brutal it is. Knowing this about the character, it’s easy to see why the Batgirl #41 Joker variant is more than a little disturbing. It’s an obvious call back to The Killing Joke, right down to the details — he’s wearing the outfit he attacked her in.
Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you think it’s just an homage to an old story. Consider, then, that this current run of Batgirl (as part of DC’s New 52) features a younger (18 – 20 year old) Barbara. It’s also directed at a teen market. Yup — a cover alluding to the sexual assault of a well-known and loved character, was intended for a teen book. It also contradicts the character and tone the creative team, (consisting of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr,) have been building up — a light-hearted comic, featuring a kick-ass young woman, one completely capable of standing on her own, not to mention beating the smirk off a crinkly old clown like the Joker. They’ve taken a strong character who is so often defined exclusively by her demons, into a realm where she can appeal to a younger audience as a bad-ass young woman overcoming her fears, thus simultaneously creating an excellent role model — something that is severely lacking in comic books, especially those directed at young girls. To plaster the cover of such a book with this kind of image, is completely contradictory at the very least and at most, triggering and distressing — there is an average of 293,000 victims (age 12 or older) of sexual assault each year in the US, with 80% of them being under the age of 30… It’s inevitable that some comic readers are going to fall into that demographic — do you want these women to be triggered simply by walking into a comic store, or by reading a book they’ve come to know and love? Of course you don’t. By showing Barbara not only being gripped fiercely by the man who assaulted her (and in the same outfit, no less), but by being visibly distressed, vulnerable and terrified (just look at her expression,) we’re demeaning not only the character, and the creative teams work with her, but a large portion of the readership — plenty of which are young women. Perhaps the cover wouldn’t be so out of place on an adult book, or even Gail Simone’s previous run on Batgirl, but as it stands it’s simply not suitable.
When compared to the other Joker variants in the run, the Batgirl cover is startlingly different. Every other title features the Joker either being beaten up, laughed at, or simply staring menacingly. At most, he’s winning a fight or two. Even Wonder Woman, which features him dancing whilst holding a bomb behind her back, is neither overtly sexual or particularly frightening — she even looks bored with the situation. Only one cover stands out starkly when held up against the others, and it’s Batgirl. As a side note, yes it is a variant, but it’s a 1:1 variant, meaning stores could order any number of the title and it likely would have been on shelves in stores worldwide — this is not a 1:100 variant, only available to the die hard collectors. This would have been a commonly seen, and bought book.
Artist Ray Dillion shared the below image over this weekend, in response to the controversy. He seemingly offered little in the way of explanation (whether the image was meant to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the variant,) but commenters went both ways. Some took it as a slight against the cover, but many took it as support, ‘proof’ that showing Superman drawn in the same way would reveal how ‘ridiculous’ the controversy was, yet it proved quite the opposite. Comparing Batgirl’s plight to that of Superman and Doomsday, or Batman and Bane, only widens the gap — both these characters were seemingly broken beyond repair, only to come back fighting immediately after. Simply put, a physical injury such as a back-breaking, though traumatic, just doesn’t hold the same violation as a sexual assault on one of DC’s few female characters — the injury Bane left Batman with does not define Batman as a character, yet Batgirl’s injury and assault so often define her. This is once again alluded to by the sheer existence of the cover in question.
Rafael Albuquerque Retracts Cover
Rafael Albuquerque, the artist of the Batgirl Joker cover, retracted his design on Monday of this week. DC followed suit by complying with his suggestion and pulling the cover — a decision which I believe ultimately, to have been the correct one. His own statement can be found here, with some insightful follow up here, and it’s worth a read. He essentially covers the topics I’ve mentioned above. Offending, or upsetting people was never his intention. It was simply a mistake, a poorly thought out choice given the nature of the existing book. Cameron Stewart, one of the writers on Batgirl, has been taking his fair share of abuse regarding the cover, the opposition to the cover and the subsequent pulling of it. It’s worth mentioning that Stewart, nor Fletcher or Tarr, were aware of the cover before it was released to the public on Friday — it had gone straight over their heads, and been released without their blessing, or even so much as a look in. But of course, common sense is so sparse behind the fury-filled fingers of the abusive and angry, so they receive a barrage of angst over a situation of which they have no control. Honestly, the fault doesn’t lie with Albuquerque either. He simply crafted a cover based on an iconic story, but it was ultimately a misplaced design decision, one that DC Comics should have picked up on before it’s release. It’s shocking to me that not a single person within the DC offices offered up a “hey, doesn’t this seem kind of inappropriate?” before it went ahead for solicitation. Perhaps their management needs a shake up.
I’m sure many of you aren’t affected by this cover, and I’m sure theres plenty of people it doesn’t offend — the point isn’t in whether it offends you personally, but whether its damaging to others, and to the comics community as a whole. Women already have a shitty time in comic books (check out the ‘Women In Refrigerators’ trope, named for a running occurrence in, you guessed it, comic books.) Showing a character who has moved past their trauma and is currently targeting young women for its reading audience, in such a horrendous fashion is outright inappropriate. You can have your opinions on whether it offends you personally, but for goodness sake, don’t belittle those it does offend. In its simplest terms, it’s a cover not relevant to the inside of the book, to the degree that it actually contradicts it. Telling people to ‘get over it’ is insensitive and awful — isn’t the comic book community meant to be accepting? Weren’t we all bullied at one point or another, for liking comic books or science or drawing? Why are we bullying other people now, and telling people they should ‘get over’ something that may have caused them trauma? Don’t be a bully.
We’re supposed to be the good guys.
Originally published on Need To Consume in March 2015