Comics

Published on March 20th, 2015 | by Holly Ringsell

6

THAT Batgirl Cover – Why It’s A Problem

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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:

Batgirl #41 joker variant DC Comics withdrawn, art by Rafael Albuquerque

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as “one of the worst things I’ve ever written”, and although it has its place in Batman’s history, it is undoubtedly outdated in its treatment of its only female character.

Joker shoots Babara Gordon The Killing Joke

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.

 panels

Joker Variants

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.

joker covers

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.

Doomsday and Superman

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.

Holly Ringsell

Holly Ringsell

Pink and purple. Owner of Dark Side Comics. I have a lot of feelings about Steve Rogers.
Holly Ringsell

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  • Mike

    1) “It’s heavily implied that she’s also raped” (referencing The Killing Joke)

    I completely disagree with that statement, there is no heavy implication that she was raped at all. The story has been around for 30 years and I have never heard anyone bring up that particular theory until this week. Not saying it didn’t happen, but my anecdotal reasoning is just as valid as yours is. It is also something that is completely outside of the Jokers character. Maybe it is open for debate but the real answer would be to ask the author his intention, and as you already said Alan Moore was very clear that that was NOT his intention with the story.

    2) “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.”

    I will address the teen market part later but I just want to mention that you just said above the “sexual assault” part was open for debate, but now you are using it to make your point. It’s a pretty drastic point too, but it also seems like a very unfair one because it’s not that cut and dry.

    3) “.. the injury Bane left Batman with does not define Batman as a character, yet Batgirl’s injury and assault so often define her.”

    That is because while Batman just got over his injuries in that series and went back to the status quo, Barbara remained handicapped for years afterwards. She became Oracle (one of the best bat family characters) after her injuries and found her place as a super hero after these tragic events. She wasn’t defined by TKJ, she was defined by what she did after it.

    4) “In its simplest terms, it’s a cover not relevant to the inside of the book, to the degree that it actually contradicts it.”

    Okay, that is a fair point to make. But why does that matter in THIS one case? There are thousands of comic covers that either have nothing to do with the current story arc, nothing to do with the current story at all and even variants that make no sense to either the character or the story. Especially when it comes to variant covers and theme covers. Remember that cover of X-men with X-23 kissing the young Cyclops? That wasn’t in the book at all, it just simple didn’t happen. Are we suppose to be outraged at that as well?

    5) “You can have your opinions on whether it offends you personally, but for goodness sake, don’t belittle those it does offend.”

    Okay, here is where I completely agree with you. Yes, if you are offended or not offended then at least be decent with each other. Take the time and hear out the other side. But in the same line this, again, should be said for both sides. Offended or not there should be a conversation, not a screaming match. But I think that is where a lot of the hostility on the “not offended” side comes from. Their voice were not heard, they didn’t even get a chance to speak because they didn’t even think there was something to speak about. It wasn’t a conversation, it was a small group of vocal people saying “I don’t like this, so no one should.”

    • Holly StarLord Ringsell

      Hey there!

      Sorry if I didn’t make it clear — the ‘sexual assault’ I referred to (as you mentioned in 2,) was referencing the stripping naked and photographing of Barbara.

      In regards to 4,) again, I meant the teen content of the book, more so than the specific events.

      Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  • Nick Taylor

    I’m a little confused as to the reason behind the outcry over the Batgirl comic cover art as opposed to others. If the Batgirl cover art is causing uproar because of its implied rape of the character and this may be a trigger for those who may see it – how is it that a cover of a grown man beating a CHILD, who he then KILLS, not receiving the same attention? Child abuse is a massive problem that many are affected by either directly or indirectly, if the cover art was a trigger should this one not be pulled into question also?

    And if we are talking about how graphic content in comics is wrong due to its potential to become a trigger, or even just because the subject matter is serious – we will go on forever. The killing joke never says that the Joker raped batgirl, it’s not even heavily implied – yet in other hugely popular comics such as Saga, the comic openly displays the issue of paedophilia. More comics than I could list reference suicide, racial abuse, homophobia and yes, rape. And yet – none of these comics, despite actually making a point of the issues in question, have received the backlash that this cover has received for referencing an issue that might imply the character was physically sexually assaulted.

    Fiction is fiction, people know this. I think the uproar over this cover is ludicrous – it is not a controversy, it’s art that has caused a divide of personal preference, and as always seems to be the case these days people have taken up arms to get it removed. If you do not like the cover and what it represents, then that is entirely fine; don’t buy it. It’s that simple. No one is forcing you to have it in your collection, or even look at it. I’m a huge Captain America fan – but I hate a lot of the cover art Rob Liefeld created for some of the issues, so I didn’t buy them. It’s that simple.

    • Kia Sunda

      Okay, so she wasn’t raped and you won’t even accept that it was implied. She was *only* sexually assaulted. Did you miss the part that this is on a book marketed to teens?
      It about appropriate context for an audience. Yes, it is fiction but it is also an extremely powerful medium that can make a serious difference in how we view the world around us. It sticks with us, influences us and can be extremely provocative.

      • Nick Taylor

        I didn’t say anywhere she was ‘Only sexually assaulted’ so please don’t try and spin it that way. Your point is valid, Batgirl may be for a teen audience – but this is a VARIANT cover.

        You also haven’t addressed the point of why this cover is any worse due to it’s subject matter than the Death In The Family inspired cover depicting child abuse.

        It would be incredibly naive to assume that teenagers are not exposed to things equally if not more graphic and by that logic influential content – just look at video games. I’m not sure if you’re implying that the cover makes the inferred sexual assault ok, or if you’re aiming at some other point I seem to have missed, but there have been countless cases that have tried to place a fictional media, usually videogames, as the cause for the criminal act – and there has never been found to be a link.

        • Kia Sunda

          This is a 1:1 variant cover which cannot be specified by the retailer. It is not a 1 in 100, it would have a very high coverage. So I wouldn’t try and play the fact that it is a variant as a particularly positive aspect.

          I didn’t address it as I think that your point is entirely valid, the physical abuse of a child and his murder is awful.

          I am saying that I agree with the article (that I am assuming you read but am starting to think you might not have) that they have taken a previously strong character and decided to make her a victim of the Joker (please look at the other VARIANTS and how the characters in those are represented)

          Just because teenagers are exposed to things doesn’t mean that there is a right and a wrong way of highlighting an issue. As the article very eloquently puts it

          “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.”

          No one is saying “oooo look the Joker sexually assaulted someone, let’s all go do that” but it is showing a character who moved past that trauma in an extremely vulnerable position. Again, this is a book aimed at teenagers and this artwork harking back to a sexual assault and showing the Joker in the position of power is not appropriate.

          With every bit of media we produce we have a chance to be able to influence and change how people view things.

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