Much Ado About Batgirl

So, usually I’d just let this kind of thing go, or just drop a casual mention of it in West Week Ever, but I was inspired to say more about this particular thing. Last week, DC Comics revealed a variant cover for the upcoming Batgirl #41, which can be seen here:


The cover, by Rafael Albuquerque is an homage to Batman: The Killing Joke – the 1988 graphic novel where The Joker shoots Batgirl/Barbara Gordon and paralyzes her. This was a violent and pivotal storyline, resulting in Barbara eventually adopting the role of Oracle to the DC Universe. The reason this cover is controversial, however, is because of this page from The Killing Joke:

Killing Joke

You see, after shooting her (in her Barbara Gordon guise), Joker then showed pictures of her, naked and bloody, to her father, Commissioner Gordon. Over the years, it has been surmised that Joker actually sexually assaulted Barbara before and/or during the photoshoot. The creative team of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland have never confirmed whether or not this was a depiction of the aftermath of a sexual assault. It’s really left open to interpretation by the reader. I can see where that idea comes from, with the S&M imagery of Commissioner Gordon’s garb to the facial expressions in the photos. That said, until DC Comics comes out and says “Yes, Barbara was raped” (and yes, they are just dumb enough to do that), then I’m going to assume that she was not. I don’t even think DC would go that far.

So that brings us to the variant cover above. Many people felt it was in bad taste because it harkened back to this assumed sexual assault. The Joker with his arm draped around her, holding a gun pointed downward, while her eyes fill with tears. The Internet heated up with demands for DC to cancel the cover, via the #CancelTheCover hashtag. Eventually, things got out of hand as death threats were being hurled around, and DC finally announced that they were cancelling the cover at the request of Albuquerque. Well, what do I think about all this? So glad you asked!

I think the Batgirl cover’s uncomfortable, but I also think that’s *the point*. There’s more storytelling in that image than anything current Batman writer Scott Snyder’s done. As my Twitter pal @Friginator put it,

It’s supposed to trigger a response in you. They want the reader to think that there are high stakes involved. That said, I’d probably cry if I were cornered by the guy who paralyzed me. He wouldn’t have had to have raped me to trigger that response. To me, the cover is just another Big 2 crossover tactic to make you think something worthwhile may actually happen in the book. That said, covers haven’t really correlated to a comic’s content in years. For all we know, Joker’s on the cover, but Batgirl’s probably saving the local coffee joint in the story (if you haven’t read recent Batgirl, she’s moved to the hip Burnside neighborhood, which is Gotham’s stand-in for Williamsburg). At the end of the day, it’s probably much ado about nothing.

I’m also surprised that this kind of uproar is the result of a VARIANT cover. If you’re not familiar with how the comic industry works, variant covers are considered incentives to the retailer. Let’s say a retailer typically orders 35 copies of Batgirl. DC would like retailers to order more copies, so as an incentive to do so, they’ll give the retailer a special cover if they increase their orders to, say, 50 copies. The idea is that the retailer can then sell that variant cover at a price that’ll make up the difference in copies that may never actually sell. It’s a common practice, and variants can be offered at any level. Some publishers offer a variant cover for every 10 copies ordered, while some high dollar variants are 1:100. In this case, there are 25 Joker-centric variant covers released in June to commemorate the character’s 75th anniversary. The main point that I’m trying to make is that these aren’t the regular covers going to consumers. Right now, it’s unclear as to what kind of ratio in which the variants will be shipped. People were worried about what kind of impression the Batgirl cover would make on a new reader, but that’s probably not the cover that a new reader will see. The regular, common cover of the book looks like this:


This isn’t the first time in recent history that a variant cover has caused fan uproar. Just a few months back, Marvel commissioned a variant cover for Spider-Woman from noted erotic artist Milo Manara. After all of his years in the profession, Marvel had to know what it was going to get from him. The result was this:



The uproar was deafening, though Manara just did what he had been asked to do. He did what he does best, and apparently that’s drawing apple bottoms on crazily-contorted superheroes. Whatever. The point is that Marvel couldn’t play dumb since they knew the guy’s resume, but they also didn’t want to alienate the fans. So, they canceled the cover. Which was a variant. Which most people would never see outside of the websites bashing it.

I can understand the side that opposed the cover, even if I don’t share that sentiment. What bothers me is the precedent that this sets. Kinda like the Robin Thicke/Marvin Gaye decision, I fear for what this means for the future of the comic industry. Are they going to have to run everything by The Mary Sue (popular website by and for female comic fans) before they approve it? Does Gail Simone (DC Comics’ most prominent female writer) have to give her approval for everything concerning women before it’s universally accepted by fans? Are all controversial comic decisions going to have to be approved by some sort of committee comprised of fans and professionals? Nobody needs to be hurling death threats over *comic books*, so this clearly escalated quickly. Did DC make the “right call”? Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder. In his statement following the cancellation of the cover, Albuquerque said, “I respect these opinions and, despite whether the discussion is right or wrong, no opinion should be discredited.” I think this whole thing uprising was a bit much, but that’s just my opinion. Convince me I’m wrong in the comments!


13 thoughts on “Much Ado About Batgirl

  1. I disagree with you so much, Will, but am super glad that you sat down and wrote this post.

    My main disagreement (of which I have several): Barbara doesn’t have to have been raped for that to have been sexual assault. Kidnapping a person, removing their clothes against their will, and photographing them naked is sexual assault. So this variant cover is glorifying the sexual assault of a female character in an image that re-creates that moment with her abuser/assaulter.

    My second disagreement: I don’t think it’s really much of an imposition, or a dangerous precedent, to expect comics to be sensitive to their female fans.

  2. I don’t understand how people can be upset at the cover but revere The Killing Joke at the same time. I don’t think the cover in and of itself is offensive at all. It’s scary, but that’s okay.

  3. I’ve read a lot about this the past couple of days, and at first I was all, “CENSORSHIP BE DAMNED!” But after reading Albuquerque’s comments, and those of Cameron Stewart, who says that the creative team did not see the cover before it was approved, I understand the decision to pull it.

    As a standalone piece of art, no, it doesn’t do anything other than invoke a nod to The Killing Joke. That in and of itself could be construed as disturbing to some, but what piece of art out there doesn’t offend someone? However, this was a variant cover to a book that is widely popular among young women. Some comic shops, mine included, will give subscribers the variant cover every time over the regular cover. I have friends who have preteen and teenaged daughters who read this book. The variant cover doesn’t fit with the overall tone of the book, and the artist asked for it to be pulled because he understands why people feel that way. (And I know people will say, “But how would kids know about The Killing Joke to even know to be offended?” Anyone at any age who knows anything about Batgirl knows that story, even if they don’t know the disturbing specifics. They know the broad strokes: Joker shoots Barbara, Barbara is paralyzed.)

    I’ve read a lot of commentary about this issue, and I don’t agree with the entitled fanboys who say f*ck women because they ruined comics any more than I agree with the women on the extreme opposite side who say the image implies that Batgirl is being sexually assaulted in that moment. It’s an image paying homage to an iconic interaction between the Joker and Barbara, but this wasn’t the right audience for it. That’s all. It’s not censorship or DC hating women if they did publish it. It’s about right place, right time, and this wasn’t it.

  4. @Brenda – Yay! Welcome to my team 🙂

    @Jenn – You’re right in that it could be sexual without rape taking place. I guess I was going with the “old fashioned” view of sexual assault. Speaking of being old fashioned, that’s what I’m talking about when I say I’m scared it’s setting a precedent. That precedent is NOT that they’ll take female readers into account. That precedent is that everything that garners something of an outcry can force their hand. The cover was decided upon on many levels, and they decided to go with it. Sure, after the outcry, they cancelled the cover, but it still wasn’t necessarily over *content*. Instead, they issued some measly statement:

    “Regardless if fans like Rafael Albuquerque’s homage to Alan Moore’s THE KILLING JOKE graphic novel from 25 years ago, or find it inconsistent with the current tonality of the Batgirl books – threats of violence and harassment are wrong and have no place in comics or society.”

    That’s not an admission of guilt. This is a long way of saying that I miss *conviction*. I’m tired of people issuing halfassed apologies when they don’t mean them.

    @Chris – totally agree

    @Stacey – I don’t think it’s censorship for them to cancel the cover. I feel like “censorship” gets thrown around as carelessly as “Freedom of speech!”That said, I agree with you that the cover doesn’t really fit the tonality of the current state of the book. The cover, like you said, does commemorate an iconic storyline in the Batgirl canon and, as a celebration of the Joker’s creation, I feel like it’s the most *meaningful* of the variant covers. All of the others are just meh. There’s no really cohesiveness to the variant project in the first place. There are 25 covers offered, and the Batgirl one was the only one close to referencing an important Joker storyline. In light of that, and for what they’re were supposedly trying to do for the month of June, I feel like the cover gets a pass. Still, if it gets to the point where people are launching into death threats, cancelling the cover is the least of our worries. It, then, becomes time to take a long, hard look at the industry and its fandom.

    I do feel like one, subtle change could’ve made the cover OK – put Batgirl in her original costume. That would indicate that it’s a “flashback” or a callback, without tainting the direction in which they wish to take the character. That, however, wouldn’t be on-model for how she’s to be represented currently.

    @RobotPJS – This looks like a simple comic book cover, but what it does next will shock you!

  5. Trigger warnings are quite stupid, and pleas to pull this cover strike me as difficult to support. But in comics, men tend to identify with a free speech coarse enough to support depictions of violence against women for profit, but too fragile to support actual feminist characters that do more than sad aggro imitations of male superheroes.

    Put another way, I’m all about allowing whatever variant covers in comics that are supported by the market, but I find little redeeming value in this art, and question why DC and Marvel artists can always find room for sexual violence against women or hypersexual women, but never find room for respectable feminist characterizations of women. Incidents like this illustrate how distant the mainstream comic publishers and their overwhelmingly male audience are from the modern feminism female comic fans fail to inject into the industry.

    Asking the Mary Sue for feminist approval, however tongue-in-cheek, is precisely not the point. DC can tell decent stories with or without sadomasochism and female torture, but if they wish to use that stuff someone should at least interrogate why it appeals to the audience, and why they can’t also sell meaningful feminist material as well. An audience that will purchase terrified Barbara Gordon or apple-bottomed Spider-Woman but shuns feminism is an immoral and sexist audience. Capitalism and free speech ideals can’t defend that.

  6. When I initially saw the cover I didn’t make the connection to The Killing Joke and Batgirl being abused. Probably because I haven’t read TKJ. (I know I know) After seeing the reaction, I got their side of things.

    I don’t mind the cover being pulled, since like you said its a variant cover and ultimately isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. I don’t believe it’ll set a precedent, but hopefully creators and editors will give more thought to what they put out there.

    It’s always women that are on the receiving end of these bad depictions.

  7. I definitely agree with J. Lamb in that it’s pretty telling of where the comics audience is today that stuff like this or the Spider-Woman cover, or that first issue of Teen Titans awhile back always get a tidal wave of “BUT FREE SPEECH” responses when criticised, but any attempt to take things in a more progressive direction is hit with complaints of “appeasement” and somehow people attacking Gail Simone no matter which side the argument’s going. (That bit wasn’t at you, Will, to be clear. Especially since I think you were also just pointing her tendency to get drawn into these things.)

    And, as I said more condensed on Twitter, “The Killing Joke” is not good. All it has going for it is Alan Moore’s name on the front, and even he hates it nowadays. If it weren’t for him, that book would be, at best, forgotten, and more likely reviled. Joker getting an origin story? Joker making Batman laugh? If it weren’t for more those would be seen as travesties. Killing Joke broke too many Batman ‘rules’ for no reason or gain, but it’s somehow become a cornerstone of the Batman mythos. (And I’d bet that even in the 80s, Batgirl being taken out of the game, without even mentioning her own identity, just to torment her dad to, as per the story’s point, no real effect, would have been received pretty poorly if it hadn’t been penned by Rasputin’s Ghost.)

    IMO, if DC wanted Batgirl back for the New 52, they should have just dropped TKJ and started Barbs off fresh. Their decision to hold onto a random assortment of old stories for the new canon was one of the bigger and weirder mistakes of the whole relaunch debacle, and holding tight to a story that reads worse and worse every year was Pretty Dumb.

    Anyway, the cover is effective at conveying the emotion it’s trying to convey, but that emotion is not necessarily one you want to convey to the intended audience of the current run of that book. Also, the guy who does Blue Beetle or whatever said on Twitter that he’s ‘drawn Blue Beetle looking terrified on covers many times’ in case anyone needed an illustration for the term ‘false equivalence’.

  8. Wow, how many of you twits even read comic books? Cant you liberals leave things alone or is it your prime directives to destroy the constitution one amendment at a time. Jen your article is a joke just like you are. Thats the reason why you banned me from your uber- left -wing blog. I still throw up in my mouth reading your femanazi garble. This country is slowly but surely turning into a facist crap hole. Keep poking the conservative tiger fools and at some point it’s gonna bite back. I revel the day…

  9. >>Wow, how many of you twits even read comic books? Cant you liberals leave things alone or is it your prime directives to destroy the constitution one amendment at a time. Jen your article is a joke just like you are. Thats the reason why you banned me from your uber- left -wing blog. I still throw up in my mouth reading your femanazi garble. This country is slowly but surely turning into a facist crap hole. Keep poking the conservative tiger fools and at some point it’s gonna bite back. I revel the day…

    LOL, did you really just go to another person’s blog just to talk shit about and to me?

    That is so tragic, dude.

    BTW, I basically don’t remember who you are at all. I have a note in my admin though that says you harassed me on a bunch of social media platforms, and that even made a second account to keep up the attacks. Looks like this was like a few months ago at least. If so, you seriously need a hobby, my friend.

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