This week in comics, the big discussion was Rafael Albuquerque’s alternate cover to an upcoming issue of Batgirl. It is controversial, but gives nice insight into a world where people talk at each other as opposed to each other.
June is the month of The Joker. Batman’s arch nemesis and the clown prince of crime. He’s a bonafide sociopath with little regard for human life, dignity or anything else really. The Joker is less a character or a human being but more a force of pure chaos. His epic laugh – best done by Star Wars actor Mark Hammill – both amazes and terrifies equally. This is what makes The Joker such an awesome character. Needless to say, many writers have managed to write the next definitive Batman/Joker story for decades and few have succeeded. They aspire to write the next The Killing Joke.
Batgirl is Barbara Gordon who currently resides in Gotham City’s up-and-coming hip neighbourhood called Burnside. Fans lovingly call the leather-clad heroine the Batgirl of Burnside to differentiate her from all previous incarnations. Her adventures are no longer grimdark – a term that is used to describe stories that revel in their grittiness and have it for the sake of having it – but upbeat, fun and bright while having definitive serious undertones. This is what makes the Batgirl of Burnside such an awesome character. However, not everything has always been this awesome in the life of Barbara Gordon. For a time, she was paralyzed and in a wheelchair. This all goes back to The Killing Joke.
Homage of Controversy
For the month of June, publisher DC Comics has thought of something special. In addition to the regular covers of all their comic books, artists were invited to draw covers that show The Joker and the hero of the book, while showcasing the awesomeness that is The Joker.
Artist Rafael Albuquerque drew this.
This is the Batgirl of Burnside and The Joker who is wearing the outfit he wore in The Killing Joke. Shortly after releasing it, it caused a stir. People claimed it was sexist and portrayed the self-confident Batgirl of Burnside as a weak and submissive character. While this is a valid interpretation, the ensuing stir caused both sides of the sexism discussion to go mental. Once again. This in and of itself is nothing overly new and it’s tiring. But it does show that neither side actually appears to have read The Killing Joke the comic book that seems to have caused all this.
The Killing Joke
First, let’s have a look at The Killing Joke, which is a fantastic comic book and you should read it. It’s the comic book that crippled Barbara Gordon and very likely had her raped. And if you think that this will be revolting, then that’s the point. The point of the comic book is that The Joker is trying to make a point: All it takes for anyone to snap is one really bad day. To prove this, he decides that he must create a day where The Dark Knight is absolutely, really and incredibly miserable.
This is where the relationship between The Joker and Batman is pretty much defined in the way that comic book authors and readers understand the two characters in relation to one another. While Batman is controlled, thoughtful and emotionally repressed, The Joker is the other side of the coin: Chaotic, impulsive, disrespectful and generally unhinged.
As part of his plan to ruin Batman’s and Commissioner Gordon‘s day, the Clown Prince of Crime decides to take it out on innocents. So he goes to Commissioner Gordon’s house and knocks on the door. Then this happens.
Jim Gordon is not aware of his daughter Barbara’s double life as the heroine Batgirl. And neither, readers assume, was The Joker. He just wanted to hurt someone close to someone who was close to Batman.
But the evil clown is not done yet. He kidnaps Jim Gordon and tries to make his day the worst there is, too. Just to have another person go insane, in addition to Batman. He does it by having this happen.
if you look at the photos in the background that The Joker snapped of Barbara, you will see that she is not wearing any clothes on them. So it’s reasonable to assume that after he shot her through the spine, he raped or at the very least sexually assaulted her.
Because The Joker is a despicable creature who doesn’t shy away from anything. Just to prove a point.
Without spoiling anything, the book ends most ambiguously. Some people think that The Joker succeeded, others think that he didn’t. Author Alan Moore doesn’t talk about it other than remarking that this wasn’t his best story, which might just be something out of his dislike for super hero comics.
Also: Read The Killing Joke.
The Controversy That Isn’t
The main argument out of those who claim that sexism is involved and that the cover is a tool of the oppressive patriarchy. Usually associated with the claim that you never see her male, white counterpart, Batman crying and in a vulnerable state. This is not the case. Even Superman cries.
Here are some examples. Some of them depict the hero in distress, others have the hero crying, some have him do both.
From here on out, I consider this particular issue to be resolved, seeing as the offended party can now rest. The larger issue, however, is still unresolved. On both sides of the argument.
Do Women Belong in Refrigerators?
Back in the mid-1990s, comic book writer Gail Simone read a comic book that starred Green Lantern Kyle Rayner. In the book cover dated August 1994, a villain named Major Force killed Kyle’s girlfriend and stuffed her in the Green Lantern’s fridge. The reason was little more than a plot device. Piss the hero off, big fight ensues, hero wins. The end.
Gail Simone, along with other female comic book creators and fans, compiled a list of female characters, titled Women in Refrigerators, who were killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her as a plot device. The list is long, entertaining and telling. And frankly, this shouldn’t be. All feminist reasons aside, because they have been elaborated on plenty of times by people far more knowledgeable on the subject than me, it makes for lousy storytelling. Remember the Red Shirts on Star Trek? As soon as a person with a red shirt on the Original Series showed up, fans immediately knew that the character wouldn’t survive the episode. In comic books, this meant that as soon as there’s a girlfriend or a wife or another female character in the mix, she’s at high risk of dying.
And yes, Barbara Gordon aka. Batgirl I is on the list.
Since that list has been compiled, a lot of creators have made it a point to defy that trope. This is nice. There’s still some ways to go, but currently, we are getting rid of the skin-tight spandex and heels in which female characters fight. At the forefront of this movement: The Batgirl of Burnside. She makes comic books not only accessible to readers of all age, but sets a new paradigm in female comic book costuming.
When said costume was first revealed, both fans and critics of Batgirl and her costume agreed: This costume is awesome. Add to that the awesome storytelling by Cameron Stewart and the fantastic storytelling by Babs Tarr and the Batgirl of Burnside is a character everyone can enjoy.
On an awesome sidenote: The new costume was deliberately done the way it is. Here are the creative team’s instructions for how the costume works.
Granted, this process of having women not be a plot device in comics is not complete. There’s still some ways to go, but that will take time.
This Isn’t Censorship
While the opponents of the cover took to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and other Social Media, an force of opponents of the opponents formed. Their main argument is that not publishing the cover is censorship and that Freedom of Speech is impended, because of a vocal minority. These people are wrong. The opponents of the opponents, that is.
For one, they appear to have missed either the definition of censorship or the way this story ended. Here’s the ending:
DC Comics decided to not publish the cover at the artist’s request. The original statement on ComicBookResources.com reads
The highly criticized variant cover for “Batgirl” #41 will not be published by DC Comics, CBR News has learned. This move was made at the request of the cover’s artist, Rafael Albuquerque.
“My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art,” Albuquerque, the acclaimed artist of “American Vampire,” said in a statement. “For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled.”
in the very first paragraph. This is not censorship. This is a man who has made something he considers to be a mistake after being alerted to it. He asked his bosses if they would help him make up for the mistake and the bosses agreed. That’s nice, isn’t it?
Censorship would be if DC Comics ruled that the cover was now forbidden from being seen. Or if there was a law against it. If you want to know what actual censorship of the arts looks like, check out the article I wrote about Censorship in Bollywood.
To Err is Human
By now, I assume that one or more readers of this might have already internally accused me of mansplaining, which refers to a derogatory and patronizing form of explanation, while the other side might have accused me of not standing up for freedom, manhood or any other virtue they consider noble, I would like to make one final argument.
To err is human is a sentence that best sums up the entire mess of the cover.
- Rafael Albuquerque has made the mistake of drawing a cover that offends many
- The offended made the mistake of, after the initial offending had been done, adhering to outrageous claims that have no ground in reality
- The opponents of the offended have made the mistake of completely ignoring reality as well
This leads us nowhere. Neither feminists, nor comic book fans, nor the offended, nor freedom fighters, nor DC Comics nor Rafael Albuquerque wins anything in this one. All we end up with is a giant shouting match that will pass as quickly as it arose. Until the next offending cover or panel or whatever comes along when we will descend to the pits of social media again in order to try to prove a point by shouting at people. This time, it went to the point (as it often does) where people received threats, according to ComicBookResources. This is very tragic.
In a statement to ComicBookResources, DC Entertainment put it nicely:
We publish comic books about the greatest heroes in the world, and the most evil villains imaginable. The Joker variant covers for June are in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the Joker.
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.
We stand by our creative talent, and per Rafael’s request, DC Comics will not publish the Batgirl variant. – DC Entertainment
Stay with me for a second. Think of it this way. You walk down the street. There’s a person on a soap box screaming about the 666 barcode and how it poisons our food. Assume that you don’t believe in the barcode, even if you do. Just for the sake of argument. Would you believe that screaming guy? Would you walk up to him, stop and say «You know… now that you mention it…»? Because you’re convinced that he is full of it while he believes that he knows the wisdom to eternal happiness.
Belief is ultimately what it boils down to. Some people believe that screaming at people over the internet will bring about change. Some people believe that screaming at people who scream at people over the internet will somehow convince the screaming that they’re wrong. Some people believe that there’s nothing wrong with this cover. Some people believe it’s a tool of the heteronormative patriarchy that promotes rape culture.
Fact is that comics do have a difficult history when it comes to female characters and that there are a lot of skilled people working on changing that. Fact is, that there are more and more female creators and readers and that the firm establishment of a statistically relevant reader base of female gender will take time. As will the acceptance of that base as a voice in comic book fans’ discussions both online and offline. Fact is that The Killing Joke brought us a woman in a refrigerator, although the story is a very good one and has nice characterizations of pretty much all involved.
The Art of Talking
Ultimately, we need to talk to each other, not scream at each other on Social Media. When discussing a controversial topic, go at it with the belief that people who do not share your opinion, whatever it may be, know what they’re talking about. Even if it’s about feeling offended. People have every right to be offended, just like the powers that be have the right to ignore the offended. Life is offending at times, it happens. We get to speak out against it, but we can’t demand or feel entitled to change.
We need a dialog. Why? Because if we don’t find this way of talking to one another, we will end up with segregation of sorts. There will be comics exclusively for girls that cater to whatever girls like (you will forgive me here for not knowing exactly what that is) and those that will cater exclusively to boys, which will be about manly men doing the manly thing.
You know who suffers from this theoretical segregation? Everyone. Because we wouldn’t have books that are as brilliant as The Batgirl of Burnside, Captain Marvel, Batwoman, Ms. Marvel et al. Because not only are they representatives of minorities in comics, but they’re also just damn good comic books. And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? A story we can enjoy or love to hate. Our favourite character facing off against impossible odds and somehow persevering.