Strength in Vulnerability: #Feminist Reply to @DCComics Batgirl41 “The Killing Joke” Variant Ignites #CHANGETHECOVER

*Update is provided at end of piece, artist has asked DC Comics to pull cover.

There’s a trending hashtag on the Internet now called #CHANGETHECOVER which began with this Tumblr post (at over 2,000 re-shares) regarding a Feminist’s criticism over variant edition comic for DC’s Batgirl #41 with artwork by Rafael Albuquerque. The cover reflects the story The Killing Joke, a graphic novel created in 1988 by Alan Moore (writing) and Brian Bolland (art). The controversial cover depicts the Joker with his arm around Batgirl’s shoulders with gun in hand and Batgirl terrified with tears in her eyes. In The Killing Joke the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, which Joker comments rendered her disabled. Later in the graphic novel we see a nude Jim Gordon on a roller coaster and he is shown a series of photographs of Barbara Gordon in agony lying on a bloody floor nude. In later comics, the New 52 pretty much trashes the old universe for a new take. Some stuff was retained and it appears The Killing Joke story was kept if you read Batman #38 and the first couple of Batgirl issues. Also, per Batgirl #4, Barbara Gordon’s spine is healed from a procedure that was done in a South African clinic, a microchip is added to her spine. DC is currently doing a series of Joker Variants showing various characters with the Joker, the controversial one being discussed in this piece is one of 25. One has to understand that the creative team behind New 52’s Batgirl, while Brendan Fletcher mentioned in a 3 Chicks podcast that they would be moving away from the Joker, does not get to see the variant covers until after they’re revealed. So it’s especially upsetting for me to see people attack the creatives.

More Batgirl artwork by same artist that did the controversial Batgirl/Joker variant cover, Batgirl Endgame #1 by Rafael Albuquerque.
More Batgirl artwork by same artist that did the controversial Batgirl/Joker variant cover, Batgirl Endgame #1 by Rafael Albuquerque.

Essentially, some are holding issue with a female protagonist being displayed in a weak and terrified position (as a victim) on the cover of a comic and some are alleging that it’s romanticizing sexual violence. Others are alleging that the cover makes fun of sexual assault. Some folks are even conflating an alleged DC executive’s remark to Alan Moore in the late 80s to the cover saying it’s sexist. Then you have the people that give Barbara Gordon life outside of printed artwork and insist she’s “being forced to relive her sexual assault” with the creation of this cover. It isn’t unusual that one would be terrified of the Joker with a gun in his hand. There is no sense of rape or sexual abuse in the cover artwork – just pure terror. The cover is also reminiscent of some of Rafael Albuquerque’s other works like Batman Annual #3 with the dark and foreboding vibe. When I personally first read The Killing Joke many years ago, I didn’t get a sense that rape/molestation had occurred although it is apparent that sexual assault occurred with the removal of clothing. The sense I got is Joker took pictures of the sexually assaulted Ms. Gordon nude in agony on the floor after being shot to later be shared with Jim Gordon to psychologically destroy him. While the story-line is uncomfortable, I do not object to displaying the evil of the Joker by painting him as the type of criminal/villain that sexually assaults and paralyzes people. These types of evils happen in society today, I don’t need to be shielded from it in any way and appreciate it when art mimics life, even if the gruesome/ugly aspects of it. The Killing Joke story isn’t about Barbara, her father Jim Gordon or Batman; it’s about the Joker and his unbridled chaos affecting various characters in the Bat family. The cover itself is in line with the planned series of Joker Variant covers and the Joker’s interaction with Barbara Gordon.

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Picture uploaded to Memecenter by user serkan on December 27th 2011

I understand the sentiment for Barbara Gordon fans that it isn’t a pleasant time in her character’s life and shows her at her weakest point. Especially when she has had fabulous moments in other comics like Birds of Prey as Oracle; which by the way, would not have come about without The Killing Joke. Barbara Gordon is a positive and empowering heroine that many fans look up to. I personally found her past history as Batgirl bland and prefer Stephanie Brown’s run as Batgirl. Stephanie is a daughter of a super villain and many disliked her for her many flaws/mistakes but that’s what made her “real” to me; her constant need to seek redemption. Oracle is one of my favorite heroines in comics and The Killing Joke, while a tragic and ugly story, is what led to that character’s creation. In fact, many folks that are disabled found the reboot of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl and consequential end to Oracle as tragic. Thankfully, with Batgirl Vol 4 #15 I satisfyingly got to see Barbara Gordon reek a much desired beating on the Joker.

Batgirl Vol 4 #15
Batgirl Vol 4 #15

I recognize that my personal opinion or feelings regarding Barbara Gordon’s growth throughout DC history doesn’t warrant DC or the artist’s removal of artwork. This is what’s really important so let me reiterate here; one’s feelings/emotions over seeing an accurate depiction of her history with Joker, in a cover specifically meant to be about Joker’s interaction with her, doesn’t make it OK to ask for an artist to change their artwork or for DC to remove it. The cover is still accurate to the story-line and there’s nothing on the cover glorifying or shaming Batgirl for rape or sexual assault. You can’t just erase this major point in the character and Batman comics history. The Killing Joke is a NY Times Bestseller and well-known graphic novel; it’s iconic and has won various awards including the Eisner award. She is Jim Gordon’s daughter and Batman’s protege. The Joker paralyzing her, stripping her clothing off and showing pictures of the display to her father is a major part of the Batman story-line. This is one of the many big reasons why Joker is the big and important Batman villain – the reason why Bruce has to give himself a speech over Joker being just a man in Death of the Family Batman #15 and Endgame Batman #37 so he doesn’t let his overwhelming hatred of Joker get the best of him. You also have to consider that this event in Barbara Gordon’s past helps to show how strong she is in later comics. She was able to move past this traumatic point in her life which reflects her strength of character. The argument that the cover is misogynistic and sexist because Barbara Gordon is being used as a tool robs her of the strong character development that stems from this traumatic event in her history.

Detective Comics #826
Detective Comics #826

The notion that only female characters are “used as tools” or “depicted as victims” within the story-line is disingenuous. A lot of characters are just tools to motivate heroes regardless of gender. This is basically the biggest aspect of the superhero genre in comics. For example, look at the odd (what seems like) requirement that both or at least one of your parents/guardians must die in order for a superhero to be born. Maybe I just find the outrage over the cover artwork to be over-the-top because I’m a longtime Batman/DC comics fan that has a deep knowledge of the universe. Perhaps if I were more detached and saw the artwork without my knowledge of the Bat family’s lengthy history and a strictly art critic’s eyes, I’d be more warm to claims that it’s sexist or misogynist. I highly doubt that though, because with my extensive comic book knowledge – comes my awareness that DC Comics has a rocky past with social controversies like the Harley Quinn suicide contest. Even with this awareness, I still find it all overboard. This isn’t the first radical feminist/SJW controversy DC has had to wade through with Batgirl and it likely won’t be the last. Also, it’s odd to me the lack of outrage over some other comic covers that are a bit more risque or sexually insinuative with it’s artwork. I completely disagree with this seemingly radical #feminist and #SJW (social justice warrior) outcry over the variant cover art and The Killing Joke story-line. It’s fine to criticize or disagree with an artist’s work, it is not alright to request that it be pulled because of your feelings over it.

Now, for your viewing pleasure, a collection of colorful and insightful tweets (heavy sarcasm) regarding folks sentiments on this issue. You see people call for censorship, likening it to porn, saying it promotes rape and celebrates violence against women, etc. There were reasonable and mild remarks on this matter, and then there were these:

tweet 01

Tweet 02

tweet 03

tweet 04

tweet 05

tweet 06

tweet 07

*UPDATE*

Cameron Stewart (of Batgirl creative team) exchange with Twitter user active under #CHANGETHECOVER hashtag.
Cameron Stewart (of Batgirl creative team) exchange with Twitter user active under #CHANGETHECOVER hashtag March 15th.

March 16 09:00 PM:

It appears that the artist of the Batgirl #41 Joker variant cover Rafael Albuquerque has requested that DC Comics pull the cover in response to this issue. I’ve provided both the artists’ and DC Comics official remarks below:

Rafael Albuquerque:

My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favorite of many readers. ‘The Killing Joke’ is part of Batgirl’s canon and artistically, I couldn’t avoid portraying the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker.

For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character’s past that I was able to interpret artistically. But it has become clear, that for others, it touched a very important nerve. I respect these opinions and, despite whether the discussion is right or wrong, no opinion should be discredited.

My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art. For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled. I’m incredibly pleased that DC Comics is listening to my concerns and will not be publishing the cover art in June as previously announced.

With all due respect,

Rafa

DC Comics:

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

I can not fully express how much sorrow I have over this new development. This whole mess where people seek to censor content has so many depressing implications. Between this matter and the recent Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover fiasco, there’s an alarming trend of calls for removal of artistic content because of people’s feelings.

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14 thoughts on “Strength in Vulnerability: #Feminist Reply to @DCComics Batgirl41 “The Killing Joke” Variant Ignites #CHANGETHECOVER”

  1. Loved the article.

    One thing you did leave out is that these variant covers are celebrating 75 years of The Joker and The Killing Joke involving Barbara is a major part of that.

    What annoys me the most is that these people complaining are revelling in negativity instead of turning it into a positive, just like Barbara did when she became Oracle one of the most important members of the superhero community.
    The topic of this cover could be used to spark conversation about sexual assault and ways to prevent it. Instead of banning the cover they could have asked DC to donate money to victim charities and prevention groups.

    Barbara Gordon has never been a victim until these people that want to change the cover made her one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a Batman fan, one has to take the bad with the good, and there’s been plenty of bad. While I enjoyed the Killing Joke, I didn’t like what it did to the canon*, or at least HOW it did it, but on the other hand, I really like Oracle, and if KJ didn’t do that to the canon AND future writers hadn’t decided to ‘rescue’ the character, we wouldn’t have Oracle. If you wanted to go really far down the rabbit hole, you could go into why the character needed ‘rescuing’ and how it’s only because people felt sorry for the character because she was a woman that she got ‘saved’ by being rewritten, but that’s an ugly can of worms.

    Really, I have more of a problem with how awful catwoman was consistently drawn for decades, as though she were naked and then sprayed down with purple paint. It just looks ugly and weird.

    *DCAU has the best canon.

    Like

  3. it is patently ridiculous that anyone is claiming that this cover is forcing a cartoon character to relive their victimization. cartoon character. character. who is not real.

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  4. I find it odd that some people’s criteria for something being misogynistic is merely having something bad happen to a female character, and that they can’t distinguish between depicting something and celebrating something.

    In a world where gender violence is so prevalent, I don’t understand why people don’t want fiction to ever address it. It seems like denialism to me. For example, here’s an excerpt from The Mary Sue’s response to this article:

    “What she fails to recognize is that this origin story for Oracle is problematic in and of itself. After all, the male heroes in the DC Universe all have origin stories that find them either having been born with certain advantages (Superman), having watched tragedies happen around them (Batman), or having had accidents (The Flash). Hell, even some of the female heroes have this kind of origin. After all, Wonder Woman and Supergirl are also “born this way.” Even Batgirl has a great origin in that she just… decides to start fighting crime despite all objections. The fact that Oracle is the product of a horribly violent crime against a young woman doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, especially considering that Women In Refrigerators is a trope that plagues comics otherwise. Yes, Oracle provides much-needed representation for comics fans in wheelchairs and is an inspiring character, but this doesn’t make her origin any less of a problem.”

    I don’t understand why it invalidates a character to have personal tragedy inform their character. If anything, it’s inspiring for a character who has been victimize to pull through and overcome the adversity. Many people can identify with a character who has struggled through awful ordeals. It doesn’t make Oracle “problematic” that her history includes harrowing circumstances. I find trying to whitewash these things, and making fiction a post-feminist world where women never encounter the realities of violence, less relevant than anything.

    I also don’t get the comments of making Gordon “relive” that moment. For one thing, she’s not a real person, so she’s not “reliving” anything. I think that some people don’t have much experience with how textual criticism works, and they think of fictional characters as real people, and think of depicting a character struggling with something as identical to committing the act against a person, and thus have the belief that fiction writers have a responsibility to never have bad things happen to their characters. Secondly, it’s a conceptual cover, not an actual story element. Even within this fictional universe, Barbara Gordon isn’t actually being “revictimized” by The Joker. It’s merely a homage. Thirdly, I don’t even see it as the least bit sexualized. Joker is committing a violent act, but not an act of sexual violence.

    Like

  5. Just want to point out that while Cam seems to have nothing wanting to do with the Killing Joke at all in terms of the cover, they have no issue bringing it up in the series itself. This is a page from issue 37, a direct reference to the event which is way too grimdark for a cover but as plot method for the villain? Sure. http://imgur.com/gOsMEqY

    Like

  6. Oh bloody hell, people. It’s not sexist when it’s a massive important relationship and story of what happened to Barbara! I am a feminst, but you have to do your damned research – you can’t just freak out and spaz over everything without any knowledge of the history that created it. I am a HUGE Batgirl fan, and I LOVE THIS COVER! It PERFECTLY represents the Joker and his relationship with Batgirl. And it’s all the more powerful when Batgirl beats the snot out of the Joker despite what he’s done to her. She’s not a frelling tool – this is classic comic book stuff where the hero is made vulnerable and rises above it to win. JEESH! This cover is AWESOME!

    Fans SHOULD be pissed about how crappy Batgirl got recently with the new light look and bloody Archie-comic style storylines of crap, making Batgirl the ‘light’ of the Bat family because she’s the girl, now more concerned with her image, and dating than being the brooding, rage driven powerhouse she was with the new 52 reboo. THAT is sexism, not this awesome cover.

    Like

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