This week, the comic book world was buzzing about the upcoming Batgirl #41 – by which, of course, I mean #41 since the “New 52” relaunch in 2011; the character of Barbara Gordon first took up the moniker in 1967 for Detective Comics #359, “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl.” Of course, you can hardly talk about Batgirl without also talking about Yvonne Craig in the 60s television series, and I certainly perked up whenever Batgirl drove her motorcycle across the opening credits of the episode I was watching.
Since then, the character of Barbara Gordon has become a key element in the Batman franchise, first as Batgirl, and then as the indispensable “eye-in-the-sky” Oracle, providing Bruce and the others with vital information and tech support after a tragedy left her wheelchair bound. If you’re unaware of the specifics of the tragedy, I would highly suggest reading Alan Moore’s infamous 1988 story “[amazon_link id=”1401216676″ target=”_blank” ]The Killing Joke[/amazon_link].” For the sake of brevity, I’ll include the panels from the book that result in Barbara’s paralysis.
Before we go any further, I want to make it clear that I certainly find the previous panels upsetting, even disturbing in their implications. “The Killing Joke” is one of the darkest chapters in Batman history, arguably edging out “[amazon_link id=”1401232744″ target=”_blank” ]A Death in the Family[/amazon_link],” and is every bit as controversial. There have been more articles than I could readily address written on the subject, and I encourage anyone reading this to seek out viewpoints on both sides of the line. For our purposes, however, the only thing left to share is the cover image for “The Killing Joke,” which most comic fans should recognize instantly.
Fast-forward to this past week, when DC announced that June would be “Joker Month,” and part of the celebration would be variants for different comics highlighting the Clown Prince of Crime. Bear in mind that most of these variants have nothing to do with the content of the issues themselves, something which is common with even regular comic covers. I’ve provided a link to the page where the folks at Third-Eye Comics have listed the twenty-four Joker variants for June.
Pretty cool, right? Some of them are fun, some of them are creepy, and all of them showcase how different artists chose to work the Joker into a shot with the characters from each title. I’m a pretty big fan of the Superman #41 variant, myself.
However, up until last week, there were twenty-FIVE variants featuring the Joker; a keen eye might have noticed that there is not a listing for a variant cover of Batgirl #41. I don’t even know if the Joker will be featured within the pages of that issue – again, something that can be said for most of these variants – and the regular cover seems to indicate that the story will focus on Barbara’s interactions with the new robot/mechanical Bat-suit that is premiering soon.
Yes, that is Barbara Gordon in the Batgirl costume, definitely not paralyzed and back to fighting crime alongside her comrades. When DC kicked off the “New 52,” writer Gail Simone took over duties on Batgirl; in the new continuity, only three years have passed since Barbara was paralyzed, but she underwent experimental treatment that restored her mobility. Simone guided Batgirl from issue #1 to #34 in the new storyline, and frequently dealt with the after-effects of the Joker’s attack. Barbara suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which sometimes causes her to freeze up in situations involving gunfire; she also suffers from survivor’s guilt, as someone who has come back from an attack when so many others haven’t been able to. For thirty-odd issues, Barbara Gordon grew and developed into someone different than she had been before.
Then, for reasons that may never become sufficiently clear to the general public, Simone’s duties on Batgirl came to an end. This parting of the ways almost happened even earlier in the run when Gail was apparently fired from the book in December 2012 by the title’s incoming editor, Brian Cunningham; that decision was reversed almost immediately due to fan outcry. As of Batgirl #35, though the new creative team of Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher took over, and the change marked a significant tonal shift, probably best illuminated by the cover of their first issue.
I don’t think I would be out-of-line to say that this new direction received, um, “mixed reviews” from critics and fans alike. Some have praised the shift towards a more, optimistic, girl-power style of presenting Barbara as a young woman no longer defined by her past tragedies; other have found the new feel almost saccharine sweet, and object to Batgirl posing for bathroom selfies like some sort of pop princess.
Either way, when the ultra-talented Rafael Alberquerque was commissioned to do a Joker variant for issue #41, it certainly shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that the end result involved an homage to “The Killing Joke.”
This, guys and gals, is the image that caused parts of the Internet and social media to lose their collective shit, snowballing into a campaign known as #ChangeTheCover. The basic thrust of the outrage seemed to be that showing Barbara in a situation like this with the man who crippled who was, at the very least, in poor taste; of course, some critics went a little further, and I have included a selection of articles from IGN and Bleeding Cool on the matter.
I’m not going to address everything said in those posts, but there are two phrases in particular I do want to talk about. The first is from the initial Bleeding Cool article: “And the direction of the gun does give the whole thing a very disturbing sexual overtone.” The gun is pointing… down, the exact way a gun – or a beer bottle, or a microphone, etc. – would point if you have it in your hand while your arm is slung over someone’s shoulder. Unless you’re going to accuse gravity of being a sexual predator, the direction of that gun has jack-shit to do with implied sexual overtones. The second phrase comes from that last IGN piece: “The position of Joker’s pistol between her breasts can even be construed as phallic imagery.”
This, right here, is the kind of fake outage bullshit that threatens not only to ruin any hobby these kind of social justice hotheads get their claws into, but also serves to discredit situations where there is a genuine cause for concern over how a female character is being depicted. For instance, let’s look at the cover of Wonder Woman #41 that’s part of the Joker variant run.
Where’s the outrage here? The Joker has a bomb pressed up against the small of Diana’s back, in the place where a dance partner’s hand is supposed to normally go; I personally think forcing Diana to be pressed up against him in the intimate posture of dance partners is far more sexually charged than having his arm over Barbara’s shoulder. Plus, look at the curve of Diana’s buttocks, and the accent lines just above it; obviously the artist wants us to think about her crotch being pressed right up against the Joker’s. Hell, this is still a variant cover, which means someone can choose NOT to buy it and still get the monthly issue without being subjected to this sexual filth. What about Batman #39’s regular cover?!
Here the Joker has made a throne from himself out of victims of his toxin; I honestly can’t tell if they’re supposed to be alive or dead. What I can tell is that the person creating the “left armrest” portion of the chair is clearly female, and her shirt is sliding up her back, exposing her skin; furthermore, the Joker’s hand and forearm are clearly resting on her buttocks. Looking and the way his fingers are curled on his left hand, one can only imagine that he’s stroking her in a clearly sexually way. On top of that, this is the regular cover for the issue, so any innocent person just wanting to keep up with Batman would have to suffer past it.
Now, just for clarification, I don’t actually believe either of these covers represents any of the things I just espoused. I do think it’s telling that no one – so far, at least – has tried to rally the social justice war machine to get them pulled from shelves. I also haven’t heard anyone condemning the cover to the Batgirl: Endgame one-shot published recently.
How does that cover not conflict with the supposedly more upbeat, cheerful tone that the series has been known for in recent months? This particular image goes beyond just the cover; from what I hear, the actual issue might even involve Batgirl getting injured while fighting dangerous criminals as a masked vigilante! Why, from what my research shows, there have been decades’ worth of comics in the Batman franchise that feature women, children, teenagers, civil servants, police officers, and countless others being attacked, hurt, and even killed by the Joker and other criminals!
How is it that these comics have continued to be published and purchased each month, resulting in a multi-billion-dollar industry that extends beyond comics into movies, television, toys, and beyond? Could it be that actual fans of these characters aren’t really easily-offended and outraged by something like a heroine being menaced by a familiar villain on a themed variant cover [amazon_link id=”1401247598″ target=”_blank” ]celebrating the fact that said villain has been around for seventy-five years[/amazon_link] and has a critical history with said heroine? Why, if that was the case, then a well-respected industry artist just cancelled publication of an exceptional piece of artwork over the drummed-up outcry of people who don’t directly follow and monetarily support the industry to begin with, leaving actual fans of the property who wanted to own the artwork out in the cold for the sake of pandering to a group who probably weren’t going to buy the issue in the first place.
The Joker would probably think the whole thing was hilarious, a real fucking riot.
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