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Comic Cover Controversy Strikes Again

Batgirl41vIf you follow the comics industry on social media, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the latest variant cover to raise the gorge of readers.  Rafael Albuquerque’s variant cover to Batgirl #41 was supposed to be 1 of 25 variant covers celebrating the Joker as a fixture of DC’s canon for over 50 years.  Thanks to a vocal minority, Albuquerque and DC withdrew the cover before the launch, caving to an Internet uproar that is becoming all too common these days.

Seems like only yesterday we we’re clutching our pearls over Spider-Woman’s posterior. Those were the days…

I’m not a big Batgirl fan, but I do love the Dark Knight and his arch nemesis, the Clown Prince of Crime.  Albuquerque’s cover was a shout out to Alan Moore’s seminal 1988 graphic novel, The Killing Joke.  In it, the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon and photographs her in sexually suggestive poses, in a bid to drive Commissioner Gordon mad, to prove to Batman that a good man is only one bad turn away from madness like the Joker’s.  It was gritty.  It was raw.

It was, admittedly, nothing like the Batgirl title of today.

Still, The Killing Joke is part of the Barbara Gordon/Batgirl canon.  It gave us her coolest incarnation, Oracle, the guiding voice in the Batman’s ear.  It’s a part of comics history.

The last time we had this public kerfuffle over comic cover, it was about overt sexualization of Spider-Woman (a point I disagree with, incidentally, since Spider-Man is “guilty” of the same posturing).  This time, it’s about Batgirl’s victimization at the hands of Joker.  This time, I kinda see the naysayers’ point.  It’s a decidedly creepy cover, and it’s certainly not representative of Barbara’s latest incarnation.  I certainly wouldn’t buy it.  But I wouldn’t stop someone who would.

And that’s the crux of it.  Just because it’s not for me, doesn’t mean it isn’t for someone.  Who am I to let my squick influence the ability for other consumers to make decisions for themselves?  And it’s not like the cover in question was to be the only one available, or even the most plentiful.  It was gonna be a variant.  Now, no one has a choice.

Of course, while I find the cover a little distasteful, others may find it downright offensive, or (dare I even utter it…) triggering.  While I can sympathize, my answer remains the same–don’t buy that one.  Unfortunately, it’s not enough for some to exercise their own choice-making.  They feel obliged to make the choice for all of us.

Gaming and comics are better for the growing inclusivity of recent years.  But even as their audiences expand, I don’t think it’s fair to expect long time fans to relinquish their history with a franchise, or their preferences, for the sake of new fans.  Least of all when the new kids often seem all too inclined to steam roll the landscape before planting their flag.  And, to be perfectly frank, censorship in any form–whether by extremist act,  government decree, or cryhards on Twitter–is unacceptable in a free society.  Art doesn’t come with bubble wrap on the corners, and life doesn’t come with trigger warnings on the side of the box.  If you don’t want it, don’t buy it.

DC, you’re in the wrong.

 

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This entry was posted by Chris Avery.

6 thoughts on “Comic Cover Controversy Strikes Again

  1. Okay, Chris, I’ve been posting here for a while, and I try to make sure my arguments are as sound and thorough as my praise. So keep that in mind when I say that the “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it” argument is complete bullshit.

    First off, it’s a variant cover, so not buying it is generally the default. Granted, that also means that it’s easy to pass on without seeing it, so those kinda offset one another.

    Second, and I’ll admit this is more of my opinion than the “social justice” zeitgeist, “Killing Joke” is an awful Batman story, but it’s the worst possible Barbara Gordon story. Her role is to get shot, stripped, and photographed, in order to break Jim Gordon, in order to prove a point to Batman. Who shares a jolly laugh with Joker at the end. Fuck that. It’s worse that a “women in refrigerators” scene, because it’s not even about her relationship to the hero. So, with Batgirl undergoing a renewed popularity as a strong, vital heroine, I think it’s completely tacky to have that particular story be celebrated.

    Third, DC and Rafael Albuquerque thought this cover was a great idea, and apparently no one involved with the cover thought there was anything inappropriate. Until people started talking about it, that is. If no one says anything, things stay the same. Which is great if you’re okay with the status quo, but not so much if you’re looking for more (or better) representation. The internet gives a collective voice to people, for better or worse. This, by the way, is hardly taking anyone else’s choice away in and of itself. DC listened, and they agreed to pull the cover. They could have ignored the controversy.

    Fourth, Albuquerque asked for the cover to be pulled. Not because he necessarily thought that the people protesting it were right that it was offensive or triggering, but because people were posting death threats to the people who complained. Which, I think, is a far more severe reaction than the situation warranted, but is all too common these days. That would be my “kids today” old man rant in summary.

    Fifth, the actual creators of the book were unaware of this cover. It was a marketing decision to which they were not privy.

    Sixth, those creators have spent considerable time and effort to “rebrand” the Batgirl series as a more light-hearted, female-friendly book, and I think the Joker cover is tonally wrong and could alienate readers. “So what?” is an acceptable answer to this, of course, but I’m looking at it from a marketing perspective in this particular case.

    And finally, it’s extremely hypocritical of the pro-cover crowd (collectively, not you in particular) to be giving the anti-cover people shit about their “This is inappropriate, you shouldn’t publish it” stance. Comic fans do this ALL THE TIME. There was way more outrage over Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s marriage than there was over this cover. Superior Spider-Man, anything Liefeld produces, Kyle Rayner and H.E.A.T., Dave Sim’s whacked-out misogyny, Frank Miller’s whacked-out writing in general…they all had people coming out of the woodwork to decry the fact that these things even saw print. I’m sure you could think of plenty of examples I didn’t list. How many people have called for the jobs of Brian Bendis, Tom Brevoort, Joe Quesada, Dan Didio, Dan Slott, or other creators? It’s all the same thing. It’s people talking. Sometimes they have hashtags, and that’s about the extent of it.

    All that without really talking about the cover itself, or the message it sends, with Barbara stripped of agency and crying. I am not convinced that this is anything we need to see in print. The cover is out there in the world, so the people who want to enjoy it can do so. So all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over DC “censoring” the cover are, to my mind, ridiculous.

    But you know, I think the biggest victory here for the “social justice warriors” isn’t getting the cover pulled. It’s getting DC to again look at itself and its work, and make a change for (arguably) the better. Because that’s how things like the Burnside Batgirl stories happen. People demand change, and DC tries something different. Maybe they’ll go back to what they were doing in a year or two, but at least they’re coming out with more interesting stories today.

    There you go, that’s my rant/rebuttal. Rantbuttal? I think, honestly, I’m arguing more with the assholes on Reddit who are complaining about the feminazis, and can’t seem to stop living up to Reddit’s reputation. So, do understand that I meant “complete bullshit” in the nicest possible way.

    • Brian, you invariably are, like, the best commenter on the Internet. So no offense taken. I love it when I open my email and see a thoughtful reply from you that blows my original post out of the water.

      With such a thorough comment, all I can do is take it point by point. So I’ll start at the top.

      Your first point I totally agree with. I’d just go a step further and say, let those that want it, have it, and not make a fuss.

      On your second point, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. I really like the Killing Joke. It is a decidedly uncomfortable story. Gruesome in the extreme. Probably a bit too much of Moore trying to shock audiences in the same cocaine fueled era that culminated in the publication of American Psycho in ’91. But it is a crucial story in the Joker mythos – and that’s who the alternate cover was supposed to be focusing on. And lets be honest, no matter how upbeat the new Batgirl is, the Killing Joke is the definitive Joker/Barbara Gordon story.

      On point the third, I disagree with you on a crucial premise. The Internet does not provide a collective voice, it provides a platform for a myriad voices. DC didn’t see a problem with the cover, and neither did what I have to assume was a silent majority of male and female, new and old comic fans. What DC reacted to was a Twitter campaign pitched in an increasingly pat (and I would argue, cynical) style. There is a sufficiency of research for me to feel comfortable stating that Twitter is not a representation of a majority view.

      Fourth, I know Albuqurque requested the cover be pulled, I sorta lumped him in with ‘DC’ – perhaps unfairly. That said, “death threats on the Internet” is the lamest boogieman of modern era. If you participate in heated exchanges on the Internet, morons will threaten you. Internet tough guys have been around since the dawn of the Internet. That isn’t to say that doxxing, swatting, and the like aren’t real problems. Threats? Not so much. Sticks and stones, as they say.

      Le article numéro cinq, it was a marketing decision. DC owns the property. It was their decision.

      Point nummer sex, this is a fair point, and one I agreed to in my post. It’s a squicky cover, it’s not inline with the tone of Batgirl. I certainly wouldn’t have bought it if I were a Batgirl fan.

      Back to English for number seven, I agree that the phenomenon you’re describing is real (and it goes both ways. One need only explore fandom on Tumblr to know that it swings both ways, really, really hard), but for me it always boils down to consumer choice. I never sweat what I ‘think’ a creator should’ve done. I’m not one to hop on Twitter and tell Marvel that MJ and PP should’ve have never tied the knot (pre-Twitter, but you know what I mean…). If I don’t like the direction a comic (or any other media, for that matter) is heading, I stop consuming it. This is doubly effective & easy with respect to comics, where the bullshit is inevitably retconned, titles relaunched under new direction, or a ‘Crises’ or ‘Secret War’ is just around the corner to undo basically everything.

      What I definitely do not do is presume to tell artists how to do their art. I might poopoo it after the fact, but who am I to tell anyone what is appropriate? Who are you? Who are the Twitteristas? Opinions are like assholes, as they say. Why should I, or any other asshole get to exert undue influence on another’s creative process? I mean, it’s fine to make a stink, to share one’s opinion (or asshole, as it were) but to campaign with the intent to quell artistic expression? I’m not comfortable with that, and I don’t think I ever will be. Ultimately, it was the artist’s decision to withdraw the cover, but I think it sets a bad precedent. Someone will always have a reason to object. There is always someone who will feel like their objection has merit. We can’t bend to them all.

      I want there to be things in the world that make people uncomfortable and that provoke. As a social scientist, I am steeped in literature on social justice, and I think there is a sharp distinction between actual social justice, and the political correctness warring that is taking place on Twitter and on Reddit these days, which is why this bullshit gets my hackles up. “Social justice warriors” seem to care far less about actual social justice, and instead focus on the mis-perception that people have a right to feel comfortable and have their ideas unchallenged always.

      I find the very notion of that anti-intellectual and offensive.

      But, to your point, if comics get better for all of the critical self-evaluation, I certainly can’t complain. That said, I fear a future where all comics are Archie comics, and the gritty Iron Age is a distant memory, because publishers feel the need to blunt the edge for fear of offending. That is my personal inclusive-yet-homogeneous-saccharin hell.

      I tried to craft a “rantbuttal” worthy of your own. For what it’s worth, I find my life satisfaction tends to correlate inversely to the amount of time I spend on Reddit arguing with buffoons… just saying. 😉

      • Aw, thanks. Now I feel special. You’re still wrong, though. 🙂

        Okay, I won’t go on quite as much, but here are some more thoughts:

        “And lets be honest, no matter how upbeat the new Batgirl is, the Killing Joke is the definitive Joker/Barbara Gordon story.””

        I can’t say you’re wrong, but I wish to hell you were. I mean, how sad is it that arguably the definitive Batgirl story is one in which she exists only as a victim and plot device? I get that they’re focusing on Joker (though I consider that a questionable choice as well), but they could have done it without revisiting that particular story.

        “The Internet does not provide a collective voice, it provides a platform for a myriad voices.”

        My poor phrasing there. Let me rephrase. I don’t mean to say it gives people a single collective voice. Far from it. I think the internet has splintered our culture into a million little subcultures. What I meant to say was that it gives some groups a collective voice where they may not have had one before. The problem, I think, comes when you have to discern which voices are worthy of attention.

        I’m not suggesting, by the way, that the death threats were, in fact, credible threats on anyone’s lives. I do think they should be taken somewhat seriously in some cases, especially when they are accompanied by doxxing, swatting, and so on. My point was just that Albuquerque was reacting less to the criticism about his work than he was the backlash against the people who criticized him.

        “What I definitely do not do is presume to tell artists how to do their art. I might poopoo it after the fact, but who am I to tell anyone what is appropriate?”

        Well, if it were just you and I who were commenting on these things, there wouldn’t be so much controversy. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people, feminists and fanboys alike, who would prefer that the comics look exactly like they want them to look. What was H.E.A.T., for example, if not an attempt to dictate what is acceptable content? Criticism these days starts with the solicitations, and continues unabated until the book is actually read, at which point it turns into…well, silence, mostly.

        As for quelling artistic expression, we as a society do that all the time. We decide “this is a kid’s show” and that dictates what can and can’t be shown. We decide “this is an adult show, but it’s on too early for these things to happen.” There’s always a negotiation involved in creating art. DC made the decision based on marketing, not on the Twitter campaign. If they had thought it was worth ignoring, like the attempt to get Stephen Colbert fired a while back because his Twitter feed quoted a joke out of context, then they would have just ignored it. We, as consumers, only have the power to buy or not buy. The power to bitch is an illusion of power at best. You’re right that “Someone will always have a reason to object,” but most of the time, they don’t get what they want.

        “I want there to be things in the world that make people uncomfortable and that provoke.”

        Me too. But maybe not Batgirl. I also want there to be things in the world that people can enjoy without compromise. I want teenage girls to have books like Batgirl that are free from the carnage of the main DCU.

        “‘Social justice warriors’ seem to care far less about actual social justice, and instead focus on the mis-perception that people have a right to feel comfortable and have their ideas unchallenged always.”

        I would definitely agree that sometimes people have trouble with fighting the right battles. I wouldn’t suggest that “social justice warriors” are more or less guilty in that regard. I mean, look at the reaction to Anita Sarkeesian and other women in gaming who’ve said “Hey, maybe there could be a little less sexism in gaming”, and next thing you know there’s a flood of manchild outrage. I lost a Christian friend because I indicated that I thought Roe v. Wade was a positive thing, so she said she hoped my family would be murdered. Perspective is a lost fucking art, man.

        “That said, I fear a future where all comics are Archie comics, and the gritty Iron Age is a distant memory, because publishers feel the need to blunt the edge for fear of offending.”

        Well, have you read Archie comics lately? They’re doing some pretty outrageous shit by the standards of what people THINK Archie comics are. I would love it if more companies took chances like they’re taking now.

        That said, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time when everything is that homogenized. I mean, the culture is so fragmented that there’s stuff out there for the hardest, most jaded appetites. And anytime something comes along that’s too smooth and polished, something comes along as a reaction to it. Arena rock leads to punk rock which gets incorporated into pop music which leads to more abrasive genres and harder punk rock, and so on. The only way that everything could possibly all be the same is if everyone died.

        So much for brevity.

  2. Not as wrong as you, Brian! 😉

    Actually, I don’t have a whole lot to disagree with below. In fact, I think that with the exception of a few notable chunks, we’re not actually too far off.

    ” I don’t mean to say [the Internet] gives people a single collective voice. Far from it. I think the internet has splintered our culture into a million little subcultures. What I meant to say was that it gives some groups a collective voice where they may not have had one before. The problem, I think, comes when you have to discern which voices are worthy of attention.”

    I don’t disagree with this point. I think we differ on just whose voices should be heeded–but not as much as you might expect. I just can’t abide the censorious voices, whether it’s with respect to video games, comic books, or any other media. If you encounter a something you don’t like in the market place, avoid it, or make your own. Support people who make what you want. But don’t try to silence someone else, just because they aren’t saying what you want them to. Simple as pie, really.

    “But maybe not Batgirl. I also want there to be things in the world that people can enjoy without compromise. I want teenage girls to have books like Batgirl that are free from the carnage of the main DCU.”

    Fair point and well stated. You’ll note I didn’t especially like the variant cover in the context of the current Batgirl series either. Of course, we’ll disagree about the “carnage of the main DCU,” because with some exception, most DC titles read like rainbows and unicorn farts to me… 😉

    “I would definitely agree that sometimes people have trouble with fighting the right battles. I wouldn’t suggest that “social justice warriors” are more or less guilty in that regard. I mean, look at the reaction to Anita Sarkeesian and other women in gaming who’ve said “Hey, maybe there could be a little less sexism in gaming”, and next thing you know there’s a flood of manchild outrage.”

    I try to avoid pretty much all discussion of this these days, but I think it’s fair to note that the insane discourse is ubiquitous on both sides of gamergate conversation. And there are reasonable people on both sides, with well reasoned and valid points. Unfortunately, the reasonables are not the loudest in either case…

    “Well, have you read Archie comics lately? They’re doing some pretty outrageous shit by the standards of what people THINK Archie comics are. I would love it if more companies took chances like they’re taking now.”

    I was an Archie kid (not by choice, tbh – I wanted to be a Batman kid…). I don’t read them frequently these days, but I do keep up with the developments in Riverdale, because it is a fascinating reflection on the day. That said, I don’t want all comics to be holding a mirror up to society. I want Civil War, Annihilation, and Darkest Night. I’d also be down for more Young Avengers…

    “anytime something comes along that’s too smooth and polished, something comes along as a reaction to it. Arena rock leads to punk rock which gets incorporated into pop music which leads to more abrasive genres and harder punk rock, and so on.”

    I’d agree with this point if the forces driving the hardest for conformity these days weren’t also the traditional source of the counter culture in this country. There are dozens of articles in publication on how the discourse on our university campuses is changing. Traditional bastions of free thought are being plastered with trigger warnings, and the free exchange of ideas or of dissenting ideologies is being shut down by the so-called open minded because it’s not lockstep with a certain point of view. I’m saying this as an alum of perhaps the most counter-cultural, left leaning of our public universities and as a generally liberal person. What some see as progress towards an ideal, I perceive as decline in critical thinking, real empathy, and the ability to weather dissent.

    “So much for brevity.”

    So it goes…

  3. I mostly want to agree with Brian on his points. I think pulling the cover for this title was the right choice. The cover wasn’t appropriate for the tone of the current Batgirl comic. A reissue of The Killing Joke? Sure. But not for a book aimed at teenage girls.

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