Hard-Traveling Fanboys: The Rundown (Batgirl Cover Controversy)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And with that intense love comes an appetite for the latest news from the comic book world. Each month, in The Rundown, the Fanboys will run down their top news and notes from the comic book world.

Greg: Did you miss us? Wait, don’t answer that. In any event, we are returning with a brand new edition of the most infrequent of all Hard-Traveling Fanboys columns: The Rundown.

And in keeping with our recent history of honing in on just a single subject for this column (which kind of invalidates the name “Rundown,” but never mind that), we’ll be focusing once again on what we feel is the most noteworthy news item of the past month in comics.

Nick: For those of you who might be somehow unaware, there’s been a bit of a controversy over a cancelled Batgirl variant cover that was scheduled to run in June.

Batgirl-pulled-coverYou see, 2015 marks the 75th anniversary of The Joker, one of the greatest villains in all of comics. As such, DC had commissioned a number of variant covers featuring the Joker interacting with the various heroes of the DC universe. DC commissioned Rafael Albuquerque to do a cover for Batgirl, and the above was the result. And that’s that, right? Not exactly.

Greg: Indeed, the cover sparked instant controversy as many took to social media and other venues to criticize the image for various reasons, none of which had to do with the technical work of Mr. Albuquerque (who will henceforth be referred to as Rafael for simplicity’s sake). For some, the cover was a reminder of a dark time in Barbara Gordon’s history (the 1988 Alan Moore/Brian Bolland story “The Killing Joke,” in which Babs was shot through the stomach, stripped and perhaps raped, though that part is never overtly stated or outright confirmed in the book). For others, it represented another example of a female hero left to be overpowered and at the mercy of a male. For still others, it didn’t fit with the tone of the light-hearted, young female-aimed Batgirl ongoing series.

In any case, there was a great deal of uproar, sufficient enough that Rafa himself requested that DC Comics pull the variant cover before it ever hit the stands. And thus it was, as the cover has been pulled, but the debates about the circumstances continue.

Nick: Yep, there has been a lot of consternation over this cover, although truthfully, I wasn’t even aware that there was a controversy until it was announced the cover was being pulled. I remember seeing the cover when it was first announced and thinking, “Hey, that’s a pretty creepy cover and a cool homage to The Killing Joke. I probably won’t buy it, but I like it.”

The idea that there would be an uproar never even crossed my mind — that’s how little I thought of the sinister undertones.

But, regardless of how uncontroversial I thought it was at first, it’s proven to be anything but. There’s been name calling and lots of group think on BOTH sides of this debate, and it continues today days after the cover was pulled.

So, Greg and I are here to weigh in with our personal thoughts. We’ll try to keep this brief, as this topic is already teetering on the edge of overexposure.

So, I guess to start, Greg, your first thought when you heard the cover was pulled?

"The Killing Joke" is a book you should read, regardless of this controversy.
“The Killing Joke” is a book you should read, regardless of this controversy.

Greg: I wasn’t surprised at all. I’d been keeping up with the controversy via the Twitter Machine since it started, and this has increasingly become the common corporate reaction to such situations. Understandably so, given the vitriol on both sides. I also wasn’t surprised Rafael and DC reacted so quickly, as this was a fire that needed to be put out, regardless of my own misgivings about the ultimate actions.

So given such recent events as pulling controversial creators from books, I figured this would be the end result.

Nick: Like I said, I was surprised. I’m not nearly as active on Twitter as most, so I am kind of insulated from the common internet banter that goes on in the comics community.

I didn’t quite understand the complaints, though I think that comes from a fundamental difference in thinking on the depiction of certain things in comics. There are some who believe that atrocities such as rape, murder, child abuse, domestic violence, etc., have no place in comics, especially if said atrocities are being committed towards women or minorities.

I respectfully disagree. Look, I’m not saying I want to see females and minorities tortured every month in my favorite comics. That would be gratuitous if it happened all the time. However, I also don’t want characters to be exempt from the highest of stakes just because they are minorities or women. There are times with certain villains where I want to feel as if every character is in mortal danger. That sense of suspense simply adds to a story, and as such, I’m OK with the use of violent crimes when said crimes are used to tell interesting stories.

Topics such as rape, murder and other violent crimes are difficult, touchy subjects. As such, I want to see my favorite characters experience some of these things from time to time. I want to see how they react and how they overcome. Having heroes face real-world issues makes them more relatable, and to me, more interesting.

So, for the camp of people who wanted the cover gone based on the implications of previous sexual assault, I just have a different line of thinking there.

Plus, it must be mentioned again that the sexual assault many have mentioned when discussing this cover has never been explicitly confirmed. You can certainly read The Killing Joke that way, or you could read it a different way. Either way, it’s important to remember that the actions of the Joker in that book are reprehensible — and that’s kind of the point. The Joker is a character we should hate. We should find him despicable, deplorable and at times, terrifying. Although, there are times where the Joker crosses into “love to hate” territory, and perhaps that’s some of the issue here. Comic readers should never admire the Joker because of the crimes he commits, and you don’t want to glorify what he did to Barbara.

As early as his first appearance, the Joker is an unrepentant serial killer.
As early as his first appearance, the Joker is an unrepentant serial killer.

However, it’s also important to remember that what he put Barbara though arguably elevated her in the eyes of many readers. She was shot through the spine, became handicapped and yet was able to overcome that terrible tragedy to continue to aid the fight against crime as the superhacker and information broker Oracle. As Oracle, she became a role model for hundreds of handicapped comic fans, and also showed that a victim of a violent crime doesn’t have to be defined by their attacker or the crime they’re a victim of.

The Killing Joke is easily the most iconic Joker/Batgirl interaction, and for that reason I can understand why Rafael chose to pay homage to the story. After all, as we said, Barbara’s paralysis is very much a part of the current character’s past. In that regard, it kind of feels like part of this controversy is an attempt by some to have their cake and eat it too. Her paralysis and her overcoming of it are apparently OK to retain, yet fully referencing The Killing Joke is not. As some others, such as new Green Arrow artist Patrick Zircher have pointed out, would a story such as The Killing Joke ever be allowed to exist in today’s comics climate? I don’t know, but I’d tend to say no.

Greg: As with most topics of significance, there is a great deal of nuance to this topic. I can’t pretend to understand what victims of real-life sexual assault have been through. For those who took offense to the cover because it triggered traumatic memories, I am genuinely sympathetic. These people shouldn’t be ignored. Neither, on the other hand, should those who feel the entire situation sets a questionable precedent regarding suppression of genuine artistic expression.

Arguments on both sides deserve to be heard, but unfortunately the current climate of online comics discourse (well, online discourse in general) means that each side reduces the other to generalized, stereotyped categories, then mocks the other side for being so closed-minded and ignorant.

My personal preference would be for the cover to be printed. The reason has nothing to do with any desire to buy the specific cover, but rather the implications regarding content in superhero comics. If the cover is being judged in the context of other covers — Superman isn’t put in the same situation, etc. — I’d suggest the problem lies in the other covers. If the cover of every superhero book should be the hero in an advantageous position over her/his enemies, the bulk of comics history would be thrown out. On the other hand, a slippery slope arises, as nobody would advocate for pornographic images to be published on superhero books. I guess my main challenge would be that children who might see the cover (which wouldn’t be many, since it’s a variant) would only see a hero frightened by a dangerous, homicidal villain, not any kind of implied sexual assault. If anything, the other Joker variants don’t do enough to emphasize the danger associated with the character. The very specific and very important shared history between Joker and Batgirl dictates some reference to the original event, and Rafa’s cover does that without implying that Batgirl is incapable of escaping her situation.

As for the cover not matching the tone of the book, well, I’d argue neither to most variants or even most actual covers. In particular, the Skottie Young “kiddie” variants rarely match the often-serious tones of the books inside, and indeed may attract a younger audience than intended for the books in question. In this case, a jaded adult accidentally reading Batgirl is much better than a kid accidentally reading the Punisher.

The tonally inappropriate argument goes both ways.
The tonally inappropriate argument goes both ways.

Additionally, I wonder about the lines that will be drawn in the future. If someone is offended by, say, a cover with anti-religious connotations, will they be defended or attacked? What about covers depicting gun violence? Or violence in general?

Of course, there are very valid counters to all of my scenarios. It’s a conundrum that may not have a right or wrong answer, but it’s one that would be better served by conversation and discussion than line-in-the-sand rhetoric. Females have been oppressed in comics for the better part of a century, so their opinions need to be heard and respected. The easy reaction is to roll your eyes and dismiss opinions you disagree with, but the easy thing in life is very rarely the right thing. Let’s listen to one another and, even if we fundamentally disagree, come to an understanding.

I believe fiction — superhero or otherwise — must be allowed to explore real-world issues and must be allowed to involve stakes for its participants. Others argue that superhero comics represent something different. In any event, nothing we say here will settle the debate, but those are my two cents on the matter.

Nick: It’s difficult to see exactly where the line is drawn here. How many offended people are too many? Or should comics attempt to offend no one? Which, by the way, is impossible in today’s climate.

Like you, I wish the cover was being printed. I’m worried that anytime there’s a cover or story a section of fandom doesn’t like or finds a bit difficult to deal with, there will be a movement to remove said art. This isn’t technically censorship in the governmental sense, but it’s a slippery slope nonetheless. It would seem to be allowing the few to dictate what’s available to the many, and that’s not something I’m completely comfortable with.

Also, as you mentioned, there have been comparisons of this cover to other Joker variant covers and fan-made covers that depict male heroes in precarious situations. The most popular one, I think, has been the knock-off of the Batgirl cover that features a kneeling, beaten, crying Superman as Doomsday stands over him. For the record, I like that image as well and think it would make a decent variant cover. It’s not strictly a male vs female issue as some have painted it to be.

Credit to artist Ray Dillon for this. DC Comics would never publish this, which is unfortunate since it's great. We'd buy it.
Credit to artist Ray Dillon for this. DC Comics would never publish this, which is unfortunate since it’s great. We’d buy it.

However, unlike you, I will agree with the anti-cover contingent on one thing. The Joker cover really doesn’t fit with the tone of the current Batgirl series, and was probably a poor fit. Ultimately, the creators of the book didn’t want this cover associated with their work, and that wish should be respected. I kind of feel like each book’s creative team should be allowed yay or nay privileges on all variant covers. This is their run and their opportunity to leave a mark on Batgirl’s legacy. If they don’t want their Barbara to appear to be a victim, that’s their right. Regardless of how much I dislike the current direction of the Batgirl title, they’re the ones who have to put their names on the book. Whatever appears therein should be their ideas and be there with their creative consent.

Greg: I should also admit that I think the cover is a pretty wonderful piece of work. Nobody appears to be disputing Rafa’s skills, nor should they. The issue is entirely around interpretations and the implications of said art. It’s unfortunate that an artist can work so hard on something and unwittingly hurt or offend others. Hopefully the discussions coming from this debate will help people understand the struggles of victims of sexual abuse, and hopefully Albuquerque continues to thrive in the industry. I’m glad the heat on him has died in recent weeks.

Nick: Well, I think we’ve thrown more than our two cents in. Be sure to come back next week, as we go Off the Page to take a look at the Marvel animated series Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. and various other acronyms.

Greg: This is a topic on which everyone seems to have opinions. Let us know yours through Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87), email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com) or through the Place to Be Nation Comics Facebook page.