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The Killing Joke: How the Adaptation Made it More Problematic and Less Fave

Despite the Killing Joke‘s place in the history of fridging women in superhero comics, I still have a great fondness for the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland story (in fact, I’ve often thought that the story could have been done without fridging Barbara Gordon at all) and so when I heard that it was going to be turned into an animated movie with Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Bruce Timm, I was thrilled and I got myself a ticket. (I even accidentally showed up a week early because I forgot which Monday the screening was…)

And then came rumors about the adaptation, and then came SDCC. I felt genuinely torn about whether to go ahead – if it was as bad as it sounded, I didn’t want to support the film; on the other hand, I hadn’t seen the film and wanted to be able to judge from primary evidence. Plus, I’d already bought the ticket and a bunch of my friends were going, so I waffled my way into going.

So is it as bad as people at SDCC thought? In some ways no, and in some ways it’s worse.

WARNING: Spoilers in full for the Killing Joke, which involves violence against women.

The Prologue:

So first let’s talk about the not-as-bad. Some of the reviews and first impressions that have come out suggest that “we meet Barbara Gordon as a young librarian who has started donning the Batgirl costume in order to attract the attention of Batman.” While everyone’s experience of a film is subjective, I think this reading is based on a mis-reading of one particular line.

There’s a scene in the Prologue where Batgirl is arguing with Batman over being taken off a case and she yells at him that she “got into this because of you.” (By the way, all of these quotes from the film should be taken as paraphrase from memory because I didn’t have the opportunity to take notes and there’s no script available) The context of her line is that Batman’s just told her that he doesn’t trust her because costumed crime-fighting is just a game for her, whereas Batgirl is pointing out that she became Batgirl because she was inspired by Batman and he’s been acting as her mentor. The two of them don’t have a sexual relationship at this point nor is Batgirl actively trying to start one, so I find this reading strange because it pushes the (arguably rather sexist) narrative that Batgirl is some sort of crazed groupie.

What might have led people to that conclusion is that after this line, Batgirl and Batman have sex. Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with this in the abstract. While some might feel that “Batman has had a primarily parental relationship with Barbara, which makes this scene problematic for many fans on its most basic level,” I don’t agree. Having watched a lot of the Adam West show where Batgirl was substantially older than Robin and Batman would go into these rhapsodies about the perfume of this mystery woman, the idea isn’t without precedent.

However, the handling of this plotline is horrible, in ways that do minor damage to Barbara’s character, but arguably way more damage to Batman’s character. It’s bad enough that there is this framing of Barbara being hot for her yoga teacher, although her line that she has “a man in her life” is as much to try to fend off her camp gay coworker who might as well have stepped out of Patton Oswalt’s sketch on the “Gay Best Friend” as it is a statement of her interest. But what’s much worse is that the act itself is a horrible cliche slap-slap-kiss moment, where Batgirl is fighting Batman on a roof because she’s hit her limit with Batman’s bullshit, judo-flips him into the ground, and then pins him, and then they fuck. While a gargoyle watches.

(Poor guys can’t even close their eyes…)

In the sold-out screening I was in, this was a moment where the entire audience erupted in groans and laughter, because it was such a cheesy scene and didn’t fit Barbara Gordon’s character at all. The rooftops location, the fight-fight-kiss dynamic, the costumes – this is a Catwoman scene and it’s a played-out Catwoman scene at that.

Is what follows accurately described as her “using sex and then pining for Bruce,” as Jeremy Konrad said in that now-infamous Comic-Con panel? No. In fact, it’s kind of the reverse (and this is why I said the Prologue does more damage to Batman than Batgirl). Batgirl handles the event like an adult, telling Batman that “it’s just sex, it doesn’t have to be a thing,” rather than trying to manipulate him in any way. It’s Batman who acts like an immature asshole, refusing to work with her or take her calls, and generally acting like a remote, emotionally-stunted jackass.

All of which reinforces the basic problem with Batman in the Prologue: he’s a giant control freak who literally tells Batgirl that she has to do everything he says, who orders her “off the case” like some grizzled police captain in an 80s buddy-cop film, and who tells Batgirl he doesn’t trust her because she hasn’t stared into “the abyss… where all hope dies.” (which is a really hoary 90′s grimdark anti-hero trope, lands with a thud in the moment, and arguably contradicts the thematic thrust of Moore’s story), and who literally mansplains objectification to Batgirl. (Yes, at some level he’s explaining it for the audience, but it’s still fucked up that it’s him doing it rather than Barbara, who as a grown woman knows far better than he what being objectified by a man is like.)

Needless to say, this doesn’t fit the Batman of the Killing Joke, who’s in an unusually introspective, empathetic, and contemplative mood – meeting with Joker in Arkham Asylum because he’s worried he’s going to end up killing him, rushing to comfort Jim Gordon, offering to rehabilitate the Joker. More on this when we get to that part of the movie. So there’s a really weird disconnection between the two halves of the movie, as we’re really getting two Batman, one written by Brian Azzarello and Bruce Timm and one written by Alan Moore, and the two don’t feel like they’re the same person.

Speaking of Azzarello and Timm, we have to talk about the source of the conflict between Batgirl and Batman, the main bad guy of the Prologue. He’s a brand-new villain named Perry Franz (mon dieu), a would-be high-tech crime-boss who becomes obsessed with Batgirl (to the point of hiring a sex worker to wear a Batgirl mask while they have sex) when she foils an armored-truck robbery. This guy is clearly meant to be a parallel to the Joker – he’s got the whole Xanatos Gambit thing going, he plays this cat-and-mouse game where he’s leaving messages for Batgirl with the cops and taunts her over the phone, and so on. Batman argues that Batgirl is letting Perry get to her and she’s underestimating him, and she rightfully takes this as Batman thinking she’s not up to the task.

However, Perry is just not that impressive, ultimately nothing more than the shallow “punk” Batgirl pegs him as when they first meet. In addition to the thing with the sex worker and the messages, his go-to move when they first fight is to roofie her (it’s not just a knockout gas, he talks about having “fun” with her after she passes out, although thankfully Batgirl manages to save herself). When you get right down to it, he’s a date rapist whose master crime come down to a failed bank robbery and stealing his uncle’s online banking password.

Now, I disagree with those who’ve argued that, in the film, “the damnable part is that Batman is proven right” about Barbara not being ready. In the final clash, Batman is the one who underestimates Perry, who hits the Batmobile with a couple RPGs, wounding him and forcing him into a desperate struggle to survive against machine-gun wielding thugs. Batgirl is the one who saves him with a motorcycle-and-steverdore’s hook combo, and she’s the one who takes down Perry. This is probably where Azzarello and Timm were coming from with the “she’s a strong character” argument.

But where they fall short is the follow-through. Even though Batgirl saves Batman, we don’t get a scene where he thanks her or admits that he was wrong and learned a lesson – the “strong female character” stuff that Azzarello and Timm argued they were doing isn’t incorporated into the text. Instead, Batgirl beats the living shit out of Perry because “you ruined everything” – and this, rather than the scene where she has sex with Batman on the roof is where she sounds like a crazied groupie – and this is her moment of staring into the abyss. Because she loses her temper and administers a beating far less egregious than many that Batman has handed out (which I think is what Timm was gesturing to with his comment about “pining over the violence”) because of this penny-ante and flimsy one-shot villain, she decides to hang up the cowl and stop being Batgirl. (Which again, kind of works against the Killing Joke’s story..)

It’s far too inconsequential and disconnected from any core elements of Barbara’s character – her family or friends, her motives for fighting crime, a more established villain with a stronger personal connection – to carry the weight of what should be a momentous decision. And that, rather than the fact that she has sex with Batman, is what weakens Batgirl as a character.

The Killing Joke:

What makes all of these creative choices so strange is that it’s not like the controversy over the Killing Joke was news to anyone involved. Everyone on the creative team knew very well that the problem with the Killing Joke is the Joker shooting and paralyzing Barbara Gordon in order to motivate Jim Gordon and Batman. It’s a classic case of fridging, and the gendered nature of the event is further emphasized by the Joker taking nude photos of Barbara to use in his haunted house ride.

No matter whether you think that Barbara becoming Oracle was an important moment for the representation of the disabled or whether you prefer the New 52 or Batgirl of Burnside as a reclamation of the character, the moment is still ugly, feeding into the worst aspects of 90s comics, and is ultimately unnecessary. There’s quite a few ways to make the story work without that scene, and it oddly contradicts the moment at the end of the comic where the Joker turns the joke-flag gun on Batman.

So you think they would have approached the adaptation with that in mind. Instead, as I’ve already suggested, the two halves clash. Given that in the comics, Barbara’s paralyzing was the moment where she had to stop being Batgirl and become Oracle instead, the Prologue has her retired when she’s attacked. Likewise, given that Batman’s had a much closer relationship with her than he did at this point in the comic, the fact that they decided to do the comic essentially page-for-page makes Batman’s very limited interactions with Barbara and muted emotional response both to the physical damage done to her and the Joker’s sexualization of the attack read like a non-response to what should be a huge deal. Moreover, it conflicts with Batman’s major arc in the story – his attempt to reach out to the Joker, even in the end, makes him seem completely uncaring about his former lover.

And of course, there’s the moment itself, which you’d think the creators of the film would treat with heightened sensitivity. Instead, the moment is intensified (in what is otherwise a very faithful adaptation of the comic) in two ways: first, the “shot” is held on what is the second-to-last panel on the right, with the Joker slowly moving his hand down Barbara’s chest and then the “camera” showing us Barbara’s opened shirt and bra. Second, later on when Batman is canvassing the city for the Joker, there’s an elaboration of a single panel where Batman’s interviewing a group of sex workers where we learn that the first thing that the Joker does when he gets out is to make use of their services, but this time he hasn’t and maybe he’s found a new girl. Now, you can argue that the Joker hasn’t come by because he’s busy with his quasi-suicidal mission to break Gordon and Batman, but the text leaves itself open to the interpretation that Joker did something more than just photograph Barbara.

As I’ve said above, the above page is my least favorite part of the comic, and even the people who don’t have a problem with that section will generally agree that the heart of the comic is in the hypothetical backstory for the Joker, his argument to Jim Gordon that madness is the only rational response to an irrational and random universe, his attempt to prove that any ordinary person is capable of turning into the Joker as a result of “one bad day,” Jim Gordon’s defiant hold on his sanity and his belief in the capacity of human beings to create meaning through institutions like the law, and Batman’s attempt to reach out to the Joker. So how does the film handle that?

The answer is that it does only an okay job, there’s a few moments where it becomes something special (I especially love this shot of the Joker watching the carnival lights come on, because it has some energy that’s often missing), but nothing near good enough to make up for everything it gets wrong that we’ve already talked about. Kevin Conroy is fine, Mark Hamill puts in a great vocal performance, but the art and direction fall short of what Moore and Bolland and John Higgins (the colorist) accomplished on the page. For example, let’s take the famous last page of the comic, shown above. There’s a lot that can and has been said about these nine panels – the use of the palette of reds and purples and oranges and yellows that runs throughout the comic, the way that the headlights turn into the flashlight beam from the joke (which Moore has already set up from the scene where Batman goes to the lunatic asylum, which he further emphasizes with the use of repeating dialogue), the ambiguity of the laughter and the siren that convinced Grant Morrison that Batman killed the Joker, and on and on.

In the movie? It’s just a shot of a puddle. No beam of light, no paralleling, nothing of what made this comic special in the first place. Maybe Alan Moore was right – there are some things comics can do that movies can’t.

A Case of Two Covers. One Created Controversy. The Other Under the Radar.

BG-Cv41-Joker-variant-solicitation-88c4e-31e8dIf you’ve been living in a cave, you might have missed the uproar over Rafael Albuquerque‘s variant cover to DC ComicsBatgirl #41 which depicts Batgirl held in terror by the Joker. The cover evokes the “classic” story The Killing Joke written by Alan Moore in 1988. The story features the Joker kidnapping Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl’s alter-ego) and torturing her to drive her father, Commissioner Gordon, crazy.

The story was controversial then, and still so today, featuring a pretty brutal torture of Barbara including her being shot int he spine, stripped naked, and photos taken of her in a pool of blood. It’s cringe-worthy, and today even Alan Moore disowned the story thinking it doesn’t add much value.

If you knew The Killing Joke, Albuquerque’s variant cover was an homage to that, evoking what happened. If you were unaware of the history, the cover shows Batgirl helpless and afraid. Its tone does not match the story or character the current creative are building up, and that’s one of a strong character, and a more lighthearted tone. The clash of tone was my issue with the cover, it sent the wrong message.

The creative team made it clear they didn’t want the cover, and after an explanation Albuquerque agreed with those “against” the cover, with DC Comics eventually removing it from sale.

Curb Stomp #1 2nd Printing Cover by Devaki NeogiThis same week, BOOM! Studios released the news that Curb Stomp #1 had sold out and a new printing was coming with a new cover by Devaki Neogi. I’ve had issues with the series name since it was announced. You can read my full explanation of the troublesome title, but the short version is the act of the curb stomp is a “move” associated with Nazis, Neo-Nazis, and White Supremacists, and has been depicted in pop-culture such as American History X (a movie about Neo-Nazis) and the video game Gears of War. It involves placing a persons mouth on a curb and smashing their back of the head with your foot. Nazis did this to Jews in World War II to save bullets, and Neo-Nazis continue today. As someone raised Jewish (non-practicing now), I personally was well aware of the history, and every time I see the title I have a visceral reaction, I actually get slightly nauseous. But on to the cover…..

Neogi, in the second printing cover to the first issue, shows the act itself, with an individual biting down on the curb and the boot looming over, all in a Warholesque style. The cover itself has issues, with the person biting the curb have a look of anger, instead of the fear knowing they’re likely about to die as their jaw is broken and massive trauma induced.

Two covers released in a week’s span with one creating a PR and Twitter firestorm, and the other shrugged off like it was no big deal. The two covers both received a similar release, being sent to mostly comic blogs, neither was promoted to mainstream press, though in the case of Batgirl, they eventually covered it. One has implied violence, and different connotations depending if you know the character’s continuity. One depicts real world violence that’s not implied at all, but “in action.”

To me, both covers have issues for different reasons. One just doesn’t fit the tone of the series. The other uses a term and act associated with Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists in its title and now directly on the cover, as well as buried deep in the pages. One has implied violence rooted in fiction, while the other has violence and an act depicted rooted in a real world atrocity and genocide. Both you need to know either fictional history or real world events to get the context behind it.

In other words, why is one cover ok, while the other isn’t?

Review: Batgirl #40

bg40Few may have read the actual origin, but the Oracle identity of Barbara Gordon started in Suicide Comics #48 in 1990.  The Barbara Gordon that had been crippled by the Joker in the Killing Joke reappeared for the first time as a superhero, but as a very different superhero, different even from what she became as Oracle.  Instead of the cyber sleuth who could track down any and all information through computer hacking, she was a cyber hero, given the form of real person in cyberspace to battle other viruses or other malicious cyber entities.  Moving forward to the DC Comics company wide relaunch into the new 52, and the new direction for the character was criticized, notably as it removed one of the most prominent disabled characters from comics and replaced them with a healthy version of Barbara Gordon (albeit one in which the events of Killing Joke still occurred.)

Much has been made of the new direction that Batgirl has taken in the past year, and the character has become the standard bearer of how to treat female characters in the modern medium.  Somewhere along the way though her past got mostly forgotten, but with the latest issue of Batgirl that is addressed finally.  Her algorithm has created an alternate version of herself, based in a computer landscape, but one which wants to escape into what it views as its rightful body.  Barbara is forced to ss481990realize that her approach to life is not perfect and has to do so while essentially battling herself.  As the action unfolds, it is a fairly normal set of action sequences but even they are given more depth through an extreme utilitarian approach of the program to achieve justice.

What this issue manages to achieve is rather impressive.  Fans of the character since before the reboot or before the new 52 relaunch will be happy to see the references to what the character used to be as well as her past.  While this is an effective nod to the fans, it is not heavy handed at all, and for those that are oblivious to the character’s detailed past, this still reads as a tight plot with everything in the right proportions.  There are those that might think that this first story arc is getting a bit tired with its constant focus on the role of technology in our lives, but this is the end of the menace of the algorithm, and the end of the first story arc of the new run.  It will be interesting to see where they go from here, but so far this series has achieved unexpected success which is capped by this excellent issues.

Story: Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher  Art: Babs Tarr
Story:  9.2 Art: 9.2  Overall: 9.2  Recommendation: Buy

Batgirl #41 and the Laziness of Rape

Below is an op-ed by comic creator Bryan Hill presented unedited (though images and links have been added). It touches upon topics that some might find upsetting, so proceed with caution. – The Management

BG-Cv41-Joker-variant-solicitation-88c4e-31e8dAlburquerque’s cover is excellent work. He’s a phenomenal talent and as an illustration, it’s incredibly well-done.

However, DC made the right call by pulling it.

I understand the cover’s connection to the seminal The Killing Joke story. That was a one-shot, written by a man who was already known for pushing the envelope. I remember buying it and it was presented as a mature exploration of those characters, and that universe. My retailer warned me (and my mother) about its content.

Batgirl #41 is a monthly book that’s been a soft PG-13 tonally for its entire run. Alburquerque’s cover, as brilliant as it is artistically, is an R-rated image that links Batgirl to an incident of sexual violence. It has no place on that book.

DC made the right call. It’s not censorship. It was common sense.

I’d like to use this moment of debate around that cover to talking about raping characters in genre stories.

I think it’s usually a terrible idea and lazy writers need to stop doing it.

The National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention states that 1 out of every 6 American adult women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

Make a list of six women you know. Put your mother and your sister on it. The odds are someone on that list has either been raped or someone has attempted to rape them. Someone has used violent coercion (or narcotics) to forcibly penetrate them against their will. This is reality.

When you broaden your vision beyond rape, and include sexual abuse (any non-consensual sexual contact), the numbers get more horrifying. One in four girls are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.

1 in 4.

25% of the women you know were sexually abused before their 18th birthday. This is reality.

I don’t understand what it’s like to be a victim of sexual assault, but people in my life who have been assaulted have told me that the trauma can linger. The Post-Traumatic Stress of it can be triggered by depictions of rape in entertainment. That stress can cause women to self-mutilate, it can cause eating disorders, it can lead to deep depression and in some cases, suicide. This is reality.

That is why I will never put a scene depicting sexual assault in any fiction I have the power to control.

I’m not advocating censorship. I’m a firm believer in the freedom of expression and everyone needs to make their own choices about this, and any other horror they choose to explore in fiction.

I am advocating thoughtfulness, and the admission that when you put these moments into your fiction, vibrant and dramatized, the potential effect is that 25% of the women who consume this work will revisit their trauma, women who have done nothing more than pay the price for your book.

Rape is the rare horrifying act that is equally familiar. It’s relatable, and when we witness its dramatization, we are horrified. That’s the reason people use it in genre fiction. It’s an easy way to provoke an audience into an emotional state.

Want to create the impetus for vengeance? Have someone get raped.

Want to demonstrate that the villain is a monster? Have them rape someone.

Want to give a female character a trauma to bear in a story? Have her get raped.

Want to create incredible tension before a moment of salvation? Have someone almost get raped.

Want to give yourself credibility as a storyteller for being bold? Depict a brutal rape.

It’s a reckless trope caused by a lack of imagination and insight. It’s exploring racism by having someone yell “nigger.” It’s facing anti-semitism with a swastika. It’s reducing a multi-layered issue into a moment of visceral repulsion to give a story more weight.

KillingjokeIt’s fucking lazy, but Alan Moore did it, right?

Although Alan Moore has since denounced The Killing Joke, it remains a thoughtful, challenging exploration of futility, insanity and the price of trauma on the traumatized and the people who love and care for them. The Joker sexually abuses Barbara Gordon (yes, non-consensual nude photographs are sexual abuse), but Moore is aware of both the horror of the act and the residual effects of that horror. It’s not a cheap thrill. Moore reminds us of The Joker’s evil in the same tale he creates empathy for the character. That’s hard work.

Alan Moore’s work is the exception that proves the rule. It stands in stark contrast to the cynical and opportunistic depictions of sexual violence in genre fiction. It’s not the gold standard. It should be the only standard. Rape in fiction should not get judged by gradients. Rape in fiction is pass/fail.

If that story made a reader relive one of the worst moments of their life, was it worth it? Perhaps. I’m not sure. Alan Moore’s talent creates a worthy debate.

Most of the writers raping their characters aren’t nearly as talented as Alan Moore. Don’t hide behind his genius. The truth will still find you.

The questions are simple:

Is the depiction of sexual violence in your narrative so essential to your story that it’s worth 25% of the women who read or see it being dragged back into the center of their trauma?

Is it a meaningful act in your narrative, or is it simply a way to cause repulsion?

Are you one hundred percent convinced that no part of it is exploitation?

Does its inclusion break a tonal pact with your audience?

I’ve never created a female character, considered their arc, and thought: and then she gets raped. Other writers have, and I don’t advocate censoring those works. I do urge that when that thought occurs, those writers accept the potential effect of that choice on the innocent people that will experience those stories.

Make no mistake, for a many readers and viewers that choice will cause them pain. Only individual artists can determine if their work is more important than that pain.

For me, it never has been.

 

Bryan Hill is Los Angeles based screenwriter, and comic book author. Currently he’s writing POSTAL for Image Comics. One day, he’ll figure out what to do with Tumblr. Twitter: @bryanedwardhill 

Updated: #ChangetheCover Erupts Over Batgirl Joker Variant

BG-Cv41-Joker-variant-solicitation-88c4e-31e8dA new Twitterstorm has kicked up over one of the variant covers for DC Comics in June. The theme for the month is Joker variant covers, and folks aren’t too happy with the choice of cover for Batgirl #41. The cover drawn by the talented Rafael Albuquerque features Batgirl in tears and victimized by the Joker. The cover is a not too subtle reference to a classic Batman story The Killing Joke written by Alan Moore in the 80s. The story saw Barbara Gordon kidnapped, shot in the spine, and then stripped naked with photographs taken of her, all by the Joker. There are hints of sexual assault and molestation beyond being stripped naked, all the increase the angst of her father. The variant cover in other words features a “victim of sexual assault with the man who molested her wrapping his arms around her shoulders and painting a smile” with what looks like to be blood, another visual reference to The Killing Joke.

Doing some research, again the controversy has sprung from Tumblr, a popular platform for armchair clicktivism (and a threat of starting a Change.org petition). I’d normally cite the person who sparked the movement (and I quoted above), but in this case I’m not going to and I’ll explain why further below.

My personal opinion is, the cover is stylistically amazing. I’m a fan of Albuquerque’s art, and this is another fantastic piece. Art can be fantastic, but also tasteless at the same time. Art should spark debate. But, it’s not so much the image as it’s the choice of DC Comics to go with this cover is what’s really at question here.

Barbara Gordon, after her run in with the Joker, has been built up over the years as a character of strength, beginning in her role as Oracle, a computer expert and information broker who became integral when it came to fighting crime for the Bat family. She was a prime example of strength, both as a woman and also being confined to a wheelchair, though the story that got her there was rife with controversy.

batgirl_495x767DC’s New 52 did away with the wheelchair, though The Killing Joke still took place in continuity. Instead through some miracle physical rehabilitation and experimental surgery Barbara was once again able to walk, and don the cowl as Batgirl. Though it was justified that such surgery and rehabilitation exists, there was public outcry taking away one of the few disable characters in comics. Writer Gail Simone did address the past though and looked at the after-effects of PTSD and the trauma one would have after what Barbara went through.

With sales flat, a new team was brought onto the series with issue 35 giving the character a praised new look, new location, and new friends. It was a re-invention of the character into a more modern hipster version of herself, a new direction breaking the traditional mold and the creative team got their much deserved praise. Through adversity came strength, growth, and re-invention for the character, and she became a feminist icon in comics during it all.

Six issues later from praised re-invention, DC Comics is now under fire for their choice of variant cover, much like Marvel was for their choice of a variant for Spider-Woman. Instead of a cover with Batgirl triumphant, instead we’re given an again victimized character. As The Outhousers point out, you see that with no other variant.

What’s stranger is, the cover seems to have little to do with the interior (as is often the case with variants) so could have been anything, just like the “triumphant” idea mentioned above. Here’s the solicit text:

There’s a new Batman in town…and that spells bad news for Barbara Gordon! She’s already got enough upheaval in her life, with her roommate Frankie in on her biggest secret…and now she’s looking to get even more involved in Batgirl’s business!

The Tumblr post I can find that seems to be the spark of this debate doesn’t feel The Killing Joke should be swept under the rug, quite the opposite. It’s a much more thought out and nuanced piece. As they point out, there’s been a use of cameras as iconography with Batgirl since, especially lately. A reference to the story, and a way for the character to take back strength from the situation.

There are a lot of potential Joker variant covers that would have been amazing. I would have loved to see Barbara stepping on the joker’s face after punching him to the ground, perhaps using that iconic camera of his to take a selfie. But a violent, bloody cover of a weeping Batgirl as the man who molested her smiles by her side is sickening. It’s disgusting. And I am tired of her scenes in The Killing Joke being referenced while the serious issues involving her assault are casually ignored.

And instead of just asking for change, the poster makes a call for an alternative instead, taking a voice and platform and attempting to turn it in a positive direction. Not just calling for a ban, protest, or boycott.

The reason I only allude to the poster, is the reaction to the #ChangetheCover. In the days since its launch about 3000 tweets have used it a day, and the hashtag has been clutched by many who are also involved in the harassment campaign that is #GamerGate. This hashtag is evidence that the movement that’s all about “ethics in journalism” is nothing more than a campaign to intimidate and harass, and I don’t wish that upon anyone, whether I agree or disagree with them. Many of the same personalities involved in the GG movement, are now decrying SJWs, aka social justice warriors, and claiming censorship. Irony, since they themselves are attempting to censor through intimidation. Though it hasn’t quite gained steam, there’s an attempt to hijack the debate, and turn it into something much sinister and toxic.

DC Comics has changed covers before, and it’s unknown what will happen here. What’s for sure though, this is just the latest flash point in the comics world, as the debate about inclusion and sensitivity continues. DC Comics recently announced the jettison of the New 52, and their embracing of diversity (and ironically less reliance on continuity). While they’ve said they want more “girl power,” catering to an ever-growing female market, this is anything but. Since a cover is the first thing so many see, and delivers the first impression, this one shows continued victimization and fridging. It’s off-brand, it’s off-message, and people have a right to be angry. The creative team of the series should be angry, as the variant cover dilutes their take, their message, their vision and new direction for the character. If DC’s goal is to reach out to the 40 something percent female audience, this probably isn’t it.

The call to #ChangetheCover isn’t about censorship, it’s about holding DC accountable for a standard they set for themselves two months ago.

Updated: DC Comics has pulled the cover per the request of artist Rafael Albuquerque. Below are the statements both he and DC released.

Rafael Albuquerque:

MyBatgirl 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 Entertainment:

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

Batgirl co-writer/artist Cameron Stewart also Tweeted to clarify about the threats:

 

History is Written by the Winners of the Marvel No-Prize

Guest commentary post from Emma Houxbois. Emma is a queer blogger for hire out of Vancouver, BC most recently attached to Girls Read Comics. You can follow her on Twitter @emmahouxbois.

no-prizeThe thing about history is that you’ve got to be really careful who you let write it. Herodotus, the guy widely acknowledged as the inventor of western history writing was known as both “The Father of History” and “The Father of Lies,” in his lifetime, and one of the reasons for that was that he never really made any kind of an effort to judge the credibility of the people he was collecting history from. It’s widely believed that he skewed towards the empowered members of society, meaning that the saying “history is written by the winners” is as old as history itself. This past week in comics, we got the rude awakening that it’s history is currently being written by the winners of the Marvel No-Prize.

For reasons unknown to anyone with a lick of sense, a panel consisting of Todd McFarlane, Len Wein, and Gerry Conway were assembled to publicize a forthcoming PBS documentary about superhero comics. While already dubious choices compared to more genuinely influential and knowledgeable prospects like Trina Robbins, Mark Waid, Karen Berger, or that mysterious Twitter account claiming to be Steranko, the trio put on an astounding display of jamming their entire legs up to the knee down their own throats. Todd McFarlane, creator of one of the best selling black superheroes in history, seems to believe that increasing diversity in comics will only lead to tokenism. Of course in 2006, when Robert Kirkman crashed McFarlane’s panel at the SDCCI, the Spawn creator had no idea who he was until he was informed by another panel member that Kirkman was “the guy who writes that zombie comic you like,” a comic published by McFarlane’s own Image Comics at the time. McFarlane also went on, during the same incident, to say in defense of having not done anything significant in comics since Spawn that “once you’ve created your Mickey Mouse or your Donald Duck, you don’t really have to do anything else.” So it isn’t as if McFarlane’s complete indifference to anything in comics that isn’t related to his personal legacy is a closely guarded secret or new information. Nor is it that he’s a noted hypocrite after having lost a lengthy legal action by Neil Gaiman to regain control of the characters he contributed to Spawn after years of McFarlane crowing about how the founding of Image was a victory for creator’s rights in the industry.

Gerry Conway was adamant that superheroes are strictly for men and boys, using a bizarre self defeating anecdote about his daughter’s disinterest in “guy stories,” mentioning Faith Erin Hicks who writes The Adventures of Superhero Girl. Of course Conway is responsible for the two most exploited fridgings in Marvel history, if not superhero comics as a whole; The Punisher’s self justification for his antics based on the death of his wife and child as well as the death of Gwen Stacy. If Conway’s own daughter is disinterested in what he calls “guy stories” and McFarlane wouldn’t use superheroes if he wanted to write a story catering to his own daughters, it has to be noted that Conway’s body of work is one of the chief culprits in disillusioning potential female readers. Of course Len Wein is the real elephant in the room, given that Alan Moore disclosed in 2006 when he approached Wein for permission to cripple Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, Wein told him “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.” Inviting Len Wein or Gerry Conway to talk about gender in comics is basically like asking Don Imus to talk about racism in sports.

At around the same time that this nonsense was unfolding, a beautiful and moving thing that happened in Japan was being circulated by Sailor Moon fans on Tumblr. The second live event detailing the festivities for the 20th anniversary of Sailor Moon and the forthcoming series was being translated, capped, and analyzed by the fervent western fans of the pop culture juggernaut. However, instead of updates on the timeline for the new series, what dominated the fan discourse were the statements by the director of the 2013 edition of the live action stage show, whose cast is entirely female. By way of explanation, he related that his understanding of Naoko Takeuchi’s manga was that it was written by women for women and so it was only natural to put on the show using only women. Not satisfied with those bold and endearing statements, he went on to say “I feel like Takeuchi Naoko’s work flew in the face of the atmosphere at the time. It said ‘women are strong, there’s nothing wrong with being strong and we should be stronger’ and as a result in these twenty years, women have become stronger in our society. That part of her work has everlasting value and I feel like now we should remind society again of the same message.” While I’m not sure that twenty years of gains for women in Japanese society can be chalked up entirely to the influence of Sailor Moon, it is heartening to hear, especially from a man in this context, the fervent belief that comics can in fact inspire positive social change. It isn’t hard to see that same belief among the western fans, as it’s an unmistakable fact that a large segment of young women active in fighting for representation in western comics are Sailor Moon fans, and the most ardent supporters of Sailor Moon are staunch feminists. Sailor Moon also continues to deeply influence female creators to this day, most notably Adventure Time contributor and Bee and Puppycat creator Natasha Allegri, whose genderbent world of Fionna and Cake rests on Sailor Moon as it’s foundation from the rabbit ears on her hat to her feline companion and even her formal gown patterned after the future Silver Millennium version of Usagi.

That Conway feels comics follow instead of lead culture is no actual reflection on the real state of the world’s last living mythology, it’s a reflection on three men who never pushed themselves or their work to a level beyond what could be most comfortably and easily sold. None of them put their careers on the line with bold statements like Dwayne McDuffie’s infamous Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers memo or created entire critical frameworks for discussing women’s place in popular fiction like Gail Simone’s Women in the Refrigerator polemic or Alison Bechdel‘s eponymous test. It also really begs the question if any of them are aware that Captain America punched Hitler a full year before the United States entered World War II. In every decade that superhero comics have existed, they’ve lead culture. In a landscape where Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, (directed by Jodie Foster in the episode revolving around her character), is making headlines and shattering the long history of cis actors being cast as trans* people, comics are leading culture. Matt Fraction is currently surfing the crest of the wave of positive portrayals of trans* people in a team book that is three quarters female. Gail Simone is poised alongside him selling out her Batgirl title in which Babs’ roommate is a trans woman. The critical importance of all three narratives cannot be underscored any stronger than by Chloe Sevigny’s current shameful behavior wearing a prosthetic penis to portray a trans woman and throwing around slurs that demean real trans women behind the scenes. Which is just one singular issue, one singular anecdote in a sea of progressive storytelling in comics that has taken the lead on issues as diverse as addiction, sex work, homophobia, racism, sexism, and domestic violence to name a few. The true history of comics isn’t a soulless echo chamber of privileged men writing exclusionist power fantasies for each other. The true history of comics is as queer and beautiful as it is ugly and heartbreaking, when it’s told by people who actually participated in and benefited from it’s queerness and beauty. Sadly many including Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Dwayne McDuffie have passed away but there do remain several other creators and commentators who, if given the chance, would gladly sing the praises of those and other trailblazers.

Almost American