A Penny For Your Thoughts On The Joker & Batgirl’s Really Awkward Week At DC Comics

Before I get started, a quick thought about the trolls my last PFYT got.

My last article drew ire from a couple of men who, despite making a claim that they’d hassle any writer of any gender who did such “shoddy research”, repeatedly proved they were misogynist trolls, and probably MRAs, by talking down to me as if speaking to a mouthy child, calling me derogatory things like “little girl”, (I’ll be bloody 41 in May), blatantly claiming I said things I didn’t actually say by twisting the article, (claiming I ignored the fact that Stephanie Brown was back in comics by ignoring the words “Until last year” in my point about the period of time she was forbidden to be used at all), and challenging my research while being unwilling to do any of their own, expecting me to defend myself as if they were entitled to demand that I respond to their childish demands and handhold them by painstakingly citing every single minute source for my article, instead of just doing the same basic research I did, like watching Comicon panels with Gail Simone and googling statistics and then weeding out sites with known agendas and bias on either side of an issue till I find one that simply cites facts with no commentary. Y’know, like misogynists and MRA trolls do whenever they hate a woman’s opinion. Seriously, it’s not that bloody hard boys.

One of them kept acting like he’d won a huge moral victory by posting like a child every day for over a week baiting me to respond and only got a response once because I was at the height of this never-ending stomach flu I’m finally starting to beat, and hadn’t my usual will to ignore. Hell, their belief that a woman would only criticize Dan DiDio’s sexism “because it’s in fashion with the SJW crowd” is all the proof of misogynist idiocy you need. Only MRAs, Gamergaters, and misogynist 4/chan trolls call women “SJWs” as if it’s an insult or a bad thing. Fighting for equality and change and better representation of women, minorities, disabled people and LTBG folks in a world where cishet white men over overwhelmingly represented above all others is NOT a bad thing. Social Justice Warrior is a COMPLIMENT boys. If you sad little weebles call us that we know we’re doing something right.

Personally though I’m not a Social Justice Warrior. I’m a Social Justice Ranger with a few levels in Feminist Rogue and a cross Class Bonus of Activist Shadowdancer.

Okay, on to the actual story this week.

Penny Joker
So, this past week our favourite merry mirthful madman of mayhem The Joker made news twice, once with a legit controversy people are arguing about, and once with a story that’s simply kicking up a lot of fandom debate. Let’s start with the controversial one so we can end on a light note.

Seriously who thought this was a good idea?

So… this happened. And it set the internet on fire. This image, drawn by artist Rafael Abuquerque, was going to be an exclusive variant cover to Batgirl #42 later this month. But a whole lot of fans, (of ALL genders I might point out, not just women), protested en masse, to the point where Rafael himself asked DC to cancel the variant.

“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

And indeed a few of our own Comic Nexus staff have agreed they don’t understand why it’s upsetting people, as have many who have countered the mass protest. The general defense being that the image is meant to be an homage to The Killing Joke, and hey, the Joker is a villain and a psycho, so acting as he is in the image is totally in character for him. My colleagues admit they fail to understand why this image is problematic. And so here I am to explain to them and to all of you exactly why this image is such a problem.

First of all, the most direct problem is that since Barbara changed cities and costumes, Batgirl has been an all ages book for DC, with a lighter tone and a more upbeat characterization, that has attracted a lot of younger readers. Readers who very likely have never read or even heard of the Killing Joke and are probably too young to be reading that pivotal tale. The variant cover swings in the complete opposite direction of the book’s current target demographics in so many ways.

Secondly, despite this year being the Joker’s 75th anniversary, (the reason for all the planned Joker variant covers to begin with), THIS cover doesn’t fit with this book. The Joker isn’t even IN the issue it’s intended for. There were any number of directions Rafael could have gone for the variant that didn’t involve highlighting one of the darkest stories in comic history. And there are distinct tonal problems within the image itself.

Take a look at it. A good long look. There is so much in this specific image that, even if you defend it by pointing out the Joker is a villain, just don’t sit right.

  • Batgirl is crying. Not in pain but in abject terror. Those are the tears of a victim, something Barbara Gordon has refused to be for nigh three decades now.
  • The Joker’s finger is pushing aggressively into her cheek, a power gesture, a show of dominance.
  • His other hand is directly over her breast, a gesture of sexual dominance, of ownership.
  • The gun is pointed down at her crotch, and her legs. Also an aggressive gesture of sexual dominance and ownership, which doubles in horror when Fridge Logic sets in and you remember what actually happened IN The Killing Joke.

Think about all those points for a moment. Then think of this; 1 in 3 women has suffered some form of sexual assault in their lives. 1 in 5 women has endured spousal violence. 6 of every 10 women in the US who are murdered are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. The number of women in the US who were murdered in cases of domestic violence, JUST IN 2014 ALONE, is nearly double the number of US soldiers who have died in Iraq since 2002. I myself am a survivor of both rape and spousal abuse. I have seen those eyes in the mirror. And so have WAY too damned many women. And men who saw those eyes on their mommies growing up. And children who see those eyes on their mommies NOW and feel powerless.

This image went well beyond simply paying homage to a 27 year old story. It paid homage to the absolute worst parts of that story, in the most triggering way possible. I’m actually in a weird way relieved that my Nexus colleagues didn’t see what the fuss was about, because it means none of them have ever seen those eyes or felt that terror in real life. But I and far too many others have.

But it doesn’t stop there.

One of the points I made in my last column about DiDio’s bad decisions was taking Barbara out of the wheelchair and putting her back in the cape. And the main problem with this was that, as Oracle, Barbara had become a hero and an icon for disabled readers. She was one of US, a girl in a wheelchair who still kicked ass and got the job done, who used her mind to beat the bad guys, who had become an invaluable resource to heroes all across the DCU, not just the Bat Family. All credit to Gail Simone for figuring out how to make Barbara’s miracle recovery semi-believable, and for making Batgirl a must-read book despite DiDio’s decision to basically destroy the only really active and strong disabled character in comics, ending our representation in comics.

Reaction to the first Arkham Knight trailers showing Barbara as Oracle actually appearing in-game is enough to tell you how strongly fans still feel about Oracle Barbara over Batgirl Barbara. As fans who disliked that decision and miss our Oracle, being reminded of the incident that lead to Barbara’s wondrous repackaging as a disabled icon was salt in the wound.

Finally, for those who have never read The Killing Joke, let me give you a quick refresher course in why paying homage to it on the cover of an all ages book was a really bad idea.

The Killing Joke, a 1988 graphic novel, written by His Lordship Alan Moore and drawn by the venerable Brian Bolland, was a dark retelling of what little was ever shown of the Joker’s origin. It expanded “fell in a vat of chemicals and came out a clown” into “a failed comedian’s pregnant wife dies, and in his grief he foolishly agrees to help two thugs break in to the chemical plant he used to work at to get to a warehouse on the other side, who slap a fancy red hood on him to distract Batman if he shows up, gets knocked in the vat trying to run away when the Bat shows up and beats up the crooks, and goes mad when he washes up ashore outside the plant, removes the hood and sees what he’s become.” It shows Joker flashing back to this origin while acting out a plan to convince Batman that all it takes is one really bad day to make anyone as crazy as he is. To do that, he sets out to drive Commissioner Gordon insane.

Now is when it gets ugly. Trigger Warnings apply here.

In order to drive Gordon insane, the Joker shows up at his home and shoots Barbara Gordon through the spine, paralyzing her. A blatant example of Fridging before it even had a name. Joker’s thugs subdue and kidnap Gordon while he screams for his daughter, and then Joker proceeds to…

Happy Kitten Spoiler Jump
… remove all of Barbara’s clothing and take multiple photos of her as she laid helpless on the carpet, paralyzed, naked, bleeding, face streaked with tears of pain and fear, completely vulnerable and for all the Joker knew, dying. All so he could snap her father’s sanity. There are many fans who believe the unspoken context of the scene and the violating photos he took, that Joker may even have raped* Barbara while she was bleeding and helpless. He then strapped the elder Gordon naked to an amusement park ride and proceeded to bombard him with all the photos he took while explaining over the intercom that Gordon would feel so free if he just let go of his sanity, explaining how one bad day drove him mad, how it could happen to anyone, how his way of thinking is the only sane response to an insane world.

Of course he fails and Batman rescues Jim and captures the Joker, and Jim proves his sanity is intact by insisting Joker be brought in by the book to prove to him their way works. (Though some would argue letting him live after all this is proof of a distinct lack of sanity on the parts of Jim and Batman).

Bolland’s art left nothing to the imagination. Hell it outright showed nudity for the first time in DC Comics history, as the photos Jim was shown gave a very unobstructed view of Barbara’s naked torso as she cried. The imagery was so disturbing in fact that I was sent to talk to a psychiatrist for having done a book report on it in high school in grade 10, and my teacher was so upset by that imagery that the only reason he could imagine me writing about it was if I was a potential serial killer.

The worst part of all this is that, regardless of Rafael DRAWING the cover, any decision to PUBLISH it fell into the hands of DC’s editorial staff. A staff notorious for working under the “ANY publicity is good publicity” mantra. Had Rafael himself not asked them to kill the variant, I have no doubt DC would have ignored the negative feedback and powered through, as evidenced by them issuing a press release about the matter that included a blatant lie meant to paint themselves as a poor victim of excessive backlash;

“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”

Can you guess what the lie was? No? Well I’ll let Rafael himself tell you, via his twitter;

— Rafael Abuquerque (@rafaalbuquerque) March 17, 2015

And Batgirl writer Cameron Stewart backed him up;


— Cameron Stewart (@cameronMstewart) March 17, 2015

Granted, DC could claim that they were really talking about the MRA/Gamergate style threats being made against those protesting the variant, but really, come on, if they meant that they’d have said that. DC aren’t new to issuing press releases. Their wording was deliberate. They said exactly what they intended to say.

At the end of the day, it was just an all-around bad idea. A Killing Joke homage could have worked in any other context on any other title. But THIS context on THIS title was just a bad idea from the start.

*Footnote; I’m not actually among those who believes that Joker raped Barbara in that scene, because with the exception of the utterly repulsive and decidedly non-canon “Joker” graphic novel by notorious misogynist Brian Azzarello, Joker has never in any iteration shown any interest in sexual interaction of any kind whatsoever. And I discount Azzarello’s version because, aside of it being non-canon, Azzarello is just a really icky person in general and I ignore his take on ANYTHING because it’s always tainted by his open hatred of women. When Wizard interviewed him about Joker back when it still had a print magazine, he said the following, and I quote from my copy of the magazine right in front of me:

“I wanted to show Harley as a kind of silicon drug addict looking stripper look to match Joker’s greasy pockmarked skin look. Because essentially that’s all Harley is. I look at her like I look at strippers; I don’t wanna hear your life story, I don’t wanna know your name, just dance baby, just dance.”

So…. yeah, him depicting the Joker raping some two bit thug’s innocent unknowing girlfriend in front of the guy just to make a point? NOT something The Joker would ever do. That’s Joker’s “even evil has standards” thresh-hold. Joker would never rape in ANY iteration except Azzarello’s. And Azzarello is a goddamned creep.

Anyway, to end this quickly on a lighter note. The other Joker related thing from the past week getting talked about is that apparently DC is planning to retcon Joker’s origin again.

The plan now is that the Joker has always existed, that Gotham had an urban legend about a Slenderman-like entity that haunted Gotham’s poorest sections and darkest streets at night, known as the Pale Man. With no apologies to Guillermo Del Toro apparently. Why they’re planning this I don’t know, but comic fans are arguing about it. I suppose on one hand it could work if done right, since it would kinda explain how in the hell Joker isn’t dead despite all of the times he really should have died falling off stuff. On the other hand it just kinda feels like a cheap ploy to get some extra publicity for his 75th Anniversary. Either way it’ll probably end up being a swerve, and have no real lasting effect on the character.

That’s me done ranting for this week. I hope I’ve help my colleagues and you readers understand exactly what all the fuss was about.

We now return you to pretending you still care about Survivor after two decades just so you have a topic to discuss at the water cooler.

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