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Trigger’d And A Warning

batgirllaguaoped02(NOTE: This is an opinion piece. It does not reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the website owners, leadership, or the website as a whole.)

DC comics stirred up online controversy last week when it released a solicitation for a Batgirl variant cover to be released in June. The cover in question, part of DC’s line-wide Joker month variant initiative, features an image by illustrator Rafael Albuquerque that riffs off of the (Seminal? Notorious? Sexist?) significant (let’s just go with ‘significant”) Killing Joke story by Alan Moore. The story depicts what is arguably the darkest time in Barbara Gordon’s long history. The Joker, at his depraved worst, shoots Barbara, destroying her spine. In the course of the story, and as the artist Brian Bolland can attest to, Barbara is also sexually assaulted by the Joker. Photos of the assault are taken and then shown to her father, Commissioner Gordon, as a part of the Joker’s psychological assault on Jim. That the story is dark, disturbing, and utterly terrifying is not in dispute. It really is. There’s no arguing with that.

Albuquerque’s cover pays homage to this story by depicting Barbara, in her Batgirl persona, in the clutches of the Joker. She looks utterly terrified, with his arm draped across her chest, holding a gun. He paints a crude, red smiley face on her, which is in stark contrast to the emotions being displayed on her face. He looks absolutely monstrous and there’s no denying the fact that he derives a lot of sadistic pleasure from what he is doing. The image is dark. It’s disturbing, and yes terrifying, for both Barbara and anyone who looks at the image. Or at least it should be. If it isn’t, then you definitely have a problem.

That the story is horrifying and disturbing is not in dispute. And I don’t want to argue that it isn’t. However, I do want to argue that the reaction and resulting controversy about the cover that is referencing the story is just a little bit disturbing and could have horrifying consequences.


The controversy erupted when a twitter hashtag (#changethecover) gained enough traction (as in enough re-tweets and fellow outrage) to make DC pull the variant cover from publication. The reasoning behind the outrage, which seems to be a contradiction in terms, seems to be threefold. I’ll discuss these first and then present my own arguments as to why I think these arguments are not compelling enough to justify the actions asked for and taken by DC.

First, some folks claim that the cover is a tone-deaf image that is not in line with the creative direction that the book is on at the moment. I’m not disputing this claim. The image certainly doesn’t represent the very optimistic, often times bright, very ‘light’ story telling approach that the creative team is taking in the pages of Batgirl. She’s still an adventurer that faces danger on a regular basis, but it isn’t the kind of psychological horror show that’s on display on the cover. Fair enough. This makes sense to me. Though, as I will argue later, I don’t think this is a compelling enough argument to pull this cover. Or any variant cover, for that matter.

Secondly, many folks have claimed that the image is a trigger that invokes some very unpleasant feelings and memories, particularly for folks who have survived abuse, assault, or similar terrifying situations that Barbara is currently experiencing on the cover. Again, I don’t think this should be in dispute, nor should people be questioned as to whether or not their feelings or reactions to the cover is authentic or warranted. We all feel things towards the stimuli we are presented with. These reactions aren’t good, or bad. The fact that we react or can have feelings to things that we see is not and shouldn’t be up for argument. We feel things. We have reactions. Fair enough. What we do with those feelings and reactions, however, isn’t as clear cut. Particularly when it comes to issues of artistic expression. I’ll return to this point in a little bit.

Thirdly, many argue that the cover represents yet another instance of the comic industry perpetuating unhealthy and misogynist depictions of women, that the image of Barbara at the hands of an assailant is inherently sexist; creating an unwelcoming environment for female fans and perpetuating the viewpoint/belief/ideology that women are nothing more than objects created for the titillation of the male gaze. This is the point that I have the most issue with, so I’ll start my rebuttal here.

That the image in question is scary, disturbing, horrifying even, as I’ve said several times now, is not in dispute. It is. The Joker is a nihilistic criminal who cares nothing about the value of human life and who possesses the empathy of a hungry apex predator. He is terrifying. As is the situation, one wherein we can assume that the events of the Killing Joke will play out, that Barbara is in on the cover. But, does ‘terrifying’, ‘disturbing’ and ‘scary’ inherently mean ‘misogynist’, ‘sexist’, or ‘anti-woman’? Characters, particularly in super-hero stories, male or female, face dangerous, scary situations all the time. They also get, presumably, scared. They are affected by the stimuli they are given by the writer and artist. Do we want to claim that all these situations represent an instance of sexist depictions of female characters? Should female characters never be scared or be put in terrifying situations anymore? This also presumes that this one particular snapshot in the story dictates Barbara’s character development throughout. Yes she’s terrified now. But does that mean she wouldn’t fight back? That she wouldn’t try to overcome the terror that she’s feeling? That this one point of her history somehow tarnishes everything that has come before and will come after? At first glance, a blonde woman being stalked by the deranged killer in a stalker film might be sexist; until she turns around and shoots the stalker instead.

But, let’s put aside issues of canonicity and story development aside. After all, I’m not even sure ‘The Killing Joke’ still ‘counts’ after the New 52 re-launch. Nor was the idea of turning Barbara’s tragedy into a moment of triumph, when she becomes Oracle, planned by Moore or DC when the decision was made to cripple her. Even then, the ‘this is misogynist/sexist’ argument fails to materialize for me. The Joker isn’t being presented here as a heroic figure. He isn’t presented as an attractive figure that represents some kind of desired viewpoint or ideology by the artist or DC. He’s depicted as a monster. Something we should be repelled and scared by. Barbara’s reaction is not that of someone who’s enjoying this treatment. Far from it. She’s terrified. She might as well be asking for our help. This is not a desirable situation for her to be in, at all. We’re not meant to be awww’d or compelled by this image, or to think that it represents a desirable status quo. We’re meant to feel scared and trapped. I don’t think invoking those feelings, by definition, translates to some kind of misogynist/sexist intent. They are unpleasant, yes. But they aren’t sexist. It would be a whole different story, if say, the Joker is depicted as a handsome, Old Spice commercial type of a dude or if Barbara is depicted as somehow enjoying or deriving pleasure from the horrendous situation she’s experiencing. But he and she aren’t being depicted in that way. The cover invokes fear and terror in us, which is, in my humble opinion, what all orthodox feminists should feel when presented with such images.

As I’ve already said, the fact that the image triggers unpleasant feelings for some people is not, or should be, in dispute. It’s a stimuli that makes people feel things. Mission accomplished. This is the mark of good art. Calling for the cover to be pulled, however, seems to invoke the nuclear option to resolve a ‘problem’ that doesn’t require it. Why can’t we ask LCS’s to simply place their copies (of which, they will probably only have a limited, small, very small supply) of the variant edition in question in a not so visible place? Perhaps we can also urge them to employ the tactics that many grocery stores and gas stations use when displaying publications that people in their community deem risqué? It is extremely silly to me when my local Kroger’s feels the need to cover up the latest issue of Cosmo that touts ’10 ways to drive your man crazy in bed’, but it is a concession to people’s sensibilities that I’m willing to make. We all live in a shared community, and sometimes we have to make compromises that clash with our own sensibilities and beliefs. I don’t think such a compromise, either concealing the variantly-covered comic or putting it in a not so visible rack or even behind the counter, presents a victory for sexism, misogyny, or gosh darn it, the forces of evil. It represents a level-headed, reasonable response to a problem that respects the wishes of all members of the community.

Related to this, the ‘tone argument’ is also as tone-deaf as the cover it’s decrying. That comic covers nowadays typically have little to no bearing on the story inside the comic is not a controversial point to make. I hope. This disconnect is only further emphasized and carried to its extreme when we’re talking about variant covers. Let’s delve into this disconnect further, briefly. What are these variant covers for? What do they do? What is their overall place in the economy of comic books? Most importantly, is this a compelling enough argument to pull the cover in question from publication?

At its most capitalistic, variant covers are used by comic companies to sell copies of the comic issue in question. It can also be a pretty lucrative source of revenue for your local comic store. How does it do this? Well, by imposing a ridiculous ratio of access to these variant covers. Your LCS can’t just order these variant covers at will, like they can with regular editions of the comic. Trust me, I’ve tried. Typically, they have to order a high number of copies of the regular cover to get even one copy of the variant cover. Ratios are typically in the 1:20 (as in you get 1 variant cover for every 20 copies of the regular cover you order) or more. Comic companies make bank, since comic stores have to inflate their orders to get their hands on these rare variants. Comic stores can potentially exceed their profit margins for single issues when they can sell a comic that regularly sells for $3.99 to $4.99 for $15.00 or more. This is typically the case for most variant covers. The point, I’m trying to make here, is that, regardless of its specific content, the variant cover is sold for more money because it’s rare. The actual image being depicted on the cover isn’t what drives up its value. It’s the fact that there isn’t as many of it in circulation.

Artistically, variant covers sometimes represent ‘theme months’. A comic company (typically the big two) will set a ‘theme’ for a particular month which is represented by all the variant covers produced for all the comics they publish that month. The types of themes ranges from character-centric (DC’s Joker month, or Marvel’s symbiote month, where all the characters on the covers were depicted as if they were possessed by the Venom symbiote), a particular story theme (DC’s 5 years later for example), a particular artist (Jamie McKelvie drawing a few Image comics in his Wicked and the Divine style), just outright pandering (DC’s Bombshell month) or some political point the company wants to make (Marvel’s No More Bullying covers). Variant covers can also be used to promote comics-related stuffs, as in when Marvel produced a bevy of Iron Man centric variant covers when an Iron Man movie came out. The point is, tonal disconnect is not an unusual thing when it comes to variant covers. It is business as usual. The image depicted in these covers relates to the theme for that month and not the story inside. Given the editorial realities and deadline driven nature of comics publishing, the actual story inside the comic probably isn’t even a consideration for the people in charge of commissioning and approving these variant covers.

Given the ‘tonally disconnected’ nature of variant covers, why does this kind of controversy not come up more often? After all that Magic Mike movie cover that was used for a recent Justice League issue had nothing to do with the story going on inside the covers or the general tone and direction of the book in question…unless I’m missing something. Were people ok with the Magic Mike Justice League variant cover because it appeals to our tastes? Because we see it as ‘progressive’? (Is setting up unrealistic standards of beauty and bodies progressive?) Nevertheless, I suppose progress is all fine and dandy, but this pick and choose approach that people take with the ‘tonally disconnected’ argument makes it very disingenuous to me. If it is really as principled and genuine as people claim, then there should be a monthly round of outrage, or at the very least mild twiterring, whenever a variant issue gets solicited. But there isn’t. To me, the ‘tonally disconnected’ argument in regards to the Batgirl cover just seems like a case of ‘us’ vindicating and supporting what our tastes and sensibilities find appealing and condemning things that we don’t like. This doesn’t seem right to me, particularly when that condemnation gets paired with a critical mass of other condemners who can then impose their tastes and sensibilities on us by deciding what gets to be published or not. Now, I don’t want to use the ‘C’ word, because that isn’t what’s happening. There hasn’t been any state sanctioned book burnings or effigies made of Dan Didio and Rafael Albuquerque. But, the effect, disturbingly, seems to be the same. Some of us found a thing distasteful. We then used the power of ‘having enough people who also find it distasteful’ to make a thing happen. This fills me with dread.

Further, if people really are unsatisfied with how comic covers nowadays (and not just variant ones!) are so tonally, story-ily (not a word, I know) or thematically disconnected from the story inside the comic, then that should be made the issue. But it isn’t. Twitter outrage isn’t harnessed to pull comic covers that veer from what’s inside the comic. Otherwise we’d all die of exhaustion, since nearly every comic published would be the object of rage and anger. It’s only harnessed to condemn images ‘we’ don’t like. I humbly put forth that that isn’t enough justification to condemn or pull a work of art from publication. Comic art, like other artistic productions, isn’t like a defective toaster or a car needing a product recall because it has faulty breaks. In those instances, there’s a definite harm that needs to be resolved and taken care of. Not so with art. Which leads me to…


I feel that this current Batgirl cover controversy is a symptom of a good thing. It can’t be denied that the comics industry is struggling in some significant ways. Readership is dwindling, and what was once a prominent feature of the American pop cultural landscape has become a niche market. An odd thing to say, given that the current highest grossing movie of all time is a comic book movie, but it is what it is. In order to thrive, nay, just to survive, comics have to evolve and change in order to attract more readers and people who aren’t already firmly ensconced in that niche. So far, these initiatives to attract new readers, and lets not quibble, we mean ‘young, female readers’ to comics is working.  Ms. Marvel is a hit, prompting fifth printings for some issues; a feat practically unheard of for many comics being published today. Spiderwoman’s issue 5 re-debut is going into a second printing.  DC’s Batgirl and Gotham Academy have become critical and commercial darlings. Lest what I’ve said before be twisted horribly out of context, let me just say that I think this is awesome. Putting aside issues of political ideology and safe-space making aside, these initiatives have given us good, compelling stories that are fresh, beautiful, and utterly enjoyable in their own right. The fact that they are welcoming to a group of people who previously have found comics reading as a scary cultural space is also a great development, one that should be nurtured and further developed. I firmly believe that comics are and should be for everyone, and that’s something we need to continually strive for.

However, along with the influx of new readers, a cultural clash (confusion?) also develops.  New readers, unfamiliar with the long history of some of the characters they are just now getting to know and enjoy may interpret and ‘read’ certain stories and images about these characters out of context or in ways that aren’t intended by comic creators and editors. I’m not really sure where the blame lies for this.  I’m not sure if there is any blame to be had.  I do think that with the ubiquity of information available at our fingertips (literally!) that it isn’t hard to research any character’s history (hello Wikipedia) or just use Google to do some layman’s research to figure out whether our trigger reactions to a particular image or story is warranted or, respectfully, an over-reaction.

I worry that the way this particular situation played out (so soon after the Manara Spiderwoman variant controversy) sets a very dangerous precedent. While it would be silly to say that comics aren’t a consumer product, something that a company produces, which we then buy, I think it will be equally silly and even potentially dangerous to equate an artistic product (like a comic, or a video game, or a movie, a book) with other kinds of products, like a car, a toaster, or a food item. When we’re talking about the latter category of things, it is easy, and I would say unproblematic, to know and point out when a definite harm is being caused by a product. A car with defective brakes can and probably will kill you. It should be recalled. A toaster with a circuit defect can burn your house down. It should be returned and replaced. A food product you’re allergic to will cause your body to react negatively, causing irritation and potential death. You shouldn’t eat it or be exposed to it.

I don’t think that this kind of harm can be so easily attributed to artistic products like comic books. The harm isn’t as clear cut or, as I am about to controversially argue, even ‘real’ in the way that failing car brakes are ‘real’. Art is subjective; a fact that most people tend to forget. How one person would react to a piece of art is not how others would. The loudness of your voice or the number of twitter followers you have doesn’t make your particular interpretation of an artistic piece correct, nor does it warrant shutting down all further discussion or dissent regarding the situation at hand. Your interpretation of a piece of art isn’t right and it isn’t wrong. Those are stupid and ultimately useless categories when talking about art. The harm that one sees being inflicted by an image or a story may not exist to others looking at the same image or reading the same story. This doesn’t mean that these accusations of harm should be dismissed, nor should it mean, EVER, that people who make such claims be subject to threats of bodily harm. This does mean that we should discuss the situation like reasonable, generous human beings who don’t assume the worst of others, with an eye towards non-scorched-Earth solutions that render viewpoints or perspectives that don’t agree with ‘ours’ as inherently illegitimate, suspect, SEXIST, and therefore not worthy of even a modicum of respect and consideration. This creates the kind of comic reading community that I don’t want to be a part of. It makes all of us monsters. And I hate that. It sucks.

Our fellow geeks in the video gaming side of the world have recently suffered (are still suffering? I’m not sure at this point in time) through what the media has called ‘The Gamergate Controversy’. Simply put, a niche group of unpleasant, misogynist, sexist (see, I can recognize these when I see em’) trolls have gathered together to systematically harass women who dare point out some problematic (from a feminist point of view) aspects of the hobby and industry that all gamers enjoy. That the onus of blame and responsibility for this awful situation should be placed upon these utterly despicable excuses for human beings is not in dispute, nor is the notion that people (woman or man) should be free from the threat of bodily harm, doxxing (when said trolls reveal your personal information to everyone on the internet) or harassment when voicing their opinions. I do think, however, that the scorched-earth, either with us or against us, front promulgated by the supporters of Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu are in part responsible for allowing this hive of scum and villainy to emerge and flourish. If you create a situation wherein people have no choice but to side with one extreme or another, when principled, reasoned, and logical discussion and dissent are stifled, or labeled as ‘attempts to silence’ for the sake of ideological purity (on either side), you create extremists and a war-torn cultural space where we are the casualties.

For the most part, the comics-side of the geek universe has avoided a similar situation. And I am extremely glad that it has. The lion’s share of the praise for this should be heaped upon the many creators, editors, and publishers who are actively seeking to create comics and a comics culture that is inclusive, welcoming, amenable to change, and above all committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. I think our avoidance of a sad, similar situation, can also be attributed to the generous way in which many (not all. By the Gods, not all) comic readers and creators can reasonably discuss their mutual differences in taste and opinion. I saw this on display on a comic creator’s Facebook thread, who shall remain nameless, wherein many people put forth different opinions with respect, consideration and the willingness to consider opposing perspectives, even if those opposing perspectives are ones we ultimately may not agree with.

I worry that we may lose this. That our safe, shared, vibrant space may be torn apart because we aren’t willing to be generous, to listen and to not assume the worst of our fellow comics reading community members. In this age of the ’40 character argument’, people’s first, instinctual reactions rule the day, at the cost of carefully considered, reasoned discussion. This is dangerous, and I urge you, fellow comic loves, to try to avoid this, if at all possible. That we will be triggered at some point by something we see or read is not in dispute. You’re probably being triggered now if you’ve stayed with this piece so far. But I beg you; please consider your response before creating that hash tag.

I’d like to close on much more personal note. When situations like this arise, I’m often, quite frankly, beset with a feeling of rage. How can it be, that people who I would otherwise agree with on a wide variety of political, cultural, social and ideological questions turn on me and label me as things that I, in a million, billion, years never be? The limits of the internet as a tool for communication and connection are partly to blame. But, the need and/or desire for some otherwise progressive people to promulgate a progressive orthodoxy is also, mostly, the culprit here. Why do we, as feminists, queer supporters, trans advocates, anti-racists, class-conscious people so repelled by differences within our own ranks? Why is it impossible for us to conceive of a situation wherein we may not agree about a particular thing, but still be committed to an overall general goal, orientation, or viewpoint? It boggles my mind. I don’t understand how I can be called a ‘misogynist’ for disagreeing with the party line in regards to the Batgirl cover, while simultaneously, and almost instantaneously, getting on the Erik Larsen hate train for his unfortunate tweet about the state of super-hero costumes today. Why are we so keen on promoting ideological purity, an orthodox party line? Aren’t these the same kinds of things we’re supposedly struggling against? I’m quite frankly tired of having to prove my credentials whenever a rift develops between everyone in my camp. The state of the discussion quickly devolves to a kind of frustration akin to talking with an anti-vaccine proponent or a climate change denier, a discussion where all logic and reason goes out the window in favor of ideological, or perhaps just ‘my argument and mine alone’ purity. I hope this piece helps in creating a comic reading cultural space where I won’t be subject to this particular kind of trigger anymore.


March 18, 2015
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