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Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Since posting my thoughts on DC Comics controversial Batgirl variant cover and The Killing Joke (TKJ), I've had more than a handful of people speak with me directly to share their opposing views or to respectfully debate the issue, which is terrific, because subjects like this should be discussed, and I'm happy to converse with people when it's respectful.
I emphasize that everyone who took time to share their thoughts with me was very cool and nice about it, because I cannot help but wonder if that would be the case if it were a woman who wrote what I did, but I digress.
Anyway, I was asked on Twitter a variation of the same question/arguments I've received several times defending the way Barbara Gordon was treated in TKJ:
...what if the story SHOULD be a problem?
To paraphrase, since the Joker is supposed to be an all-time great villain, wouldn't he do atrocious things like his actions in TKJ?
The problem I have with that argument is TKJ isn’t about Barbara Gordon. She’s made a victim in service of a plot that focuses on the characterization of three men. Her suffering is merely a plot motivator for them to duke it out.
Ultimately, the point of TKJ isn’t to illustrate how villainous the Joker, although it’s certainly demonstrated, but to show how morally superior Batman and Gordon are. It certainly isn't about this act of violence either, because it doesn't spend any time exploring Barbara as a character. Barbara’s suffering is literally objectified in Polaroids to service a male character’s story arc. At the end of the story Batman and Gordon are defined as being strong and heroic, while Barbara is defined as being a cripple.
My good friend John Lewis ( @ozmodiargh ) had this to say about Barbara's treatment in The Killing Joke and this news story as a whole:
The cover is a fine piece of art, and The Killing Joke is a fine story, insofar as it illuminates the character of Batman or the Joker or Jim Gordon. But it says nothing about Barbara Gordon. She's an object, a (female) vehicle used to explore/explain the important male characters. Her depiction lacks dignity and humanity.
And The Killing Joke is one in a long tradition of stories, in comics and other media, where women are murdered, mangled, raped, or ridiculed for the purpose of developing the male protagonist/antagonist. Isn't that exactly the sort of thing that the "Women in Refrigerators" site was all about?
So yeah, sure, the Joker brutalizing Batgirl is a legitimate narrative beat, but surely we could do better than that. Nowadays it feels cheap, crass, and insensitive. And like you argue, maybe it was always that way. If I recall correctly, even Alan Moore regretted his decision to cripple and humiliate Barbara Gordon -- but I don't think he much liked any of The Killing Joke, in the end.
Which isn't to say anything about how completely tone-deaf the cover is given the current Batgirl comic, which has gone to great lengths to establish Batgirl as a strong, resourceful, positive role model for female (and male!) fans.
For me, that's about as tidy as it gets. I'm grateful for John Lewis for contributing his thoughts!
Outside of the problematic cover and the book it echeos, there's the supposed concern of artistic censorship and creative restriction being raised. To be clear, I'm not arguing that bad things cannot happen to characters in fiction, and I am not saying that rape and other touchy subjects cannot be used in fiction (it's not like I have any authority in that area anyway). However, as a trope, I think creators can and should offer audiences more than the victimized heroine. To argue that "rape happens" and "villains gotta be villainous", the people against this cover are well aware sexual violence happens in the real world, and they're telling the world they don't want their noses rubbed in it in their escapist fantasy.
To summarize, The Killing Joke is a landmark Batman story that's fine to go back and enjoy whenever you want. No one is retroactively wagging their fingers at anyone for enjoying that book. There's many examples of pop culture whose parts are now distasteful in our modern age. I was surprised at how aggressively insensitive and misogynist The Monster Squad is, which was an acceptable form of entertainment at the time and is still beloved by those who haven't seen it in five years. I had difficulty reading To Live And Let Die because of subtle racism in Ian Fleming's writing, which was also acceptable when it was published and for a long time after.
Given enough time though, we grow as people and our sensibilities change, and the entrainment we consume should embrace those changes. It's also important learn and understand that those things we now find distasteful but were acceptable at the time, well, they were probably never acceptable to the groups of people they marginalized. We live in an age now where people are able to make their voices heard.
As a newly minted contributor to mainstream comics, and just as a human being, I now see it's important to hear those voices and show sensitivity to their views, even when I disagree.
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
“Hey,” I thought to myself, “maybe The Killing Joke was never really okay. Maybe a story where a female character is shot, violated, and left for dead, just so a male character could have an emotional reaction was never something we should have celebrated, and we (some of us, anyway) are only now just waking up to how that’s problematic. Iconic though it is, maybe future iterations and stories of Batgirl shouldn’t feel beholden to something so ugly just because it happened over 20 years ago.”
All that occurred to me after a day or so of quietly observing and reflecting on this latest controversy. It wasn’t a conclusion I was expecting to come to. I love The Killing Joke and have enjoyed revisiting it for years. I personally didn’t find the cover offensive. Initially I even disagreed with the argument that as a variant cover it’s tonally wrong for this iteration of Batgirl. I felt it fit this latest theme of variants, and it evoked the story that most defines Batgirl's relationship with the Joker.
But I’m not reading Batgirl, and I realized my initial reaction might have been very different if I were engaged with the series. For those that are--for those that are trying to move beyond a time and place where women and minorities are treated poorly in comics (if they’re reflected at all)—this cover was an unwanted reminder of an ugly event that depicts women as victims, something many progressive fans are trying to move past. My lack of sensitivity to this issue was a probable sign that I was losing touch with what’s current in comics and a failure to see the activism of those who are trying make mainstream comics a more inclusive place.
So I took the time to think about what about this whole debacle bothered me. Because something was bothering me, like something stuck in my teeth. The cover in question is a great piece of artwork by an artist who I admire. And while I approve and applaud of his decision to have it pulled, I still felt conflicted, and I asked myself, “why is the cover a problem if the story it recalls isn’t?” To which a voice replied, “Maybe the story is a problem.”
That’s where I find myself now: I loved The Killing Joke for all it gave me both as a Batman fan and later as a comic creator, but its content is now a relic of the past, a past we should all be trying to leave behind. I will continue to appreciate the book, but as something antiquated. This iconic story will always be a big part of comic book history, but it shouldn’t determine its future.
For those who are ahead of the curve about these matters, don’t wait up. Keep moving forward. For people like me who need to catch up, accept that this material bothers people, and instead of becoming entrenched, let's ask ourselves why that is. Never be afraid to revaluate the things you love. Even if it diminishes that which you cherish, you will grow to be better.