People on the Internet Get Things Wrong: Comic Book Cover Edition

by William Evans | Originally posted on Black Nerd Problems

Trigger Warning: Some of the images pulled from comic books depict assault and violence towards women.

DC is celebrating the Joker next month with a plethora of variant covers devoted to him. The Joker, who by definition is a deranged, sinister and disturbed individual is shown on most of these covers the way he’s always been: scaring the shit out of somebody. One specifically that sparked a lot of outrage was where the Joker is cozied up to a frightened Batgirl for her cover. After a lot of people voiced their displeasure with the cover AND RECEIVED THREATS OF VIOLENCE FOR IT, the artist Rafael Albuquerque asked DC to pull the cover. Now of course, there’s the backlash to the backlash as many fans and creators are crying foul and constructing this as an evil feminist argument that ruins everything. Sigh.

For some historical context, the Batgirl cover stands out as many have drawn parallels to the famous “Killing Joke” storyline, where the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon and paralyzes her, then strips her down and takes lewd pictures of her to show to her father Jim (there is some debate if the Joker actually sexually assaulted Barbara or not, but even if he didn’t, it doesn’t take away from the established trauma already present from the implicit images). The story itself is disturbing and traumatic, so any call back to it has the potential to be triggering.

Let me say that the Joker is one of my favorite fictional characters. In the right hands, he usually is my favorite. He is manic, brilliant, and terrifying in a way that is unexpected in mainstream comic books. When I saw the cover for Batgirl, nothing problematic sprung to mind for me at the onset. It seemed like a pretty typical cover that featured the Joker. When I saw the feedback and displeasure with the cover, I totally understood the concern. As a big comic book fan, I don’t want to see or support any images of harm or torture that is iconic to Black folks (like hangings), so I can understand why a woman that’s been abused doesn’t want a grinning maniac cozied up with a seemingly helpless woman who was assaulted by that character in the past. Especially on the woman character’s comic book where SHE is supposed to be the hero. People sometimes are so concerned with being right as opposed to getting the situation right. The need to feel as though you’re correct, complicit with being stubborn, shouldn’t lead to a block of your empathy, especially for a situation you may not fully understand.

And yet, while I’m more empathetic to those who thought the cover should be taken down, I don’t necessarily agree that it should have been shelved altogether. But I most strenuously push back against the other side, where people (guys) cry foul and censorship and the fall of the republic because DC pulled the cover. Your entertainment doesn’t trump someone’s trauma, especially when we’re talking about the variant and not the official cover anyway. It’s a straw man argument for meninist to party like its 1999. I think the solution would have been for them to keep the cover and put soft restrictions in place if you sold the book (like your local supermarket does with Cosmopolitan magazine with a visual barrier in front of the stack or have it behind the counter made request only). For digital sales, there should have been a trigger warning for the content of the cover. Doesn’t sound terribly difficult, but that’s not really the important issue here.

When we talk about diversity in comic books (and we talk about it ALL THE TIME), what we are basically saying is that the gatekeepers for mainstream comics have traditionally been cis hetero white men. Over the 70+ years of comic book history, those are just facts. What is happening now is that the difference between the demographic of people that make comics (or make decisions about those making comics) and the consumer are still pretty wide apart. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen a movie or video game or whatever come out and my first thought is, “It’s obvious they didn’t have any Black people in the room when they made this decision.” I don’t know who pulled the trigger on the Joker/Batgirl cover (pun not intended), but I doubt it was a person that understood domestic abuse, or assault or trauma and then said, “Yep, lets ship it.”

To the artist’s credit, he was very empathetic of the concerns and understood them well enough that he requested his cover be pulled. As I’ve admitted before, I wouldn’t have caught that at first either. But I also am aware that I have no idea of what it feels like to be a woman who’s been assaulted or forced to cozy up to their assailant. I know the decision makers at DC (or any other property) aren’t perfect, but they have to either get more people in the room that understand the customer base they actually serve in the now or they have to upgrade their empathy to be able to see these pitfalls ahead of time. Both of those would be nice.

The editor-in-chief of Black Nerd Problems, William is the third of his name, Warden of the Midwest, and Protector of the Realm. A scribe in many forms. An Ohio native by way of Wakanda. He married the real life Storm and apologizes to you all for the frequent thunderstorms.

14 thoughts on “People on the Internet Get Things Wrong: Comic Book Cover Edition

  1. I wrote about my own perspective on the Batgirl cover issue and while I don’t agree with some of your points above, there is one statement that you hit the nail on: “Your entertainment doesn’t trump someone’s trauma”. The issue with this cover (and the others that have come before it) is that they perpetuate the idea that the comics industry see female oppression and violence against women as selling points. And that’s what makes me the most angry. I’m glad the cover was pulled and people are talking about it (and kudos to Rafael for recognizing that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum) but there needs to be more central conversation on *why* this was a BIG DEAL and not just having it be a screaming fest on who yells better online.

      1. Sure thing! (Pt2 of the post focuses more extensively on Batgirl, while Pt1 focuses more on Wonder Woman’s costume change),

  2. I’d be more supportive of DC if they were doing the same thing to the male superheroes.

    Where are the covers of Batman tied up and being lowered into a vat of acid? Why not revisit “Death in the Family” again but this time center on Joker breaking Jason Todd with a crowbar? Why not have the Superman variant depict the Joker killing everybody in the Daily Planet with his poison gas? Or have the Green Arrow cover changed where Oliver is tied to a spinning wheel while the Joker is shooting arrows at him? Draw the Joker riding a shark jumping out of the water and attacking Aquaman.

    1. I gladly ask any artist to make covers based on my descriptions. Then we can see how far they should go.

      In addition, for Green Lantern, have the Joker punch out the hero with a ring-made jack-in-a-box. For the Teen Titans, have then all tied up in a row and bending over with the Joker holding a cricket bat to spank them. If that doesn’t work, draw them tied together like a paper doll chain with the Joker holding them up.

  3. The biggest issue here was neither the cover nor the reaction to the cover, but the fact that people who objected to the cover were threatened. For that reason alone I support the artist in retracting his cover. I would do the same in his place: I would not want conversation about my art stifled by bigots and bullies, any more than I would want the art itself so stifled. I would prefer to put it aside.

    There will always be covers that are triggering or face opposition. In these cases, healthy discussion is a good thing. Some covers may be inappropriate for the book’s audience. However, in these case we’ll never know. Once people stop discussing and start threatening, there is no longer a conversation to have. Game over.

    Regardless of what you feel for the cover or the opposition, threats are never acceptable. People who can’t conduct themselves as fellow humans do not deserve a voice.

  4. Reblogged this on Combo Breaker and commented:
    A great blog post about the recent Joker/Batgirl comic issue controversy. I know this is a video game blog, but I think it’s relevant because of the somewhat overlapping culture/fans of games and comics. The misconceptions and issues that many people (men and women) have about the portrayal of women in games, comics and other “nerdy” mediums is an issue that should be discussed with civility and an open mind as opposed to hostility.

    1. Read the above article. This isn’t about how sex sells. It’s about the depiction of violence and cruelty and how it should sell.

  5. @duckhunter1

    We can discuss the subject of sexual exploitation in another thread. My issues with the Joker variant covers are not about that.

  6. I really appreciate that you wrote this post. For me, the new Batgirl series has been a really positive run for women my age (20’s) and I’ve been recommending it a lot to my peers who are reluctant to try comics because they find American comics intimidating in one way or another. So to see the Killing Joke variant cover was disappointing.

    The best part of this piece was “Your entertainment doesn’t trump someone’s trauma,” because that’s the way things should be. Someone being entertained really shouldn’t take precedence over what contributes to a harmful environment.

    1. CG answers that question really well in her comment above and in the article on her blog reposted here on NOC. If you still have questions, since you’ve asked almost every commenter here the same thing, maybe you should read that post to get a better perspective.

      1. Aren’t comics for all readers to enjoy? I don’t think Batgirl or Wonder woman or anyone else uses an argument of being a “weaker sex,” and frankly, I wouldn’t want a comic to talk down to me that way. It’s just that I don’t really want to see domestic violence in a comic about a character who fights for the greater good.

        Anyway, I’ve read your replies to other comments, and I don’t really think anything I say will change you mind about anything. I just wanted to tell the person who wrote this article that I appreciate his thoughts on the matter.

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