In Defense of the Batgirl Variant Cover

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We all remember our immediate thoughts when we saw a leering Joker painting his smile over a helpless, terrified Batgirl. That thought was some iteration of Oh boy, DC is going to catch some hell for this! With seemingly more scrutiny than ever being placed on women in media, things as innocuous as Thor’s sex switch and Spider-Woman’s ass now get national attention.

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Interestingly, while there was a bit of reflexive backlash in the form of a Twitter hashtag, any furor over what many would have assumed to be such an offensive image depicted in the Batgirl cover has been remarkably subdued. Still, as the pop-culture hiccup fades, I find myself wishing the thing had actually made it to print as the official cover. However you feel about it, it’s a remarkable piece of artwork.

It’s my understanding that the cover was removed before printing due to DC and the cover’s artist believing that it wasn’t reflective of the Batgirl story. I don’t follow the New 52 Batgirl, so I’ll just have to trust that the stated reasons for pulling the cover are true — and there’s nothing wrong with that reasoning if it is true. But what if it wasn’t true? I don’t mean to suggest that the creators are lying. What if it was an actual reflection of story content?

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Specifically this one.

What if the cover was absolutely and inarguably the situation in which Miss Gordon had found herself? In today’s culture, could that fly without massive outrage and public pressure? If the answer is no, then we might infer that the DC team may have felt more motivation than simple artistic integrity to pull the cover — and I say there is something wrong with that.

We all understand that “hero in peril” covers have been done before. A quick Google search will net you plenty. But a common thread pervades them. Looking at these covers, you will see a common thread with the heroes, mainly that their expressions run a very limited gamut between “slightly startled” to “teeth gritted in defiance,” maybe even abject pain, if we’re lucky.

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Or perhaps slight confusion.

What we don’t often see is terror. We don’t see these heroes processing that everything they are — everything they’ve spent a lifetime building — won’t only come to a halt, but stands to be desecrated in mangy, bloody oblivion. The idea that Batgirl faces such an ignoble end is provocative and angering, but for the same to happen to Batman is damn near unthinkable. I say that’s a real shame… for Batman.

As mentioned previously, I know nothing about New 52 Batgirl’s story, but if I saw this cover at my local comic shop, I’d be damn tempted to pick it up. My immediate reaction was visceral. A dozen questions popped into my head at once: My God, how on Earth did this happen? Is she even able to get out of this? Is this the final issue? Looking at other “hero in peril” covers (again, based on the cover and nothing else) I simply think Oh look, the villain of the week has trapped Green Lantern in some contrived bullshit that we won’t even remember come next issue. Yawn.

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Now you might immediately ask, “What qualifies this Random Randy who admits that he doesn’t even read the comic to comment on its cover?” To which I respond, it is because I don’t read these comics that I am qualified to speak about the cover.

What’s important here is how effective the cover is. Her vulnerability and terror humanizes her. In a single image, I see more than just someone in a costume. The super hero mystique has fallen away, and I see someone who is contemplating what could very well be a violent and bloody end to her life — someone who is quickly coming to grips with the notion that she took on an opponent and career she probably had no business attempting.

So we must address the elephant in the room. Would I feel differently about it if it were a male super hero? Short answer: yes.

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I don’t think that’s a mark against Batgirl (or women in general), but more a mark on how I’ve been trained to think of men, specifically male heroes. When we look at Supes up there, it’s certainly an uncomfortable image. But are we disturbed by seeing a man being defaced or a symbol?

To be honest, when I look at that image, I don’t see a fellow human (Kryptonian, whatever) in the grip of mortal terror. In fact, I just find it silly. I find myself wondering why Superman isn’t punching Doomsday into the freaking sun! And in that realization, I come to notice that I have been denied the same emotional investment provoked by the image depicting the exact circumstances. There’s no tension for me, and I can’t help but feel that 1..) this image of Superman would not have received the same, real or anticipated, backlash as the Batgirl image (at least not for the same reasons), and 2.) that means there is something remarkably absent in the portrayal of our heroes.

“So do you want to make Batman cry, Ryan, is that it?

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Maybe…

More importantly, I’d like more glimpses of the man behind the mask. Again, what fascinates me about the Batgirl cover is my immediate, visceral reaction. Without knowing a single detail, I’m instantly invested. And for a comic artist, that’s the Holy Grail of cover work, isn’t it? It isn’t because I want to see Batgirl get hurt; it’s because I’m empathetic to her plight. I can very easily imagine what that situation would be like for me, and I probably wouldn’t be handling it near as well.

I’m so utterly used to seeing super heroes as invincible and unassailable. Batman himself has slipped into and out of so many impossible situations that, upon honest reflection, I don’t even really consider him human. I find that I am completely oblivious to the fact that he is flesh and bone (and sometimes I think the writers are too).

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Even this image doesn’t convince me that Batman is capable of human agony (probably because he’s able to have a coherent thought rather than the much more natural “Jesus Christ, it hurts!” reaction).

Almost from birth, we are immersed in Herculean myths and John Wayne legends of men being defined by their actions. We know what they are, but little attention is paid to who they are. And I’m forced to ask how much poorer we are for that. What can we learn from the feats of Hercules, truly? Is an endless series of superhuman displays truly so compelling? Well, it certainly can be, and I don’t want to diminish the value of what’s there. But as thrilling as it is to imagine what life would be as a superhuman, I think the stark reality of the human condition is equally, if not more, compelling.

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Pictured: how a foray into the world of superheroes would go for all of us.

Whether you’re drawn to the Batgirl cover or disgusted by it, one thing is revealed by both reactions: this piece of art matters. It is more than ink on a page, and our reactions to what is depicted here are more worthy of examination than the image itself.

Ryan J. Hodge is a science fiction author and works for Konami Digital Entertainment US (His opinions are his own). His latest book, Wounded Worlds: Nihil Novum, is available now for eBook & Paperback.

You can now follow Ryan on Twitter @RJHodgeAuthor

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18 thoughts on “In Defense of the Batgirl Variant Cover

  1. I liked it, maybe its the tears that pushes it for people, but its just art, I dont care.
    Some people are saying the guns in between her boobs and thats phallic and blah blah blah…feminism…. blah blah blah

  2. I think it’s worth defending because it’s GOOD art. It’s well made, and it conveys it’s point beautifully.

    And seriously, I can’t believe people take issue with Batgirl looking so terrified… So what, being terrified is now somehow considered demeaning for women? Who wouldn’t be fucking terrified if knowing what the joker is and does, had you in his power like that?

    And yeah, Ryan once more makes a beautiful point. The fact that batgirl is terrified isn’t the problem, the fact that most other male superheroes WOULDN’T be terrified is what’s wrong here.

  3. The people who are mad at the cover are in the wrong. This article should be attacking them rather than being defensive.

    1. I believe that perspective that might not have been considered is much more useful than attack. Even if I can’t alter the stance of the hardliners, I can at least sway those who might be on the fence.

      Thanks for reading!

      1. That’s a nice sentiment and it would be great if it worked. The thing is I think that instead of reading the article most people just gloss the headline and interpret the defensive stance as an admission of guilt. The Internet is weird.

  4. The Joker’s crime in the Killing Joke is sexual in nature. People have debated about if there’s is implied rape in the book but what isn’t implied is that the Joker stripped off Barbara’s clothes and took pictures of her as she was suffering from a gunshot wound.
    This is a very extreme crime and the Killing Joke is a brutal and very good comic. But it’s not a comic I would have anyone under 13 read nor would I want that explicitly referenced on the front cover of a book. After all, the original Killing Joke’s own cover didn’t do this.
    Some of Hodges point is art for art sake which I agree with and support, but you have to accept that some people’s reaction isn’t just to be offended but in some cases it triggers memories of sexual assault. I certainly think there is a place for comics with very dark material that could be read as offensive but we should be careful about how we advertise these things, a cover is by design first and foremost meant to advertise through art.

    1. I’m more than willing to concede that the artwork meant to advertise the comic, but it is still art all the same. Brutal beatings and horrific images have and still sell comics today so, on balance, I’d argue this is nothing particularly *new*; just remarkable in its effectiveness.

      It’s not meant to be something you forget the instant you walk past it. Hell, the fact that we’re still talking about it is evidence of that. It’s disturbing and difficult to look at, I’ll agree, but that’s what makes it valuable.

      1. Again, The Killing Joke is dealing with a kind of sexual assault. It’s important to note that the examples that you’ve provided in the article are not sexual or even implied sexual. I think this is a big factor for why people are debating about it. Ultimately we agree that art shouldn’t be censored but I’m only echoing the view that some people don’t just find this offensive in taste but it triggers real life horrific episodes and we should take this into account.

        1. Can I ask why the express nature of such a horrific event matters in particular? I’d think anyone who’d been brutally assaulted my be reminded of such an episode upon viewing the cover Batman, N52, #37 with Joker beating the crap out of Jason Todd with a crowbar -blood and everything.

          True, it wasn’t sexual (although with the Joker, who knows?), but it was horrific. It was a permanently scarring event for Todd -and I’m sure any sort of brutal assault like that would be permanently for anyone who went through it in real life.

          What I’m saying is: it seems to me that whatever arguments that are valid for the BG variant should be equally applicable here.

          See, it is my belief that art should exist for its own sake. It exists as a means to transcribe differing impressions and perspectives of the human experience –and it reigns over the totality of the human experience. Sometimes it’s *meant* to be disturbing –it’s meant to be provocative. And if it’s particularly affecting to a certain group with a shared experience; it means that it’s doing its job well.

          It may sound callous but offense comes and goes. How many artifacts do we consider masterpieces today that were highly offensive in their time? The art itself, the human experience it transcribes, will endure if we let it.

          1. Ryan,

            I agree with you on art for art’s sake. One film that I think is very important to me is Passolini’s Salo. It’s a very brutal film and potential offensive to many people. In addition it deals with sexual assault but any of the writing I also find important on this film explicitly discuss the nature and philosophy behind the depictions of sexual assault in the film.

            Alan Moore’s Killing Joke, the source imagery of the variant cover, has sexual assault and it’s a big part of the story. The Joker shoots Barbara but that’s not enough because he strips and photographs her in order to push Jim Gordon over the edge and prove his theory that all it takes is one bad day. This is different than the beating of Jason Todd.

            In your defense of the photo I think it’s best to address the sexual assault head on. It’s a big part of what makes the cover so horrific and in many cases why people have been disturbed by it. In doing so you can pair your argument against censorship and laud the image but also open up the dialogue to be more nuanced and help people understand why some may find it disturbing or problematic. I want to make it clear I am in no way saying you are immoral for appreciating this cover and I enjoyed your article. As long as we have a discussion about this, especially considering the large problems of domestic violence against woman, and it not devolve into decrees against feminism or social justice warriors.

            ” then a acknowledged meant of the sexual assualt in the source imagery can add a dimension

            that can make for a more naunced disscusion espcially considering people not being able to understand exactly why people have a hard time with the imagery. I am in no way saying your a immoral for your appreciation of the cover and I can certainly see why you think th

  5. The group of people who were the loudest voices in pressuring the artist to change the cover, don’t actually represent the consumer audience of the products they riot against. This is social justice warriors at their worst.

    1. The artist (Rafael Albuquerque) didn’t receive threats. Part of the reason it got pulled was because people OBJECTING to the cover received threats, and Rafael and DC wanted no part of that. Rafael himself asked for DC to pull the cover and stated “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.”

      He also mentions “the problem is not the cover itself, but the comic where it would be published. A series aimed at the teenage female audience should not have a cover like this.”

      So it sounds like he defends the art’s right to exist (and it’s great art) but acknowledges that a cover aimed primarily at young women was not the best avenue for it.

  6. If female superheroes are taking on truly evil villains, who don’t care about the effects of anything they do, you’d think rape would be commonplace among any of them who get captured. If our military were fighting enemies on our level, sending female soldiers to fight on the front lines would seem to be inviting rape, when our current enemies are willing to cut the heads off of the few people they are able to capture. I don’t see how feminists think it’s beneficial to whitewash the whole world to avoid the thought of a fate that happens to many women who aren’t in dangerous situations, let alone women who are fighting people who don’t have the same moral standards as most of us in the West, who aren’t supervillains. Not being able to even allude to what seems like it would be a standard issue in real life makes comics seem like they’re more for kids to me.

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