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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?“
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).
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.
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