Thursday 19 March 2015

A personal, subjective view on the Batgirl Joker variant

The title of this post is meant to convey that this is what I feel about the whole business of DC soliciting and then pulling the Batgirl Joker variant cover. I'm not trying to make a definitive statement here, least of all because the artist, Rafael Albuquerque, wrote an open letter on the subject which I think deserves pre-eminence. Its a bit of non-apology but it does seem to represent genuine contrition, which is good because DC's own statement pretty much throws Albuquerque under a bus in lieu of admitting any fault on their part.

(That said, I can't say whether the theme of the piece was Albuquerque's or DC editorial's idea. After all, you say “Batgirl Joker variant” and the natural pitch is “Killing Joke tribute”, so who knows whose idea it was).
As to the cover itself? I think its a really good piece of art if divorced from context. Hell, even given its context I think its well-drawn. Its technically proficient and genuinely disturbing. I'm a strong believer that art is meant to provoke an emotional reaction and that reaction doesn't need to be positive to have worth. The problem, and I feel there really is a problem, comes from the context this image would have been published in.

As the cover to a horror comic or even to Gail Simone's run on Batgirl it might even have worked. Simone's Batgirl dwelt a lot on the trauma Barbara suffered as a result of The Killing Joke. Put this cover on one of the early Death Of The Family tie-in issues and it would work perfectly, an expression of Barbara's lingering unresolved issues, especially given the presence of the gun (one of Simone's earliest issues has Barbara freeze when a gun is pointed at her).

The actual context of this piece, however, would have been an issue of the Stewart/Fletcher run which DC has heavily marketed to the female young adult audience. Its pretty much the prototype for the way DC intends to diversify its content and audience coming out of Convergence. This is the comic DC is pushing to young women to show them they have a place within the audience and not just with the traditional trick of having a female creator on it, which is pretty much how they marketed Simone's Batgirl and Birds Of Prey before it. Babs Tarr's art is a big part of this: more akin to Lumberjanes or Girls With Slingshots than the traditional superhero house styles, swapping out the style that has historically alienated women for the styles of comics that have been more welcoming to them.

A comic's cover is not art alone, it is also a piece of advertising and good advertising is meant to send out a coherent, unified message. The purpose of this series from the writing to the art to most every other piece of marketing has been to foster a sense of Batgirl as embodying the traditional superhero power fantasy for young women divorced from many of the usual problems that plague female superheroes in that regard. To then pair this with a prominent image of Batgirl restrained and visibly terrified is a massively dissonant note that contradicts the central message of the series.

The cover image is disturbing in a way that does not suit the series it would have been used in and this, more than anything, is why I think it was a good decision for DC to pull the cover. Hell, of all series for this to happen to its strangely fitting for it to happen with the Cameron/Fletcher Batgirl, whose creators were previously criticised for the use of transphobic tropes in one issue. Their response, in an open letter, was to look at their work and apologise for the feelings it evoked, for not properly considering the issues when they wrote and drew those scenes and to thank their audience for provoking the discussion and expressing hope that they and others would be able to create better stories as a result of those discussions.

Especially given DC's own sidestepping of all responsibility in their corporate response to this issue, its nice to see that the DC title designed to appeal to women is also the comic whose contributors own their actions. 

No comments: