Comics

DC's Cancelled Batgirl Cover Is About More than Just the Comic Book Culture Wars

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DC Comics

DC Comics' decision this week to pull a variant comic cover depicting the Joker with a gun next to Batgirl's bloodied head is mostly a symbolic gesture.

The cover by artist Rafael Albuquerque remains available online for anyone to see, and because it was a rare variant, scheduled for a small part of the series' print run, relatively few people would have ended up with a copy even if it had been released. The immediate practical consequences, in other words, are fairly minimal.

But the episode is interesting anyway for what it reveals about fan and consumer culture, about activist communications, and the ways that big companies are becoming more responsive to public conversations about their products, largely thanks to the Internet.

First, some backstory: The cover, which would have shipped on some issues of Batgirl 41, was part of a collection of Joker-themed variants set to be released across DC's lineup in June. Instead of a direct teaser for the content of the issue itself, Albuquerque's image was designed as an explicit callback to The Killing Joke, a famous 1988 Batman story by superstar comics author Alan Moore that features as its centerpiece a brutal assault on Barbara Gordon (Batgirl's alter ego) by the Joker: Not only does Joker shoot her in the spine and cripple her, he takes photos and forces her captive father, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, to look at them.

DC has taken the character in a less grisly direction since then, but the events of The Killing Joke still linger in the background, in part because the story is one of the most famous Bat-stories of all time, and considered a classic by more than a few comic fans. Yet it's also stuck around because it has been held up as a prime example of the cavalier way that superhero comics have treated female characters—and, in particular, the way that they have often relied on sadistic, grisly violence toward women as cheap mechanisms for teaching their male characters life lessons. Editor Len Wein's infamous response when Moore asked permission to write the story—"yeah, okay, cripple the bitch"—hasn't exactly helped its reputation on this front.

DC Comics

So while it's easy enough to understand why Albuquerque chose the Joker-variant event to draw an alternative cover that looked back on a widely known event from Batgirl's comic book history, it's also, I think, not too hard to understand why Moore's older story still makes some people uncomfortable, and why they might not be thrilled with anything that suggests a return to that approach.

It's that discomfort which led to a minor online uproar, mostly on Twitter, that eventually led to Albuquerque asking DC to cancel the cover, and DC agreeing not to run it.

This is, unsurprisingly, not to everyone's liking. Critics of DC's move have complained that the company is bowing to pressure from a minority of activists, most of whom would never have bought or read the comic anyway.

The controversy over the cover is mostly being discussed as the latest clash in the recent spate of comic book culture wars, the most recent previous episode being a similar uproar about an alternative Marvel comics cover featuring a depiction of Spider-Woman by an erotic fantasy artist. Marvel, like DC, cancelled its cover variant after an online furor.

Clearly, there's a power struggle going on between comic book traditionalists and progressive cultural activists, as comic book companies seek to expand beyond their traditional readership. But these are the sorts of debates that have long roiled fan communities, especially those driven by geek passions; one big difference is that now, thanks to the Internet, these debates are happening in forums that are much more accessible to the public. Discussions and debates that used to happen at convention panels with attendance in the low dozens and in the pages of obscure fanzines with few subscribers now happen on Twitter and on blogs that anyone with a Wi-Fi connection can read.

And because it is all so much more public, that means that more people can participate, and that a wider variety of views, from perspectives that might previously have been relatively unheard, can be aired.

It also means that the companies themselves can—and perhaps have to—become more engaged and more responsive. The companies and those who work for them are direct participants in these sorts of freewheeling public conversations now, and they make business choices accordingly. You can see that in the Twitter feed of Batgirl co-writer Cameron Stewart, who explained to his followers how he felt about the cover and also what DC was thinking. You can see it in the rapid decisions by both Marvel and DC to cancel their controversial variants. And you can also see it in non-culture war episodes like Marvel's decision last fall to release an Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer a week early following a leak. There's now a direct back and forth between the public and between these big corporations that simply didn't exist two decades ago.

Nor is this confined to geek culture or even to the market; there's a similar dynamic at work in politics, where debates about political ideas that might not have broken through to the mainstream a few decades ago have gained traction and have helped push the two major parties—the DC and Marvel of politics—in new directions. Both parties now have to respond to, and account for, ideas and arguments that they previously would have been content to ignore, and that party traditionalists might not approve of.

This is, for the most part, a good thing, and the overall dynamic has, it seems to me, fairly clearly benefited libertarians. And in general, it's a dynamic that I think libertarians ought to embrace—if only because it's all part of the back and forth between market participants. Not all market signals are price signals. This is how companies and their potential consumers communicate and negotiate in 2015. And while the actions it results in are often symbolic, that symbolism is often still important, because it's a sign the party in question is listening.