About that Batgirl variant cover by Rafael Albuquerque

Here is a short postscript to my discussion of Batman: The Killing Joke.   Getting back to what prompted my reconsideration of Alan Moore’s story in the first place, I am going to take a look at that Rafael Albuquerque variant cover that was originally going to be used by DC Comics for Batgirl #41. Albuquerque’s piece, seen below, is certainly well illustrated.  However, it is also very disturbing, especially that expression on Batgirl’s face.  Albuquerque is obviously taking direct inspiration from The Killing Joke.  This cover is clearly meant to evoke memories of that story’s events in the audience’s mind, specifically the Joker’s brutalization of Barbara Gordon. Batgirl variant by Rafael Albuquerque If we do regard what the Joker did to Barbara in The Killing Joke as sexual assault, then this would be the equivalent of a scene depicting a rapist returning to torment his victim anew.  So, yes, I can definitely understand why a number of readers were very unhappy with the idea of this being published. Should DC have cancelled Albuquerque’s cover?  I don’t know.  As I have commented before, people do not have the right to not be offended.  However, it seems that other people got offended at people getting offended by the cover, and things went pear-shaped.  Batgirl writer Cameron Stewart tweeted:

“Something to clarify, because DCs statement was a little unclear. @rafaalbuquerque did not get threats. People OBJECTING to the cover did.”

Yes, that’s right.  Albuquerque requested that DC not publish the cover because people who were protesting it were receiving death threats from certain individuals who wanted the cover to be published.  This is exactly like that Gamergate bullshit where you have a group of assholes hiding behind the cause of “journalistic integrity” in order to peddle their hateful misogyny. You could argue that people were overreacting to Albuquerque’s cover.  If they were, well, the sane and responsible manner in which to respond to them is to calmly articulate your own perspective.  What you should not be doing is tossing around death threats.  Next time maybe just agree to disagree.  Stop acting like someone whose castle is under siege by an invading army. Albuquerque himself had this to say:

“My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favorite of many readers. ‘The Killing Joke’ is part of Batgirl’s canon and artistically, I couldn’t avoid portraying the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker. For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character’s past that I was able to interpret artistically. 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.”

Albuquerque is an incredibly talented artist.  Perhaps this Batgirl variant was a misstep on his part.  However, according to Bleeding Cool he originally drew a less-extreme version but DC requested that he make it more creepy, resulting in the final piece.  I definitely must give Albuquerque credit for recognizing that it had become toxically divisive, that certain people were behaving reprehensibly, and requesting that DC pull the plug on it. Anyway, moving along, Albuquerque and writer Mike Johnson currently have a new sci-fi miniseries entitled Ei8ht coming out from Dark Horse.  Go pick it up.  It looks good.

Batman: The Killing Joke – a reappraisal

The recent controversy over artist Rafael Albuquerque’s proposed variant cover for Batgirl #41 (you can read all about it on Comic Book Resources) has prompted me to take another look at the story that inspired it.

Batman: The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland and colored by John Higgins.  It was originally released by DC Comics in early 1988.  To say that it was a sales success would be an understatement; by the time I purchased a copy of it two years later it was already on its sixth printing.

Batman The Killing Joke cover

For a long time I considered The Killing Joke to be one of the all-time greatest Batman stories ever told.  Along with Year One, I must have read it at least a dozen times when I was in high school.

It’s been a few years, though, since I last looked at The Killing Joke.  Yesterday I pulled my copy off the bookshelf and read it again, hoping to approach it with a fresh eye.  In certain respects I found it to still be amazing; in other respects previously minor flaws suddenly seemed much more apparent to me.

I still think the basic concept is great.  The Joker recalls his (possible) origin, when he was an average guy who was futilely attempting a career as a stand-up comedian, a depressed mope who felt like a failure to his pregnant wife.  Desperate to provide for his family, he agreed to help a pair of crooks rob the playing card company next to the chemical plant where he used to be employed.  Then, in the space of 24 hours, everything in his life catastrophically falls apart.  And at the end of the day he is transformed forevermore into Batman’s insane arch-nemesis.

The Joker becomes obsessed with the idea that “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”  He embarks on a scheme to drive Commissioner James Gordon crazy by completely destroying his life in order to prove his point, and not just to himself, but also to Batman, who he is convinced must have also had “one bad day” that resulted in him becoming an obsessed costumed vigilante.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 7

Moore’s scripting on The Killing Joke is fantastic.  His dialogue for the Joker is brilliantly twisted, humorous in the sickest way possible.  I absolutely love the first scene with the Joker where he is somberly reflecting on how the out-of-business carnival he wishes to purchase is a decrepit, hazardous wreck, only to turn around and, grinning ear-to-ear, announce “I’m crazy for it.”

Moore also writes Batman especially well.  He is a brooding, driven figure, yet also an introspective one.  Beneath his obsession with stopping the Joker is a concern that the two of them are locked in a spiral of self-destruction, and that sooner or later one or the other will inevitably end up dead.  Despairingly he asks “How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?”

The Killing Joke shows that Batman and the Joker are mirror images of one another, both very much alike and complete opposites.  A young Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered in front of him and dedicated the rest of his life to restoring order to his existence, to doing everything in his power to protect other innocents and punish criminals.  Likewise, something happened to the Joker and his life totally collapsed.  Unlike Batman, though, the Joker’s response to this was to descend into insanity, and to actively work to drag the entire world down with him, to tear down society, to perpetuate utter chaos.

Of course, Moore then sweeps aside the Joker’s argument by having Jim Gordon emerge intact from the hell he has been subjected to.  Yes, thanks to the Joker this has probably been the absolute worst day of Gordon’s entire life.  But the Commissioner is still very much in possession of his sanity.  When Batman heads into the carnival funhouse to capture the Joker, Gordon gives him firm instructions…

“I want him brought in… and I want him brought in by the book!  By the book, you hear?  We have to show him! We have to show him our way works!”

Much as Frank Miller did in Year One, Moore demonstrates in The Killing Joke that, in his own way, Gordon is just as strong, perhaps even stronger, than Batman.  Gordon is the one who doesn’t take refuge behind a mask to operate outside the law.  Instead, Gordon is the one who chooses to remain part of a corrupt, flawed system and attempts to fix it from within.  And he doesn’t retreat from life, but works to maintain family & friendships in the face of the horrors that Gotham City continually throws in his face.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 38

The artwork by Brian Bolland on The Killing Joke is astonishing.  It is exquisitely detailed.  Bolland’s layouts and storytelling are incredibly dramatic.  He does superb work telling the story, transitioning from one scene to another.

Bolland is an incredible artist, but he is also not an especially fast one.  He is very meticulous, and so usually works as a cover artist, or drawing short stories for anthology books.  The Killing Joke is one of the longest stories Bolland ever drew outside of the Judge Dredd serials he worked on in 2000 AD and the Camelot 3000 miniseries he penciled.  As I understand it, Bolland spent some amount of time completing The Killing Joke.  It really appears that the time & energy he put into it were worth it, because the finished artwork is stunning.

The coloring by John Higgins is also extremely effective.  It definitely plays a key role in establishing the mood & atmosphere of this story.

So, having explained what I think is amazing about The Killing Joke, what is it that does not work for me?  To put it bluntly and simply, I really am not happy with the treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl.

I don’t know what the exact behind-the-scenes circumstances were at DC Comics’ editorial in the mid-1980s.  Apparently post-Crisis either no one wanted to use the character of Batgirl, or there was an active directive to write her out of the Batman books.  So when Moore came along with his dramatic plans for Barbara he was given the green light with no resistance from editorial.

A specific, key component of the Joker’s plan to drive Gordon insane is through torturing his daughter Barbara.  Specifically, the Joker shoots Barbara in the spine, crippling her from the waist down.  Apparently the Joker intended to inflict precisely that damage on her, because he immediately begins making tasteless jokes about it.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 15

After the Joker’s goons drag Gordon away, the Joker undresses the gravely-wounded Barbara and takes photos of her.  Later on, when Gordon is his prisoner at the carnival, the Joker forces him to view numerous blown-up photographs of the naked, humiliated Barbara.

As a teenager reading The Killing Joke, what happened to Barbara annoyed me.  At that time I was just upset that she had been placed in a wheelchair and could no longer be Batgirl.  It seemed like a waste of a character and an unfortunate thing to do to a hero who had been around since the 1960s.

Looking at The Killing Joke now, though, I am much more unsettled by Moore’s treatment of Barbara.  The scene in the funhouse with the photos of her is genuinely disturbing.

This is probably going to be the most inappropriate analogy possible, but this reminds me of Tom & Jerry.  When I was five years old I loved the Tom & Jerry cartoon.  I watched it on TV every single day.  I could not get enough of Tom & Jerry.  Then, inevitably, I got older, and I my interests changed.  Then about two decades later when I was in my mid-20s I started seeing reruns of Tom & Jerry on Cartoon Network, and I was surprised at how incredibly violent they were.  I could not believe that I had watched these as a little kid and not come away warped by them… hmmm, then again, maybe I did.

Well, I’ve had that same sort of experience with The Killing Joke.  Re-reading it in 2015 at the age of 38, aspects of it that flew under my radar as a teenager now leap out at me as appalling.

In the past I have heard some people describe what the Joker did to Barbara as “rape.”  I was one of those people who argued that nothing sexual actually happened.  The thing is, though, looking at it again now it is definitely a form of sexual assault.  The Joker shoots Barbara, takes off her clothes and photographs her while she is completely helpless.  That must have been an incredibly horrifying, humiliating experience.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 26

In hindsight, this falls into the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon that Gail Simone documented early in her career, wherein a villain kills or tortures a female character solely to make a male hero suffer.  That is definitely the case here.  The Joker doesn’t even know that Barbara is Batgirl.  He cripples and sexually humiliates her because he wants to drive Commissioner Gordon insane.  And the Joker is only doing that in order to prove a point to Batman, which makes the torture that Barbara experienced even more indirectly related to the protagonist.

I really cannot help but wonder if The Killing Joke could have worked better if Moore had approached it differently, if he had not done what he did to Barbara.  At the very least, Moore could have just had Barbara wounded by the Joker and left the door open for her recovery and return to the role of Batgirl so that she could once again be a hero instead of a victim.

Credit where credit is due: writers John Ostrander & Kim Yale, who were upset at Barbara Gordon’s treatment in The Killing Joke, successfully revamped her into the computer hacker & information broker Oracle in the pages of Suicide Squad.  Oracle soon became a key member of Batman’s supporting cast.  In the Birds of Prey series first Chuck Dixon and then Gail Simone herself did great work with Barbara / Oracle.

When Barbara finally regained her ability to walk and resumed the identity of Batgirl in the New 52, Simone was again there to chronicle her adventures.  So fortunately, despite what happened to Barbara in The Killing Joke, other writers were able to make her an interesting, viable character again.

Suicide Squad 49 cover Oracle

Another aspect of The Killing Joke that I am not happy with is that it helped begin the escalation of the Joker into an unstoppable mass murderer.  It became a case of “Can you top this?”  The Killing Joke saw the Joker cripple Batgirl and try to drive Gordon insane.  Shortly after, in “A Death in the Family,” the Joker brutally murdered Jason Todd / Robin and attempted to poison the United Nations General Assembly at the behest of the Ayatollah Khomeini… no, really, that actually happened!  Since then there have been stories where the Joker mutilates newborn babies, runs over innocent people, attempts to blow up Gotham with a nuclear bomb and murders Jim Gordon’s wife Sarah, just to name a few atrocities.  It’s all culminated with the Joker cutting off his own face just to show us how evil and insane he is.

This is why I am generally not a fan of the Joker.  Yes, for most of his history the character has been a murderer.  But before the late 1980s the Joker wasn’t an indiscriminate killer.  His crimes, however horrible, were motivated by a certain sick humor and bizarre rationales.  Hell, even in The Killing Joke he isn’t going around murdering people left & right.  He kills one person, the owner of the carnival.  That’s it.  Despite that, Moore’s depiction of the Joker is one of the most frightening ever.

But again, this is yet another example of subsequent writers looking at the success & innovations of Moore’s work in the 1980s and totally taking the wrong lessons away.  Just as they did with Watchmen, later Batman writers looked at The Killing Joke and said “Let’s make the Joker and all of Batman’s other enemies completely insane and violent and have them murder lots of people! Grim & gritty is cool!”

Batman The Animated Series Joker

That’s probably why my favorite version of the Joker is actually from Batman: The Animated Series.  Because the audience for that series was all ages, the Joker could not be seen killing anyone.  That required the writers to actually be creative and come up with other ways in which to make the character scary.  Unlike in the comic books, The Animated Series couldn’t simply rely on mindless carnage to show us the Joker was insane and evil.

Besides, Mark Hamill was brilliant at voicing the Joker.  His portray of the character was perfect.  Even though The Killing Joke was published four years before The Animated Series made its debut, re-reading Alan Moore’s dialogue for the Joker, I can totally “hear” Hamill’s voice in my head.

Summing it all up, Batman: The Killing Joke is a good story with superb artwork.  However, there are nevertheless aspects of the writing that are undeniably problematic.  While I still like The Killing Joke, it definitely has some real flaws, especially its treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon.

Comic book reviews: Sensation Comics #1

The past week was insane.  I’ve been dealing with personal stuff and not getting enough sleep.  So naturally enough I didn’t have a chance to blog about various items that I wanted to.  Well, here’s a three day weekend, so let’s see what I get around to covering.  First up is Sensation Comics #1, featuring Wonder Woman.

While I would not say that I am a huge fan of Wonder Woman, she is a character who I like, and whose monthly title I have followed on and off throughout the years.  That and I have all three DVD box sets of the television show starring Lynda Carter (I eventually got Michele incredibly annoyed at having to listen to that opening theme song over and over again).  When it was announced that DC Comics would be publishing a Wonder Woman anthology series with work by a number talented creators I was naturally intrigued.

A bit of reference: after making her debut in All Star Comics #8, cover-dated December 1941, Wonder Woman received an ongoing starring role in Sensation Comics #1, which came out the very next month.  Wonder Woman was featured in Sensation Comics for nearly its entire run.  Her final appearance was in issue #106, dated Nov-Dec 1951, with the series ending three issues later (credit goes to the Grand Comics Database for that info).  Wonder Woman also received her own solo series in mid-1942, which meant that for nearly a decade the character had two regular titles.

I could be wrong (and if I am then I am certain someone will let me know) but I believe that with this new Sensation Comics book it is the first time since 1951 that Wonder Woman will be starring in two ongoing titles.  That is pretty darn cool!

Sensation Comics 1 cover

Sensation Comics is one of DC’s “digital first” books, which means that the material is offered for sale online before it appears in print.  I guess I’m a bit of a Luddite since I prefer having a comic book in hand, rather than reading it from a computer screen, so I’ve decided to wait for the material to hit the comic shops.  But that’s just me, and Tim Hanley, author of the excellent Wonder Woman blog Straightened Circumstances, is going the online route.

This first print issue of Sensation Comics was pretty good.  The main story is “Gothamazon,” penned by former Wonder Woman writer Gail Simone and illustrated by the talented Ethan Van Sciver, with Marcelo Di Chiara pitching in to help out on a page.

After the various costumed criminals of Gotham City team up and ambush Batman, temporarily putting him out of action.  Barbara Gordon aka Oracle calls Wonder Woman in to pinch hit as Gotham’s protector to restore peace & order.

It was nice to have Simone back writing Wonder Woman, as well as Oracle, the latter of whom she always did a superb job scripting in Birds of Prey.  By thrusting Wonder Woman into the urban warfare of Gotham, the writer examines the various, sometimes conflicting, aspects of Princess Diana.  On the one hand, she is a warrior, a soldier who has fought on myriad battlefields, who will countenance tactics and solutions that other crime-fighters such as Batman would never approve.  On the other, Diana is also a force for love and peace, who hopes to find the best in all individuals.  Simone demonstrates that while such qualities may appear contradictory, in fact they complement one another.  Faced with the absolute ruthless insanity of such adversaries as the Joker and Two-Face, she comes to realize that facing them head on would require fighting them with their own methods, the utilization of lethal force.  But because of her nature, Diana is able to perceive an alternate path.  She recognizes that when brute strength fails, understanding and compassion may succeed.

Simone’s story highlights how Wonder Woman and Batman are such different individuals.  The Dark Knight’s rigid methodology of fighting fear with fear may work in the short term, but Diana, who is more interested in finding permanent, constructive solutions, perceives that openness towards alternative approaches can be more helpful in enacting lasting changes.  We even have Diana recruiting Catwoman and Harley Quinn as honorary Amazons to assist her in this mission.  It was fun to see the three of them side by side.

That said, sometimes punching the bad guy in the face does work wonders.  As Simone writes, “the closed fist has its charms, as well.”

Van Sciver’s art was quite good.  It was definitely stronger on the first several pages of “Gothamazon.”  In the middle of the story it did get somewhat looser and sketchier, losing some of the artist’s trademark hyper-detail.  Perhaps there were some deadline problems?  Still, putting that aside, on the whole Van Sciver does solid work, rendering some really dynamic layouts.  His characters are very expressive, both in their facial features and body language.

Sensation Comics 1 pg 14

I was not nearly as impressed with the back-up tale, “Defender of Truth,” written by Amanda Deibert, with artwork by Cat Staggs.  At ten pages, this one seemed too rushed.  Diana has a fight with Circe, who is doing something in Washington DC.  It is never explained what the mythical sorceress is up to, just that for some reason or another she’s animating statues at the National Cathedral and turning men into animals.

The strongest part of the story was its final two pages, where Diana shows up to tell a group of young boys that there is nothing wrong with liking “girl stuff.”  As she explains, “Being true to yourself is never wrong.”  One of the character’s central themes has always been empowerment, be it female empowerment, individual empowerment, or any other struggle to break free of marginalization by the greater part of society.

Cat Staggs is an artist I know from her cover artwork, as well as from Comic Art Fans where a variety of beautiful commissions and convention sketches that she’s created have been posted.  This must be the first time I’ve seen any interior art done by her.  Her work on “Defender of Truth” is pretty good, but I do think that her storytelling might need some improvement.  And some of her figures appear too photo-referenced.

Staggs’ best work was, interestingly enough, on those final two pages.  You can really tell that an artist is good at sequential illustration when they are able to make a “talking heads” scene, with characters conversing, compelling and dramatic.

I was also wondering why her rendition of Circe looked nothing like the character has in the past.  The sorceress has typically been depicted as having purple hair and wearing green outfits, at least ever since Perez revamped her post-Crisis.  Here, however, Circe is a blonde clad in a lavender costume.  That might be down to the colorist rather than Staggs, though.  And I don’t recall the character previously using a magic wand.

Sensation Comics 1 pg 30

While I would certainly not consider it an unqualified success, I still enjoyed Sensation Comics #1.  I definitely like the idea of a Wonder Woman anthology series with a laissez faire approach to continuity.  There is a lot of potential to the character of Princess Diana.  She is a great character with a rich history, and she lends herself to different interpretations & incarnations.  Among the creators who will be working on upcoming issues are Chris Sprouse, Gilbert Hernandez, and Dean Haspiel.  It sounds like there’s plenty to look forward to.