This is obviously prefaced with a heaping helping of “what the hell does a straight white male know about these issues?”. The simple truth: I don’t know anything. I likely never will – or at least not in a way that can be internalized. At best, I can gather other people’s feelings and memories and keep them in my brain for reference, paging through as I react and respond, because… well, I might not know anything about this, but I think that reaction and response is important instead of choking the fire of discussion dead through inaction.
So. Batgirl #37.
The new creative team on Batgirl arrived with a certain amount of pomp and circumstance. Briefly bringing my experience as a retailer into the fray, the fervour was created almost entirely by the creative team themselves, and not the company publishing the book. A book lives on finding an audience and marketing to that audience, and while DC did eventually run a house ad steeped in current social media trends, it was the creative team that was actually out on social media sites stirring the fan base and building a culture. At the time, I remember thinking that this was something important – not only in the way the creatives were interacting with the fans, but in the way that the reaction seemed to transform into a small movement of sorts, one that would boost sales of a series through actual interest in tone and content. This week, it seems as though the shine is off that apple with the release of the team’s third issue, Batgirl #37.
In the issue, Barbara Gordon is confronted with another Batgirl, one that is using social media and various forms of “art” to essentially take her branding identity away from her. Over the course of the book, you discover that the person under this fake Batgirl’s mask is in fact Dagger Type, an artist who is identified by characters in the story as male. Babs is taken aback by this and is left defeated as the issue’s villain continues with their nefarious plan to steal her public identity.
As the book crescendos, Dagger Type is portrayed as erratic, firing a gun into a crowd of essentially innocent bystanders. Babs eventually defeats the villain, and discovers that they’ve been doing this at the behest of a mysterious benefactor. The cops take Dagger away, and the book draws to a close. This reading of Batgirl #37 has dredged up accusations of transphobia. As with all art, this is a valid interpretation of fictitious events – a reaction to substance informed by opinion, experience and information. That’s a shame because… well, this book was meant to be something else. As stated before, it was something different than the norm, and marketed to a different and potentially new audience, and this misfire will probably do some damage. The only consolation, I would think, is that despite this valid interpretation of the comic, it isn’t something done with malicious intent, more than it was the unfortunate side-effect of the story’s plot.
Revisiting the plot again, using the same reference material, the plot is also about the nature of art, identity, and belonging. The book opens with the fake Batgirl going on a crime spree. Babs shows up and stops the crime, but not the fake Batgirl, who is said to have been up to these types of heists and behaviours for quite some time, chronicling these events on social media platforms. Babs is upset that she’s being defamed, which is compounded when she goes to a Dagger Type art show that features nothing but pictures of this so-called Batgirl, complete with a rendition of the heroine in a wheelchair, splashed with shadow and a bright red overlay. The presentation effects the characters present in different ways. It strikes Babs as demeaning and regressive. She makes a move to find Dagger Type, and soon discovers that the artist has been the fake Batgirl all along. The plot involves using art and social media to co-opt the Batgirl brand, and add it to the Dagger Type cache. When the reveal happens, everyone in the audience acts dismissive. Dagger waxes poetic about how they should relish in this moment, where they “begin to comprehend that the artist is really the subject. And the subject, his brand!” This elicits the greatest reaction from the crowd, who rejects this notion with lines like “why does everything cool turn out to be an ad?”
The intention – or at least my interpretation of the events as described – is a comment on art and commercialism, as seen through the lens of the modern superhero genre. It’s an ugly balance that comic companies (and retailers… hi!) have been trying to work with for years, taking art and using it for commercial gains. It’s an exploration of the kind of rejection that occurs when false notes are struck, and the commercial ends up bleeding into the art. It’s also about the pretension of craving attention, and the effect popularity can have on art and the artist. There’s a lot to dig into there, but at the core of it all, deep down in the nugget, I truly believe this book is about art, and the reactions to it. It’s typified by the scene where Babs and her friends are walking through the Batgirl gallery, and they all have different reactions to the presentation based off of experience. Babs’ very personal experience with the identity being explored in these photos elicits a very personal and valid response. I can only imagine that’s what many people felt as they read through this issue and experienced a similarly flawed take on identity. The issue essentially agrees with the idea of interpretation being in the eye of the beholder, and never once says that people who enjoyed the art installation in the pages of the book are wrong. It does cast judgement on intent. Dagger Type’s intent was self serving to a cartoonish degree, climaxing in rage when people didn’t understand his genius. I don’t think the creative team is doing that here. I think they wanted to turn in a story that commented on what they did, letting the art speak for itself. It may have said something things they didn’t intend, but they aren’t mad at anyone for it – as the issue implies, any reaction to art is valid.
Now, not long after I wrote this article (but a long while before it’s been posted), Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher and Babs Tarr issued an apology.
Batgirl 37. We made mistakes. We’re deeply sorry. We will do better. pic.twitter.com/fCOEJPk0vP
— Cameron Stewart (@cameronMstewart) December 13, 2014
I wish Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, Babs Tarr and Maris Wicks all the best as they continue to explore this character and produce art for us to consume. I hope that it continues to challenge us, and causes discussion. I hope that discussion comes from an honest place, and is not confronted with reductive reasoning. I also hope that, like all great artists, they will continue to grow and learn from previous experiences and new information, as even the best intentions can be flawed. The best artists take those noted flaws and learn to grow, instead of digging their heels in. These people are some of the best. Oh, and one more thing:
If you didn’t think an apology was needed, the apology wasn’t for you.
— Cameron Stewart (@cameronMstewart) December 13, 2014