The treatment of women in comics is often described by reference to the ‘Women in Refrigerators’ trope – a term made famous by a 1999 website, the brainchild of Gail Simone among others, which documented the often shoddy treatment meted out to women in the medium, particularly within the superhero genre. In this style of storytelling, the most ‘indigenous’ form of story to the medium (Gabilliet, 2010: xii), women were frequently killed, maimed or assaulted to further the plot, usually the plot of the male protagonist. This less than ideal utilisation of women has been noted in a genre which has often resorted to hyper-sexualised depictions of female characters (Garland et al, 2016a), reliance on rape myths, and which has typically represented women as childlike and in need of saving, usually by a male saviour (Garland et al, 2016b).
Within criminology, the spaces opened up by cultural criminology, and the visual turn within criminology (Carrabine, 2012), have created legitimate spaces of enquiry in which to consider the representation of crime and punishment in comic books. The example of Philips and Strobl (2013) stands as an example of what can be done in this vein; their investigation of a large sample of superhero comics uncovered a genre that leaned towards the conservative, and the hegemonic, in its portrayal of crime and crime-fighting. Within this paradigm of justice, it is perhaps hardly surprising that women are often infantilised and victimised as a means of depicting a Manichean dichotomy of good versus evil.
Criminology can therefore meaningfully embrace the medium of comics to explore how the content frames issues of crime and punishment. However, not only the content but also the responses of readers is of interest, particularly taking into account the active online fan communities associated with comics. Criminological investigation can follow the representations to the online sphere, and assess how they are discussed and understood. Further, such enquiry could also extend to exploring the online harassment that exists within these spheres. As noted by Pustz (1999), comics fans feel a strong sense of ownership over favoured characters, something made very real in the recent #HydraCap controversy in which Captain America was revealed to have been an agent of Hydra all along (through the magic of an altered reality, see Riesman, 2017). Changes to much loved characters can therefore provoke strong, often abusive, speech online.
Within this framework, the victimisation of Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) in 1988’s The Killing Joke (written by Alan Moore, art by Brian Bolland) offers an illuminating case study. My paper explored this case study with regard to its content as well as reader responses.
Regarding content, in The Killing Joke Barbara is shot in the spine by the Joker, leaving her paralysed, she is then stripped naked, and photographed. The Joker has undertaken the attack to prove his thesis that ‘one bad day’ is all that separates good from evil. By targeting Barbara, he seeks to break her father, Jim Gordon. The victimisation of Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke remains controversial, and stands as an example of the objectification, sexualisation, and minimisation of women within the superhero genre. My paper explored how the assault on Barbara was understood only through the eyes of the men in her life – her father and Batman. Further, the paper highlighted the sexualised and gendered nature of the violence within the comic.
Beyond discussion of the content of the comic itself, the many iterations of The Killing Joke in the decades after its release, and the ways in which it continues to be mediated by fans offers a further lens through which to view the work. For example, in 2015 a variant cover for Batgirl #41 with art by Rafael Albuquerque referenced the events in the book. The cover depicted Batgirl being held at gunpoint by the Joker – the image portrayed Batgirl as tearful and vulnerable, with a smile painted across her face in blood. The variant cover provoked significant negative reactions, reactions which resulted in the cover being pulled, particularly following the artist’s preference that it be withdrawn. The debate about the appropriateness of the cover offers scope for reader views on violence against women to be investigated. An initial examination of online debate about the variant cover, for example, throws up genuinely nuanced discussions of the depiction of gender-based violence.
Although at a very preliminary stage, the paper I presented at Graphic Justice Discussions 2017 therefore sought to outline how The Killing Joke can be read both as a marker for its time, as well as emblematic of changing understandings of violence against women in comics. Through exploration of both the content and representation within the comic, as well as the reader responses, my research will attempt to trace the contours of the debate on sexual violence within comics.
Eamonn Carrabine (2012) ‘Just Images: Aesthetics, Ethics and Visual Criminology’, British Journal of Criminology, 52(3), 463-489
Jean-Paul Gabilliet (2010) Of Comics and men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books, translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen (University Press of Mississippi)
Tammy S Garland, Nickie Phillips, Scott Vollum (2016a) ‘Gender Politics and The Walking Dead: Gendered Violence and the Reestablishment of Patriarchy’, Feminist Criminology, Online First, 11 March, 1-28
Tammy S Garland, Kathryn A Branch and Mackenzie Grimes (2016b) ‘Blurring the Lines: Reinforcing Rape Myths in Comic Books’, Feminist Criminology, 11(1), 48-68
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (1988) Batman: The Killing Joke (DC)
Nicki D Phillips and Staci Strobl (2013) Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice and the American Way (NYU Press)
Matthew J Pustz (1999) Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers (University Press of Mississippi)
Abraham Riesman (2017) First Captain America Became Evil, Then The Comics World Erupted, Vulture, 27 June http://www.vulture.com/2017/06/marvel-hydra-captain-america-nick-spencer.html
Women in Refrigerators (1999) http://www.lby3.com/wir/