Sunday, March 22, 2015

Pulling the Batgirl Cover was a Mistake

In the now pulled variant cover to Batgirl #41, Joker menacingly grasps Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl, who is frozen and terrified. The rendering is as scary as anything Rafael Albuquerque has ever created. It also has caused so much backlash that DC Comics has pulled the cover at the suggestion of Albuquerque himself. The problem here is not with the image, but with the idea of freedom of speech and creative integrity. 

The Joker is a villain. He is arguably the villain in all of comic books. As such, he’s not a great guy. In Alan Moore’s 1988 graphic novel, The Killing Joke, Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, shattering her spine, crippling her. He then strips her nude and takes pictures of her, flaunting them in front of her father, Commissioner Gordon. Albuquerque’s cover is a clear and direct reference to that seminal story. Critics like Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool and Joseph Phillip Illidge have called the cover everything from “inappropriate” to “exploitation of victimization.” They’ve also brought up that the image opposes that actual tone of the book, which received a mini-reboot by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher, making Batgirl’s adventures more poppy and fun (making the book much more like Stephanie Brown’s run as Batgirl under Bryan Q. Miller in 2009) and there is something to be said for that. At the same time, it is a variant cover, meaning there would be limited availability and coming in at a price that only devoted fans who appreciate the reference are likely to pick up.

Detractors say that the cover contributes to “rape culture,” and that Batgirl’s distress makes her weak and vulnerable. That is a gross oversimplification and an extreme exaggeration. Nobody is going to go look at the Batgirl cover and think it's acceptable to rape a woman. No rapist will ever say “I thought it was okay because I saw a scary picture of the Joker.”

As for the crying Batgirl, whatever happened to strength in vulnerability? Back in the old continuity, yes, Barbara was traumatized by and afraid of the Joker. Their subsequent meetings (ones even referenced in Illidge’s CBR article) reference that while she was afraid, she did overcome it. She confronted the man who paralyzed her, who humiliated her, and she not only overcame the Joker, she overcame that fear of him. She did it face to face, long before she had use of her legs again. The writers didn’t take the easy way out. They showed the honest emotional reaction somebody would have confronting their attacker and found the strength not only to survive, but to thrive. 

If there is a problem with female characters crying, then there should be plenty of outrage over Meredith Finch’s Wonder Woman run which has depicted Diana as weeping repeatedly. By saying that female superheroes should be strong but should not be shown as being distressed is a disservice not only to that characters’ fanbase, but to women in general. It implies they can’t handle it. It also implies that villains should not be depicted as being capable of hurting women, a concept of censorship that is as ridiculous as it is sexist.

As Americans we have the right to Freedom of Speech. Most recently, we have done everything in our power to limit, suppress and reject it, while also vilifying others who have express opinions opposite of our own. Social media has allowed everyone to have a voice—a great thing—but it also has allowed some to serve as moral priests and priestesses, presiding over what is better for people as a whole. That’s not a great thing. The First Amendment covers all speech and expression no matter how reprehensible and vile. If you find something reprehensible and vile, you get to express it. However, to change art, to force others not to be able to purchase an item because you yourself find it appalling, is simply unacceptable.

Comic books, particularly superhero comics, tend to be violent. The Joker, in his most recent appearances, has murdered police officers, skinned himself, committed acts of terror against Gotham City, and cut off Alfred Pennyworth’s hand. In the past, he’s murdered children, maimed, tortured, stabbed and bludgeoned. He beat Jason Todd, then a 14 year old boy, to death with a crowbar. At this point, the question can’t help but be asked: “If the cover depicted any of the above, would there be any outcry at all?” The answer undoubtedly is no. Apparently equality is great, equality is something that we should strive for—unless it pushes against your own personal taste.

More and more we’re seeing segments of the left act like the religious right. Where there used to be bans on books like Johnny Got His Gun and there are still book burnings because of Harry Potter’s anti-Christian values or 50 Shades of Grey for its depiction of sex, there is, on the other side of the political spectrum, a group that is so enraged at the any voice of dissenting opinion and so deeply embedded into their own belief system that the idea of something existing—let alone challenging—opposing that view is considered tantamount to sin. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” or something to that effect.

Marvel dealt with a similar problem last year with Milos Manara’s cover to Spider-Woman #1. Like Albuquerque, Manara was referencing a famous Amazing Spider-Man cover by John Romita, Jr. It was called sexist and misogynistic and the publisher caved, replacing it with something less sexualized. For every person outraged over the cover, and for all the claims that it promoted an unfair image of beauty for women, we should also note that every single male superhero is rendered to look like a young god. 

There is an underappreciated harm in censoring, altering or removing art. Comics have dealt with this before with Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and his vendetta against the moral decay of American society. It was wrong then, so why is it right now? Admittedly, morality is rarely universal, but the more commonplace this becomes the more the bar of what is appropriate will continue to be lowered until the day those people rallying and demanding will see others demand something they love be removed. 

Albuquerque released a statement a few hours ago, sounded defeated and brow-beaten, like he knew he had to apologize for something but wasn’t sure what.

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.

My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art. For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled. I'm incredibly pleased that DC Comics is listening to my concerns and will not be publishing the cover art in June as previously announced.
With all due respect,

Art is tethered to freedom of speech and expression. It’s is like comedy in that you should never have to apologize for it. When in our history as Americans has someone had to apologize for art? The greater question, however, is when did we become so oversensitive as a culture that objectivity and opinion are no longer viable?

The only lesson we can glean from this latest controversy is that in getting Albuquerque’s cover pulled, artists are no longer allowed to truly express themselves anymore, that context is no longer relevant, and that, retroactively, The Killing Joke—which went into its umpteenth printing just last month—a story so heady with meaning and themes, a story that is taught in colleges the world over, is also a story that couldn’t be told today. And that’s sad.    

The point is, it’s okay for Kat Von D to have a lipstick called “Underage Red.” It’s okay for Orson Scott Card to express his opinions. It’s okay to reference The Killing Joke. It’s okay for Charlie Hebdo to mock Islam. It’s okay to oppose these ideas, products and opinions. You don’t have to buy the merchandise. You don’t have to agree. But you don’t have the right deprive others of it either.  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Rock, Black Adam and Captain Marvel

Dwayne Johnson, former wrestler now actor, has been long rumored for a role in a DC Comics movie. In years past, it has been suggested that he would portray Shazam (then called Captain Marvel), his nemesis Black Adam or Green Lantern John Stewart. Johnson, for his part, always made it clear that he wanted to work as these characters, often taking to Twitter or Instagram showing his affection for these characters and a desire to develop them for the silver screen.

Recently, Johnson revealed that he was given a choice by Warner Bros. regarding the Shazam movie in development. He could play the titular character or he could play Black Adam. Johnson said he had some thinking to do. For those of you not entirely familiar with the characters, we’ll go over them quickly and I’ll give my opinion of which character he should choose.

Shazam was created by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker in 1939; the character was meant to be Fawcett Comics’ answer to Superman. Until 2011, when DC’s New 52 reboot dismantled continuity, he was called Captain Marvel. Marvel was even more of a boy scout than Superman was—because he actually was a boy scout. His secret identity was Billy Batson, a twelve year old boy who was given his powers by the wizard Shazam. Batson would transform into Marvel by yelling “SHAZAM,” giving him the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.

Captain Marvel sold well because he was the epitome of the comics-as-wish-fulfillment concept. Little Billy Batson was a homeless newsboy with no hope, yet he was—through luck, kindness and personal strength—able to achieve great things. With World War II raging and many boys losing their fathers, the message was a hopeful one. Comics at the time were full of characters that had that kind of tone—Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America too were all part of this idea that despite things being bad now, you can turn it all around.

In the early years, Captain Marvel did as many superheroes did—he fought the Axis powers, often foiling the plots of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, he had his own villains as well—Dr. Sivana, Mister Mind, Ibac and Captain Nazi. Black Adam was most connected to the Marvel family—he was Marvel’s ancient and corrupted predecessor, yet only appeared in a single issue in 1945. He would not be heard from again until the 1970s.   

His popularity lead to spinoffs, supplementary series, radio, TV and animated appearances. Eventually, Captain Marvel was outselling Superman so DC Comics sued Fawcett into bankruptcy as well as several other comic companies for their blatant Superman rip-offs. Dozens of these characters are lost to time, and DC purchased all of their licenses. DC owned Captain Marvel and his entire family.

As a character, Captain Marvel is a goody-two-shoes in a way that makes Superman look like The Punisher. Since he’s a kid in a man’s body, Captain Marvel often came off na├»ve and idealistic. Over the years he added to his family—Captain Marvel, Jr. (who Elvis Presley was a big fan of; DC Comics in turn made Captain Marvel, Jr. an Elvis fan), Mary Marvel and Tawky Tawny. There were other characters like Fat Marvel, Tall Marvel, Hillbilly Marvel and Uncle Marvel but it’s best we just pretend that never happened.

With two very similar archetypes in play, Superman and Captain Marvel have repeatedly fought. In general, Captain Marvel usually looks up to Superman, but in several mitigating circumstances (sales boosts needed) they fought each other brutally. Each of these encounters (most notably in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come) were incredibly exciting. Their power levels are roughly the same, but Captain Marvel has the advantage—he’s made of magic and Superman is very vulnerable to magic.

More recently, however, Captain Marvel has not exactly maintained his popularity. As time went on, Captain Marvel was seen as corny, and in the modern age of comics—ones that demand a more serious approach—having a little boy turn into an adult and tell everyone to eat their vegetables didn’t wow audiences anymore. Over the last twenty years in particular, many creators including Jerry Ordway, Peter J. Tomasi and Geoff Johns have all tried their hand at modernizing the character, yet none of the takes have really worked. Captain Marvel has had over a half dozen different titles cancelled over the years. What made Captain Marvel fun was its goofy nature—both as a character and as a series, and while Black Adam and Captain Nazi graduated into more adult themed stories, Captain Marvel does not exactly work in the same way. That’s not to say he doesn’t work as a character, it’s just that no one has come along that’s been able to write Captain Marvel with a modern take that’s able to merge what’s popular now with the whimsy that made him popular in the first place.

When DC Comics rebooted their line with the New 52 in 2011, Captain Marvel was rebranded as Shazam. This was done for a variety of reasons:
1-Presumed revitalization
2-Marvel Comics was suing them despite not really having a case
3-Marvel also had a character called Captain Marvel
4-Supposedly more people recognized him as Shazam anyway (take this was a grain of salt)

Warner Bros.’ desire to place him on film now is a major risk considering the character’s fluctuating popularity and explains why they want Johnson as bad as they do to help build up the profile of Captain Marvel…I mean, Shazam.

Were Johnson to choose to play Captain Marvel/Shazam, it would be a financial decision more than anything. Shazam is the protagonist, and therefore will have a much larger catalog of merchandise attached to him once the movie is released. It’s impossible to say what changes to the character and his personality will be made when adapted to film, though making him more of a brooding anti-hero is not the way to go, as Man of Steel taught us. Dark doesn’t work with everyone, especially when you have a character like Black Adam.

Black Adam (also known as Teth-Adam) is Shazam’s reflection in broken glass. He was the son of pharaoh Ramesses II and imbued with the Wizard’s powers due to his bravery and kindness. He protected his people—in the fictional country of Kahndaq—for generations before being seduced and led astray by the evil priestess Blaze which led to the murder of his wife and children.

Black Adam is different from other archenemies like Joker or Lex Luthor. Joker is merely insane, and Lex Luthor believes that having a savior in Superman makes regular humans weak and lazy, Black Adam in turn seeks order and his own strange definitions of justice and redemption (he once killed two million people in Bialya for those specific reasons) and his status as a former good guy make him more complex. While often made to seem as a dictator similar to Gaddafi by giving Black Adam good intentions makes him begrudgingly likable. 

Modern incarnations (specifically in the series 52, The Dark Age and JSA) have focused more on Black Adam’s old school militancy and of Draconian sense of justice. He again took control of Kahndaq and made it prosperous. He rescued a victim of human trafficking named Isis, as well as her brother Amon. He imbues them with his powers, making Amon into Osiris. Adam and Isis eventually wed. He asks Captain Marvel to be his best man—they are technically all family—and for a while things are good until Isis and Osiris are eventually killed, Kahndaq is nearly destroyed, and leads again to Black Adam losing his mind.  

This would be the role for Johnson to choose. As a wrestler, he was always more fun as a bad guy, and in truth, playing the bad guy is always more fun. Financially, there is likely less merchandising and arguably less exposure to be had, but from an artistic perspective, it’s impossible not to find the contradictory traits of Black Adam appealing. In one moment, you have Black Adam building reservoirs of water for his people and the next you have him committing a genocide in the name of his wife and nephew. They say that a hero is only as good as his villain, and for a time there were ongoing Black Adam miniseries and appearances while Captain Marvel/Shazam was relegated to sporadic cameos in various Justice League titles. Black Adam is the way to go.  

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Moments You Find in Frank Miller Stories, Volume 1

1--A sleazy anti-hero talking to a femme-fatale.
FF: "You could really use a shower."
Sleazy anti-hero turns to her, his face half-covered in darkness.
SA-H: "Yeah. A shower of bullets."

2--Superhero: "The rain falls on my shoulders like missiles of guilt on the building of my conscience."

3--Ex-Con: "There's BLOOD on me. Not all of it's MINE. Some of it's HIS. Enough to make me smile."

4--"Seeing the fire and inhaling the smoke of what used to be the Senator's empire now just a crumbling waste like the dreams of our parents watching what we've become is as close to heaven as I know I'll ever get."


6--"I go down HARD. There's blood in my throat and bits of molar. The CITY is starting to lose focus like it was being reflected in the black water that it's built on. I could die here, Christ knows I deserve it, but then I think about Suzy at home that she's the only good thing I've ever done and she shouldn't haveta live the way she does and that makes me just crazy enough to get up. I spit more blood than spit. 'That it, sissy?'"

7--Young Police Captain: "You can't do things like this. Justice isn't cracking a sap against some skel's head! Due process! Search and seizure! Warrants! Are these foreign concepts?"
Grizzled Detective: "Guess it ain't the good ol' days anymore."
Young Police Captain: "This isn't your world anymore, old man."
Grizzled Detective, pointing: "You Ivy League politicians with your greased hair and your bold ties. You have no idea how the world is. Just leave it to real men to solve all the problems."

8--World Weary Person: "Noir City. Steel and grit and crime. You're my habit, my mistress, my mother, my sister, my one true love. I breathe for you, I'll die for you."

9--Hard Boiled Individual: "For a second I hear the angels singing but it's just the sound of his bones breaking."

10--Barely legal prostitute and her cop boyfriend 35 years older than her.
Cop, (soliloquy): "She's young enough to be my daughter but I still keep coming here. The place reeks of booze. I don't know which one of us it is. She's like everything else in my life. Wrong. Her red lips break a smile. The kinda smile that makes a guy like me wonder what he did to deserve somethin' so perfect. I try not to think about how many times she's flashed that smile today or that she's probably just faking it to make an old man like me feel like I was worth it. I taste her and decide not to think that by midnight we'll both be dead. Aww hell, it might be love."

11--Dominatrix dealing with a client. He's a middle-management type with glasses, a short-sleeved dress shirt and tie. Probably a mustache also. 
Dominatrix, (soliloquy): Melvin here is a cuck that likes to TALK. He likes to tell me about his fat wife stepping out with the BLACK neighbor or his boss. I don't like Melvin like this. I like Melvin when he's TIED UP with his little pud hanging out. I like Melvin when I'm BEATING him the way life has. Oh, Melvin, you loser."

If you liked this you can also read my article Moments You Find in James Ellroy Stories Post 1990.
Note: The link just takes you back here.