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.