A recent preview of an upcoming Batgirl variant cover has drawn a lot of anger, and support over social media this past weekend and while I’m not a fan of DC all that much I do feel compelled to put in my thoughts about comic art and the cries for censorship flying under the hashtag #CHANGETHECOVER. The cover to the left is a variant of Batgirl #41 done by Rafael Albuquerque and pays homage to a defining moment in Batgirl’s, and DC’s history, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Many critics have taken to Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and other online outlets to express their concerns over the cover, but thankfully a larger (it seems) or at least more vocal group has come out in support of it.
The claims most people are making are that either the cover promotes violence against women, puts a strong independent woman in a vulnerable position or (strangely enough) depicts a scene reminiscent of sexual assault. Of course the reasons vary quite drastically but those seem to be the most common that I’ve seen since the uproar started. First, and most obvious thing to be said is that heroes must have vulnerabilities. They must have flaws, fears, and ways to hurt them, otherwise they’re not heroes, they’re Gods, and a story about someone who can’t fail, or be hurt, just isn’t interesting. This cover delves into Batgirl’s past and gives us exactly that, her fears and vulnerabilities.
So the whole violence against women thing, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, when you write a fictional story about a woman putting her life on the line to fight super-villains, she’s going to get beat up. She’s going to get hit, kicked, shot, beaten, captured, drugged, tied up, and any number of other awful things that happens to all superheroes that choose that life, regardless of gender. If you can’t handle that then you shouldn’t be reading comics, and if you aren’t reading comics then guess what? Your opinion about this cover means just as much as my opinion about the terrible covers of Harlequin romance novels. If you do read comics, but still can’t handle female superheroes getting beat up from time to time, there are plenty of children’s comics, or all-male titles where you won’t have to be subjected to that sort of equality among powered people of both genders.
Let’s look at one of the most mind-boggling arguments against this cover I saw this weekend. ‘You can’t depict Batgirl in such a state, she’s a strong, independent woman and this takes away her agency.’ In what world does anyone think that superheroes, male or female, should never be depicted in a state of utter defeat, helplessness, or fear? Do people honestly believe that this one Batgirl cover is evidence that there’s some sort of pervasive sexism going on? It took me 30 seconds to Google, download and upload the image to the right and there are countless more. Do people just think women should be protected from such things, because they are women? Isn’t that counter to everything equal opportunity stands for? Is it because some people have been put in this state themselves and a cover like this brings back horrible memories for them? At least that last one I can empathize with, but at no time does it justify a call to censor an artist. Horrible things happen to people all over the world. They will continue to happen whether we face them, or not. You can stick your fingers in your ears and pretend it doesn’t, but that won’t change reality. Art is meant to show the ugly side, as well as the beautiful side, of humanity. If art doesn’t make someone uncomfortable, make them think, or make them turn away, then it’s not art in the first place. And I’ll be damned if comic artists aren’t considered artists. I’ve been going to Wizard World, Comic Con, or C2E2 for a good portion of my adult life now and one trip through Artists Row will tell you just how dedicated, skilled, educated, and professional these men and women are. They deserve to have their art protected, and supported, just as much as any other artist.
Another odd one that came across was that this was somehow a reference to sexual assault. There is absolutely nothing sexual about the cover. Sure, he’s smearing her lipstick from the looks of it, into a Joker smile, but if touching someone’s face is automatically sexual assault then a lot of people are in trouble. Even if it were, Joker is considered one of the most psychotic, evil villains in comic book history. If the darkest subjects of human behavior are off limits for the most psychotic of fictional villains, then what? We just pretend those things don’t happen? We treat comics, and other entertainment media with kid gloves because people might be upset by it? The worst part is that this is a variant cover. Unless you go looking for it you won’t see it. Few comic book stores stock variants unless requested, you won’t see it on the regular news stand like Barnes and Noble and you’re only likely to see it online if you are a fan of DC and/or Batman or Batgirl. Hell, this image may have faded into obscurity had it not started a hashtag on Twitter, only known to collectors and people who actively looked for it.
The worst part of it is I feel like the people that had a problem with this cover failed to even look at the other covers that were announced with it. You have the entire Justice League, male and female, at the mercy of the Joker on one and in another Joker is in a dress! Do these covers remove the agency of the fictional characters involved? Sure, maybe, but is that a real thing that happens to people, a real problem that should be mirrored in literature and art? How else do we educate current and future generations about the good and the bad of our society if we don’t do it through art? Should that cover make people uncomfortable? Absolutely! It should also make you ask what the Joker did to reduce Batgirl to such a state. It should make you empathize with her, and reaffirm the feeling that the Joker is an awful person. It should cause emotion, that’s the whole point, and not every emotion should be good, that’s also the point. For those calling for DC to change the cover, ask yourself if that’s the path you want to support. There’s a word for that, and it’s an ugly one. Censorship of art has ruined countless pieces of antiquity, and even contemporary art. It’s always a sad world that reacts to uncomfortable art by burning it, locking it away, or hacking it to pieces.
I hope that DC stands by the artist, and puts the cover out. If it scares you, well either face that fear or look away. If it makes you uncomfortable, then follow that line of thinking and ask why, look inside yourself and question it, that’s the point. But please, don’t call for the censorship of art just because it causes you to feel.
I’ve recently read that Mr. Albuquerque bowed to critics and requested DC pull the variant cover. According to his statement:
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.
According to DC there were also threats of violence and harassment involved:
Regardless if fans like Rafael Albuquerque’s homage to Alan Moore’s THE KILLING JOKE graphic novel from 25 years ago, or find it inconsistent with the current tonality of the Batgirl books – threats of violence and harassment are wrong and have no place in comics or society.
You know what else doesn’t belong in society? Censorship and the suppression of art. While part of me respects Mr. Albuquerque’s decision to pull his own piece, I am utterly disgusted with the people that forced the decision on him.