Sexual violence is real, frightening, and horrible. No sane and logical person–nobody I would consider a human being–can stand in support of rape, physical abuse, or any act that dehumanizes any woman, child, or man in such a manner. However, in order to tackle terrible topics in the real world we often turn to fiction to explore them in a seemingly safe fishbowl. As media has begun to seep ever so quickly into what we consider the real world–as our social, professional, and personal interactions begin to take place more often in virtual spaces–it seems the lines between exploratory fictional fishbowls and real-yet-virtual fishbowls has become increasingly blurred. This past week, controversy flew from the world of fiction, through the fishbowl of social media, and right into very serious political and social arenas.
The variant cover to Batgirl #41 was cancelled in response to a highly vocal Twitter campaign rallied behind the hashtag #CancelTheCover. Driving a wedge into the comic books fandom community is a breathtakingly simple thing to do on an ordinary day, and as comics fandom as become increasingly mainstreamed over the past decade, the community’s “dirty laundry” has snuck into the general discourse. It seems, suddenly, that comics are just as polarizing as traditional literature, movies, and music. And while this is an exciting prospect in some degrees, it is frustrating in others. After all, negativity and dollar signs makes headlines, so these mainstream conversations will hardly ever revolve around a critically acclaimed work…and coverage will invariably revolve around something that can get people agitated and excited. The arguments around the cancellation of this cover should be considered a prime example.
The cover in question was drawn by artist Rafael Albuquerque, who it bears saying, has done a marvelous job or depicting menace and terror while harkening back to a particular story from 1988 by Alan Moore. Many are arguing that the image is tonally incongruent with the whimsical editorial direction of Batgirl and does not reflect the interior–and worse yet, many are asserting that it glorifies violence against women. Others argue that as a variant cover–part of a 75th anniversary series of alternate covers–it needn’t reflect the tone of the book as variant covers rarely do.
The book being visually referred to is the now-iconic Killing Joke, and while the story has always stayed somewhat aside from continuity (it offers a non-canon origin for The Joker and may or may not portray Batman strangling the Joker to death at the end) , it has had direct impacts to the history of the Batman franchise. In the story, Barbara Gordon is shot, paralyzed, and photographed nude by The Joker. The images are later shown to a captured Commissioner Gordon. While it is important to note that The Joker did not know that Barbara was Batgirl, the stakes for retribution are high for both Batman and the Commissioner.
In later years, Moore, who is no stranger to controversy or mature content, has stated that the story was callously handled and the violence both sexual and otherwise served little more than to treat women as a prop to male character development. The idea of “women in the refrigerator,” a term that originates from writer Gail Simone in regards to the death of Green Lantern’s girlfriend in the late 90s, throws back to the pulp comics of the 1950s all through the modern era of comics, has been established as a trope in comics that many wish to eschew as comics migrate to the mainstream and become regarded as the staple of American storytelling that it is.
Alan Moore is a highly conscientious writer and has pushed the conversation and meta commentary of comics in his career–both the rape of Sally Jupiter in Watchmen and the sexual violence of the Killing Joke are likely responding to the “weak woman” trend in comics–they are likely more a reaction to the trend than a cause, but his admission of folly in The Killing Joke adds fuel to the fire in this controversy and raises some questions as to the role of Batgirl in a larger conversation about comics, expression, and censorship (for the sake of this conversation we will define “censorship” to include the self-censorship exercised by the artist and publisher here in making the art commercially available, rather than saying it’s exclusively a governmental removal of content from the public domain).
Among other things, the question is raised as to whether or not Batgirl is in the refrigerator, as it were, in the image. In terms of development, Barbara Gordon was defined and developed for years around the story point of her paralyzation in The Killing Joke. She became more indispensable through the 90s and early 2000s as Oracle than Batgirl ever could have been and her intelligence rather than her gender or physique is what came to define her. This of course, was not due to any developments by Moore in his story but rather by writers like Gail Simone, herself, who took Barbara out of the refrigerator and gave her new life. After DC’s New 52 soft reboot, it seemed that Barbara was able to walk again, and many were left speculating whether the Killing Joke had happened at all. It seems that it had, but in the fashion of Marvel’s Merry Mutants, Batgirl simply “got better.” Whether or not this is a detriment to the character and all she had been built to over the past 20 years, is at this juncture immaterial.
Fast forward to earlier this week when I first saw the cover, it made me immediately uncomfortable–I assume that was the purpose. For lack of a better word, it felt a little “rapey”. The fear on Batgirl’s face, the tears in her eyes, and the drape of The Joker’s arm really conveyed the threat that I attribute to great skill on the part of Albuquerque. With no words, the image speaks volumes and causes immediate reflection on what the real world dangers for capes and tights vigilantes might be should they have opposite sides of the coin. I read on to see a variety of opinions about the cover while my own swayed in the balance.
I have friends and acquaintances around the publishing industry who are clearly vocal and lead with the compelling idea that injecting sexual violence into any story as a sideshow automatically derails the story. Others among them also argue that the risky and apparently risqué cover became suddenly toxic, even if to a vocal minority, and it was business wisdom to cancel it (an assertion that is hard to counter from a dollars-and-sense approach). They assert that rape and sexual assault take over the entire story and any theme otherwise becomes secondary. The weight of this idea bore down on me as I considered characters in other fiction that have had rape scenes. The rape of Jean Loring retroactively defined changes in the DC Universe. The rape of Sally Jupiter illustrated an ugly side to the “Golden Silver Age” of comics. The assault of Barbara Gordon established a brutal, unpredicatble Joker that transcended even the murder of Jason Todd. But were these attacks developments of the women or crutches for the men?
Dr. Light, who had been made into a somewhat C-list villain over the years, became suddenly vicious and detestable at the rape of the Atom’s wife. The Comedian became suddenly vile rather than distasteful after raping Sally Jupiter. Batman became suddenly justified in (possibly) killing the Joker.
In terms of the Barbara Gordon sexual assault in the Killing Joke and the Jean Loring rape in Identity Crisis, the cover of Batgirl #41 isn’t entirely in the same league. Perhaps because it is cover versus interior art, or maybe because our minds are left to fill in so many blanks; like in a horror movie, when the violence happens off screen our minds see far more disturbing visuals than our eyes do. Then again, there is a lot happening in our mind’s eye with the Albuquerque cover–but does what happen in our minds eye equate to intention? And furthermore, is that a mark for censorship by the consumer or, even, the artist and publisher?
It’s a weighty question, and as a man I don’t have all the sensitivity required to gauge the issue. Certainly, my Y-chromosome doesn’t exclude me from conversations of free speech, artistic integrity, or even sexual assault, but in this particular case I needed female perspectives. I inquired in my personal life to two women who’s opinions I trust–my wife and my friend Liz, who frequently contributes to this site on such matters in Eat Pluribus Unum. To qualify their opinions, neither are particular aficionados of comics, Batman, girl, boy, dog or otherwise but they are both heavily invested in individual empowerment and the arts.
Both women said that, initially, rape was not came to mind–or even sexual assault of any kind but rather that Batgirl was rightfully fearful of The Joker as a dangerous psychopath, who may or may not be threatening to turn her into “a Joker” as my wife put it. So the idea of the sexual abuse inherent in the image is reliant on the context and knowledge of the Joker’s history with Batgirl (at least in terms of the incredibly small sample size). Both women also said that this kind of censorship is dangerous. My wife particularly noted that the purpose was for the image to be uncomfortable. Liz said that it is a slippery slope and brought up Charlie Hebdo, citing that while sensitivity is important the importance of sensitivity in art is a matter that could be studied and written about in doctoral dissertations.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t a cut and dry, black and white issue, but my personal inquiries lead me to wonder about our sensitivities in general. We’ve interjected and assembled certain dialogues and histories around the variant cover to Batgirl #41, artistically intended or not, while we remain insensitive to other things entirely. We’ve rightly brought light to issues like cyberbullying and slut-shaming in public discourse but there is uproar when a heroine is depicted with great fear against a previous aggressor. What hero is so brave that wouldn’t feel a pang of fear in the face of the person who shot and sexually assaulted them? Is well founded fear a blow to strength? Perhaps for a Green Lantern, but likely not for anyone else, male or female. While there is credence to the challenge that male superheroes are not so confronted with sexual issues and are hardly-if-never the “damsel in distress” that isn’t really the elephant in the room.
The elephant in the room is that comics are a form of art and that art is meant to provoke emotions and thought; is it the right of the consumer to demand the compliance of the artist through any other means than patronage (if at all)? Is this cover of Batgirl really as bad as they say? And is it gratuitous, in someway glorifying the act of violence in The Killing Joke? Considering that another nerd staple near and dear to my heart–video games–is also something of a mainstream interest now, does the violence there in games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty and any number of other mature franchises trump, equate, or amount to less than Albuquerque’s cover? Some games certainly do glorify violence (and I disagree that the Batgirl cover does) in terms of a causal relationships, does that even matter?
Well, in the past, protests to that effect have been universally panned by the niche community of gaming as preposterous and academia agrees. Numerous studies show there is no more link between violent video games and violent acts any more than there is a link between reading the Catcher in the Rye and shooting people or any other form of art and antisocial actions on the part of antisocial people. Likewise arguments that comics lead to delinquency were also less than substantiated in the 1950s–juvenile delinquents still existed following the Comics Code Authority. In fact, the research proven disconnect between video game violence and actual violence is far more gratuitous than the image on Albuquerque’s cover as it illustrates what is likely the defining interaction between Barbara Gordon and the Joker. There is little reason to believe this cover would increase or add to the likelihood of sexual violence or assault, but that hardly changes the conversation of such horrible acts.
We should certainly be made aware of and have conversations about injustices, horrors, and terrible doings and at the end of the day the cancellation to me seems like lying by omission. As if by removing the image somehow the misogyny of comics has never happened or has been righted, or as if it removes the issue from conversation. I’ve asserted through the whole controversy that Batgirl’s eye sell the whole work–that’s what conveyed the fear to me, anyway. In the end a simple edit may have changed that whole conversation…
..but then again that might have also gone against the intention of the art. In the end, Pandora’s Box has been opened and theres likely to be no resolution to the debate. Each side has merits and drawbacks. Likely, 20 years from now (if not sooner) some other artist will create an homage to this controversy that may or may not be controversial itself. In the meanwhile, the issues of artistic integrity, censorship, sensitivity, free speech, women in the refrigerator, and the sexualizing of violence in media will remain unresolved. While we can likely agree that it was smart business to cancel the title, as DC was in a tricky catch-22, it does leave me wondering what offense will be protested and who will be offended by the ripples and waves the protest causes.
As always, your comments and respectful debate are encouraged. What do you think about the cancelled cover art issue?