By Sharon Rose
In the sea of controversy surrounding the Joker variant cover for Batgirl #41 drawn by Rafael Albuquerque, which was pulled by DC Comics per the request of the artist after an outcry on Twitter about the violence and possible reference to rape, I am intrigued that this cover, specifically, has caused outrage in the waves of extremely violent covers and interior panels in existence that depict far worse brutality against female (and male) characters. Perhaps it is the library worker in me who is sensitive to, and concerned about, censorship, or maybe it is the artist in me who had a moment of pause about a creative work being suppressed due to public pressure, but the restriction of this cover has given me trepidation.
When I look at this Joker cover, here are the thoughts that are running through my head as a comic book fangirl, as an artist, as a woman, and as a person who has loved ones who have experienced abuse and rape: This is a cover that is intended to be a homage to the Joker’s 75th anniversary. This iconic character is a homicidal maniac. He is a deranged serial killer. The Joker causes pain and suffering in his path, and he is nothing short of terrifying. In my opinion, this cover is tame compared to other covers I see on the shelves every week during my trip to my local comic shop. This cover is not showing the Joker raping Batgirl, it is showing the Joker with a captured Batgirl, drawing his iconic-and-horrifying smile on her face in blood. No sexual act is literally drawn here. This cover is showing the Joker as a MONSTER, in his true form as a monster, as in, this violent act against Barbara should evoke an emotion of anger or outrage because violence of this nature is bad…and the Joker is bad…and this shows just how bad he is. I don’t believe this cover is intended to glorify this violence. In Albuquerque’s own words, he said: “My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favourite 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.”
Barbara and the Joker have this insane history. To me, this image shows how strong Barbara really is, because regardless of the psychotic horror she’s been through with this maniac, she has overcome. She still chooses to don that cape and fight against crime knowing that, any night, she could find herself in the grips of a monster, and die. But she chooses this path of justice anyway. I have read in more than one social media outlet comments about the expression in her eyes being a deciding factor in many people’s opinions about whether this cover is acceptable to them; that is, if her eyes had instead showed an expression of anger or rage instead of fear, there perhaps wouldn’t have been a protest. I respectfully disagree with this distinction. Being a hero isn’t about not being afraid. (And Batgirl does look scared in this illustration, and rightly so.) Let me repeat that: Being a hero is not about not being afraid. Being a hero is about choosing to do the right thing, even if you’re terrified, perhaps all the more so in the middle of one’s terror. Batgirl isn’t Batgirl because she never experiences fear; she is Batgirl because she is strong enough to choose to fight against the evil of others in spite of her fear. I think Albuquerque’s cover shows the relationship of these two iconic characters beautifully, and strictly from an artist’s standpoint, I think the cover is a lovely composition, technically and creatively.
If it were BATMAN on the cover, as in Batman who was drawn in this manner, or even Robin (i.e., a man and not a woman), would there have been the same level of outrage? I don’t want to speak for others, but I can’t help but wonder if there wouldn’t be. In fact, the drawn violence likely could have been much worse (e.g., Batman beaten to a bloody pulp) without resulting in public outrage. And violence against a man is JUST AS BAD as violence against a woman. Violence is violence.
In Y: The Last Man, Yorick (the last man on earth) endures many violent encounters with women, including being kidnapped by his “therapist” and threatened with rape. Many covers in this series are incredibly graphic, for example, Y: The Last Man #5 depicts Yorick naked, suspended from chains. Robert Kirkman’s Invincible series has no shortage of graphic covers and interior art, and the same can be said for The Walking Dead.
(Click here to see why Invincible 110 was so controversial ~Aitch)
Comic book covers related to the world of Gotham City and Batman are no strangers to violent imagery. In Batman: The Dark Knight #3, Batman is seen strapped to a bomb. In Batman: The Dark Knight #23.4 (The New 52 villain’s cover, Joker’s Daughter #1), Batman is seen chained, in pain, behind Joker’s Daughter, who is wearing the skin of her father’s face as a mask. The Batgirl series itself has had – and recently, mind you – covers depicting Barbara Gordon in scary or brutal situations. This seems to counter the commentary on Twitter that the decision to pull the cover wasn’t one of censorship, but rather due to selecting art that better matches the current storyline.
The New 52 cover of Batgirl #31 shows our heroine, complete with scared grimace, tangled in a terrifying headlock with a knife violently held to her throat by Ragdoll. Issue #21 shows Batgirl again held against her will, knife to throat, a bloody heart drawn on her cheek, in the grips of a dangerous criminal. One could argue that the expressions of fear and hostage-like situations illustrated on these recent covers are not so different from the variant cover that has caused outrage.
There are real monsters in this world. I don’t dismiss the very real terror of rape, or the trigger response of an image that could bring up painful memories of a traumatic experience. There are women whom I love dearly who have had experiences with such monsters. Choosing to never depict or talk about these monsters in art or writing will in no way prevent monsters from existing, however. If we chose to never present these issues in comics, writing, or art, because it is uncomfortable, this would be a very bad thing indeed, as it would remove opportunities for necessary, real discussion about these situations.
It concerns me when an outcry for cover censorship isn’t being applied to similar covers showcasing the same level of violence for different genders. I can walk into a comic store and point out no fewer than 5 volume or issue covers that showcase brutality and physical violence of men against women, women against women, men against men, and/or women against men, which should evoke the same level of outrage, based on the rationale for the objection of this cover. As a consumer, I have the right to purchase or not purchase issues; if a cover offends me, I do not have to buy it. If a shop chooses to not carry a given title or issue in their store, they have the right to not stock it on the shelves. If there really is this much concern, then should it not be applied across the board, rather than in a pick-and-choose manner?
I am not discounting the fact that this cover upset and offended some people based on their interpretation and responses to this art. Art has a way of doing that. Comics have a way of doing that. But just because some did not approve of this image, is that reason enough for an image to be banned? This is, in part, why the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was created, to protect the rights of the comics medium, regardless of content, to exist. DC Comics has stated that they only pulled the cover per the request of the artist to do so, but I am sure the pressure from the public prompted the artist to make this request, and this leaves me in a state of unease. Even if I personally did not like this cover (and I actually like it quite a bit), I would still defend its worth, its right to represent the Joker on his 75th anniversary, as an expression by this artist. With that, I will leave you, dear reader, with the words of Neil Gaiman, from his journal entry “Why Defend Freedom of Icky Speech?”:
“You ask, What makes it worth defending? and the only answer I can give is this: Freedom to write, freedom to read, freedom to own material that you believe is worth defending means you’re going to have to stand up for stuff you don’t believe is worth defending, even stuff you find actively distasteful, because laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you don’t, because prosecutors are humans and bear grudges and fight for re-election, because one person’s obscenity is another person’s art.”
Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”