On Sunday I published my first novel, Deadly Troubadours. That took a lot of time and energy not just from me but also from my cover artist. The cover was the last element to be completed before the final file was uploaded.
In an interesting (at least to me) coincidence, that is entirely unrelated of course, the internet seems to have yet again become very divisive over a comic book cover.
The cover in question, in case you haven’t heard, is from DC Comics for a line of variant covers featuring the Joker. The particular cover in question was for Batgirl. Batgirl and Joker have a sordid history. To sum up, In Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke the Joker surprised Barbara Gordon at home and shot her in the stomach severing her spine and paralyzing her from the waist down, thus ending her career as Batgirl (at least until the New 52.) Also, the comic can be read as the Joker then sexually abusing and raping Barbara. The comic is not clear on this point, but it is by no means a stretch to assume that is what happens, but it is also possible to argue against it.
The controversy stems from the variant cover, by Rafael Albuquerque, paying homage to this history. It depicts a maniacal Joker and a terrified Batgirl. It is creepy and it is chilling. And after internet criticism, apparently starting from a popular tumblr account, Albuquerque requested the cover be pulled. The offended party seem to feel this celebrates violence against women and that this cover does not belong on the recently re-fashioned Batgirl series which is lighter and brighter. DC agreed to Albuquerque’s request (but in a clumsy fashion that originally made it sound like Albuquerque was threatened when in actuality those offended were threatened) and cancelled the cover. This canceling of the cover has in turn upset part of the internet due to the belief that complaints on the internet promoting a cover being pulled, even at the request of the artist, is essentially a form of censorship. Of course, it should be noted that this second group includes those who blame it all on feminists or those wanting diversity or other tired complaints.
Okay, that was just a summing up of what seems to have been going on. Does that sound right? The internet is a maze some times and I am trying to be fair to all involved before I give my opinions about this issue.
First off, I want to make it clear that I can kind of see where people who are offended are coming from. Comic books don’t have the best history when it comes to treatment of women. Women in refrigerators is a thing and there is certainly an argument about how Barbara Gordon was essentially a set piece in The Killing Joke rather than a rounded character. While I am a fan of the Killing Joke I can understand that it is a troubling story even without the possible sexual violence that occurs. However, I think the reason why the Killing Joke is a problem is that the maiming of side characters usually happens to women and it is done to enhance the story for the main character, a character that is almost always a man. I do wonder if there were more horrible things happening to supporting characters of varied genders to emphasize the actions of protagonists of varied genders, would this be an issue? But that is perhaps a little beyond the scope of a cover question.
But I do think that with a theme of Joker variants having one play up a predator/prey dynamic between him and Batgirl is acceptable. Although it is a little odd that of the covers this is by far the most chilling. The others look more “playful” or madcap. Batgirl’s is chilling and is arguable the only cover that crosses into horror. It is also one of the more striking covers and arguably the only cover that crosses into iconic. Indeed it deals with unpleasant, horrendous history but does that mean it doesn’t belong?
The current creative team on Batgirl have made their feelings known that they don’t think this variant cover belongs on their take of Batgirl. They have made it clear they were not consulted about the cover and do not approve. Now, I will not claim to know their full reasoning. I will say I have seen screenshots of Cameron Stewart’s tweets where he essentially states the cover in question does not work with the tone of the current run.
But honestly, I don’t think that holds water simply due to the fact that it is a variant cover. It seems all too common for variant covers to have little or nothing to due with the inside contents of a book. I know I have seen light-hearted baby covers on darker themed Marvel books and heard no complaints about the difference in tone. That Batgirl is lighter and the cover darker also shouldn’t matter because I am sure there will be a standard cover that is appropriate for what happens inside. Also, does a light and bright tone mean disturbing things don’t/can’t happen in a comic? I think of Kraven’s Last Hunt or the Despero story in the Giffen Justice League. Those are stories that work primarily because they occur in light and bright super hero comics.
I don’t like that this cover was cancelled. There are a lot of creators I respect, including the artist of the cover, that disagree and feel canceling it was the better call. I don’t know. I think it is a powerful cover and an unsettling one. It is upsetting but sometimes art is upsetting.
I want to agree with those calling for better and more diversity in comics. But that group seems to get offended by aspects that don’t offend me. I want to side with those arguing for freer artists and not having to constantly worry about controversy. But that group tends to yell about how feminists and diversity and comics as a tool for social change are destroying comics when I think those aspects can only improve comics. I feel that both groups make good points and also go to far in other issues. I also recognize that it isn’t a clean dichotomy even as I am describing it as such.
I think it is a powerful and complicated cover, similar to the bigger picture it might represent. In the end I am less concerned about the cover being cancelled and more concerned about this being another issue of in-fighting between the shrinking comics community.