So what’s happening in the above picture?
This is a variant cover for an issue of DC’s comic book, “Batgirl”, which follows a young heroine’s battle against crime in Gotham City.
Issue #41 has yet to be published, but there is already controversy over an alternative cover featuring psychotic villain The Joker terrorising the female protagonist. It was drawn by popular comic book artist Rafael Albuquerque. It’s no doubt a dark, disturbing image, appropriate for the fictional Gotham City – but why are so many people talking about it?
There have been complaints over the apparent misogynism in the image, and dark undertones of sexual abuse. The Joker is clearly the dominant figure in the picture, smearing a blood-red smile on the terrified Batgirl’s face whilst holding a downward-pointing pistol.
Perhaps a little backstory here. In a famous Batman storyline from the comic books (“The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore in 1988), psychotic killer The Joker shoots and paralyses the character of Barbara Gordon – the alter-ego of Batgirl. Some say that this particularly dark graphic novel also implies that Barbara was sexually abused by The Joker whilst imprisoned, although this is not explicitly stated. The cover is said to be reminiscent of “The Killing Joke”.
According to the artist, Albuquerque, his Batgirl variant cover was an homage to this monumental literary work. The publisher DC today announced that the alternative cover will not be available to purchase when #41 is released in shops – news that has had with mixed reception.
I’d love to go into excruciating detail about why characters like the douchey “GBG” above are complete morons, but I would probably influence nothing by my blood pressure.
I’m not entirely convinced that the cover itself contains any imagery of sexual abuse. Apparently the pistol “pointing south” is sexually implicit, but I find it ambiguous. The Joker could point his gun up into the air, but this would undermine the sense of threat that his character is imposing. If the arm is to remain over Batgirl’s shoulder, where should it be pointing? It’s anatomically possible for him to point the gun at the ‘viewer’, but again that undermines his dominance over Batgirl (and what does ‘the viewer’ have to do with the situation?) – not to mention that it would be rather uncomfortable. Pointing downwards is really the only direction it could point. But even for the sake of this discussion only, I’m happy to assume that the cover is sexually implicit (it certainly might be) – because for me, this is not the point.
The complaints appear to be saying that any depiction of terrorism or sexual abuse is offensive. I disagree. Just because the notion of something is offensive, it doesn’t follow that any form of art should pretend those offensive realities don’t exist (if you’d like to read another of my rants about comic books and literature, click here). I don’t quite understand any other stance. What is literature for, but to put a spotlight on various aspects of humanity and society, good or evil?
What is the suggestion here – that characters in fiction should never have anything bad happen to them? That a person, let alone a ‘hero’, should never be traumatised by past events? Terrorism happens, crime happens, sexual abuse happens. Comic books, like any other form of literature, have covered the length and breadth of humanity’s highest and lowest capabilities. Recently some ‘tweaked’ versions of the cover have been released giving Batgirl a defiant look, which apparently changes the cover from sexist to showing a positive image. I should hardly think that’s necessary, when anyone would rightly be terrified by encountering the mass-murdering lunatic who once put your in a wheelchair.
It could be argued that sexual abuse is not appropriate material for comic books, which are read by children. If this is your opinion, then I’m sure you are perfectly sensible about which comic books, films, TV shows, games and books you let your child view. Comic books have contained adult material since their inception (despite the tights and spandex), so your argument is about 60 years too late.
Some have pointed out, quite rightly, that Batgirl is a strong female character who is depicted uncharacteristically weak in this image. I would agree. But isn’t that what variant covers are for? In the comic book industry, alternative covers are used for anything from ‘what if?’ scenarios to cross-media advertising. The fact that a variant might be used as an homage to a previous storyline of high repute is not unusual in the least.
It seems that others object purely on the grounds that this is a supposedly strong (female) character trembling in fear of a (male) villain. Anyone who knows the character of The Joker (i.e. anyone who has seen either of these high-profile films, watched either of these popular TV series, played any of these 3 recent bestselling video-games or has read pretty much any DC comic book ever in the last 75 years) would know that he is a psychopathic murderer: he kills men, woman and children indiscriminately. His is a non-gender-biased terrorist. Anyone would be terrified in the situation that Batgirl is in here. Even Batman himself, the fearless caped crusader, is afraid of The Joker.
If the complaints are suggesting that showing a defeated hero goes against “the current direction” of the comic books, which aim to depict a modern, strong female hero, then I might argue that there is a bit of a double standard there:
Even super-hero needs to get their butt whooped every now and again. Who wants to read about perfect, invulnerable heroes who never lose? Even Superman “died” once. If we want literature to encompass all the highs and lows of life, even within fantasy sub-genres, then we simply can’t complain that any topic is inappropriate for literature. That is the philistine’s approach, and I reject it completely.
Is the image glorifying violence or abuse, of any kind? No. Is it showing the sadistic killer in any kind of positive light, or the torture of the heroine as a positive thing? No. Just because a piece of art, visual or literary, depicts something awful, does not mean it supports that awful thing. In fact, comic books are renowned for poetic justice and praising the strong positive ethics of its heroes.
Complaints against this piece of artwork seem to be from people who have no understanding of literature or what it’s for, and it’s a very sad thing indeed that art can be censored because ignorance can be loud.